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India: Citizens debate government policy and the Maoist response

Categories: South Asia, India, Development, Governance, Indigenous, Law, Politics, Protest, War & Conflict

Dealing a severe blow to the Indian government’s ongoing offensive against the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency [1], 76 policemen were ambushed and killed by Maoist rebels in Dantewada [2], Chattisgarh on April 6, 2010. The incident, now referred to as the Dantewada tragedy, is the worst-ever massacre of security forces [3] by the Maoists.

The large body-count of security force personnel propelled the news of Operation Green Hunt [4] once again into the news headlines and the nation’s consciousness, sparking off heated debates about Maoist ideology, their tactics and responsibility of the Indian State.

Well-known blogger Greatbong wrote [5]:

We have been in the middle of an invisible civil war for many years now. Civil war because it is an armed struggle by a section of the people against the democratic administration of the country, a war that has spiraled so out of control that representatives of law enforcement accept that there are large swathes of country where they cannot enter. Invisible because it rarely captures national attention, confined as it is to largely rural backward areas for which it is pushed to the rear of the news…unless more than seventy-six CRPF personnel are brutally massacred at which point of time we are forced to deal with the issue. At least for a few news cycles.

Twitter abounded with instant reactions to the incident. Some examples:

@baviskaryogesh [6] India needs to find the strategic solution to the maoists movement. its d worst day in Indian history…its heavy loss to Indian force
@Irraghu [7] Maoists are PPL from us.. Govt should deal in diff way not with Weapons
@shibu_kt [8] Surgical strikes to be conducted at maoist hideouts?? Will we act now or still wait for another massacre to gain more sympathy?
@raghuduttc [9] when will maoist cheer leaders see that it is jawans who r loosing their life fighting for the poor tribals not the Maoists
@mytopnews [10] A small disease became as a Cancer in India.. Today's Maoist Attack is like a Cancer Govt is responsible for this

The high casualties among the security forces reinforced the views of a section of the people that the government had done little strategic planning and that forces sent to tackle the insurgents were inadequately trained to handle guerrilla-style warfare being waged by the Maoists.

Madhav Datar wrote [11] on his blog:

I feel really sorry for the families of the 76 CRPF personnel who were killed in an ambush by the Maoists. But I am not surprised at all. This was coming and will be repeated by the insurgents again. Poor leadership, hardly any training to face war with the maoists and low morale are all major contributors to this debacle.

Many others concurred with this view. Narendra Ch reported [12] in Merinews the actions being considered by the government as  retaliation. He wrote:

Immediately after ambush, he (India's Home Minister, Mr. P.Chidambaram) announced several retaliation steps in an emotional tone. They include deploying army personal to tackle Maoists, including unmanned helicopters. His emotions were cooled down by Defence Minister A K Antony refusing to deploy army…The pressure of the incident was such that the Home Minister was forced to offer his resignation, which was later rejected by the government.

As the government deliberated on formulating an appropriate response, citizens debated whether retaliation should be in the form of a severe military offensive or through a continued effort at dialogue. However, the larger debate centered on affixing responsibility for the insurgency itself and whether the government, with its ‘flawed policy’ [13] of neglecting  tribal welfare was in fact responsible for this armed internal struggle.

Some pointed out that it was because the State had failed them that in some of the poorest tribal belts of India the Maoists were able to consolidate their hold. Others felt that perhaps all of it was not ‘Maoist insurgency’ as it was made out to be; that poverty-stricken, development-bereft tribal populations having been pushed into a corner were finally fighting back – for their rights and for their land. Regarding the massacre of the security personnel, some citizens felt that it was the government and its military offensive that had pushed them to retaliate in such a brutal manner. Some tweets reflected these emotions and arguments.

@write2kill [14] : The Maoist strike-back is nothing but a desperate and violent reaction of a people who were left behind by the India Shining brigade.
@max4974 [15]: Its all about neglecting our own backyards that has led us into the maoist/naxal trouble!
@sujaypp [16] @BDUTT: [17] the govt. has left the maoists with no option but to fight for survival, nothing short of genocide. Gov. should pull back all forces.

Pragoti, a website with leftist leanings had this to say [18] about the Maoist problem:

…the Maoist problem is not a simple problem of law and order. Rather issues of deprivation, corporate loot, exploitation and under-development are linked with the issue. Now, by relying solely on the military offensive the state wants to bypass the real issues of poverty and underdevelopment that has provided hotbed for Maoist activities…The military actions of the state and the inactions at the level of addressing development issues become weapons in the hands of the Maoists to justify more violence and mobilize more people within their fold. In other words, this vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence between the Maoists and the state obliterates any democratic voice of dissent against the politics and policies of the Central Government.

Similar sentiments were expressed [19] by S.G. Vombatkere at the d-sector blog:

…a high-power committee set up in 2006 by the Planning Commission of India, ascribed growing Naxalism to people's discontent and failure of governance, and showed a direct relationship between extremism and poverty.

[…] Violence begets violence. When governments wreak economic violence upon people by displacing them for industrial projects causing loss of land and livelihood, they cannot resist or respond with economic force since they have none. They protest, agitate, demonstrate and physically resist the occupation of their land by the industry. These protests do turn violent when their point of view is not properly considered or even heard. Whether the protesters or the police started the physical violence, the first cause is economic violence by government that has led to the situation.

