Originally Published 2010-08-31 00:00:00 Published on Aug 31, 2010
The Centre cannot be seen as taking tentative steps if and when the talks commenced, and get enmeshed in complications from the Law and Order (a State subject) to issues of tribal welfare, industrial investments, development, etc.
Talking to Maoists, and tackling insurgency
It has become rather fashionable for political leaders, starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, to talk about talks with the Maoists, to end left-leaning violence in central India’s rural backyard, which has since spread to the East and threatens the rest of India. In the same vein, politicians and civil society organisations have also been talking about ‘empowering’ the tribals and not interfering with their rights and traditions, if only to ensure that they do not feel alienated from the State any more, and thus become prospective recruits for Maoist insurgents.

It is one thing for Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee to be talking alongside Maoist leaders from public platforms. It is another matter altogether for the Indian State to be talking to the Maoists, from across the table, to find a lasting solution to the current spate of violence. The former does not flow into the latter, as some may have wished. For one thing, other than Central leaders, starting with the Prime Minister, not many from among the affected States seem to be sharing similar views on the subject. If anything, West Bengal’s Marxist Government has an entirely different take, which cannot be wished away as merely being political.

Despite their unity efforts of the past, structurally and otherwise, the Maoist groups in the country operate as independent entities. The comparison with Al Qaeda and related jehadi terrorist groups may sound odious but long before they appeared on the scene, the Maoist dalams, or branches, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, had functioned as independent entities, sharing only operational information and maybe even incident-specific cooperation. A perverted ideology and philosophy is what identifies them as being one, but that is not anyway the truth.

If the Centre has to thus speak to the Maoists, first it has to make sure that the writ of whoever it is talking to runs down the line, to the last dalam and last cadre. On the home turf, it would have to ensure a commonality of approach with the affected States, whose issues are as different from one another as the problems being faced by victimised tribal communities are. The Centre cannot be seen as taking tentative steps if and when the talks commenced, and get enmeshed in complications that could run from the constitutional position of Law and Order being a State subject, to issues of tribal welfare, and industrial investments and development.

Balancing Development and Tribal Welfare

The current emphasis on environmental clearance for industrial projects, big and small, has come to be seen as the Centre’s way of halting the ongoing exploitation of tribal land and denying them the promised ‘welfare’. But individual States that are behind the rest of the nation in the developmental chart are going to protest before long, and these are also the States where the Maoist menace is at its peak, right now. How the Governments at the Centre and in the States are going to balance the demands of development and the continuance of traditional tribal peace remains to be seen. A structural methodology may have to be arrived at before uni-focussed decisions are taken, or even recommended.

In the larger context, there is also the question about what constitutes tribal welfare. Not very long ago civil society organisations and NGOs used to talk about empowering the tribals in activities that would ensure educational standards and economic independence without violating their habitat and interfering with their lifestyle. Today, there is a tilt in favour of non-violation of their forest lands and non-interference with their lifestyle. There is not as much clarity now about reaching education, healthcare and other symbols of societal development like roads and bridges, police stations and power-stations, ton tribal areas. The emerging picture is confusing at best, contradictory, otherwise.

Conceptual complexity

Even if one were to address these issues and find satisfactory solutions to many if not all of them conceptual complexity would remain on the issue of the Government negotiating peace with the Maoists. As is known, their demands are not confined to specific developmental issues or projects. Nor do they demand a ‘separate State’, for whatever reason and justification, as has been the case with some of the insurgent groups in the North-East since Independence. These are negotiable issues, which the Indian State has negotiated through a complicated process of carrot-and-stick, with certain efficacy and efficiency.

The Marxist-Leninist Maoists in India do not want a separate State. They want the Indian State, instead. ‘Waging an armed revolution to capture State power’, a la Mao Zedong in twentieth century China, peppered with the experiences of Lenin in Czarist Russia, when the world was commuting on horse-back, is their professed belief. They are still oblivious to market economy in post-Mao China and the collapse of the Soviet State. Rather, by choice, they do not want to acknowledge the reality even when they are living in the midst of it. They would need to change their attitudes and beliefs before they could be expected to lay down their arms. And laying down arms is the Centre’s meaningful pre-condition for negotiating peace with insurgent groups in the country – and the Maoists are only one and the more recent of them.

Today, after a decade or so since they expanded their militancy to central India, the Maoists are not talking any more about the exploitation of the tribals. They are not even talking. They are firing, instead. For them, to stop firing and to commence talks with the Government(s), would mean they will have to find a cause to negotiate on. They owe nothing to the tribals, nor are they answerable to the tribals – either in terms of the ‘revolutions’ they herald or the resolutions that they may arrive at through negotiations.

Confusing the issues

Tackling Maoist violence is one thing, addressing the concerns of the tribals with their various manifestations is another. Taking development to the rural areas is a third thing. The Government’s failure on some fronts by themselves does not mean that they are the only causes for Maoist insurgency spreading and/or reviving in the country. Alienation of the tribals may be one thing that the Indian State will have to address comprehensively and in the twenty-first century contexts, but that is not all.

The Maoists are known to operate in urban centres as well. In the past, when they were at the peak of their career in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, they had established substantial presence in the urban centres of the State, targeted high-ranking officials, bombed ministerial motorcades in the heart of Hyderabad, and so on. They had also infiltrated trade unions, and may be continuing to do so in the same quite and indifferent way, until they are ready to ‘strike’, elsewhere too. Only when their ‘expansionist’ methods proved costly and unsustainable in terms of police retaliation and penetration down to the village-level, they changed their tactic. That does not mean that they have changed their strategy, goal or ideology.

For all their professed ideology, consciously or otherwise, the Maoists in India have adopted the tools of market economy. From Naxalites, which had a limited understanding only in India, they have since adopted the globally understood brand name of ‘Maoists’. If that would keep sections in China happy, it would only help their cause. Whether the very same China may be able to influence them to give up their violent ways and adopt paths to a negotiated settlement is however unclear as yet.

It is one thing for the Government to offer Rs 2-lakh aid for Maoist cadres who want to surrender. We have had ‘surrendered ULFA’ (SULFA) cadres in Assam and other surrendered militants and terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab, too. Some went awry, but many others got rehabilitated. It is another matter however to club all Maoists under one head and expect them to walk to the negotiation table – in the absence of a re-oriented goal and course, about which the Indian State should have prior knowledge and clarity, for producing meaningful results.

Otherwise, like a few other terrorist/insurgent groups elsewhere, the Maoists may use opportunities for negotiations to ease the police pressure on them. They would thus weaken the morale of the security forces as happened in Andhra Pradesh any number of times in the past, and also use up the time to re-group, re-train and re-arm. If by bringing pressure on the various Maoist groups to come together, if only it would help them coordinate their tactics and operations to take on the might of the Indian security apparatus, even then the Indian State would have achieved something. In the process, the Government may have a common leadership on the other side to talk to -- and whose writ, more out of compulsion rather than choice, the various other groups would want to acknowledge, if not accept straightaway.

The needs and alienation of the tribals, and the development of rural India are issues that may have contributed to the Maoists establishing bases and operating successfully from those hideouts. Before the Maoists, other insurgent groups have adapted similar tactics. That only means that the Indian State has not learnt its lessons, on that score as well – but that should not be confused with tackling Maoist insurgency as insurgencies have to be tackled!

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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