Government’s anti-Maoist policy mired in confusion

Notwithstanding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s description of the Maoist insurgency as the gravest internal threat faced by India, the government seems unsure about how to proceed against the leftwing rebels. As a result, the Maoists seem to have gained the upper hand at present, carrying out their acts of depredation – killing security personnel and blowing up railway lines – with impunity while the government gives the impression of helplessness.
Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who seems to have had a measure of success in countering Islamic terrorism, is apparently at a loss as to how to deal with the Maoist threat. His lament that he has a ‘limited mandate’ has predictably drawn criticism from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Arun Jaitley, who has called the minister an ‘injured martyr’.
The reasons why the government is floundering are, however, not far to seek. For a start, India has never faced an ideologically-driven insurrection in the forested regions in the heart of the country. All the other uprisings have been in peripheral areas, whether in the northeast or in Kashmir. Even the Khalistani upsurge in Punjab was adjacent to the border with Pakistan.
In view of the overt foreign links in these cases – Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir and Punjab, and China’s in the northeast – the use of the army and of draconian laws was never seriously opposed within India. Apart from China, East Pakistan and its successor state, Bangladesh, also provided shelter till recently to rebels from the northeast, including Assam.
But if, today, the civil libertarians are firmly against even the use of helicopters or unarmed drones, let alone the army, against the Maoists, the reason is the fear of high civilian casualties because of their presence in the tribal-inhabited hinterland. Even the police and paramilitary forces have to exercise considerable caution during their operations although Maoist propagandists, including human rights activists, continue to complain of police brutality.
It is constraints of this nature that inhibit the government’s anti-Maoist drive. But this is not the only explanation for its apparent ineffectiveness. It is also undeniable that neither police nor the paramilitary forces like the Central Reserve Police Force have dealt with well-armed and highly motivated guerrillas hiding in jungles and hills.
Till now, the security forces have only known civil unrest, including communal violence, mostly in towns where the demonstrators or rioters are armed usually with stones and, at the most, homemade bombs and pistols. Even the first Maoist uprising in the 1970s, then known as the Naxalite movement, was mostly in the towns of West Bengal. As a result, it was not difficult at the time for police to infiltrate the Naxalite groups and eliminate the ring leaders in ‘fake’ encounters.
By the time the Naxalites had spread to the countryside in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, they were splintered into so many factions that they could not offer any worthwhile resistance.
The present-day Maoists seem to have imbibed the lessons of that failure and avoided its pitfalls by, first, building up a united organisation with the merger of the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre to constitute the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist).
And, secondly, they have avoided the towns till now and build their bases only in the dense hinterland, where it is difficult for the security forces to operate. They also seem to have been able to secure the support of the local tribals, either by pretending to be their allies against an ‘oppressive’ government, or through coercion.
But it is this Robin Hood-style links between the Maoists and the tribals which enable the civil rights groups to argue that the Maoists are fighting for the poor, thereby putting the government on the defensive. Hence the insistence by sections within the government, as well as a few in the media, that the government should focus on development projects to alleviate the misery of the tribals rather than on a military-style offensive.
The problem with this approach is the fear within the government that the Maoists will merely take the opportunity of a suspension of the security operations to regroup and rebuild their strength. Since the Maoists have convinced themselves that they will ultimately be successful, as Mao Zedong was in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam against ostensibly far more superior forces, there are legitimate doubts about their interest in a genuine settlement.
Among the opposition parties, the BJP, which wants India to be a ‘hard state’, has been quite unequivocal in its support for Chidambaram, showing a non-partisan approach which is unusual in Indian politics. When the home minister wanted to resign after the massacre of 76 policemen by the Maoists in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, the BJP promptly asked him to withdraw his threat.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has also been supportive of the government. Its attitude is understandable because the Maoists emerged from the CPI-M in the late 1960s at Beijing’s insistence, which called the Naxalite uprising as the ’spring thunder’ heralding the advent of the ‘Indian revolution’.
One reason why the Congress appears somewhat diffident is the continuing presence in the party of a section seeking inspiration from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian socialism. This group is opposed to economic reforms because of its leftist inclinations and is mildly sympathetic to the anti-capitalist agenda of the Maoists. There is also an element of inner-party politicking in such posturing, aimed at seeming economic right-wingers like Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram.
Although the party spokesmen maintain there is no difference between the government and the party, confusion about the former’s resolve is created by the constant references by various party functionaries to the need to shift the focus to development and negotiations. However, the government will undermine its own popularity unless it shows greater determination to fight the gravest internal threat.
(22.05.2010 – Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at