Reading the Maoist challenge right
Recent statements made by the home minister on India’s Maoist insurgency seem to mark a reversal of the official thinking on this threat Jairam Ramesh
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The Saranda model offers an example of successful transformation of Naxalite-affected areas. Recent statements made by the home minister on India’s Maoist insurgency seem to mark a reversal of the official thinking on this threat. He is reported to have said that this is part of some international conspiracy that requires the toughest possible action by paramilitary forces and the police. The Prime Minister has been silent, but his predecessor Manmohan Singh had repeatedly emphasized that this is India’s most serious internal security challenge and it has fundamental socioeconomic and sociopolitical dimensions.
There are now 88 districts covering some 31,400 gram panchayats and around 119,000 villages that fall in the left-wing extremism-affected category. The states that are suffering the most are Jharkhand (17 districts out of 24), Odisha (18 districts out of 30) and Chhattisgarh (14 districts out of 27). Parts of West Bengal (three districts out of 19), Bihar (11 districts out of 38), Maharashtra (four districts out of 36), Andhra Pradesh (four districts out of 13), Telangana (four districts out of 10) , Madhya Pradesh (11 districts out of 51) and Uttar Pradesh (three districts out of 75) are also confronting this problem.
While each state has its own background—caste, for instance, plays a dominant role in Bihar—there are five broad features that characterize most of these areas. First, an overwhelming majority of these districts have a substantial population of tribal communities. Second, an overwhelming majority of the districts have a significant area under good quality forest cover.
Third, a large number of these districts are rich in minerals such as coal, bauxite and iron ore. Fourth, in a number of states, these districts are remote from the seat of political power and are large entities. Fifth, the worst-affected areas are located in bi-junctions or tri-junctions of different states. Each of these features must form part of an anti-Maoist strategy. The might of the Indian state is present significantly in the Naxalite-affected areas—71 battalions of central paramilitary forces with nearly 71,000 personnel have been deployed. They have a vital role in backing the state police, who must be in the front line of both intelligence gathering and operations.
This is how Andhra Pradesh was successful in dealing with this issue over the past three decades. But security operations alone cannot and should not be the driving force; that driving force has necessarily to be development and addressing the daily concerns of people, who have every reason to feel alienated. Massive reform of the forest administration at the cutting edge so that the daily concerns of tribal families are met is the need of the hour. The forest bureaucracy has needlessly victimized tribals in state after state seeing them as trespassers. Mining and irrigation projects have caused massive displacement over the past five decades. Rehabilitation and resettlement for large numbers of displaced people has yet to be completed satisfactorily. Worse, there are large numbers of tribals who have been subjected to repeated displacements.
The new land acquisition law passed by Parliament in 2013 goes a long way in setting things right, but then, this legislation is about to get diluted. If this happens, the Maoists will score a big propaganda victory. It is not the Naxalites who have created the ground conditions ripe for the acceptance of their ideology—it is the singular failure of successive governments in both the states concerned and at the centre to protect the dignity and the constitutional rights of the poor and the disadvantaged that has created a fertile breeding ground for violence and given the Naxalites the space to speak the language of social welfare, which, in reality, is a cloak to build their guerrilla bases and recruit, most tragically, women and children. Extremist groups may indeed be receiving financial and material assistance from abroad, but the root cause of why they have spread their influence lies in domestic factors and have more to do more tribal discontent, deprivation and displacement. There are a couple of success stories we can draw lessons from. In Menda Lekha village of Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, the gram sabha has got complete control over cultivation and trade in bamboo. Maoists don’t like this, but the gram sabha has become financially empowered. This needs to be replicated wherever community forest rights have been recognized by law.
The most powerful example of transformation is in the Saranda region of Paschimi Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. After the success of the Central Reserve Police Force in liberating this area in July-August 2011 from the Maoists after their domination for nearly two decades, a large number of development initiatives were launched by the Union ministry of rural development covering employment, roads, housing, water supply, watershed management, livelihoods and women’s self-help groups. It took time to build the credibility of the civilian administration among the local people. But after repeated ministerial visits, a positive sentiment gained ground and a new sense of confidence and assertiveness among them became very visible.
The Saranda success was replicated in a couple of other areas in Jharkhand, as well as in some parts of Odisha and West Bengal. In West Bengal, the chief minister has played a key role in reviving political activity in the Jangalmahal region, which used to be a bastion of the Maoists. This is very important—where political parties are active in mobilization and grievance redressal, Maoist outfits are weak, and where political parties have abdicated their natural role, extremist organizations have sought to fill the vacuum. A “developmentalist” strategy alone will not do. Nor will a strategy based on the overriding primacy of paramilitary and police action will yield long-term results.
The two must go hand in hand at all times, deriving strength from each other. At the same time, we must be prepared to redress the injustices of the past and to be seen to be both responsible and responsive to the plight and concerns of scheduled tribe communities especially. Only then will the tide of Naxalism be stemmed.
The author is a Rajya Sabha MP and a former Union minister.
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