India’s Maoist conflict must be resolved peacefully
On April 24, a large group of Maoist cadres, in a well-planned and organized operation, ambushed and killed about 25 members of a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) detachment in a village in Sukma district in South Chhattisgarh in central tribal India.
They injured several other officers and looted arms and ammunition from the CRPF in the attack in Burkapal village.
In May 2013, Maoist cadres attacked and killed Mahendra Karma, a prominent MP and leader of the anti-Maoist “Salva Judum” (Purification Hunt) campaign, and the leading politician VC Shukla in Darbha in Sukma district.
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh has vowed to find a “final solution” to Maoist violence in the state. He has called a meeting in New Delhi of chief ministers of the Maoist-affected states of central India on May 8.
Many CRPF men have recently been killed in Maoist actions in Chhattisgarh. Police deficiencies in dealing with the Maoists have been noted: the prolonged failure to appoint a CRPF chief; the lack of a coherent strategy for combatting the Maoists; the failure of Chhattisgarh police to fulfil their basic responsibilities; poor intelligence gathering and over-dependence on central authorities; the sluggishness of CRPF personnel on the ground; the failure of the CRPF to appreciate that the Maoists had the capacity to mount surprise attacks despite losses; and the huge number of vacancies in the state police ranks.
Origin and growth
Maoist (then “Naxalite”) violence first emerged in Naxalbari in the state of West Bengal in late 1967. By the late 1990s, it was said to have spread to 2,000 police stations in 223 districts in 20 of the 29 states of India. In 2008, the Maoists were said to be active in only about 125 districts in more than 12 states.
As early as 1969, the Research and Policy Division of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) produced a report examining the agrarian roots of the so-called “Naxalite” (later “Maoist”) violence titled Causes and Nature of Agrarian Tensions. The report warned that India’s “Green Revolution” could lead to a “Red Revolution” if appropriate agrarian reform measures were not taken.
The report was not taken seriously because the powerful Intelligence Bureau (IB) continued the British tradition of viewing the communist movement in India as a threat to the security of the state and advocated state violence in response to Maoist violence.
Two other agencies also reported on Maoist violence in the 1980s: i) the Manmohan Singh Committee on Rural Unrest; ii) the Committee on Naxalite (Maoist) Violence headed by VC Pandey, the cabinet secretary.
1970s and 1980s
From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, the government of India and the Planning Commission recognized the basic principles enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution of India and the Directive Principles of State Policy. The Five Year Plans referred to an official commitment to the reduction of inequality. With the paradigm shift in economic policy in 1991, the values of egalitarianism, equity, control of exploitation and social, economic and political justice became a lower priority.
The annual reports of the MHA for 2006-7 mentioned the spread of the Maoist movement across 12 states. In 2006, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, described the Maoist movement as the biggest internal security threat to India. The policy framework was laid out in detail.
In the 1980s, the Maoist movement constituted a relatively strong force, with popular support in areas in the south, central and eastern regions of the country. However, it was found to be weak outside its core areas of influence.
The Union Home Ministry conducted case studies on agrarian struggles in the sensitive states of West Bengal, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu, and advised state governments on agrarian reforms.
Commercialisation and corporatisation of forest resources reduced the access of indigenous communities to forest resources. The alienation of tribal areas and increasing control by more affluent non-tribal elements from outside led to significant unrest. The building of large dams and other industrial developments in tribal areas led to displacement, disorganization and destitution in the tribal communities.
The academic Walter Fernandez has noted that about 60 million people have been displaced as a result of development processes from 1947 to 2004 involving 20 million hectares of land. Tribal communities constitute 8.8% of the population and 40% of the displaced. A quarter of the displaced are Dalits and another 20 percent belong to “Other Backward Classes.”
Unrest is not a law and order problem but a pointer to missed opportunities in state policy and implementation.
Tribal areas are rich in mineral resources. Mining projects in Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh threaten the very existance of the tribal people.
A confrontation began between the state and the tribal people over the control of resources and the issue of local self-governance. In the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand, the Maoists and other groups demanded change. Mass unrest, quite distinct from dramatic incidents of violence, was visible.
