Naxal Gambit state response

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Maoists distill deadly rebellion from public anger as state and centre look on helplessly

THERE IS A basic difference in left extremist violence and terrorism. While terrorist actions are planned and executed in total secrecy by a small group, the Naxals commit violent acts with the mass cooperation of local people in large numbers. They prefer to attack in broad daylight to show that they, and not the government agencies, are in command. Over 1,000 extremists raided Jehanabad district jail in 2005 and freed 340 prisoners. In the last two years alone there have been over 100 cases of Naxal violence in which hundreds of armed people have participated. Unlike other forms of terrorism, Naxals focus on rural, tribal and interior areas not easily accessible by security forces.

Breather Naxals at a temporary base in the Abujhmarh forests in Chhattisgarh
Photo: AP

For the poor people living in these areas, extremists are the only functioning authority. In the absence of the state administration, the people depend on extremist cadres even for essential supplies and services. Ministers and senior officers are reluctant to visit these areas to understand the ground situation. I learnt this during visits to the district headquarters in the worst-affected areas in Jharkhand during my tenure there in 2003-03. During a visit, I found that in a district hospital the X-ray machine hadn’t been working for over a year. In another large hospital, the beds were empty during an epidemic because the hospital had run out of medicines despite an annual budget of over Rs 1 crore. The district school was barely functional with very few teachers and no teaching-aids. Primary students didn’t have textbooks, though, on paper, they were entitled to free textbooks from the education department. Most government funds allocated for health, education and housing had apparently been siphoned. When I brought these facts to the notice of the CM, he took no action but complained that the governor was interfering in the state administration.

The effects of left extremism may not remain confined only to states most affected by it; it could seriously threaten the country’s economy. Most of India’s mineral wealth is concentrated in the worst-affected areas. The extremists have the capability to completely disrupt the country’s economic arteries – road and rail transport systems passing through Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

According to a recent report of the Union Home Ministry, the Naxals are now active in 23 of the 28 states in the country. Their aim is to ‘liberate and control 35 percent of India’s land by the end of 2009’. The report says there are 39 left extremist groups in Inida with a combined armed wing of over 1 lakh. There has been an unprecedented increase in their arsenal in recent years and their striking power has acquired new sharpness. One can see a new phase of revolutionary movement. According to reliable reports, its armed cadres have increased by almost 40 percent in the last three to four years. The Maoists alone are estimated to have an armed cadre strength of over 10,000. The number of training camps, estimated at 48 three years ago, is close to 84.

While the threat from left-wing extremism has been assuming serious dimensions, the state’s response has so far been ‘timid and weak’; also, there is confusion about the nature of the threat. The fact that their agenda for social and economic justice enjoys widespread support inhibits the government in dealing with the challenge effectively. The issue is not the legitimacy of their demands, but their declared method of fulfilling them. Those who are sympathetic to the revolutionary movement should pause and think about the likely consequences of a bloody revolution! It would mean untold misery for the people already impoverished and living on the margins of society. It could result in incalculable loss of life and property and complete disruption of normal life. A long period of instability, chaos and turmoil could push back the country by decades. Instead of rationalising violence, well-intentioned people should press the government to initiate immediate measures to deliver social and economic justice to the people. It should be possible to achieve the goal through some basic political and economic reforms that are long overdue without going through a bloody revolution. The issue is far too serious to be left only at the initiative of the states. A national level response is required for this national level threat.

Vacillation and ad hocism has been the hallmark of the government’s counter-terrorism policies. There is no clarity in the government’s thinking, either about the causes that lead to militancy or about the strategy for tackling militancy and extremism. Successive governments have moved periodically from dialogue and ceasefire to pressing the panic button and giving a ‘free hand to the security forces’ to ruthlessly suppress militancy. This dithering sends confusing signals to security forces and has seriously undermined their morale and effectiveness.

Reports of Maoist strikes in various parts of the country find almost daily mention in the media, but apart from the rhetoric of crushing the Maoists, there are no signs of a comprehensive state response emerging on the scene. The Central Government is still not willing to soil its hands in the muddy waters, and wants the state governments to take on the responsibility of doing all the dirty work. This won’t happen, as the affected state governments are too ill-equipped and preoccupied in fighting the battle of political survival to comprehensively deal with the worsening situation. While the government dithers, the Maoists are strengthening their organizational structure and refining tactics.

Those calling for bloody revolution should realise it would mean untold misery for the people already living on the margins of society

LEFT-WING EXTREMISM is not like other militancies. The extremists are not demanding independence and secession from the Indian Union as are other militant movements in the Northeast and J&K. No right thinking person can disagree with their demand for social and economic justice for the poor and deprived. The prevailing ambivalence about how to deal with left-wing extremism makes the task of the security forces far more difficult. It can be argued with some justification that the poor and the deprived have been suffering gross social and economic injustices for centuries. Even after India’s Independence, this class continues to live on the margins, untouched by the process of development. In fact, the ruling elite have had no qualms in exploiting them. Left out of all fruits of development, they had no alternative but to take to the path of extremist violence. It should have been the foremost duty of a government to provide what they are demanding. The tragedy is that successive governments since Independence have neither made any serious efforts to address these basic grievances of the people in the country, nor succeeded in curbing the extremist violence. Instead of dealing with the problem comprehensively, policy-makers have found it politically convenient to confuse the issue by blaming one agency or another. Instead of focusing on the delivery of essential services and supplies in the areas worst affected by extremist violence, the institutions of governance have almost disappeared. There is much rhetoric but very little action visible on the ground.

(An extract from the book)

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