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.

My op-ed in Indian Express: Challenges for India’s anti-Naxalite campaign

Making Operation Green Hunt succeed

In today’s Indian Express Sushant and I call for the Indian government to address two big issues that appear to be missing from its strategy to fight the Naxalite insurgency. Excerpts:

First, the Naxalites and their sympathisers will launch a psychological counter-offensive to weaken the political commitment to the campaign by trying to delegitimise it in the public mind. Security forces will be accused of human rights violations, and a dubious moral equivalence drawn between the damage chemotherapy causes and the cancer it treats. Celebrity activists will find a new cause to express their outrage in prize-worthy eloquence. Even genuine human-rights activists will become the Naxalites’ unwitting instruments — to the extent that criticism of the government’s conduct will be projected as an implicit vindication of the Maoist agenda….

To get out of this hole, the government must release accurate and factual information to the public with unprecedented timeliness. In this age of inexpensive technology and connectivity, there is no excuse for the home ministry to be unable to release reports, photographs and video footage from the field. Paying for advertisements in the national media will only take it so far—-unless the UPA government implements a sophisticated public communication strategy, it will find its political will sapped by the Naxalite propaganda machine.

This brings up the second challenge: India does not have the capacity to conduct the vital endgame of counter-insurgencies…

After any serious surgery, there is usually a brief period of convalescence in the hospital before the patient is discharged into the care of the general practitioner. India does not have the capacity to take an area that has been cleared of insurgents, build institutions of governance before discharging it to the state government. Unless this capacity is built, the successes of Operation Green Hunt will remain ephemeral.

Delivering governance in the immediate aftermath of conflict requires hybrid civil-military capacity. A new organisation must be raised by the Central government, under a restructured home ministry, to lay foundations for the rule of law, economic freedom and property rights in areas cleared of Naxalites. We call this the CIMPCOR or Civilian Military Partnership for Conflict Resolution model…

The alchemy of Naxalism lies in the transformation of millions of quotidian grievances into disaffection and rebellion against the Indian state. Green Hunt rightly focuses on security first; but it will only be complete when good governance eliminates those quotidian grievances. [Indian Express]

We flesh out the CIMPCOR model in our in-depth piece in Pragati that was reproduced by The Pioneer as a two part series.

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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Friday Squib: A poet and a revolutionary

But then…

So what if you are one of the top leaders of one of India’s largest underground Maoist party. You still need to get in touch with the wife. In an interview with Romita and Aveek Datta, Mint‘s intrepid reporters, Communist Party of India (Maoist) politburo member Koteshwar Rao says:

My wife Maina is now at Dandakaranya—she is in charge of a group in Bastar (district of Chhattisgarh). We met in Hyderabad when I was state secretary (of Andhra Pradesh) and she was a comrade. The last time we met was two years ago. We communicate through letters—use of mobile phones has been banned by our central committee. I write poems to her and make sure the Indian postal department delivers them to her. I wrote poems after the landmine attack on Buddhbabu’s convoy and also on the day somebody hurled a shoe at (George) Bush. [Mint]

Now before female readers of this blog start forwarding this to their significant others, they should also know that in the very next breath, Mr Rao says that he doesn’t have kids, because “the leadership expects the women in our party to undergo sterilization after marriage.” His interviewers didn’t ask him why vasectomies were not similarly expected of the men in the party. Especially after the comrade declared that his party works for “women’s liberation”.

Defending Salwa Judum

Has anyone articulated how the citizen’s militia will be disbanded?

Prakash Singh, a distinguished police officer and a member of an expert group set up by the Planning Commission to study the Naxalite problem, dissents from the group’s conclusions and argues that the Salwa Judum was a “spontaneous movement expressing the resentment of the tribals against the Naxalites’ interference with their social customs, cultural practices and economic interests.”

Mr Singh, who is both the author of a book on the Naxalite movement and has tirelessly pushed police reforms since his retirement, is a credible commentator. His opinion must be taken seriously.

This blog, however, disagrees with his view. Individuals bearing arms for self-defence, or even isolated village defence committees in remote areas are one thing: organising these units into a larger corporate entity, or indeed a “movement”, is quite another. Organisations once formed develop a life and interests of their own, and are almost impossible to wind down and demobilise, especially if they are outside the formal control of the state. As Mr Singh himself admits (Salwa Judum’s) “camps should have been wound up within a year or two and the tribals encouraged to go back to their villages. That unfortunately did not happen.”

Mr Singh has a point when he argues that Salwa Judum is a useful instrument in the fight against the Naxalite insurgency. But in the medium- to long-term, it is likely to create additional problems, whether or not the Naxalites are defeated.

A lesson in statecraft, for Mr Varadarajan

Nepal is Nepal, and India is, well, India

“If the Indian Maoists have something to learn from their Nepali comrades,” Siddharth Varadarajan argues, “the same is true of the Indian establishment as well. While Nepal’s erstwhile ruling parties are building peace with their Maoists, India is stuck with the disastrous Salwa Judum.”

