Coping With The Maoist Challenge ~ a c bose
PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Maoists as the No. 1 challenge to India&’s democracy and progress. The attack on a Congress convoy in Bastar on 25 May resulting in the death of 30 people, including former chief minister, VC Shukla, and the meeting convened in Delhi on June 5 and 10 have further highlighted the Maoist challenge. As if to demonstrate their spirit of defiance, the Maoists seized the Dhanbad-Patna inter-city express near Jamui in Bihar on 13 June, killed three security men and abducted several along with their arms. Regretfully, the appropriate response to this escalating threat from an invisible enemy is yet to be formulated.
The first step is to correctly identify the disaffected group from whom the threat emanates. It  is not distress but deprivation, actual or merely perceived, by a community or a tribe that drives the latter to organised violence. Mere poverty provokes people to become criminals, but it is when they collectively feel that they are being deprived and discriminated against that they organise themselves to fight for what they perceive as their right. If necessary, they kill people and are prepared to die for it.
Initially, the ideological pioneers had fought and died for a definite cause. The establishment, on the other hand, has almost everything except a cause.  With the tacit support of the disaffected people, the Naxalites, as they were known in the Seventies,  engaged in extortion to collect funds for arms, intimidation for securing information about the administration, and provocative action to instigate the security forces. This adversely affected the common people and turned them against the State to become supporters of the rebels, enabling the latter ~ to use a Maoist expression ~ to live and move among them like “fish in water”.
The fish can be caught either with the help of the rod or the net or ~ to use an expression perhaps coined by Ranjit Gupta, one-time head of the West Bengal police ~ by “poisoning the water”. In fact, in order to eliminate such “fish”, the State has to use  both the methods in different ways. We need to dispel the very popular belief that development is the best remedy.  Development is rather like a vitamin (but not an antibiotic); it is very effective in preventing the occurrence and spread of  the disease once the population has been cured. Development will ensure that no social group feels aggrieved. But once a class group feels that it is being deprived of its legitimate rights, they seek their own solution with the help of the gun. By then it is too late to start development work.
The armed Maoist cadres, once composed of starry-eyed idealists, are conscious of the power of the gun,  and are primarily concerned with retaining and spreading their firepower and support-base to challenge the State. Instead of demanding development, they tend to obstruct development work that could divert the focus and improve the living conditions of the targeted population, and weaken their support-base. They are known to have burned down health centres and schools. They have opposed the introduction of mobile phones and television sets. As an  organised force, they have to fight like an elusive guerrilla group. The poor tribals of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and parts of Odisha do not crave for schools, electricity, and other modern amenities. They want  to be left alone in their ancestral habitat.  They  are  opposed  to  the  forest  laws  and the presence of outsiders, such as miners, contractors, and tax collectors who impinge on their traditional rights and way of life, and endanger their security and dignity, especially of their women.
The legitimate grievances of the tribals have been  ignored  for  far  too  long  and  the  situation has been allowed to become explosive. The exploitation of local resources by miners, forest lease-holders, and the construction of dams that disturb  the  life-style  of  the  locals  must  be  temporarily   stopped   so   as   not  to  add  fuel  to the fire.
However, these are suggestions to prepare the right environment. There is no denying that the armed cadres need to be fought and flushed out. A former DGP of Chhattisgarh has suggested that the administration must keep them on the run till they get tired, till they rethink on their core ideology that seeks to overthrow the Indian state through violent means. In the process, many innocents might get killed, but that is virtually unavoidable. Internal war is never  a clean affair. In the words of the famous TE Lawrence of Arabia, “It is like taking soup with a knife”. By and large, this approach has proved suicidal.  It can only sharpen the confrontation between the security forces and the rebels, prompting the locals to rally behind the extremists.  The latter often indulge in provocative violence, but the State must cautiously avoid the trap.  Brutality is no antidote to surprise attacks.
Gen. Gerald Templar, who successfully suppressed the Communist uprising in Malaysia in the early Fifties, had practised the ‘step by step approach’ of clearing a particular area of the rebels, protecting the locals from them, and serving their cause through development.
However,  it is very difficult to fight a united invisible enemy, but they can be divided by splitting the tribes and clans. Secondly, the power of the State and its laws must be maintained. It must inspire trust among the tacit supporters of the rebels. In the words of Lord Rutherford, the wartime Governor of Bengal, “the state may be a party but never partisan”.  Its supporters must be separated from the actual rebels and treated separately. They can even be appeased with a measure of self-rule. Extra-constitutional entities, such as the Salwa Judum, might have made the waters murkier. As it is, the water is much too polluted for the State to operate with success.
What we need most of all is a well-informed, sensitive, and patient government, and a properly trained security force. The State must never appear to be an enemy of the disaffected group, even when fighting the armed rebels.   Even during a phase of confrontation, the State must try to meet some of their demands, if  possible.
The poor locals prefer an ounce of actual help from the State to a pound of assurances from the rebels. They will prefer security, stability, and continuity. The State must debunk the idealism of the Maoists; Mahendra Karma was stabbed 78 times before being killed in Chhattisgarh. This further confirms that the Maoists, far from fighting for the welfare of the people,  are actually driven by envy and revenge and a hankering after power. They need to be divided and defeated before the process of development is initiated.
The writer is retired Head of the Department of History,  Jammu University