Once a modest pro-peasant movement, India’s Maoist (or Naxalite) insurgency
has become what New Delhi describes as the nation’s biggest internal security threat. The insurgency has spread to 20 of India’s 29 states, and across more than a third of the country’s 626 districts, most of them in the impoverished east. Earlier this summer, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program
, with assistance from the Environmental Change and Security Program
, hosted, “The ‘Gravest Threat’ to Internal Security: India’s Maoist Insurgency
,” to examine the insurgency’s main drivers, identify its prime tactics and strategies, and consider the best ways to respond.
Same Insurgency, Different Motivations
P.V. Ramana, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, discussed the motivations that draw people to the insurgency. Some people are aggrieved by the resource exploitations they witness in their villages. Others join the Maoist cause because of the “high-handedness” of Indian security forces. Still others do so because family members are already in the movement.
Ramana underscored a “serious disconnect” at play — people have such varied reasons for joining the insurgency, yet top Maoist leaders are inspired by one sole motivation: capturing political power. Ramana also highlighted the “increasing militarization” of the insurgency. Maoists have amassed an immense arsenal of weaponry, from “crude” tools to more sophisticated weapons such as rocket launchers and landmines. Their attacks increasingly target not only government security forces, but also national infrastructure such as power lines and railways.
Andhra Pradesh: Leading By Example
K. Srinivas Reddy, a Hyderabad-based deputy editor for The Hindu, offered a case study of the insurgency in his home state, Andhra Pradesh (AP), in southeastern India. He noted that New Delhi’s response to the insurgency in AP is often cited as a success story. This response, according to Reddy, can be attributed to an “attitudinal change” within the security ranks. From the 1970s through the mid-1990s — a period of mass Maoist recruitment and escalating insurgent violence — New Delhi’s counterinsurgency measures had been “panicky,” haphazard, and reactive, Reddy said. The “turning point” came in 1996, when a new “unity of thought” emerged within the government that emphasized better training of security forces, stronger intelligence, and greater attention to economic development. Later in the 1990s, security forces further softened their strategies and tactics, emphasizing “problem-solving rather than hunting Naxals.” As a result, in the early 2000s, popular support for Maoists in AP began to wane.
Is the Government Also to Blame?
Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at Delhi University, focused on the human impact of both the insurgency and the government’s response. Much of her presentation centered around Bastar, a sparsely populated, heavily forested, mineral-rich district of Chhattisgarh state — one of the areas hardest-hit by the insurgency. Maoist “entrenchment” is strong, she argued, because locals are treated so dreadfully by the government. “Very poor people are jailed” for committing minor forestry transgressions, Sundar explained, while “powerful people” get away with large-scale offenses. Additionally, the police are deeply unpopular and “a source of repression.” They also regularly rape women and extort money, she said.
Sundar identified and condemned a raft of repressive government policies — from throwing locals off their land to commandeering schools — and insisted that such repression constitutes the prime reason for recruitment to the insurgency. “Injustice more than inequality” explains why people join the Maoists, she said.
The panel was far from sanguine about the future. Ramana contended that immediate prospects for peace talks between the government and the Maoists are slim, and that civil society has been “quiet” and has offered little assistance. While he predicted that some sort of resolution could be reached in “7 to 10 years,” Sundar countered that the harsh nature of New Delhi’s response means that 7 to 10 years “could finish off” not just the Maoists, but also village populations.
Compounding the challenge is what Sundar described as “official contempt” toward the culture of the Adivasi, the tribal peoples of India whose homeland comprises the insurgency’s epicenter. Dehumanizing, anti-adivasi language from the government enables New Delhi to justify the waging of forceful counterinsurgency, Sundar argued.
Glimmers of Hope
Several speakers, however, gave reasons to be guardedly optimistic about the Maoist issue. Pointing to Maoist strategies in Andhra Pradesh, Reddy suggested that the insurgency’s poor policies could spell its demise. Maoists in this state chose to escalate violence, but their inability to spread their ideology along with this violence has cost them public support, particularly in urban areas. (A recent survey by The Times of India actually found that 58 percent of those in AP think Naxalism has been good for the area – a devastating poll for those in the government who thought they were winning there – Ed.)
Sundar, meanwhile, noted that much good would come out of simply implementing long-dormant constitutional protections for the rural poor in Maoist-affected areas. This, she concluded, would reflect rights-based development, which is necessary for success — as opposed to development based on “hand-outs” by the elite, which is destined to fail.
Michael Kugelman is a program associate with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Asia Program.
For more on the resource conflict aspect of the insurgency see The New Security Beat’s, “India’s Maoists: South Asia’s ‘Other’ Insurgency.”
Sources: BBC, Foreign Policy, Times of India.
Photo Credit: Adapted from “CPI Flag (Andhra Pradesh),” courtesy of flickr user Shreyans Bhansali.