The Naxalites overreached

…and committed a strategic mistake at Dantewada

The reason why Naxalites have been able to sustain their insurgency for so long is due to three main reasons: the absence or failure of governance; the romanticism and propaganda of their overground sympathisers; and, finally, due to the relatively subliminal nature of their violence.

To the extent that their violence was distributed in space and time they could slip in and out of the public mind, pursue on-and-off talks with state governments and generally avoid provoking the government into hitting back hard. Over the last five years Naxalites have violently expanded the geographical spread of their extortion and protection rackets—yet, the violence in any given place and time has been below a certain threshold. That threshold itself is high for a number of reasons, including efforts by their sympathisers to romanticise their violence, spectacular terrorist attacks by jihadi groups and due to the remoteness of the areas of their operations. This allowed Naxalites to get away with murder. A lot of times. In a lot of places. Literally.

But killing 73 out of 80 (or 120) CRPF and police personnel in a short span of time in a single battle is no longer subliminal violence. In all likelihood the Naxalites have crossed a threshold—this incident is likely to stay much longer in the public mind and increase the pressure on politicians to tackle the Naxalite threat with greater resolve. Also, given that it has also become an issue of P Chidambaram’s—and hence the UPA government’s—reputation, the gloves are likely to come off in the coming weeks.

There’s a chance that India’s psychological threshold is even higher. But it is more likely that the Naxalites have overreached. Perhaps their leadership has calculated that they are in the next stage of their revolutionary war. If so, that would neither the first nor the only delusion in their minds.

Gill Sans

KPS Gill makes several good points on Naxalism. And one bad one

Tehelka’s Harinder Baweja uses KPS Gill’s shoulder to fire a salvo against the central government-led counter-insurgency operation targeting the Naxalites. Mr Gill makes several good points: among others, that the Naxalites run the biggest extortion mafia in the country, that the corrupt state officials are part of the problem and that the solution to the fundamental problem involves giving property rights to the tribals. He also makes a bad point when he argues that Operation Green Hunt is unnecessary.

He is entirely right when he says that strengthening local police is an important part of the strategy. In fact, as we have argued, the counter-insurgency strategy must focus on improving the overall capacity of the local government such that it can deliver basic public services—law & order, protect property rights, deliver education, healthcare and justice. But in states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand such a strategy will deliver results, at best, in the medium-term. Also, because Naxalites will use violence to block progress in this direction, it is quite likely that such a strategy alone will prove to be ineffective.

Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand are quite unlike Punjab, which Mr Gill alludes to, in important ways: Punjab had a robust agricultural-industrial economy, its administrative machinery was much better developed and the insurgency there was not caused by poor or absent governance. The Naxalite affected regions are tribal/subsistence agriculture-based societies, have primitive administrative machinery and have therefore fallen victim to the dubious promises of Leftwing revolutionaries.

The upshot is that the counter-insurgency strategy for the Naxalite-affected regions needs a well-equipped and well-directed “clear” phase that will create the conditions for Mr Gill’s proposals to stand a chance. That is why Operation Green Hunt is necessary.

On arming citizens to fight insurgents

The battle in the Supreme Court

The correct way to challenge dubious government policies is to take them to court. So the citizens who filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against the Chattisgarh government’s use of an armed militia to take on the Naxalites did the right thing.

The case is still in progress, but the court’s early comments—well publicised by the media—were noteworthy.

“The allegation is that the state is arming private persons. You can deploy as many police personnel or armed forces to tackle the menace. But, if private persons, so armed by the state government, kill other persons, then the state is also liable to be prosecuted for abetting murder” [TOI]

The court is on the right track. Armed militias like Salwa Judum are not only unconstitutional but actually inimical to internal security. They should go.

The government’s defence has been injudicious so far: it was wholly unnecessary to bring in the bogey of an adverse judgement undermining the strategy of using village defence committees (VDCs) in terrorist/insurgent affected areas. For there is a difference between VDCs and armed militias.

The difference lies both in orientation and organisation. VDCs are about empowering citizens to defend themselves and their properties. They are localised units, small in size and with limited capability. Salwa Judum on the other hand has offensive capabilities, an organisational structure with paid cadres and covers large areas. VDCs are more akin to security guards than to armed militias. The government’s counsel would do well not to conflate Salwa Judum with VDCs. (And ensure that VDCs don’t become Salwa Judums)

According to the government, the allegations against Salwa Judum are overstated. That may well be true. It is likely that the court will appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate into the allegations. Yet, it would be far more prudent for the state to conduct ‘flag operations’, demonstrating that the state is capable of delivering governance. For whether the state cedes ground to Salwa Judum or to the Naxalites, it is the state that loses.

There are alternatives to Naxalism

…and armed struggle is blocking out conventional political movements

The recent post and op-ed on Naxalites and human rights sparked a good debate. It is also a timely and important one. Yesterday, Gautam Sen posted a longish entry on his blog responding to some of the issues raised last week. It is a well-composed post, not least because it reserves such delectable phrases as “the laptop bombardiers for India Shining” to describe Offstumped, and just perhaps, The Acorn. While Yossarin will certainly love that description, Mr Sen can rest assured that the only “alignment” between the Indian National Interest and the Nixon Center is on Realism in international affairs. [And ironically, Realism suggests that there are no permanent “alignments” between nations, only permanent interests.]

