Tiptoeing Through Landmines

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In 1967, three months before Naxalbari first burst upon the collective consciousness of India, the London Times published a series of articles painting the picture of a general “deep sense of defeat”, and fraying of the Indian nation so acute that only the army could be an alternative source of civil authority and social order if India was to survive. 1967, the Times predicted, was surely India’s “last general election”. It is difficult to imagine now in an era of incredible India slogans but up to the early 1980s, few external observers would have put greater odds on the survival of the Indian Union, as opposed to say that of the Soviet Union. Beset by violent insurgencies in Punjab, Assam and the North East, India looked decidedly besieged but the resilience of its political system, combined with a tough-minded statist response, acted as a vital pressure valve to defuse internal tensions setting the stage for the economic takeoff of the 1990s.

The Maoists have been creeping up on the radar for years but there is a chilling finality of about recent incidents in Dantewada that has broken India’s “all is well” stupor. This has to be the end of business of usual. Born out of the hopelessness of India’s areas of darkness, the wellsprings of Maoist frustration may be understandable and the final solution can only be political. But let us be clear: No state can hope to survive without a tough response to an armed challenge. The difference between the Maoists and previous Indian insurgencies is that their movement is not based on local ethnicity. Other Indian insurgencies have generally followed what political scientist Atul Kohli termed an “inverse U-curve”: at first, the discontent peaks to a crescendo but political solutions follow from the point when insurgents realize that no matter how much damage they inflict, the state will never give in. That is when meaningful negotiations start – Punjab, Mizoram, Assam have all followed similar templates – and the accommodative nature of Indian democracy becomes an asset.

We are now on the upward slope of the curve with the Maoists. In 2009, 908 people died in Left-wing Maoist violence nationwide, as opposed to 381 in Kashmir. The terrible wake up calls of Dantewada were always around the corner. Much has been made of Sonia Gandhi’s “root causes” appeal in the Congress mouthpiece but by referring to “decisive action against terror” in the same piece she has indicated a clear two-pronged approach. In practical terms, this means that there will be no scaling own of Mr. Chidamabaram’s tough guy policy though he has slightly nuanced his messaging. Despite the verbal calisthenics between him and Arun Jaitely, the Home Minister’s stance suits the BJP, which is naturally inclined to such a response.

The record shows that politics of the response has always been a crucial determining factor. In 2009 Andhra Pradesh managed to contain killings in Maoist incidents to 18, down from 46 in 2008; while Maharashtra, Chattisgarh and West Bengal registered steep hikes in the death toll. Andhra was clearly doing something right. Chattisgarh remained mired in its flawed Salwa Judum strategy, West Bengal remained hostage to the personality politics of Mamata versus Buddhadeb and Maharashtra remained preoccupied with taxi drivers and other side-shows.

The Andhra model of local police upgradation and empowerment is clearly the way to go, as it was in Punjab two decades ago. Central police forces can only provide muscle, the guts of the response has to be based on local intelligence and local expertise. This is why the armed forces’ have rightly been reluctant to get directly involved. It may be time though for a more creative use of the Armed Forces’ assets: for logistical support, intelligence, control of communications networks and training. The Home Ministry has upped police recruitment in the past two years but the sheer increase in numbers will have to be supplemented with real police reforms that would professionalise the forces for real policing and delink them from the exigencies of local petty politics.

India has an unquestionably strong repository of counter-insurgency expertise but a divergence in political approaches in the states has meant that it has not yet been harnessed in a single-minded effort against the Maoists.

Dantewada should serve as the trigger for changing all that.


By Nalin Mehta in Mumbai Mirror - May 24, 2010