I was planning to write a post last month (but was diverted by other subjects) about how the Indian government, led by home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, seemed at last to be getting to grips with the spread of the country’s violent Maoist-inspired Naxalite rebellion.
Tough action was then being taken at Lalgarh, a tribal region just 100 miles from Kolkata (Calcutta), where there was a long siege till the rebels were driven out of the area by para-military forces.
In the past few days, however, there have been reports that show the task of controlling the Naxalite insurgency has scarcely begun. First there was news that the rebels had predictably drifted away from Lalgarh into nearby forest areas, belying reports that they had been defeated.
Then, last weekend, more than 30 police were killed in a remote Naxal-held part of the state of Chhattisgarh. First two police were killed, then many more when a truck carrying reinforcements was blown up by a landmine.
It sounds like an all too familiar story – terrorists moving on to new areas when under attack, as the Taliban have done recently from Pakistan’s Swat area, and security forces travelling by road when they should be in helicopters, which is why eight British soldiers were killed at the end of last week (and many more earlier) in Afghanistan.
The left-wing extremism challenge to India’s national security has previously aroused little real concern in the country – and scant notice overseas – despite the fact that there is some Naxalite activity in more than 200 of India’s 600 administrative districts and that about half that number are seriously affected.
The rebels control large swathes of remote and often densely forested areas – especially where tribal people risk losing land to development projects – that stretch (see map) from the Nepal border down through West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.
This frequently threatens land communications between the west and eastern sides of the country because the Naxalites landmine roads and blow up railway tracks.
Last year they accounted for over 900 deaths. Prime minister Manmohan Singh dubbed them the “single biggest internal security challenge ever faced” by India – but few people seemed actively concerned.
I have always assumed that the reason for the complacency – both in India and terrorist-sensitive countries such as the US and UK – is that the Naxalites have never seriously attacked a centre of power.
There have been (unsuccessful) assassination attempts on state chief ministers, but they have not killed a prime minister, nor a national leader, as both Khalistani Sikhs and Tamil Tigers did in the 1980s and 1990s, nor have they mounted large-scale terror attacks on the capital of Delhi and the commercial capital of Mumbai as Islamic terrorists have in recent years.
The Naxalite areas are also a long way from Delhi, and from the focus of the country’s national politicians, who are primarily preoccupied with Kashmir and Pakistan to the north and west, and with the politics of western and southern states.
“Congress and the BJP devote little attention east of Bihar because the eastern and north-eastern states have few votes, or mostly vote for regional parties, so the Naxalite problem is not receiving the political attention it deserves from the cabinet,” says Ravi Visvesvaraya Prasad, who heads C4ISRT Group, a Delhi-based defence and security think tank.
And even when, as is happening now, the central government does try to take action, it is hampered by the fact that security is a state government subject, so cannot be directly tackled nationally by Delhi.
The problem is becoming more serious because the Naxalites no longer just focussed on remote jungle areas, but are threatening economic development and maybe even urban centres. They played a significant role two years ago in the opposition to a now-abandoned special economic zone at Nandigram in West Bengal, where they are exploiting a vacuum left by the CPI(M)-led Left Front that has ruled the state for over 30 years but lost seats in the recent general election.
It was clear when I walked around the Barrackpur constituency on the outskirts of Kolkata during the election campaign that there was massive resentment about the CPI(M)’s failure to develop the area and protect agricultural land, and about the way it manipulated elections to stay in power.
“We will have an armed movement going in Calcutta by 2011, that’s for sure,” Maoist leader Kishenji claimed in a BBC interview earlier this month. “Oppression by the establishment Left and its police” at Lalgarh had given the Naxalites their first major base in West Bengal since the mid-1970s. “We have struck a place which is the weakest spot of the state and which automatically makes it our stronghold (and our) first major guerrilla zone,” Kishenji added. Though the area was freed by security forces after Kishenji made these remarks, the Naxalites are still active – they ransacked a CPI(M) leader’s house last weekend.
The insurgency started as a peasant revolt in West Bengal 40 years ago. It is significant that they are now back where they began – thanks largely to CPI(M) misrule. Resentment is growing both over the state government’s attempt to industrialise agricultural land that it had originally allocated to the rural poor under much-praised land reform – as happened both at Nandigram and Tata’s abandoned Nano car factory at Singur – and over the repressive and violent way in which the CPI(M)’s cadres maintain power.
Two years ago, India’s then ineffectual home minister described the Naxalite problem as “under control”. Chidambaram fortunately has dumped that approach and recognises that a mixture of tough police and para-military action needs to be accompanied by constructive economic development.
But the problem will not be solved till it is recognised as a major security threat – one that could be exploited by India’s less-than-friendly neighbours Pakistan and China.