Manmohan Singh has the image of being a moderate man, not prone to exaggeration or extreme reaction. Therefore, if such a person, perhaps in desperation, refers to how there is a Naxalite-related incident of violence every day, and moreover characterises the Naxalites as the most serious threat to India’s security – well, clearly this has a certain weight. On the one hand, the prime minister is right, and a quick scan of the newspapers reveals as much. In Giridih, in Jharkhand, a former chief minister’s son is killed; in Dantewada, in Chhattisgarh, 300 inmates escape in a daring jailbreak; in West Midnapore and Purulia, in West Bengal, Maoists expand their strongholds; in Theni, in Tamil Nadu, there are fierce clashes between Naxalites and police.
On the other hand, recognising the intensity of the rebellion is not enough. Prime Minister Singh appears to lose his reasonable moorings when it comes to understanding the nature of the Naxalite problem – and, more importantly, when it comes time to provide prescriptions. He termed the Naxalites a “virus”, but such an unhelpful description clearly does not take into account the fact that this is largely a poor people’s movement, and as such requires a multi-pronged approach. This type of rhetoric leads naturally to the next step in the public mindset, wherein the establishment wants to ‘kill the virus’. Dr Singh has clearly misdiagnosed the problem, and is listening to his Internal Security advisers more than he should. His rhetoric is of the kind that can only push a vicious cycle of confrontation and repression.
The Naxalites are not the problem – they are only the symptom. The problem, if it be anywhere, lies in the South Block offices of the prime minister. It also lies in the various sachivalayas, government secretariats, in state capitals, and in the offices of the district magistrate and superintendent of police in the districts. It lies in a set of policies that have only exacerbated the inequity in society: from withdrawal of subsidies, to reduction of public expenditure; from sanctioning special economic zones with no care for the displaced, to the continued lack of a justice mechanism for the poor; from the absence of land reforms, to the systematic exploitation of Adivasis. Against this backdrop, is it any surprise that Maoists continue to find recruits who are willing to pick up the gun?
Clearly, it has proven surprising to some. Besides the token reference to the socio-economic aspect of the problem, the prime minister spoke only of a specialised fighting force to tackle the Maoists. But while it is true that a force such as Andhra Pradesh’s Greyhounds has achieved some success, as the cover feature in this magazine’s December 2007 issue showed, the Maoist setback in that state is neither irreversible nor only to do with police action. How will a specialised force deal with the systemic policies that lead to Naxalite recruitment? How will it lock people into the mainstream by creating development opportunities? How will it pave the way out of the disastrous Salwa Judum experiment in Chhattisgarh? Will a specialised force be able to break the corrupt nexus between politicians and Naxalites in Jharkhand? Will it stop the exploitation of Adivasis by forest contractors, or only add to their misery? Won’t the human-rights violations committed in the process only further fuel the rebellion?
At a time when an armed outfit questions the very legitimacy of the state, we certainly do not believe there to be no role for law-enforcement agencies in the short term. However, a long-lasting solution can only be found if the state recognises the heterogeneity of the factors that have led to the Naxalite movement, and deals with them accordingly.
The answer lies in politics of engagement between both sides. The Nepal analogy, where the Maoists are in the process of transforming into a mainstream democratic party, is important in this respect. There are, of course, differences in the nature of the rebellion in each country, but the broad message is the same. Just as the Maobaadis of Nepal came to understand that a military victory was not possible, even as the political parties realised the rebels could not be crushed, the Naxalites must remember that they cannot hope to attain exclusive power in a single district of India – let alone throughout the country. The state must address the genuine issues raised by the Naxalites, and the major parties must then accommodate them into the democratic fold.
It now appears that empathy for those who have rebelled is perhaps too much to expect from the prime minister. For despite his soft speech and amenable manner, over the past three decades he has become a man who has spent too much time in government, and has begun to think like a state-centric bureaucrat, for whom the answer to the Naxalite problem is now the technical fix of a special fighting force. Simultaneously, let us not forget that Prime Minister Singh is someone who, as finance minister, engineered a set of policies that helped a certain section of society prosper but alienated many others. The prime minister would do well to remember that adopting a more sensitive and less state-centric approach to the Naxalite issue would leave a more lasting legacy of his tenure than anything he has accomplished thus far.