Posted by: John Elliott | April 16, 2010

Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi should lead policies on growing Naxalite crisis

A controversy currently raging in India over whether the growing problem of Naxalite (Maoist) rebels should be tackled with force or through development of the tribal areas involved is unnecessary. The answer is clearly both – at the same time, and with equal energy and commitment, by both state governments which have constitutional responsibility for security, and by the central government which should give a national lead.

The fact that this dual approach is not happening, and that there are splits within the governing Congress Party, is an indictment of the government’s weak  leadership, notably by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, and Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party and of the coalition, plus at a different level her son and heir Rahul Gandhi.

The situation is now dire. The Naxalites recently killed 76 paramilitary troops in an ambush, and their activities now cover nearly a third of India’s 600 administrative districts. They control large swathes of remote and often densely forested areas – especially where tribal people risk losing land to development projects – that stretch from the Nepal border down through West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. They are also now moving towards more urban areas of some states, notably Bengal, and their long-term aim eventually is to encircle strategic districts and urban centres.

Because of the lack of government leadership, Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister who has brought focus and order to the ministry since he took over at the end of 2008, has been publicly attacked from many quarters. The most recent – and serious – attack came two days ago in a newspaper article written by Digvijay Singh, a senior politician and a general secretary of the Congress Party who is close to the Gandhis and has a political base in Chhattisgarh, one of the Naxalite-ridden states.

Digvijay Singh wrote in the Economic Times that “we should be paying more attention to their (tribal peoples’) livelihood and governance rather than converting the serene and calm environment of Bastar (one of the Naxalite areas) into a battleground”. He criticised Chidambaram for his “intellectual arrogance” and for being “extremely rigid” though admitting he is also an “extremely intelligent, articulate, committed and sincere politician”.

The key words the quote above are “more attention” because they amount to a criticism of Chidambaram’s security-oriented paramilitary approach. They are especially significant because Digvijay Singh works closely with the Gandhis. An article about him in the India Today weekly news magazine recently (Feb 22 2010) said that he is “sharp enough to gauge the mood of the leadership and he would never speak without first clearing his lines with the famed high command” – which means Sonia Gandhi.

He is therefore presumably reflecting Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s unease about Chidambaram’s hard line. I heard yesterday they were anxious to stop the article triggering a pubic row, but Rahul Gandhi did make similar remarks about the need for development some weeks ago.

They and Digvijay Singh are of course right because Chidambaram is being unbendingly single minded in his approach – and his arrogance is widely recognised and tolerated. But, as home minister, Chidambaram is only doing his job to try to mobilise the states’ security operations and support them with the central paramilitary, while trying to turn the ramshackle ill-trained, ill-equipped and often undisciplined troops into fighting forces.

He is criticised by Singh and others for not at the same time focussing on development and, as a result, alienating tribals and others who get caught up and killed in the fighting. He says that development is the job of the states, not his.

Up to a point he is right. But it is the job of the government as a whole to mobilise development through various ministries such as human development (education, rural development, environment and others.

That this is not happening is the responsibility of Manmohan Singh as prime minister and Sonia Gandhi as party leader. They should months ago have set up a group of ministers, led by the home ministry, to galvanise the central government, and the states into parallel security and developmental operations.

That has not been done, so it is grossly unfair to blame Chidambaram for the current security focus and to allow him to become the scapegoat for attacks by soft liberals such as Arundhati Roy, the novelist and campaigner, who has ludicrously accused the government of fighting the Naxalites in order to protect mining companies’ leases.  Mining companies frequently operate illegally in tribal areas, with scant regard for local people, and several mining projects are held up because of tribal and environmental objections, but that does not justify Roy’s linkage of the security operations with leases.

India’s tribals are the innocent victims in the middle of this verbal and military war. They have been abominably treated – or ignored – for decades by central and state governments that have done virtually nothing to protect their remote habitats and encourage sympathetic economic and social development.

This has opened the way for the Maoist-inspired Naxalites to move in as the tribals’ saviours. However, the Naxalites are not primarily interested in helping the tribals: their primary aim is to overthrow India’s established parliamentary democracy.

Chidambaram has unrealistically said that security operations can clear out Naxalites within two or three years, with development taking place as they are defeated is unrealistic. As has been seen in places as far afield as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Indian state of West Bengal Andhra Pradesh, defeated rebels and terrorists re-occupy areas once troops move on, thus preventing follow-on development.

Indeed, it looks more like a battle that will last decades rather than two or three years, and the only way to tackle that it surely for the government to adopt a three-pronged approach – tough security operations, widespread developmental work, and continual attempts to open behind-the-scenes talks with Naxalite leaders at all levels.

That is the job of the government as a whole, led by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, working with Chidambaram instead of letting their colleagues snipe at him from the columns of a daily newspaper.


  1. Well a real hoy-pelloy you are eh! Imagine all those fancy-shmancy English words that one has to open up a dictionary for! … makes one ashamed to be ordinary! Well at least you don’t have to make sense to make your points eh?! Just let your highly ‘accessible’, ‘sophisticated’ language do the work by its overwhelming impressiveness. Ever thought of working as an Indian political writer? (On the other hand, maybe you already are one.)

