Maoist insurgency in India
Associate since 1991
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March 9, 2011
It was only three years ago that India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was telling me that the situation among the tribal peoples in the so-called “red corridor” in eastern and central India where armed Maoist agitators are rife was “more hopeful than six months ago”. He was proud that his government had taken the important step of giving these forest peoples the right to tenure. Now, with individual rights sanctified in law, the way was open to a more productive settled agriculture. He argued that a mixture of good policing and an active development programme would get on top of the Maoist rebellion.
Three years later the government has been publicly ringing its hands. Just a week after Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram had made the rounds of state governments facing the Maoists, telling the chief minister of West Bengal that “the buck stops with the chief minister”, a Maoist brigade of a thousand guerrillas active in the remote Dantewada district in the nearby state of Chhattisgarh knocked off 76 specially trained armed policeman in an ambush. It was the worst loss in the four decade long insurgency. The government like it or not, is now up to its neck in the problem. Chidambaram has been compelled to supplement state police and paramilitary troops with an additional 15,000 trained troops, taking the total to around 75,000.
The prime minister has declared that the Maoists are “the single greatest threat to India’s internal security”. By implication he was saying this dwarfs the far more politically sensitive issue of Pakistani militants and their attacks on places like the Taj and Oberoi hotels in Mumbai two years ago when 173 died and which still poisons the relationship between India and Pakistan. Indeed, according to journalist Samar Halarnkar who tracks the figures for The Hindustani Times, between January 2007 and February 2010 Jihad attacks took 436 lives. The Maoists claimed they had killed 1,524 in the same period. If one compares the Maoist organisation with the Pakistani-based Jihad movements like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which from time to time spread terror in India, there is no comparison. The Maoists have a much wider network and the ability to inflict a far greater damage. Between 2004 and 2009 they overran the towns of Jehanabad in Bihar, Nayargarh and Koraput in Orissa and Sankrail in West Bengal. They have hijacked trains in Jharkhand numerous times.
In many areas the Maoists have created base areas, liberated zones, raised taxes and run parallel courts.
Perhaps one should not be surprised that recently Prime Minister Singh said “no quarter” will be offered the Maoists. An unusually mild man, it appears that he is badly rattled and worried that the politics of it all is getting out of hand. Is he declaring a no-holds barred war? I doubt it but his rough rhetoric is open to that interpretation, at least by the Maoists who must love him for it.
Shortly after the massacre of the soldiers, the Booker prize-winning novelist, Arundhati Roy, found her way to Dantewada, near the site of the encounter between the paramilitaries and the guerrillas. She described it as “a border town smack in the heart of India. It’s the epicentre of a war. It’s an upside down, inside out town. The police wear plain clothes and the rebels wear uniforms. The jail superintendent is in jail. The prisoners are free (three hundred of them escaped from the old town jail two years ago). Women who have been raped are in police custody. The rapists give speeches in the bazaar”.
“It’s easier on the liberal conscience”, she writes, “to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries. (That’s a truism of course. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist.) They have rebelled several times, against the British, against zamindars and moneylenders. The rebellions were cruelly crushed, many thousands killed, but the people were never conquered. After independence, tribal people were at the heart of the first uprising that could be described as Maoist, in Naxalbari village in West Bengal. Since then, Naxalites politics has been inextricably entwined with tribal uprisings, which says as much about the tribals as it does about the Naxalites.”
The rebellion will continue although at the moment it seems relatively quiescent. Are the government’s policies beginning to work at last?
© Jonathan Power 2011
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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