India has recently seen a spate of Naxalite activities. In Bihar, there have been attacks on police posts and killings of ‘informers’. In Chhattisgarh, there have been abductions of Adivasis, murders of farmers, and the killing of 24 policemen. Blasts have taken place in government office in both Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, while ‘encounter killings’ of suspected Naxalites have taken place in Karnataka. These incidents, all of which have taken place over the past month, have not only created misery for common citizens, but point to a deeper malaise. Beyond consuming a regular staple of newspaper headlines, there is little the common citizen seems able to do; the ‘Naxalite problem’ is left to bureaucrats, intelligence agents and the police force to tackle. And therein lies the issue: as long as the Naxalite situation is treated as a law-and-order problem, the killings will continue. District after district of south, central and western India will subsequently join the expanding list of ‘disturbed areas’.
This magazine has consistently spoken out against the politics of violence. The ‘root causes’ theory, so often used to justify the actions of armed political groups, does not stand critical scrutiny. In many ways, Naxalite politics today have been drastically distorted, and have proved to offer more problems than solutions. For many, the movement has become an effective way to make money at the local level, to exert power, and to impose authoritarian structures in areas they dominate. In the name of the people, there is little doubt that such groups often put marginalised communities directly in the crossfire between the militants and the security forces.
Yet, it cannot be denied that the Naxalites have a political core. They have managed to expand rapidly during the past few years – not only on the basis of force (it would anyway have been difficult for them to match the Indian state’s coercive machinery), but because they appear to offer an alternative to the most oppressed sections of society. This additional option is neither well articulated nor realistic, but it is enough to tempt many – Dalits, Adivasis, the unemployed who are tired of waiting for the wealth to trickle down, left activists disillusioned with mainstream politics. It is no coincidence that Naxalism (or the Maoist movement, as it is known today) is most prominent in states that have a sizeable Adivasi population, rampant agrarian distress and farmer suicides, and which rank the lowest on socio-economic indicators. Clichéd as it may sound, there is no alternative but for the state to reach out to the very marginalised, to give them a greater share in the political structure, and provide them with real opportunities for upliftment.
Following each conference of chief ministers that tries to tackle Naxalism, there is inevitably a one-line statement in the resolution about winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people. But look at the actions that follow those words. There are follow-up conferences of police chiefs, not of social-welfare secretaries; the state decides to deploy security forces and arrest civil-liberties activists, but not to reach out and initiate dialogue; and mainstream parties collectively encourage vigilante groups to foil the Naxalites, instead of implementing land-reform programmes and more-effective affirmative-action right from the primary level. To top it all off, the government is exposing the same states to the worst of globalisation and liberalisation. Billion-dollar deals are being signed with mining conglomerates that would literally strip away resources from the local residents. Special economic zones are being introduced that would entail displacement, environmental degradation and a massive loss of livelihood. All of these steps will merely create a larger constituency for the Naxalites.
The Indian government has shown an extreme unwillingness to go beyond the law-and-order mode to tackle the Naxalite problem. This is an approach that is bound to lead to more confrontation, polarisation and conflict. An active civil-society movement and a more vigilant media can help by creating increased awareness about issues of deprivation, currently being addressed by the Naxalite movement. Given that the change will not come from the top of the political system, the need of the hour is grassroots politicians who can present an effective political package, mediate local-level conflicts with Naxalites, effect a change in the mindsets at the district and state levels, and, at some point, force decision-makers at the top to review their well-worn but ineffective approach.