According to Swayambhu Mukherjee, the real issues underlying the Maoist problem had to do with State apathy. He wrote [20]

…there’s more to the tribal uprisings taking place than meets the eye. The Maoists are only a part of the problem – they are not THE problem. The real issues at hand are state apathy and greed…A case in point would be the exploitation of the Dongria Kondh at the hands of the Government and the mining giant, Vedanta…the Church of England recently sold its £3.8m stake in Vedanta Resources, over concerns about its human rights record…if Vedanta has created such a stir across the globe, why are the Indian authorities silent? Especially when the affected population is Indian?

Gladson Dungdung, a human rights activist and writer from Jharkhand wrote [21] in an article in Sanhati:

…the only aim of the so-called operation green hunt is to convert the so-called ‘red corridor’ into the ‘corporate corridor’. The Indian state’s hue and cry on Maoism or Naxalism is just a strategy to make sure the backdoor entry of the corporate houses in the mineral corridor…I’m sure, when the corporate sharks could be able to enter into the mineral corridor, the issue of Maoism or Naxalism would be marginalized that day itself from the agenda of the state.

Perhaps the most sympathetic (and the most controversial) article was that of Booker prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy [22], who blamed the Indian State for creating a “war-like” situation in the country and trying to forcefully extinguish an indigenous, tribal uprising  (an uprising against oppression by the State), in the name of  tackling “India's biggest security threat”.  In her article, Roy called the Maoists “Gandhi, but with guns” [23], and painted what some said was a rose-tinted, romanticized and perhaps a distorted picture of the Maoist movement in India.

Others however, were unwilling to buy the ‘poor tribal turns Maoist to get even’ story as evident from this tweet below:

@rajeshkupadhyay [24] But Maoists are not tribals but r using tribals to advance their cause. They are using different reason in different areas to capture power

Anand Chakrapani, of the Cynical Indian asked some hard questions [25] regarding the Maoists and their operational methods. He asked:

“…who arms these Naxals? Where do they get money for this? If they can get money for the AK-47s and IEDs, can't they stand for elections and pay the advertising rates? Why do they have to extort innocent and poor villagers, whom they claim to represent? Why do they have to kill? …Why can't they come to the negotiating table, as Mr. Chidambaram (India's Home Minister) has been calling them for quite some time now?”

Greatbong argued that armed aggression against the Indian State cannot be justified in the name of tribal resistance in the face of exploitation. He pointed out [5] that in other regions in India, the tribal population have worked within the democratic process to advance their causes.

It should be noted that poor and exploited people in other parts of the country did not need guns and terrorists to get organized. They formed cooperatives like Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd (Amul) and changed their futures peacefully. So community organization does not need Maoists…

There is also a view that Maoists were not really interested in development of tribal areas but were recruiting foot soldiers from among the tribals, using this issue as a prop; their real aim was to seize political power by overthrowing the Indian State, and that any act of rebellion against the government needs to be dealt with firmly.

In this context, blogger Suvashanand Mishra wrote [26]:

…maoism is the biggest threat to the country and it is becoming unbridled and wants to grab the power from barrel of the gun..[..] Maoists are feeling encouraged only because of unprepared security establishment and the lack of political will in our government…[..] The problem of maoism has become so vicious and violent as if maoists are waging war against their own nation. They deserve to be given befitting reply in the same coin and fight them to finish… At the same time, the state and the central government must implement various development projects in the naxal and tribal dominated areas, because mostly in these areas people are living in abject poverty, resulting in their feeling of alienation and neglect from the state.

Others however point out that jumpstarting development projects in backward areas cannot by themselves achieve the desired positive results in the absence of good governance by the administration to ensure that the projects are properly implemented and benefits are really reaching the tribals. According to [27] Madhav Datar:

We have to understand that only operations against the maoists will not help us win this war. The biggest enemy is ‘poor governance’ , and that does not get addressed with development projects , which effectively help the ’sarkari mehkma’ (government department/ officials) to enhance their ‘loot’ further. Good governance has to be enforced and has to be seen by all being enforced.

Meenakshi Rao called for a coordinated and cohesive strategy to deal with the problem. She felt that the need of the hour was a full-scale military offensive to root out the growing clout of the Maoists in India. She wrote [28] on her blog:

True, the roots of this menace lie in full-scale victimisation of the common man by the administration but as the situation stands today, there is an urgent need to first cut the branches and then get to the root of the problem. This basically means that a full-scale war against these armed men needs to be launched at the Central level with ears and eyes closed to murmurs of opposition. [..]

About time we stop using our ill-trained, ill-equipped para-forces as prey to Maoists.

Others like Rohit Pradhan argued against the use of brute force and commented  that though use of force has been the favored response of the State, it is unlikely to yield the desired long-term results. According to [29] Pradhan:

The proper response to the Dantewada tragedy must include capacity building —political and administrative—and long-term reforms rather than reliance on brute power.

Sound of dissent suggested [30] that the most prudent way for the government would be to meet the maoist leadership at the negotiation table and hold dialogue.

Now that it is too late to bring development and reduce the Maoist influence, the only way out is talk. Talk, talk and talk unconditionally. Or at least a mutual ceasefire is possible. In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, the spokesperson of CPI (Maoist) has reiterated their stand they are ready to talk and is keen on cessation of hostilities by both sides simultaneously. Now it is for the government to act. And lets hope it would act prudently.

Let's now wait and watch to see how the Indian government responds to the crisis.