It is ever more necessary to look beyond Maoist spectaculars such as holding hostage, for a few hours, the Bhubaneswar-New Delhi Rajdhani Express; and government advertisements branding Maoist rebels as terrorists. The situation is terribly murky, and the reason may lie in the government’s approach. There is debate over whether a combat steamroller ought to be applied against Maoists, or “surgical” strikes pursued. Too, there is debate over the dynamics of talking peace.
“The government’s status paper on the Naxal problem appropriately mentions a holistic approach and lays emphasis on accelerated socio-economic development of the backward areas,” acknowledged a document titled Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas: Report of an Expert Group to Planning Commission, from 2008. “However…the status paper states that ‘there will be no peace dialogue by the affected states with the Naxal (Maoist) groups unless the latter agree to give up violence and arms’. This is incomprehensible and is inconsistent with the government’s stand vis-à-vis other militant groups in the country.”
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The assertion is largely correct. Some rebels in Bodo-dominated and Cachar areas of Assam have surrendered arms before coming “above ground”, but most others, including the Naga groups, continue to bear arms through years of ceasefire.
Unlike these groups, however, Maoists cannot be termed as “secessionist” or “separatist”. They have no stated desire to secede from anything except corruption, bad governance and non-governance. Maoist rebels are decidedly Indian.
They cannily painted the word “P.O.W.” on the front of a police officer from West Bengal they captured earlier this month and released a few days later. This showed three things. One: Maoists are not indiscriminate in their targets—unlike the Al Qaeda, Kashmiri militants and United Liberation Front of Asom. Two: Maoists can play the PR game as well as the government with far less resources at their disposal. And, three: Maoists signalled yet again that their rebellion is a war, not a “law and order” problem as the government would have us believe.
Over the past few days, the Union government has softened its stand of no talks with Maoists unless they lay down arms, to facilitating talks if they scale back violence, but continue to retain arms—a more respectful stance. This is an important nuance, and moving ahead to talking peace depends on maintaining such status quo.
The danger lies in the Union government massively scaling up paramilitary deployment in key Maoist-affected states, and also placing on standby some battalions of Rashtriya Rifles that typically operate in Jammu and Kashmir. This is in addition to state police forces, both regular and those trained in anti-rebel operations. All this will greatly increase the chance of what the forces typically term “collateral damage”. This ranges from innocents caught in the crossfire to innocents attacked as revenge for, say, rebels killing some Forces. Such violence can also be pre-emptive, to scare away people from offering support—either spontaneous or under duress—to the rebels.
This can be completely indiscriminate, leading to the burning of the homes of innocents and their torture, maiming, rape and death. India has a brutal history of such instances in Nagaland, Mizoram and Jammu and Kashmir; and in Chhattisgarh, as recently as mid-September.
Train to nowhere: The Delhi-Bhubaneswar Rajdhani Express was stopped by Maoist-backed tribals in West Bengal’s Midnapore district on 27 Oct. AP
As opposed to focused strikes practised in Andhra Pradesh, for example, with great application of force, the chances of state-induced brutality increases manifold. This fuels rebellion.
The government and its patrons also need to consider why people go against the undeniable might of India’s state apparatus. What drives them to pick up bows and arrows, axes, and looted guns ranging from ancient 0.303 rifles to more modern INSAS and AK series weapons to defend their position and everyday aspiration? Surely, there must be serious flaws in a system that has repeatedly annihilated Left-wing movements since India’s Independence, only to have these rearing their heads more emphatically with each cycle of resurgence, right alongside India’s economic growth and social mobility.
“It becomes more vital in the eyes of the administration to prevent the strengthening or growth of Naxalite influence than to answer that just aspiration,” the Planning Commission report says. It also states plainly what is dismissed when mentioned by mediapersons and human rights activists: “Often any individual who speaks out against the powerful, is dubbed a Naxalite and jailed, or otherwise silenced… What is to be pointed out here is that the method chosen by the government to deal with the Naxalite phenomenon has increased the people’s distrust… and consequent unrest.”
It would be foolish to add to the churn.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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