In 2006 and 2009, two chief ministers’ conferences were held in New Delhi to discuss Maoist violence. Only the chief secretaries and director generals of police were invited, not the ministers in charge of social justice and rural development nor the central Commissions for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The prime minister cited an IB report that said: “Maoist violence is the biggest internal security threat to India.” There was no discussion of development issues.
Simultaneously, the Planning Commission of India set up the Expert Group on Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas. The 16-member Group released an 80-page report in 2008.
Its recommendations were sharply different from those of the IB referred to earlier.
The group undertook field visits to Maoist-affeced areas in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, and identified the causes of discontent that led to the Maoist movement: poverty, oppression and neglect.
Though the group’s report was ignored at the time, its recommendations can be ignored by the present Narendra Modi government only at its peril.
Two further developments were i) Salwa Judum, the counterinsurgency campaign (2005) organised by Mahendra Karma. Salwa Judum was undertaken by a government-backed vigilante force in Chhattisgarh. It organised local youths, who received support and training from the state government. A huge number of “Special Police officers” were appointed to attack the Maoists, uproot the villagers from their traditional habitat and relocate them in special camps set up in faraway places where they would be out of contact with the Maoists. The campaign was violent and illegal, and was outlawed by the Supreme Court of India in 2011.
The second was Operation Green Hunt, a massive three-day combing operation organised in 2009 by the central and state police forces of several states in the Maoist region on the orders of P Chidambaram, home minister of the government of India. This was another counterinsurgency campaign to quell the Maoists with the deployment of huge numbers of central armed police forces in the Dandakaranya region lying between the states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. The ambitious operation failed to put down the Maoist insurgency.
India’s development process since independence has been insensitive to the needs of the tribal peoples and Dalits. This has contributed to the growing political strength of the Maoists. The democratic needs and aspirations of the people need to be addressed regardless of the violence and counter-violence between the state and the Maoists: the right to life, livelihood, and a dignified and honorable existence in terms of the Preamble, Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental tights in the Constitution of India. “What is surprising is not the existence of unrest but the failure to draw the right conclusions from it.”
Unrest is not a law and order problem but a pointer to missed opportunities in state policy and implementation. It is necessary to close the gap between policy and its implementation.
Salient features of government policy towards the Maoists have been spelled out in the MHA’s Status Paper of May 2006.
The Maoist movement has a strong base among the landless, the poor peasantry and the adivasis (original inhabitants). The goals of the movement are political and must be addressed politically. Negotiation is the only political instrument available in a democracy.
An ameliorative approach with emphasis on a negotiated solution helps generate greater confidence in innovative governance.
The coming to power of a new government in India in May 2014 provides an opportunity to start negotiations.
In Andhra Pradesh in 2004, the Committee of Concerned Citizens arrived at the modalities and ground rules for a ceasefire with the Maoists along with a tentative agenda.
Peace talks between the Maoists and the government took place over four days in October 2004. Out of the 11 items on the agenda, two items, namely the creation of a democratic atmosphere and the issue of land, were discussed in detail.
The first round of discussions ended with the hope of further rounds of talks, but the subsequent atmosphere of avoidable violence and distrust led to the Maoists withdrawing from the talks in January 2005.
A historic oportunity to heal the woulds was lost (Maringanti, 2010) http://www.epw.in/journal/2010/34/perspectives/talks-between-maoists-and-state-learning-andhra-experience.html
In New Delhi, where there is a new government in place, there is scope for unconditional peace talks with the Maoists.
India began such talks with the Naga underground in 1997, despite the fact that the separatist National Socialist Council of Nagaland rebels had neither surrendered their weapons nor stopped building up their arsenal. They are virtually running a parallel government in Nagaland. This is also the case with the Assamese rebels in the northeast with whom India has had unconditional talks. Similar talks with the separatist rebels in Jammu and Kashmir have been offered in the past.
Why not initiate talks with the Maoists, who are not separatists but are merely demanding justice for the Dalits and adivasis, and Muslims and women as well?
- Government of India, 2008, Development Challenges in Extremist Afffected Areas: Report of an Expert Group to Planning Commission
- Maringanti, Anant, 2010, Talks Between the Maoists and the State: Learning from the Andhra Experience, Economic and Political Weeekly, August, 21-27