India: Rural Development and the Naxalite Threat

June 28, 2007 20 31 GMT

Summary

Indian Maoist rebels, known as Naxalites, stepped up operations June 26-27 in their strongholds in eastern India, bringing much of the region to a standstill. As we expected, the Naxalites have seized upon the grievances of peasant farmers and tribal groups directly affected by the Indian government’s push to develop special economic zones. Though Indian politicians and security officials are quick to play up their successes against the Naxalites and brag about increasing Maoist defections, India’s security apparatus cannot contain the Naxalite movement, which is directly benefiting from a widespread rise in social agitation across rural India.

Analysis

For the second straight day Indian Maoist rebels, commonly referred to as Naxalites, wreaked havoc in the eastern Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa on June 27. Among other actions, they imposed a two-day economic blockade, attempted an attack on a power plant and brought traffic to a standstill by blowing up railway stations and rail lines.

While Indian officials tend to play up successes against the Naxalites, they cannot contain the Naxalites, who have drawn strength from rural unrest — something which carries major implications for investors outside India’s cities.

The Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), the command center of India’s Naxalite movement, called the militant campaign in protest of New Delhi’s numerous development projects that have involved government land seizures. Eager to replicate China’s economic growth model, Indian politicians have caught Special Economic Zone (SEZ) fever, and with little foresight, are signing off on development projects left and right. One of the biggest problems with this haphazard economic policy is that SEZ development and expansion often displace peasant farmers and tribesmen, who are extremely adept at mounting stiff physical resistance to these projects — and do not fear engaging in violent clashes with the government to hold onto their land.

This growing dissatisfaction among India’s rural community over the SEZ push perfectly conforms to the Naxalite agenda. The Naxalites have been waging a 40-year-old popular insurrection against the government to combat exploitation and promote the creation of a classless society. Though the Naxalite movement has lost some of its intellectual appeal over the years, its campaign continues to attract men and women to its ranks.

The Naxalites have a force of approximately 15,000 cadres spread across 160 districts in the states of Orissa, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal. They operate primarily in the lawless, dense forested areas of India’s interior, with some estimates saying Naxalites control approximately 10.03 million hectares (about 25 million acres) of forests nationwide. They also have an active campaign to recruit students and other youths to help spread their left-wing extremism into India’s towns and cities. Thus far, however, the Naxalites have not demonstrated the ability to operate in urban areas.

Previously, the Naxalites have made direct threats against multinational corporations, though they primarily focus their attacks on police stations, locally owned factories and Indian government officials. The CPI-M leadership announced recently that for the first time, the Naxalite movement has created a single command center for the revolution and that more attacks are to come.

The Naxalites still have a host of problems to deal with, however. India has at least 10 Naxalite splinter groups that have broken away from the main movement due to differences over ideology and militant strategy, along with general disillusionment with the movement and war fatigue. Indian media also reports Naxalite defections on a nearly daily basis, though these incidents often are exaggerated and in some cases stage-managed by the police. This was most recently illustrated in January, when reports came out that as many as 79 Naxalites in Chhattisgarh had defected. Soon enough, allegations emerged that innocent tribal people were forced to “surrender” as Maoist rebels.

State governments have tried to lure Naxalite cadres away from the movement by offering amnesties and attractive rehabilitation programs, but this has not substantially increased defections. Rather, the Naxalites largely have been successful at retaining their experienced cadres by providing various types of incentives, including monthly stipends and regular medical checkups. Naxalites also attempt to recruit more female cadres by facilitating marriages within Naxalite camps. Many Naxalite cadres often surrender on orders of the party to collect intelligence and work as double agents, a common trend in Chattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Naxalites also are extremely adept at using local agents and sympathizers to monitor the activities of true Naxalite defectors, who are often killed soon after they desert.

For the most part, Indian security forces garner little if any intelligence on Maoist activities from Naxalite defectors that would help counterinsurgency operations. The police hardly visit tribal pockets, avoiding them out of fear and lack of incentive. As a result, they have weak links with the locals and ex-Naxalites. And even when police do visit villages, Naxalite deserters avoid meeting them, since they know full well that the police cannot protect them and their families. Most prefer to keep silent and often agree to work as informers for the Naxalites even after they leave the party.

In Chhattisgarh, where Naxalite attacks are the most abundant, the state government has mobilized and armed villagers with bows and arrows, guns and spears to fight against Naxalites. This anti-Naxalite militia, known as Salva Judum, which means Purification Hunt, includes child soldiers in its ranks and is often touted by the state government as a highly successful counterinsurgency strategy. These claims are also overstated, however, and Naxalites have managed to insert spies in Salva Judum camps.

India’s Naxalite problem is rooted in socioeconomic disparities, something that will only be compounded as state governments push ahead with SEZs and development projects that threaten to displace semiliterate tribesmen and farmers. Though India has several paramilitary organizations whose sole focus is combating Naxalites, security personnel are in poor condition to tackle the menace. Many junior and midlevel police officers are severely demoralized and frustrated by overly confident senior officials and policymakers who cannot cut through India’s bureaucracy and coordinate across state lines against the Naxalites. This lack of coordination also largely results from law-and-order issues falling under exclusive control of the state governments. The central government in New Delhi cannot directly deal with the Naxalite threat in the states, and ideological differences among ruling parties at the federal and state levels result in incoherent policies across the country.

The Naxalite problem, which Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by India, shows no sign of easing. Inevitably, foreign investors looking to expand their operations outside India’s urban areas must take it into consideration.

Stratfor – Foreign Intelligence think tank

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