Bad medicine

There is, at the moment, a big red fire blazing away in southern West Bengal, which may or may not have been put out by the time this article appears. That is not the point, however; the point is that these fires will rage and ravage again and again. India – or at least its impoverished and long-neglected eastern flank, from Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, right down the Coromandel Coast along Orissa, Andhra Pradesh as well as parts of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – is in the convulsive grip of Naxalism, and nobody quite has a remedy. The government, at any rate, does not, because it has gotten the diagnosis sorely wrong. Naxalism is, undeniably, a law-and-order problem, but it is not that alone; the violence Naxalites often wreak is a virulent symptom, not the disease itself. And until the government realises that, its remedies are doomed to failure. The state government's 22 June ban on the Naxalites following the outbreak in Bengal is a mere updating-the-books exercise, nothing more. Maoist groups have long been banned; it is only that the government had not taken cognisance of their merger into one group. The ban has not helped in the past, and it is unlikely to work any magic now.

There has scarcely been an element to the government's counter-Naxalite initiatives that goes beyond police or military measures – ban, kill, crush, exterminate. It is not so easily done, as the expanding sphere of Naxalites suggests. Led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – who has often called Naxalites the most significant internal security threat to India, and likened them to a malaise that needs to be wiped out – New Delhi authorities are in the process of concocting strong medicine. But it will be the wrong medicine if its only ingredients are metal and khaki. To anyone possessed of common sense, the requirements of rooting out Naxalism should be apparent at a mere glance of their sphere of influence – is it any coincidence that Naxalites are prospering in exactly the same region that is also India's most underfed and exploited?

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