Published on October 22nd, 2013 |
by Liam Anderson
India’s Naxalites: Uneven Economic Growth and Exclusion
With the Indian government announcing a new Land Acquisition Bill in September and violence significantly reduced over the last couple of years, decades-old Naxalite-Maoist insurgencies may appear to be on the retreat, but with threats warning villagers not to vote and heavy attacks still occurring, there is a long way to go.
Origins of an insurrection
With a split in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1967, the Naxalite movement was born in Naxalburi village, Darjeeling District, West Bengal, lying in the narrow corridor to India’s sensitive north-eastern states. It then spread into other states, and now, following repeated fragmentation, the term ‘Naxalite’ refers to various militant groups across many states, and even some political parties. These militants are officially designated terrorist groups, and there are suspected links with regional groups or even governments.
There are a number of insurgencies or armed groups operating in India, although many are explicitly shaped around ethno-national dynamics and separatism, such as in Kashmir or Assam, or related to politico-religious agendas, for example Lashkar-e-Taiba. While Naxalites’ support does draw on and has been shaped by communal identities, they do not in themselves fully explain their proliferation and stated objectives.
In the context of uneven development, extreme marginalization, and poverty, protests against the political elite can be seen as reasonable, although regrettably resulting in violence aiming to undermine state authority. This is to some extent an inevitable result of many perpetually feeling excluded and helpless.
Estimates vary, but Naxalites are thought to number many thousands including militias. They are primarily active in northeast India such as Odisha and Jharkhand states, although there have previously been fears of a deepened loss of governmental control in the ‘Red Corridor’ connecting southern states to the Northeast, including areas rich in coal, which is important to India’s fuel consumption.
Over time many outfits have become involved in drug trafficking and extortion, and indeed local citizens have suffered at the hands of Naxalites. However, much support is derived from those who feel disenfranchised, marginalized, or excluded from India’s political-economy, especially the rural poor and ‘tribals’/‘Adivasis’ who have often been vulnerable in the face of corporate land-grabs, exploitation by landowners, environmental degradation, and caste discrimination.
It is debatable if Naxalite groups genuinely represent such people, as development projects such as road-building are often prevented in the remote areas they control. These groups may argue, though, that this development, as currently characterized, would only serve the exploitative politico-economic elites they claim to fight. A familiar question arises – whose development does India’s belong to? Many, especially Adivasis, do not share a vision of capitalist growth. Development initiatives should account for local consultation.
Naxalism: threat and security
Government, police, and military targets are often hit, but many civilians have also been killed. Maoist inspiration of rural-based military action, and the asymmetric nature of Naxalite capacity compared to government forces, has shaped their guerrilla-style tactics.
Naxalism was described by Manmohan Singh as India’s biggest internal security challenge. In 2009, the Indian government announced a new nationwide initiative, the “Integrated Action Plan”, for wide-ranging, coordinated operations aimed at combating the Naxalites in affected states; Naxalites have lost ground in some areas, including Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (which also underwent significant security reform), and reportedly casualties have decreased significantly over the last few years.
Casualties have fluctuated with region and time, particularly with relation to the success or failure of talks with the government; many among the dead are civilians, but all sides – Naxalites, security services, and paramilitaries – have lost many. 2010 saw a spike in violence and, despite violence continuing, there has been a noticeable reduction.
Reported abuses committed by security personnel, and tacitly supported paramilitaries such as Salwa Judum, are not only immoral but also do nothing to help reduce support for insurgent groups, by delegitimizing their governmental authority in the eyes of citizens who suffered.
Naxalites have suffered some setbacks in recent years, for example losing various leaders. They are, though, evidently still capable of serious attacks and disrupting government in many districts. In an attack in Chhattisgarh earlier this year over 20 people were killed. The ability to block votes and impede popular participation in government also poses a threat to India’s democracy.
Along with crime prevention and improving security, there is a serious need to address the root causes of socioeconomic conditions which lead some to a violent rejection of the Indian state. Stark inequality and ignored land rights leave a ‘pool’ of potential recruits for armed or extremist groups, especially when combined with possible benefits of membership of armed groups, including safety from insurgent violence and material or political benefits.
The conditions which have engendered an inclination to reject the state’s legitimacy are poverty, especially in contrast to other parts of India, and, especially among Adivasis, the dispossession of land often in the face of highly unregulated corporate mining. This gives the impression that there is little to be gained from remaining within the state structure, and even that the state, or at least parts of the local government, are complicit in ignoring their land and political rights.
Overcoming India’s socioeconomic disparities is no easy task, with a massive population, a declining but still high birth-rate, and an inheritance of post-colonial low development. However, it is imperative that these inequalities are addressed, to ensure regional stability. Instability and violence are often a causal factor in a region’s continued lack of development, thus creating a spiral of violence generated from, and generating, socioeconomic inequality.
Manmohan Singh has indeed said that development is the ‘master remedy’ to Naxalism, and the government has attempted such initiatives in Naxalite-affected, particularly rural, areas; a challenge is achieving inclusive and even development. In the mining industry reported illegal operations, government indifference, and corruption cause environmental degradation and lose the state huge revenues which could otherwise be put into improving local government services such as healthcare and education. The need for effective regulation of such industries is crucial.
India has experienced rapid economic growth over the last two decades, but inequality has soared, and powerful corporate interests are often seen to take precedence over social justice and the rights of the politically weak. As with the rest of the world, India must find a way for its economy to focus on people rather than just figures, as unqualified economic growth in itself often benefits comparatively few, which can only lead to social friction and in this case protracted violence; ‘growth’ must be infused with sustainability and social justice.
In view of peace
Alongside inter-state coordinated security operations and improved, expanded state presence, effective measures in reducing the support for Naxalite violence should include locally-agreed development initiatives, combating corruption, ending human rights abuses by security services, and protecting minority rights especially regarding land. Making every effort to engage the Naxalites, where possible, to prevent further violence would also be essential.
This focus is particularly critical of, and places responsibility on, the Indian government, but it is of course the state which must be seen to act so as to show its legitimacy and defend the rights of its citizens, including those relating to their socioeconomic conditions of existence; the Naxalites are operating outside of the law and state apparatus. Additionally, if living standards were improved for millions of India’s poor, the issues of economic exclusion, minority exploitation, and land-grabs would become less inflammatory and weaken or even end the Naxalites’ ability to recruit. Hopefully, developing political, economic, and social inclusivity would bring an end to conditions where marginalized people perceive armed insurgency as their best option.