Just how serious is the Naxalite threat?

The Indian home minister doesn’t understand the nature of the problem

Just how does Shivraj Patil justify his government’s underperformance over handling the Naxalite insurgency? Well, by understating the threat. Don’t look at 10 states and 180 districts that form the ‘red corridor’, he told parliament. For only 300 of the 14,000 police stations in the country are affected, and the Naxalites were responsible for a mere 700 incidents of violence, constituting a mere 1.1% of the total insurgency and terrorist related incidents in the country. “The Naxalite threat should not be exaggerated to create fear psychosis among people”, Mr Patil told the Rajya Sabha.

Let’s not even ask Mr Patil whether 14,000 police stations are enough to serve a billion people, and whether there are enough of them in the areas where Naxalites are holding sway. Let’s not ask how they arrived at the figure of “700” attacks. But to downplay a threat merely because it can be made too look small in numbers is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the risk it poses. For instance, Pakistan has only 0.3% of the world’s nuclear warheads, or only 0.02% of the total megatonnage. So is the risk from Pakistan exaggerated? It is not numbers and percentages, but a subjective assessment of what the numbers mean that determines how we should assess a threat.

For a start, 700 incidents are 700 too many. Second, as Shlok Vaidya describes it, the Naxalites’ strategy involves “hollowing out the state instead of offering an existential threat”. In other words, unlike terrorists, they control the rate of escalation of violence to ensure that it remains subliminal. The fact that Naxalites plan to overthrow the state over decades rather than overnight should not make the risk any less serious.

If Mr Patil had argued that countering Naxalites does not need the same kind of urgency as fighting terrorists, he would perhaps have a reasonable point. But downplaying a threat—and telling citizens they suffer from a fear psychosis—can only be interpreted as an attempt to unapologetically cover-up sheer incompetence.

The good citizens of India should have reason to worry about the confusion plaguing the top leadership of the UPA government: one the one hand Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describes Left-wing extremism as the most serious internal security threat, and on the other, his home minister declares that it should not be exaggerated lest it scare the people.

4 thoughts on “Just how serious is the Naxalite threat?”

  1. I was wondering what’s wrong with our democracy that so many in the North East (and the Red corridor) are taking to violence. Is there some deeper structural issue that we need to address apart from quelling the violence. What makes people so desperate in the first place?

  2. Pramod

    From my op-ed/post on the revenge of the red complaint box:

    And then there is the non-security aspect of the anti-Naxalite strategy, wrongly characterised as the need for “development”. It misses the point because people don’t resort to violence because they lack development. They do so when there is a lack of governance. [link]

    The answer to your question, according to conventional wisdom, is that political violence is the result of ‘lop-sided development’ and ‘growing inequalities’. I disagree; because it is a patronising, condescending view of the poor. Political violence is caused by mis-governance and the absence of governance.

  3. Thanks for the reply. I hadn’t come across that article before.

    I don’t mind people protesting against “neo-liberal reforms” and such. As long as they don’t resort to violence. We should make sure government treats everyone fairly and gives no scope for anger against the State. You make an excellent point that Naxalite movements can be hijacked to target the central government instead of the local government where often the real problems lie. Worse, it can end up serving the interests of only the naxal leaders and no one else!

    Strategically, it’s best to leave it to state governments to address this issue. Shifting this to the central government only makes the idea of India more repulsive to anti nationals. State governments will be able to strike better compromises and move faster to reach a solution.

    I don’t know much of the facts on the ground to say whether it is a truly mass disenchantment or a small fringe trying to gain power through force.

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