Pakistani arms for Sri Lanka

Should India really bother?

Let’s consider one narrative: India is opposed to the LTTE, but can’t support the Sri Lanka army because of a number of reasons—mostly having to do with domestic politics, but also perhaps for strategic reasons. So when Pakistan becomes a big supplier of small arms to Colombo, should India really worry?

Rather than go into a tizzy and attempt to counter the Pakistani move, a far more effective position would be to circumscribe the arms trade and Pakistan’s role. India has enough levers over Colombo to set limits on the type and quantity of arms that the latter can import, and ensure that arms suppliers don’t engage in other activities inimical to India’s interests. Indeed such a strategy might provide greater influence over Colombo’s approach to the civil war.

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.

Sunday Levity: The Mujahideen’s blanket

Pashtun war gear

Picture: Amazon.com
In The Battle for Afghanistan (published earlier as Afghanistan: The Bear Trap) Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin describe the Mujahideen’s kit:

After their weapon, the next most valued possession is their blanket. It is usually a greyish-brown in colour, and is used day and night for a wide number of purposes. The Mujahideen uses it as a coat, or cloak, for warmth in winder, or against the wind; they crouch under it to conceal themselves from enemy gunships, as it blends perfectly with the mud or rocks; they sleep on it; they use it as a sack; they spread it on the ground as a table cloth, or upon which to display their wares; often it becomes a makeshift stretcher and sometimes it is a rope; several times a day it becomes their prayer mat. [The Battle For Afghanistan pp35]

Brigadier Yousaf does not say whether and how often they wash it.

(It is interesting how today’s Taliban and al Qaeda types are labelled jihadis, and the words mujahid (one who does jihad) and its plural form, mujahideen are reserved for the Afghans and Pashtuns who fought the Soviets.)

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

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?

Naxalites and human rights activists

Even well-intentioned people can become pawns in the Naxalites’ insidious propaganda war

Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite country is a very important book, for it offers an excellent account of the nature of the Naxalite threat. The Naxalite movement thrives on disillusionment and disaffection. It collects unaddressed grievances and unredressed complaints and channelises them into anger against the “Indian State”. It tells rape victims, dispossessed tribals and bullied villagers that the target of their ire is not the local landlord, policeman or politician but that abstraction called the “State”. Indeed, beyond seductive dogma and the logic of the inevitability of armed struggle to upturn the status quo, it offers no positive solutions. The fact both Communism and Socialism failed doesn’t matter to the Naxalite leadership, ideologues and sympathisers: people in remote, backward districts of India don’t know 20th century history.

Child soldiers
Photo: Alok Putul

If Naxalite leaders rally support for themselves through mobilising local disaffections into a movement against the State and its symbols, their ideologues and sympathisers play an important role in the broader strategic psychological warfare. By dissing India’s economic achievements, by spreading canards about the ‘failure of neoliberal reforms’, by an incessant, exclusive focus on the negative side (in the name of ‘dissent’), by playing up the myth of “the two Indias” and even championing violence, these opinion makers create a context that lulls the the average Indian citizen into thinking that there is something legitimate about the Naxalite movement. The left-leaning and left-wing commentariat has succeeded where the Islamists have failed. The average Indian believes that the Naxalites are not quite as serious a threat as the jihadis—although Naxalites hold sway over a broad swathe of territory. Little wonder then that Indian politicians feel no serious pressure to do anything about the Naxalite threat. [Related Post: The clash of convictions and the remaking of the world of war]

Even where there was significant public outcry, the UPA government decided that its perceived vote-banks were more important than national security: it is not half as serious about the jihadi threat as it should be. But where there was lesser public attention, it literally abdicated its responsibility. The presence of the incompetent Shivraj Patil at the home ministry didn’t help. So while the Naxalites consolidated into a nationwide movement years ago, the central government continues to claim that this is essentially a matter for the states, and it would only play a co-ordinating role.

In the absence of a coherent national anti-insurgency strategy states were left to their own devices. Y S R Reddy’s government in Andhra Pradesh, got into bed with the Naxalites in order to win the election. It was a mutually beneficial bargain: the Naxalites took a breather (after being pummelled by the previous government led by Chandrababu Naidu) and regrouped. It ended predictably, when the negotiations failed and the Naxalites went back to their armed struggle. Why predictably? Well, because “armed struggle” is an inseparable part of the Naxalite dogma: Prachanda, the leader of Nepal’s Maoists, is being criticised for relenting on this even after they formed the government.

If this was the situation in Andhra Pradesh, a state with relatively higher capacity, what of places like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, where state capacity is extremely weak? Faced with fighting a war with what they had, they engaged in some extremely flawed strategies. As The Acorn argued two years ago, setting up Salwa Judum, an extra-constitutional counter-insurgency force, was a big mistake. So was the draconian law which suspends the freedom of the press. The Chattisgarh authorities identified the problems correctly. But the tools they used to solve these problems were ill-considered, hamfisted and ultimately counterproductive. Chattisgarh’s government and political leaders cannot escape responsibility for these bad moves—but in the absence of cohesion, determination and resources from New Delhi, it is not surprising that they chose that course. Understandable, but still not acceptable. But it’s no use criticising the Chattisgarh authorities for their dubious strategies. The anti-insurgency war against Naxalites is a national one. The Union Home Ministry should be held to account for its sins of omission that directly caused Chattisgarh’s sins of commission. The next government has a job cut out—and parties would do well to put their anti-Naxalite war strategy in their manifestos.

If Left-leaning commentators and Naxalite sympathisers are batting for the Naxalites, what should one make of genuine liberal human rights activists? It is possible to construct a reasonable argument, like a fellow INI blogger did, that violations of human rights by the government must be criticised every time they occur. The danger with this, though, is that well-meaning individuals and groups can inadvertantly end up batting for the Naxalites. The Naxalites derive greater benefit when reputed individuals and organisations criticise the government. In the psychological war, NGOs and human rights groups end up strengthening the Naxalites to the extent they add fuel to the fire of disillusionment and disaffection. Rights activists and do-gooders would do well to heed the old injunction primum non nocere—first, do no harm.

There are bound to be some who evaluate this trade-off and argue that holding the government’s feet to the fire is important in the even larger context of democratic accountability and good governance. Well, to be taken as bona fide, such individuals and organisations must unequivocally condemn Maoism and violent armed struggle. They must also unambiguously accept that only the state has the normative legitimacy to use violence. In other words, there is no room for moral equivalence: it is fair to criticise the government and government officials for their failings. But it is necessary to make the distinction between the State’s legitimate right to the use of violence and the Naxalite’s armed struggle.

Now there has been a controversy brewing for several months over the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen (see Offstumped’s coverage). 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. Innocent or guilty, only the courts can tell (and he has unfettered access to them). But the media campaign itself is playing into the hands of the Naxalites (and is an example of the Chattisgarh authorities’ unsophisticated response to the psychological war).