  2. […] failed to develop themes on tackling Naxalite rebels at a time when his government is split about whether they should be seen as terrorists or a developmental problem. He also […]

  3. The duo of Sonia and MMS will do nothing of this sort as the rationale behind Maoist menace and scams to support price rise is nothing but a conspiracy to make poor Indians more poor and bereft of infrastructure so that they can be ruled like back in dark ages of Gandhi, Nehru and Indira.
    When poor who consists of nearly fifty to sixty crores become hungry and hopeless Christian missionaries with large backup funds will step in and the hungry will be converted to Christians by providing them money and food.
    Thereafter the Christians can rule this country by proxy for ages and also can create a viable opposition to growing power and colonial mentality of China. To stop Communists the Christian forces can go to any length as there is ample proof of nuking Japan during Second WW to impress upon Commies that propagated democratic countries have such mighty weapons.

  4. I feel there is lack of awareness about the two India that exist. One which is integrated globally and one which isnt. Arundhati Roy speaks for people who arent integrated . They lack a voice or articulation to be heard. The Management books treat them as cows to be milked which our elitist do always.

    As one journalist recently put it even our security forces (like many even in advanced countries) lack voice and are part of security forces as they are not integrated (or they would be making money writing blogs than risking lives).The clever elitist pits one against the other and decide strategy in the comfort of board rooms.

    We need empathetic politicians and media to be able to understand people , why they do things like they do, by getting into their shoes and not making strategies that lack human touch.

  5. I agree with your views. The Home Minister is concerned with Law & Order but Developmental issues are clearly PM’s and Sonia’s responsibility.The attack on him is unwarranted.

  6. Been travelling through Bihar and Jharkhand in the last two days. Though villagers criticize the Naxalites (cautuously, of course) for using violent methods, I get the impression that there is widespread sympathy for them – and an equally widespread and very deep disaffection with the government, state and federal. Armed insurgencies can succeed without the active support of the people their fighters move among; they can get by with only people’s tacit acquiescence… an environment in which the population oppose their opponents, (the government), more than they oppose them. Seems to me the Naxalites have alot more than that, in the rural areas and the cities. Which means the use of force by the state is very difficult, and highly likely to prove counter-productive. All best

    acquiescence of the people among whom they move

  7. While I am uncomfortable with defending Arundhati Roy, I don’t think one can immediately dismiss the link between current anti-Naxal operations and the need to protect mining and other industrial plans.

    These tribal areas have been largely ignored for many decades largely because they had little to offer the state. It is no coincidence that the majority of Maoist activity is concentrated on areas that are rich in mineral resources and ripe for industrialisation, since it is this new incursion into tribal areas that is creating the grievances which the Naxals are able to exploit.

    While I think the left-wing are wrong to see a direct causal relationship between mining/industrialisation and Operation Green Hunt, it is the manner in which those leases were acquired that has given rise to such high-levels of violent resistance and instigated the need for a state response. The government has effectively acknowledged the indirect relationship in new legislation such as the Mining Minerals Development Bill and Forest Rights Act that are attempting (in a top-down manner) to prevent further abuse of tribal rights in the face of industrialisation and mining.

  8. Naxalites can only survive with the support of the local people . They depend upon them for food, shelter, information about forces movement,etc.

    Chidambaran should be asking himself why do the locals embrace them? The first priority of the government should be to wean away the local tribals from the Naxalites by showing that the state is for them and it is a welfare state and not a land grabbing MNC run government.

    There is strong resentment in Orissa’s tribal heartland about the way the govt has been acquiring their lands for mining and industries. Massive amounts of forest lands where they have lived for generations is being cleared for mining depriving them of their livelihoods .

    The writ of Ahluwali and his cronies has to stop in India’s remotest tribal corners if Chidambaran wants to win this bloody war. Otherwise, innocents will die both ways. Why can’t the government for a change exist for the people instead of these fat cat corporates who are out to loot our mineral resources in the name of development? And what has mining for the last 60 years fetched keonjhar district of Orissa ? More poverty and loss of forest areas and livelihoods !
    I am afraid the economics does not support the oft repeated claims of our politicians that mining is good for the country. It is good for the miners not for us!

    The more forces the state unleashes by way of Green Hunt or any other Hunt, the more it will feed the smouldering anger of the Adivasis. I hope Chidambaran sees reason and does not turn tribal India into one vast area of internal conflict.

  9. I’d actually be interested to know what today’s naxalite ideology is John, if you ever get the time and inclination to write a piece, or point me in the direction of an old post.

    I assume its that old chestnut of power to the people and utopia, that has proven itself time and again throughout history.

  10. This is the text that should be appearing in the international press rather than the recent emollient “atmosphere” pieces in newspapers that ought to know better!

    It has been painfully obvious for more than 2 years that the Naxalite problem was getting out of control overall despite small pyrric military victories, and that a double pronged security/development policy was the only way to go. Manmohan Singh, for all his virtues and integrity is proving more and more incapable of taking a policy lead and making it stick. If he could take proper action now at long last before presumably standing down after the elections, maybe he may even be remembered as a Prime Minister of India rather than merely in his former successful role as Minister of Finance.

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