The Tadmetla Naxal encounter could just be the strategic turning point that leads to political consensus, reinforces state resolve, engages civil society and enhances the determination of security forces to take on left-wing extremism, provided we learn the right lessons. To that extent, the Naxals may have committed a blunder: The Indian state, on its part, has faced myriad such challenges before, from Kashmir to Kohima. The Naxals were possibly forced to it by an increasingly proactive government and the incarceration of a number of key leaders, and were attempting to break its stranglehold on the “jungle mahal” space they deem to be a liberated zone.
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Tactically, though, the Naxals are winning. The acknowledgement of this came with home minister P. Chidambaram’s offer to resign. As head of the Central police forces and the main proponent of the coordinated anti-Naxal strategy, he had to take responsibility. That the Prime Minister rejected the offer was also appropriate, for this is not the time to seek scapegoats. Given their own compulsions, opposition parties supported Chidambaram, because it could otherwise have meant a similar gesture by their chief ministers. But in this political hullabaloo, the larger issue of a need to review the basic strategy to combat left-wing extremism should not be lost sight of.
It is obvious that the state and civil society have to jointly meet this challenge. Building consensus between the two has to be the first step. Civil society has the liberty to question the state, while the state has a responsibility to listen to voices of dissent. Thus, fusing the ideas of Chidambaram and Binayak Sen will provide the solution, not by one rejecting the other.
Of the three main components of a rebellion—people, guerrillas and the state—logic dictates that the centre of gravity is the people. The Maoists have the ear of the people and it does not at this juncture matter whether it is through coercion or attraction. The state will have to win back the confidence of the masses and need not wait for the “secure-hold-govern-develop” paradigm to play out.
Strategic communication has to be effectively used to establish the link at the earliest. Civil society can act as a medium of exchange, particularly when the state has lost touch with the grass roots through acts of omission and commission. The need is to re-engage with the liberals rather than to reject them. This has perhaps been the biggest failure of the state—castigating those who spoke for engagement; and the message to the tribal, deftly coloured by the Maoists, has been that the government is their “enemy”. Gaining the confidence of people in the affected areas will take time, but has to be addressed. Once this is achieved, it would provide cover for security operations and for denying the Naxals space in which to operate with impunity.
The security strategy, in turn, will have to be based on the capability of the forces being employed. The current capacity of the Central police forces will not enable them to take on core Naxal fighters, the so-called People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. By inducting ill-prepared forces, the outcome will be mass casualties such as the ones at Silda and Tadmetla. Renewed focus on capacity building, for which Andhra Pradesh provides a model, followed by realistic appraisal should dictate the strategy.
Use of the army and air force is another dilemma before the government. Deployment of offensive air power when rebels are operating in a “sea” of tribals on jungle terrain is against all tenets of counter-militancy, and should be avoided. At some stage, deployment of the army is inevitable, particularly in areas of Abujmadh, and will have to be realistically assessed. Using special forces may provide the optimal solution.
The primary challenge before the state is, however, that of engaging the neglected tribal, who has a long history of rebellion going back to the Paralkot Revolt in 1825. The Naxal phase is the latest in this chronology. In fact, the Tadmetla incident was said to commemorate the Bhumkal rebellion of 1910. Establishing links between the modern state and the tribal will be the key test of democracy. This is the gap that has been exploited by the Naxals. Until the state resolves to remove these differences, success will remain elusive. How the government plans to do this is unclear, and no thought has apparently been given to this core issue.
It is, therefore, evident that the challenges of countering Naxalism with its geographic spread, legacy of rebellion, disconnect between the tribal and the state, need for capacity building of security forces and so on are enormous, but not insurmountable. The aim should be to review our current strategies, renew our resolve, address issues with an open mind and not abdicate our responsibility towards establishing a state based on the core principles of equity, pluralism and tolerance, and one that is free from violence.
Rahul K. Bhonsle is editor, South Asia Security Trends. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org