Consider this. 172 out of the 600 districts in India are affected by the presence of Naxalites. More than 1400 people have been killed in Naxalite-related violence over the past year-and-a-half. The entire tribal belt from Bihar to Andhra Pradesh – which includes Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, as well as parts of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka – faces an active ultra-left rebellion. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has termed this the largest threat to national security in the country.
There is no easy answer to Naxalism. When an armed group decides to fight the state, it is opting out of the social contract and the political arrangement at which democratic society has arrived. Does a state then deal with them as a force outside the terms of the contract and, in the process, sacrifice basic liberties and values? Or do you engage and seek to bring them into the mainstream without compromising basic rights?
Over the past year, the state government of Chhattisgarh in central India, with ample support from the opposition parties, has encouraged an anti-Naxalite force called the Salwa Judum (Campaign for Peace). The authorities would have everyone believe that this group is an example of ‘spontaneous’ and ‘voluntary’ activism by victims of Maoist violence.
A study published in early June by the Independent Citizen’s Initiative, comprised of prominent academics, activists and journalists, points to a different reality. Reports the group: “The Chhattisgarh administration appears to have ‘outsourced’ law and order to an unaccountable, undisciplined and amorphous group.” The state has appointed more than 3000 so-called ‘special police officers’, among them minors, who have been handed .303 rifles. This support of vigilante action has violated every canon of the law, and in pitting tribal against tribal it has exacerbated the conflict.
Besides polarising the locals, this privatisation of the task of tackling an insurgency has further militarised local society, and an all-pervading fear now dogs the region. Leadership of Salwa Judum has passed on to criminal elements beyond the government’s control. Nearly 50,000 people have been displaced from their homes. There is revenge and retribution in the air – Salwa Judum activists kill anyone remotely suspected of ties to the Maoists; in reprisal, the rebels attack Salwa Judum members. Innocents are crushed in the crossfire.
The abdication of responsibility by the state has been morally flawed and strategically imprudent. Far from engineering a societal reaction against the Maoists, the state’s responsibility should extend to controlling even genuinely spontaneous vigilante action. There is no alternative for the state than to promote legal recourse against Naxalite violence. What the Chhattisgarh authorities have done, instead, is astounding in its foolhardiness, for it is bound to result in a swelling of the rebel ranks.
Take a look at the development indices of Dantewara in southern Chhattisgarh, which has emerged as the hub of Naxalite activity and the Salwa Judum response. There are no schools in 700 out of the 1220 villages; only 59 villages have health centres; and 84 percent of the tribals are marginal farmers barely eking out an existence. Combine this with the agrarian crisis overtaking all of India and the loss of tribal control over natural resources, and the causes behind the Naxalite expansion is clear.
It is certainly a difficult task, but there is no getting around the logic of the argument that until the state takes up its responsibility of ensuring livelihoods, the Maoist rebellion will continue in one form or another. Meanwhile, how to respond to rebellions already ongoing? Both the Centre and state governments must engage with the Naxalites, because talking to them at different levels is the only way to moderate them.
The last thing the state should do in tackling ultra-left violence is to arm vigilantes. If you love the villagers, do not do that.
* zulum: Urdu for grievous injustice