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How to deal with Maoists

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-05-2014 Sudeep Chakravarti

When the new government takes office, a top internal security issue on the agenda will be the Maoist rebellion.

What should it do?

Even with the steady squeezing by the state security apparatus of Maoists in the past four years, the insurgency offers a sharp mirror to India’s failures. This is not only on account of active rebellion, but what the Maoists, at least on the face of it, seek to fight: poor governance, runaway corruption, weak delivery of the criminal justice system and a socio-economic structure that, away from urban gloss, grinds down the forest-dwellers, the poor, the low caste. Those displaced on account of projects, but not rehabilitated, add to this pool of negative energy.

Tackling these root causes of rebellion requires dedicated action over several years, which a prime minister in a position of strength in a party, and a party in a position of strength in Parliament, can achieve. That one without the other can remain largely ineffective is exemplified by outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. But even a relatively stronger premier, party and coalition will require coordination with the bureaucracy and independent-minded state governments in a range of areas from spot-on implementation of socio-economic programmes to policing.

The temptation for a new government will be flashy action, not unlike what Maoist rebels practice from time to time to reassert their reduced presence. There will also be pressure to deploy the army in all-out operations against Maoists.

The most vocal is a band of army officers, most retired but hardly retiring, who advocate bulldozing of rebellion with indiscriminate force. Quite dangerously, such a fringe has as accoutrement several top-flight, quite influential global bankers and economists of Indian origin. In the event of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government, there could be added pressure from my-way-or-else advocates of conflict resolution and aggressive industrialization, such as Chhattisgarh’s BJP chief minister Raman Singh.

The new government will be tempted to listen to such advocacy. It may also be tempted to do so by recent attacks on police and paramilitary outfits in various states by Maoist rebels, including one in April that also killed several polling officials in Jharkhand. Temptation may persist even as such acts erode sympathy—A Maoist apology, even the one offered by a top rebel spokesperson, won’t negate public revulsion at the killing of non-combatants. The government may even misread the massive participation in Lok Sabha elections by voters in several Maoist-affected districts in the face of electoral boycott called by the rebels.

To give in to such temptation will be folly. Voting in large numbers by people defying Maoists does not amount to a vote for state violence, but for democracy. In any case, that obtuse action can lead to a stalemate and turn people against the state is proved by decades-long resistance and endemic suspicion in much of north-east India and Jammu and Kashmir.

Senior—and serving—army officers have publicly told me the army should not battle the Maoists. To do so may lead to a bloodbath that will involve non-combatants; and will backfire with resentment of the so-called saved. The same will happen if a bloodbath is initiated by police and paramilitaries, or state-sponsored vigilante groups.

The way ahead, saner minds in the security establishment maintain, is agile, empathetic statecraft and unflagging good governance. This needs to be spearheaded by modernization and better training of police forces, and operational superiority—both what is called area domination as well as pin-point strikes—to compel an already stressed Maoist project to peace talks.

Even the announcement of the merger of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) with a much smaller entity, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Naxalbari, shouldn’t deter the government from that path.

The merger of the two groups could expand Maoist influence in the Kerala-Karnataka-Tamil Nadu tri-junction area. After all, the merger of the Maoist Communist Centre of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War in 2004 to form the CPI (Maoist) provided the rebels planning and operational heft. It showed in many ways, perhaps the most spectacular of which was Maoist domination in the Lalgarh area of West Bengal over 2008-10.

Massed police and paramilitary forces got the better of that situation (and great brutality against non-combatants was practised both by the state and rebels), but the area continues to be a tinderbox on account of patchy governance. The Maoists’ southern project is a call by partners in a cyclical trough, and can be quickly countered with governance and operational finesse. To do otherwise would be mindlessness over what truly matters.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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