The Quandary of India's Maoists

Despite being overshadowed by Kashmir and continuing tension with Pakistan, dealing with Maoist rebels in central and eastern India is regarded as the country’s biggest internal security challenge, and one the military doesn’t feel it is equipped to deal with.

On the surface it seems an odd insurgency. Since dropping the so-called License Raj, India has been developing at breakneck speed, averaging nearly 7.5 percent annual gross domestic product growth since 1999 and bringing millions of formerly poverty-stricken people into the formal economy. However, in huge areas of Central and Eastern India, corruption, government inaction, rapacious mining companies and other issues have caused other millions to opt for Maoism, a political philosophy that has been abandoned by most of the world, including China, where it developed.

Although there is growing debate about involving the Army to flush out the insurgents, known as Naxalites, Indian Army Chief General V K Singh has ruled out deployment of armed forces for direct action.

“When the Naxalite issue was presented to us, we were very clear in our minds that it is a socio-economic problem, a problem created by bad governance,” Singh said recently. “The Army is not the answer. The army has a role in preventing external aggression. The army has a role in assisting in humanitarian crisis. But beyond that, in our country, at least the way the army has come up, we do not think that we have a role.”

Although the Maoist rebellion has simmered for nearly four and a half decades, violence has begun to escalate, with 1,169 people killed last year, the most in any year since the armed rebellion began. Nearly 15,000 people, including police, rebels and civilians, have been killed in the violence so far. The rebels are very well armed, with weapons mostly obtained by raiding police and paramilitary posts and smuggling from Nepal, Burma and China, officials say.

Singh’s statements clearly indicate that a strategic retreat has emerged among government leaders on how to tackle the Maoist issue, given New Delhi’s failure to curb retaliatory leftist violence through the increased use of state forces over the last few years.

All of this also means that New Delhi is going to follow a two-pronged strategy of using the less lethal state and paramilitary forces to flush out the armed rebels, while the focus will be on humanitarian and political efforts to diminish the numbers that take up arms and seek mainstream livelihoods.

Thus the approval by the federal cabinet earlier this month of legislation that makes it mandatory for coal miners to share 26 percent of profits with local communities and for other miners an amount equivalent to royalties is a step in the right direction. The bill requires parliamentary approval to become law.

If implemented properly, the move could be a major step towards addressing a bit of the angst that fans the Naxalite movement. The Maoists believe in armed struggle to overthrow the state and bring about socio-economic change. They predominate in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, all of which have large tribal concentrations.

India's valuable coal and mineral industry is focused in these states, which score very poorly on the human development scale as the local populations have not benefited from rich mining activities that have instead filled state coffers, politicians’ pockets, the bureaucracy and a few "outsider" businessmen.

A link has been established between the Maoist insurgency and rapacious mining in forested areas and the exploitation of the local inhabitants. Tribals constitute more than 8 percent of the country’s population but account for 40 percent of the 50-60 million of those who were internally displaced since India’s independence in 1947 due to land diversion, especially because of coal mining. Indeed, over the recent past, questions have been raised about New Delhi’s approach of using sheer force against the Maoists.

The actions were based on an earlier federal home ministry assessment that “the Naxalites are bent on violence and mayhem against the state and the people and there is need for the government to squarely meet the threat.”

Defense forces have been deployed in India’s “Red Corridor” areas for logistical support, even as New Delhi has been toying with the idea of more active use of the military, including use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles procured from the United States and Israel to pinpoint and seek to destroy specific targets.

New Delhi has sought advice from US counter-insurgency personnel involved in fighting the Taliban and jihadis in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas. However, critics of the approach say that long-term solutions must focus on economic and social development of the deprived population.

A military strategy against the Maoists is regarded as infeasible as the insurgents are spread across vast swathes of India's mineral-rich states, making it near impossible to defeat them solely by force. The thinking is that state forces, with better knowledge of the local populations and terrain, are more capable of strong intelligence-gathering and guerilla tactics to flush out the Maoists.

The US military and its allies have not been able to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. As in that fundamentalist Islamic country, the Maoists have strong grassroots support. New Delhi has also been criticized for equating the Maoists with terrorists, as the rebels mostly prefer to attack symbols of state power such as property and personnel, rather than soft targets or civilians, although admittedly some such strikes have taken place and lots of lives have been lost.

In June 2009, New Delhi labeled the Communist Party of India (Maoist), or CPI (M), the proper name for the Naxalite group, a terrorist organization, putting it in the same league as other banned outfits such as Pakistan's Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has been accused of carrying out some of the most lethal attacks in India, including 26/11 in Mumbai. In that incident, more than 10 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks began across India's largest city on Nov. 29, 2008, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308.

Although the leftists differ from the core jihadi aim of solely causing human loss, however, their repeated strikes continue to pose a growing challenge to New Delhi. Clearly, the government has its task cut out.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)