Described by Manmohan Singh as “India’s biggest internal security threat", the recent attack by the Maoists is a sign of their waning strength, although perhaps not the flicker of a dying flame. In the 1980s, they fanned out seven small groups in the Dandakaranya forest and took on the forest department, industrial houses and tribal chieftains on behalf of the Adivasis. They gained influence in the 1990s when ensconced tribal leaders attempted “either you are with us or against us" campaigns to organize the local population against them. Their power reached an apogee in the 2000s when the United Progressive Alliance government, in concert with the state Bharatiya Janata Party administration, started Salwa Judum, a devastating campaign to clear mineral-rich areas of Maoists. Like Mao Zedong, they swim like fish in a sea of people, i.e. rely on the local population for shelter, food, labour and intelligence.

Most of the financial resources of the Maoists come from their ‘cuts’ in government and corporate projects, including the construction of roads. Since some government officials, contractors and politicians also line their own pockets from the same projects, the situation has been described as “cooperative plunder". The official line of the Maoists is that they oppose hard-top roads because these are built to ferret minerals away from tribal areas and bring in security personnel. They do not object to second-grade roads to transport PDS grains and basic services, from which they gain as well.

The response of the Indian state has been twofold: It attempts to provide basic services to win back the Adivasis, and simultaneously, it seeks military conquest of the Maoists. Its battle strategy includes emptying out the river that gives the Maoists sustenance: the people living in those areas. Mass incarcerations (Chhattisgarh has the highest capacity utilization of prisons in India), fake encounters, and large-scale recruitment into the police forces constitute the strategic line of the state. Unfortunately, the brutal response of the Indian state when faced by an insurgency embedded in the people is the usual course of action adopted by governments around the world. In my opinion, the Maoists are complicit in the ensuing sandwiching of ordinary people.

This state of affairs benefits the Indian state as the focus on the “law and order problem" allows it to avoid subjecting the foundations of its development model to a searching examination. Companies find it easier to pay off politicians and bureaucrats to secure their projects rather than genuinely winning the hearts of people, something that is anyway increasingly difficult with the mechanization of working methods. The Maoists also gain as they get a steady stream of recruits from people fleeing the excesses of the government.

However, the insurgents have been losing power for several years. People have begun to fear them as much as they fear the Indian state. Social services have begun to reach many areas. The charms of modern society and education are exerting a pull on the youth, including members of the Maoist cadre. The elimination of many top leaders and the inability to offer a compelling alternate vision has led to ideological bankruptcy of the rank and file.

In their current weakened state, the Maoists seem to have abandoned whatever principles they espouse. However, the ongoing excesses on the Adivasis, and, above all, the inexorable urge of the Indian state to accelerate mineral extraction mean that Maoists may continue to serve as a refuge for some more time.

Like ordinary people, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), lawyers and journalists are caught in the cross-fire between the government and the Maoists. The government finds it convenient to classify them as over-ground organizations of the Maoists and repress them. In this manner, the state turns the threat posed by the Maoists against the cause they claim to be struggling for. While many NGOs have condemned the Sukma incident, I believe they need to carry out a consistent and concerted communication campaign to counter the government’s strategy of labelling them “Maoist sympathizers".

Finally, it will be a shame if the current conflict is not used as a spur to debate our development model. Our mining sector is a den of corruption and illegality. In 2013-14, there were only 3,700 reporting mines out of over 50,000 believed to be in operation. The average daily employment of labour in mining decreased from 549,000 people in 2004-05 to 512,000 people in 2013-14, despite a fourfold increase in the value of production. In many minerals like iron ore, as in colonial times, India continues to suffer from the fate of a producer of primary products tethered to a volatile global commodities cycle.

During my field research for Blood Red River, I encountered a spectrum of views about Maoists. Some senior members of civil society, making no distinction between degrees of violence and thereby absolving the Maoists, stated that all development projects were accompanied by violence, not just those in Maoist areas. Senior politicians, on the other hand, declared there was no link between mining practices and Maoism. The veils need to fall from both sets of eyes.

Our constitution offers many toeholds for the much needed rethink on development, including the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and the Forest Rights Act, 2006. A healthy contestation over the pace of extraction and distribution of natural wealth will be great for the country as well as the countryside.

With inputs from Lalit Mathur.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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