India’s Maoist rebels need mainstream party politics
Naxalite rebels need to be tackled with mainstream political activity, not just development projects and repression by security forces. This new approach for handling India’s most serious internal security problem is being pushed by Jairam Ramesh, the minister for rural development. It is also being tacitly accepted by the state government of Orissa where Naxalite candidates won elections in 30 panchayats (village-level councils) last month.
Ramesh (below) is the first central government minister to pick on party political activity as an essential means of providing a peaceful alternative to the violent occupation of tribal and other remote areas by Naxalite Maoist rebels, who are active in nearly a third of India’s 600 administrative districts and whose leaders ultimately want to overthrow democracy. He first did so in a letter to Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, at the end of December, but that was shuffled off to the Planning Commission which has been loosely in charge of the government’s non-security Naxalite policies for several years.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is in charge of security operations, along with individual states, and that has been stepped up since Palaniappan Chidambaram became Home Minister at the end of 2008. There was a decrease in violence last year, though the number of those killed by Naxalites was still high – nearly 450 civilians and over 140 members of security forces according the ministry statistics.
There are reports of Naxalite attacks almost daily. Last weekend about 150 rebels raided a stone-mine in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh in eastern India looking for explosives and, failing to find any, set fire to eight stone crushing machines. Others torched seven construction vehicles nearby, and a defaulter was reported to have been buried alive for not repaying a loan provided by a Naxalite organisation.
The Planning Commission was given charge of development policies a few years ago. In 2008, it produced a massive 90-page report, “Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas”, which helped to influence government policy on the need for development, supported by funding .
But the Planning Commission does not have the political or administrative muscle needed to implement change. Ramesh, whose high profile initiatives transformed the Environment Ministry (at least temporarily) when he was in charge there for two years till last July, is now using his current job to fill the vacuum.
The government has not taken up his call for political activity since his letter to the prime minister, but he proposed it again at the launching of a book on Naxalites – “More Than Maoism” – in Delhi last week and he then chatted to me about his ideas. “Lack of political mobilisation is the biggest weakness in these areas – you need mainstream political party activity,” he says. Last October he presented a comprehensive paper on “The Maoist issue” in Delhi (which was re-printed in Outlook magazine).
He proposed a “two track approach – one that deals with the leadership of the Naxals, who wish to overthrow the Indian state, and the other which focuses on the concerns of the people they pretend/claim to serve”. He did not mention political activity because, he says, he had not then realised how important it is for party cadres to attract young people who would otherwise turn to Naxalites leaders. He has now visited 24 of the 78 administrative districts that are most seriously affected by Naxalite occupations and violence, and says he was struck by the lack of mainstream politics in areas that had become “security fortresses” without any presence of government machinery or authority.
Politics, people, police
A “three pronged approach through politics, people and police” was now needed. “Democracy by itself won’t solve the problem,” he says. “People need to have confidence in political parties and instruments of state such as the judiciary”. That may seem an odd remark at a time when public opinion about politicians and the judiciary is desperately low because of widespread corruption and the government’s failure to govern effectively.
But Ramesh points to success in West Bengal where the Trinamool Congress chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has been taking party politics and development into Naxalite areas. He picks out for special mention a popular young Trinamool MP, Subhendu Adhikary, who was elected last year for a constituency that includes Lalgarh, a town occupied by Naxalites in 2009. Adhikary has been holding well-attended public rallies, despite the risk of bomb attacks.
There was concern in the state of Orissa (now officially renamed Odisha) when Naxalites won the panchayat elections, several without any opposition because rivals had been warned not to stand. The Home Ministry is believed to have favoured cancelling the elections, and there was also concern that development funds allocated to the panchayats would be diverted to buy arms and explosives, or into organisations run by the Naxalites’ alternative form of government (such as the one involved in the loan defaulter’s death) .
However, Ramesh sees the panchayat elections as “a good first step” into the system. ”This is an opportunity for political dialogue,” he says. He acknowledges the risk of funds being diverted to the Naxalites and says that special safeguards will be needed – he avoids saying that panchayat funds probably leak to them already, or to other illicit recipients.
Sceptics will say that Ramesh is playing to the gallery and that talks have been tried before with little success, but governments usually come round eventually to talking to rebel groups and Ramesh’s proposal is broader based than just talks.
No-one is suggesting that political rallies and panchayat elections will end a rebellion that has raged to varying degrees for 60 years in different parts of central and eastern India. These ideas could however give politicians and official organisations a chance to offer an alternative to people who have only come under Naxalite influence because of neglect and maltreatment by mainstream society.