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India's Maoist Insurgency

By: Alakananda Mookerjee Email By: Alakananda Mookerjee
July 2010
India's Maoist Insurgency On May 28, an overnight passenger train en route to Mumbai derailed, roughly 55 miles southwest of Kolkata. It was then hit by a freight train barreling along the parallel track, killing over a 100 people and injuring over 200 passengers.

The incident is believed to be the latest in a rash of violent attacks by left-wing Maoist rebels, also known as the Naxalites. As investigators try to ascertain whether an explosive was used to blow up a section of the tracks or whether tracks were removed by the miscreants manually, the Indian government is devising strategies to contain the growing insurgency.

In recent months, the guerilla campaign has acquired an increasingly virulent form, becoming more brutal and more brazen, striking at infrastructure—bridges, electricity pylons, mines, pipelines, vehicles—and security personnel. Under no illusion about the strength of their disruptive power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Naxalites as the gravest internal security threat that the nation faces.

In what is believed to be the most audacious attack on record, in April this year, Maoist rebels ambushed and killed 75 federal paramilitary troops in the remote Dantewada district in central India. Government figures indicate that since 1998 they have claimed roughly 7,500 lives—with over 900 in 2009 alone, the highest casualty rate since 1971.   

The Naxalites have been a part of the Indian socio-political system for some 40 years, but their activity—and hence, also public visibility—has tended to wax and wane throughout this period. Beginning in the 1990s, however, they found a fresh momentum, and have been on a roll. A resurgence brought on by India prying open its economy to liberalization has, in large part, been fuelled by its galloping if skewed economic growth.

While India has been able to successfully ride the crests of globalization to bring to a sliver of its population—a small metropolitan elite and a burgeoning middle class—luxe goods and technology penetration, the rural poor have continued to lead a parlous existence, far removed from the hubs of affluence.

It is the inequitable distribution of wealth and the resultant “economic fault lines” that Naxalites have been able to tap into to garner popular support, and which they have enforced either by providing governance—notably different from government—or by force, at the grassroots level, said Shlok Vaidya, a Department of Defense terrorism analyst and author of a forthcoming book on India’s security future.

One only need take a look at these figures to get a sense of India’s lopsided development. According to a recent United Nations report, while there are roughly 545 million cell phone subscribers, only 366 million have access to clean toilets. While a Reliance Communications handset sells for under $25, a modern home toilet costs $300.

The Naxalites have a “hybrid” two-tier structure, noted Vaidya. At its core is a tight coterie of individuals inspired by the radical leftist ideology of Mao Zedong, which believes in the armed overthrow of the state, with ambitions to march victoriously to the nation’s capital and hoist a crimson flag on the parliament building, the Lok Sabha, she added. Members of this cadre, who lead the Maoist faction of the Communist Party of India, mastermind the operations of a ragtag band of foot soldiers, which, by some estimates, exceeds the 20,000 mark.

K.P.S. Gill, the former police chief well known for leading Operation Blue Star in the state of Punjab in the early 1980s, told The New York Times recently that Naxalites are typically strong in areas that have a weak state police force. Last fall, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram launched Operation Green Hunt, a paramilitary offensive aimed at quelling the uprising, but this approach has been less than successful in stopping the Naxalites in their tracks.

Some, like Sudeep Chakravarti, author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, question the efficacy of New Delhi’s tactics, and are less than certain that it offers a genuine cure for this malaise. In an interview with a local publication, he offered a suggestion: urging the government to ensure an even unfolding of development and to “ensure efficient administration, policing and justice.”

While opinion about how best to tackle the situation tends to vary, there is little doubt that at a time when India is aspiring to reach dizzying eminence as a regional superpower, or perhaps even more, it must realize that it can’t do so while forgetting the downtrodden. Before it can sprint ahead, it must listen to the voices of those clamoring to be heard. And until then, said Sharmila Mukherjee, professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, “the brand ‘Superstar India,’ as echoed by novelist Shobhaa De in her eponymous book, will lack luster.”

[Alakananda Mookerjee is a New York City-based journalist, whose online home is http://amookerjee.blogspot.com/]

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