Mr Sen correctly notes that the main issue is about the state’s “normative legitimate monopoly on violence”. He then goes on to ask why the State has this monopoly and what kinds of violence can it employ. These questions have unambiguous answers. First, the State has the monopoly over violence as part of a grand contract between citizens—who give up some of their individual freedom in order to enjoy the security (a public good) that the State provides. Without security and law & order, society follows the ‘rule of the jungle’, matsya-nyaya, or law of the fish, in Ancient Indian parlance [1, 2]. The Indian State’s monopoly over violence, therefore, safeguards equality and creates the necessary conditions for human development. Morally, the nature of the State is important in the context of the monopoly over violence, but we are dealing with India, a constitutional democracy. Yes it’s imperfect, except for the alternatives.

Second, what kinds of violence can it employ? Only those authorised by the Constitution and the laws that follow from it. But what if it exceeds its brief? Well, both unconstitutional laws and unconstitutional acts by state officials can and should be challenged in court. And such challenges are fairly common in the Indian context. Mr Sen’s feeling that “Pai doesn’t want to constrain the hands of the state in the exercise of its legitimate right to violence” is misplaced. It may be that he didn’t notice the condemnation of the extra-constitutional militia and the restrictions on press freedom—in the post, in the op-ed and in the link to March 2006 post. “In principle” The Acorn argued two years ago, “maintenance of law and order is the government’s responsibility. It cannot outsource back to the citizens what citizens outsourced to it in the first place…It is naive to think that a society, especially one outside the mainstream, will be able to (turn) swords into ploughshares on its own, or that the government will be able to persuade it to do so. Tribal militias may show effective results in the short-term. But in the longer term, they are likely to become part of a larger problem.”

Mr Sen then goes on to ask why “Pai never (concerns) himself with what causes the violence, either by the state, or by non-state actors?” On the contrary, Pai does, perhaps obsessively. But he does not accept explanations that suggest that a “rape victim, dispossessed tribal or bullied villager” will automatically join an armed movement against the state. Only an extreme degree of frustration causes people to resort to violence. And even then, the violence is local and targeted against immediate perpetrators of injustice. It takes something else to mobilise this into an “armed struggle” against the state. For someone who claims he does not support the Maoists, it is strange that Mr Sen cannot see the difference between local disaffection, even violence; and people’s war.

It is from this point onwards in Mr Sen’s post that the moral relativism and moral equivalence begins to creep in. In a bizarre rhetorical question, he asks “But from whom would you reasonably expect a greater responsibility in upholding law and order—the state, or those who fight it?” We should expect no responsibility in upholding law & order from the Naxalites, and entirely by the state. Not for a single instant have I expected otherwise. But that’s not the issue. The point I made was that human rights activists must be alive to the context.

Activists who criticise only the state and spare the Maoists cannot be taken seriously. But those who “abhor violence of all kinds – both by Naxalites and the state” are freeriders at best and hypocrites at worst: for they use the very security that the state provides (through its monopoly over violence) to condemn it. It is entirely possible for reasonable people to agree that the methods used by the state are wrong, but it is entirely another matter for us to condemn the state for using force to ensure internal security. Does Mr Sen not know that “armed struggle” is not merely a tactic for the Naxalites, but central to their dogma? They differ from your garden-variety Communists in the sense that they believe violence is the only way. Say hello to Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

It is in his final sentence that Mr Sen unambiguously justifies Naxalism: “so while I find the methods of the maoists morally abhorrent because they cause violence and suffering, I wonder what one is supposed to do when the institutional or legal alternatives to violence are so weak, scarce and ineffective?” Mr Sen either lacks imagination or is fatally seduced by Maoism, for he somehow cannot see alternatives. He makes two immense leaps of logic: first, that those with grievances must resort to violence, and second, that the violence must take the form of a mandatory armed revolution. This, in a country like India, which demonstrated that non-violence can defeat a superpower. This, in a country like India, where elected dictatorships were brought down by electoral politics and non-violent struggle. This, in a country like India, where leaders like EV Ramaswamy Naicker and Mayawati have demonstrated how conventional political mobilisation can upturn the status quo. [Also this, in a country like India, where not a single armed struggle has actually succeeded.]

If Mr Sen is genuinely concerned about the oppressed he would do well to realise that it is the Naxalites and their uncompromising insistence on violence that is standing in the way of democratic political mobilisation. As long as it is the Naxalites that mobilise popular disaffection, and not conventional political parties, the people are condemned to their oppression. Surely, right thinking people like Mr Sen would not want that?

My op-ed in Mail Today: Vengeance of the red complaint box

On the Naxalite threat

Excerpts from my op-ed piece in today’s Mail Today:

Now there has been a controversy brewing for several months over the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen. The Supreme Court has turned down his bail application, yet sections of the media have been projecting him as an innocent being victimised by the state. Quizzed about the affair, (Sudeep) Chakravarti contends that Dr Sen is a soft target for the state. “Having him in jail” he argues “allows the state government and police a victory in the face of organisational and security disasters on the ground. But this is a pyrrhic victory. It stifles a moderate voice, and has done nothing whatsoever to curtail or solve in any way either the raging Maoist rebellion in Chattisgarh or issues of development”

Innocent or guilty, only the courts can tell (and Dr Sen has unfettered access to them). But the media coverage of the affair is playing into the hands of the Naxalites. In the absence of a nation-wide anti-insurgency strategy, will critical media coverage compel Chattisgarh and other weak states to take a more enlightened, sophisticated route? Given the situation on the ground, that’s unlikely. The interests of freedom and rights will be better served if the central government is compelled to really fight and defeat the Naxalites.

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. [MailToday JPG/Get the entire article in PDF]

Discuss this on the recent post on Naxalites and human rights activists