Beyond violence (India)

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more bluntly called drones, might soon be used in anti-Maoist operations in India, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Apparently, they are to be used solely as surveillance to assist forces on the ground conducting anti-Naxalite operations in a host of states – Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Maharashtra and West Bengal – in order to carry out 'precision' attacks. Officials emphasise that there are no plans yet to use the weapons capabilities. But for how long?

New Delhi is getting desperate, it would seem, if it is contemplating such measures. The contradictory public utterances recently emanating from the Home Ministry further reveal the lack of a cohesive strategy, even while identifying 'left-wing extremism' as the country's biggest security threat. In September, just days after launching Operation Green Hunt (planned as a combing operation to 'flush out' the armed rebels), Home Minister P Chidambaram hastened to dub the proposal a "media creation".

Such backpedalling was perhaps deemed critical in the face of criticism over an armed offensive by a government against its own citizens. Certainly numerous incidents of brutalities by the security forces, especially in Chhattisgarh, have already come to light, atrocities that have had the inevitable effect of increasing sympathy for the Maoists. It is now accepted that excesses by the state-supported vigilante force, the Salwa Judum, led to a spurt in Maoist recruitment. Likewise, amidst talk of sending the army into Maoist-controlled areas, Chidambaram's ostensible olive branch – offering to hold talks with the Maoist leadership – hardly seemed either sincere or pragmatic, given his condition of laying down arms or even of "abjuring violence". It was as late as November that Defence Minister A K Anthony ruled out using the army in anti-Naxalite operations, and the fact that matters progressed relatively far with this plan indicates a politico-military mindset in New Delhi with reference to the Maoists.

The lack of coherent tactics at the Centre is largely due to the fact that, in political circles, the Maoists continue to be seen as a law-and-order issue – a subject that falls under the purview of the state governments. Operation Green Hunt is thus an initiative by New Delhi to lend a hand to the state governments.

Scorched earth
The Maoists are currently operating with growing temerity in at least six states, with almost-daily incidents of violence taking place. The Home Ministry says that in 2009 alone the rebels carried out 183 violent attacks on 'economic' targets, including railway tracks, telephone towers, power plants, mines, school buildings and panchayat bhavans. From 2004 through November 2009, there have also been some 834 deaths. Increasingly brutal attacks on police personnel have served to reveal the weaknesses of state security – with the rebels implementing a 'scorched earth' policy that will help the rebels convince the populace to come over to their side.

Unfortunately, this is not far from the developing truth. Today, the government has virtually no access, leave aside control, in large swathes of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, pockets of which have long been Naxalite strongholds. A recent addition has been West Bengal, the birthplace of Naxalism more than 40 years ago, where iniquitous economic policies and controversial land-acquisition practices for private industries have in recent years triggered an immense polarisation. The Maoists have subsequently been quick to coalesce this into a movement. Nevertheless, the plan in each of the theatres seems to be to challenge the nonplussed state security apparatus to engage in excess, by placing innocent civilians in the way as cannon fodder. The fallout will be all to the Maoists' advantage. For this reason, the central and state governments need to take a nuanced approach, and put social and economic development high on the public agenda. Unfortunately, it is always easier to send in the troops.

Meanwhile, and as unfortunate, the national media has been swept away by the glamour of revolution and the equal appeal of counterinsurgency. The virulent condemnation of the Maoists as 'terrorists' is evened out by 24×7 television channels broadcasting romantic despatches from the jungles, unquestioningly providing a platform for Maoist propaganda. The recent exposure given to the utterances of senior Maoist leaders Mallojula Koteshwar Rao 'Kishenji' and CPI (Maoist) supremo Muppala Laxman Rao 'Ganapathy', besides providing 'exclusives' for every channel in the running, has been thoroughly uncritical. Nor have the interviews been able to challenge these men, who have been coordinating the movement for decades from underground positions.

Indeed, India's journalists have failed to help to create the political space for a genuine discussion about the issues taken up by the Maoists. By focusing solely on the violence – abhorrent as those acts are – the brutality of deprivation, the dispossession of land, and issues of hunger and indignity all fail to make it onto the discussion table, despite the massive volume of coverage. It is a fact that the Maoists hold sway in some of the regions richest in minerals and forests, and poorest in infrastructure and basic amenities. It is also a fact that the government is anxious to make these areas 'investment friendly' – which in the current understanding means clearing out the rebels and establishing 'peace'. However, real peace can only come with justice, when Adivasis and other rural poor get a fair share of the development of their ancestral lands. In a recent interview, Chidambaram conceded that the government would be willing to freeze agreements with various private companies located in Maoist-dominated areas and undertake a review. He must be held to his word.

The ordinary citizens of India must not be forced to choose between a corporate-driven elite government and a 'revolutionary' force given over to the use of armed might. Democratic space must be created to challenge this polarisation. The dialogue, if there is one, must focus on issues of economic and social justice; the cessation of violence will inevitably accompany this process.

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Himal Southasian