Pragati October 2009: Targeting Naxalism

Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s characterisation of the Naxalite movement as the biggest threat to India’s internal security, for years, the Indian government showed little imagination and resolve in earnestly confronting it. While the Naxalite movement consolidated across the country, moving cadre, arms and funds across state and international borders, the Indian government’s response was inefficient and lacked coordination. Not only did this result in Naxalites gaining strength unchecked, it also resulted in dubious and poorly-conceived responses like raising tribal militias and ham-fisted police action against rural and tribal populations in the worst-affected areas.

In its second term, the UPA government has demonstrated more seriousness in tackling what it calls Left Wing Extremism. Most of this month’s issue of Pragati deals with the nature of the Naxalite threat and the ways to address it. We argue that Naxalism is a manifestation of poor or absent governance but establishing good governance in Naxalite-affected areas, after successful security operations, requires the Indian government to invest in hybrid civil-military capacity that it does not yet have at the present time.

In addition: we have essays on the flux in Afghanistan, the UPA government’s much-publicised austerity drive; a parliamentary brief that examines MPs’ voting record; and other regular features.

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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.

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.

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

South America’s Pakistan

Venezuela’s support for left-wing terrorism is an international problem

Colombia conducts a raid against FARC, radical left-wing guerillas, holed out in neighbouring Equador. Equador lies to the South-west of Colombia. The raid is successful and several FARC guerillas, including a member of its senior leadership.Map:NYT

Equador protests. But that’s not all. Venezuela does too. In fact, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez cries foul before Equador does. He doesn’t stop there. He sends ten infantry battalion, including tank units to the border with Colombia. But here’s the thing—Venezuela doesn’t even share a border with the offended Equador. In fact, Venezuela lies to the North-east of Colombia.

Now, it was well known that Mr Chavez was extending “moral, diplomatic and political support” to the FARC guerillas for a long time. But Colombian forces seized a laptop during their recent raid that should do more than merely embarrass the Venezuelan president.

What may really have upset Mr. Chávez is the capture of Reyes’s laptop. According to Colombia’s top police official, General Oscar Naranjo, the computer contains evidence supporting the claim that the FARC is working with Mr. Chávez. General Naranjo said Monday that Reyes’s laptop records showed that Venezuela may have paid $300 million to the FARC in exchange for its recent release of six civilian hostages. Mr. Chávez had spun those releases as a triumph of his personal mediation.

General Naranjo said the laptop also contains documents showing that the FARC was seeking to buy 50 kilos of uranium, and the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo has reported that the records revealed the sale of 700 kilograms of cocaine valued at $1.5 million. The general added that the military found a thank-you note from Mr. Chávez to the FARC for some $150,000 that the rebels had sent him when he was in prison for his attempted coup d’etat in 1992. [WSJ]

State-sponsored terrorism, backed by high oil & gas prices, lives on. Leave the familiar parallel with Pakistan aside: the question is how long is it before international left-wing terrorists develop the international links, infrastructure and capabilities, like their jihadi counterparts?