Now the use of Salwa Judum by Chattisgarh is wrong, and is the most obvious indicator of the UPA government’s failure to develop a cohesive strategy towards subduing the Naxalite movement. But it is also important to remember that Salwa Judum is a relatively new phenomenon (India’s Naxalites have been around for almost four decades) and is restricted to just one state. So to equate India’s long war against the Naxalite movement is more misinformation than analysis. Mr Varadarajan ignores the anti-Naxalite strategies adopted in other states and at other times. For instance, under Chandrababu Naidu’s chief-ministership, the Andhra Pradesh police almost broke the Naxalites’ back. That advantage was lost not because the use of force by state authorities didn’t work. It was lost because the Congress Party decided to lower the heat and attempt negotiations. The Maoists used the opportunity to regroup and before long, returned to their armed struggle.

But what of Mr Varadarajan’s lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India? Well, he argues

“If the Indian establishment wants the Maoists to give up their armed struggle and take part in elections like their Nepali comrades, it will have to rely on more than political osmosis. For the Nepali ‘model’ is not just about the Maoists adapting creatively to changes in the national and international arena; it is equally about the ‘bourgeois’ parties there demonstrating a degree of statesmanship that has so far been completely absent in their counterparts south of the border.

Indeed, so backward is our political culture in relation to Nepal’s that instead of seeking ways of peacefully ending the naxalite insurgency, the Government of India has actually fuelled a new civil war.

In Nepal, the political parties and the Maoist rebels realised that the civil war in their country would not be resolved militarily. The king was the only one who failed to recognise this reality and paid the price for his folly. In India, however, despite the military stalemate which prevails, both the establishment and the Maoists continue to believe in the supremacy of arms.” [The Hindu]

Mr Varadarajan, like some other people who write in the opinion pages of the Hindu betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Indian state. He fails to understand the fundamental difference between legitimacy of a democratic republic and that of a sometimes-absolute, sometimes-constitutional monarchy. Even if one were to ignore the immense differences in the state’s hard capacity—in the ability to muster up economic and military resources—the government of India enjoys a moral strength (of course, the Naxalites and their apologists will deny this) that no government of Nepal ever had. [See There are alternatives to Naxalism]

In other words, unlike Nepal, the Indian state won’t simply lie down and surrender. Here Mr Varadarajan would do well to learn some lessons from Indian history: in the end, it is the insurgents who cry Momma. The second lesson for Mr Varadarajan is that the democratic nature of the Indian state allows these militarily defeated insurgents to honourably enter mainstream politics.

Indeed, Mr Varadarajan might discover the ultimate lesson of statecraft were he to examine how Nepal’s Maoists came to power. Narratives of Indian pusillanimity apart, does he really believe that Pushpa Kumar Dahal would be so close to political power, and legitimacy, if the ‘Indian establishment’ hadn’t allowed it?

It is not as if negotiations haven’t been tried in India. They have. That they have not led to the Naxalites dropping dogmatic armed struggle and entering mainstream politics tells you where the problem lies. It is understandable that Mr Varadarajan is heady with vicarious triumphalism due to the success of Nepal’s Maoists. He should restrict himself to savouring the moment. As for lessons in statecraft, there’s a lot that Maoists—on either side of the India-Nepal border—have to learn.

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.

Today’s dharma is the Constitution

Where The Acorn interprets the Mahabharata

Continuing the discussion on Naxalism, Gautam Sen points to an op-ed by Nandini Sundar, a sociologist from the Delhi School of Economics, and a member of the Independent Citizen’s Initiative (ICI) that investigated the situation in Chattisgarh in July 2006. Similar to the position the ICI takes in its report, Dr Sundar’s op-ed equates violence conducted by state authorities and violence conducted by non-state authorities (Maoists and the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum militia). This is perhaps a pacifist middle-ground position, but is untenable as an organising principle for a democratic nation. It has been rejected by the Maoists themselves: Mupalla Lakshmana Rao (Comrade ‘Ganapathy’), the Maoist chief, retorted that “those who imagine themselves to be impartial referees in class war and try to set the rules equally for both sides will ultimately end up as apologists for the oppressors, in spite of their good intentions and sincere attitude.”

Dr Sundar attempts to find a basis for the “middle-ground” position by taking recourse to the Mahabharata and codes of conduct according to dharma.

If both must fight, ignoring saner counsel, let me draw their attention to another aspect of the Mahabharata. As Matilal points out, it was indeed a dharmyuddh, but only because both parties were expected to observe certain laws of dharma, or codes of conduct in war. [New Indian Express]

Now, quite clearly, it is untenable to suggest that the Indian state allow the literal Hindu dharma to guide its behaviour. Beyond a literal interpretation though, the idea that the actions of the king and his subjects are circumscribed by a code of conduct, or dharma, in its contemporary form simply indicates that the government and citizens are subject to the Constitution. And the Constitution empowers the government to use force—under laws, checks and balances. It forbids others, for instance the Maoists, from doing so.

The correct interpretation of the Mahabharata is that the government must behave according to the Constitution (and disband the Salwa Judum), but also, defeat the Maoists who, by rejecting the Constitution, are on the side of adharma.

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.