Friday, February 26, 2010

It is time India got serious about the Maoist insurgency in its eastern states

Ending the red terror

SINCE 2006, when Manmohan Singh described the Maoist insurgency as the “single biggest internal-security challenge” India had ever faced, it has spread rapidly.

Maoist guerrillas are now active in over a third of India’s 626 districts, with 90 seeing “consistent violence”. Last year the conflict claimed 998 lives. This month alone the Maoists—or Naxalites, as they are known—slaughtered 24 policemen in West Bengal and 12 villagers in Bihar (see article). Yet neither official concern at the highest level nor continuing horrific violence have prompted a concerted and coherent strategy for dealing with the insurgency. It is time for the government to devise one.

Mr Singh may have overstated the security threat to the Indian state; but not the damage to Indian society. The government has faced bloodier threats, on its borders: from separatists in Punjab in the 1980s and in Kashmir and the north-east still. But the Kashmir valley has only 5m people, Manipur, most troubled of the north-eastern states, only 2.5m; Naxalites are scattered among 450m of India’s poorest people, feeding on the grievances of tribal inhabitants of eastern and central India against what is all too often a cruel, neglectful and corrupt administration. This makes the Naxalites hard to treat in the way that India has treated its other insurrections: as military threats to be dealt with by force—often brutally so.

Even recognising that, the official response to Mr Singh’s wake-up call from the governments of the affected Indian states has been dismal. None has much improved its overstretched, ineffectual police force. Besides bureaucratic incompetence and inertia, there are three main reasons for this inaction. First, state-level politics can play a pernicious role. The government in Jharkhand, for example, owed its election last year partly to Maoist support, and has been loth to fight them.

Second, the central government, a coalition run by the Congress party, must share the blame. It is not enough for Mr Singh, guru-like, to point the way. The strong leadership required to mobilise resources, public opinion and state governments for a long and difficult campaign has been lacking. Little has been done to bolster the central government’s own paramilitary force, an important back-up to the state police. Nor has the government done much to badger the states into adopting whole-heartedly a scheme to devolve power to local councils. Yet where this has been tried it has weakened the Maoists’ grip.

Encouragingly, Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s home minister, does seem ready to get to grip with the issue, giving it a new priority in the central government’s policies. But he has not enunciated a clear strategy either—perhaps for good reason. The third big obstacle to dealing with the Naxalites is that no one is really sure how to. A minority, citing the success of strong-arm tactics in, for example, Punjab, wants a massive counter-Naxalite onslaught. This would be politically unimaginable and probably futile. A bigger group argues that development, to salve tribal hurts, is the only solution. Yet that, in the most undeveloped parts of India, will take years.
Wars without end
The right approach is to focus on improving both policing and general administration. Better policing would protect poor people from Naxalite bandits and extortionists. Better local administration, providing roads, water, schools and health care, would give a stake in the Indian state to people who at present have none. It would be a huge task anywhere in India, and especially in areas plagued by Naxalites. Yet the alternative is a potentially endless conflict that causes untold human suffering, further marginalises millions of India’s poorest citizens and deters investment in some of its most mineral-rich areas.

India has a remarkable ability to wage long-running low-intensity wars without their causing a sense of national outrage or panic. Outrage and action—if not panic—are now overdue. Naxalism is already more than four decades old, and India’s recent rapid economic growth, concentrated in urban, western and southern areas, is spawning new grievances to sustain it. If not tackled urgently, the insurgency could stunt the prospects for millions of people for a generation. From The Economist print edition

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