By Ajai Sahni for SATP
A decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and more than three decades after the Chinese began to gradually unshackle themselves of Maoist dogma, to progressively embrace the mantras of capitalism, India is experiencing a vast and escalating surge of a violent Maoist rebellion. To the Western mind, the developments in both Russia and China irrevocably demonstrated the failure of the communist ideology, and it is bewildering to see a resurgence of this discredited doctrine in an India that has widely come to be regarded as an engine of growth, a dynamic economy, a rising global power and a stable centre of democratic governance, in an otherwise volatile and crisis-ridden South Asian region. The seduction of Maoism in India, however, remains very real.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, since November 2004, repeatedly declared that the Maoists – in local parlance, also called ‘Naxalites’ – constitute the country’s “greatest internal security challenge”. The assessment has been sharply underlined by Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s disclosures, in September 2009, that the Maoists were ‘active’ in as many as 223 Districts across 20 States, out of a total of 626 Districts and 28 States in the country. Of course, only a fraction of these Districts have actually witnessed Maoist violence, and most are in the early stages of ‘revolutionary mobilisation’ – the creation of basic networks, the establishment of underground and ‘overground’ organisations, and the opportunistic harnessing of local grievances for radical political activity. The Home Minister has thus revealed that violence “has been consistently witnessed in about 400 Police station areas of around 90 Districts in 13 States”.
It is sobering, however, to note that, at a meeting of the Central Coordination Committee of Naxalite-affected States at Bhubaneshwar on November 21, 2003, the then Union Home Secretary had disclosed that a total of 55 districts in nine States were affected by varying degrees of Naxalite activity. Just ten months later, on September 21, 2004, an official note circulated at the meeting of Chief Ministers of Naxalite-affected States indicated that this number had gone up to as many as 156 Districts in 13 States by September 2004.2 The sphere of Maoist activity was estimated to have expanded further to 170 districts in 15 States by February 20053, to push relentlessly on to the present figure of 223 Districts in 20 States.
The dramatic expansion of Naxalite activities is the more spectacular when seen against the slow, painstaking and uncertain struggle that went into the seizure of the 55 districts that had fallen under their shadow by the end of 2003. The current movement traces its genealogy back to the insurrection of 1967 in the Naxalbari area of North Bengal (hence the appellation “Naxalites”), but that insurgency – after a wildfire spread in its early years – had been comprehensively defeated by 1973, with the entire top leadership of the spearhead Communist Party of India – Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) either jailed or dead. What little remained of its splintered survivor organizations was destroyed during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of 1975.
It was in 1980, with the formation of the People’s War Group (PWG) under the leadership of Kondapalli Seetharamaiah (an erstwhile Central Organising Committee Member of the CPI-ML) in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, and the reorganization of the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in Bihar in the mid-1980s, that the movement resurfaced in some strength. Initial successes were, again, rapid, and by the mid-1980s, 31 districts in seven States were afflicted by Naxalite violence. By the early 1990s, however, the problem had been eliminated from at least 16 of these districts, bringing the total number of affected districts to just 15 in four States.4 It is from this uncertain revival that the Maoists have swelled to their present power.
Despite the Prime Minister’s unwavering focus on the dangers of the Maoist rebellion, this threat was carelessly dismissed by much of India’s political leadership, including his own Cabinet colleagues, till fairly recently. On April 15, 2005, the Prime Minister articulated the most crystalline perspective on terrorism and political violence:
There can be no political compromise with terror. No inch conceded. No compassion shown… There are no good terrorists and bad terrorists. There is no cause, root or branch, that can ever justify the killing of innocent people. No democratic Government can tolerate the use of violence against innocent people and against the functionaries of a duly established democratic Government…
Less than ten days later, his then Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, publicly declared, “The Government is not interested in using weapons. They (the Naxalites) are our brothers and sisters and we know that this is a socio-economic problem rather than one of law and order… ” 5While the dissonance was not as strident, there was certainly also a grave measure of denial in the then-Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s comment that, “Naxalite activity in Andhra Pradesh and other parts has caused some concerns but it is manageable and there is no need for anyone to panic. The problem is being dealt with.”6 Such conflicts of perspective remained endemic till Chidambaram took over as Home Minister on November 30, 2008.
Such discordance of perspectives in the highest echelons of the national Government appears, now, to be substantially a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the state appears to have taken a hasty swing from under-reaction to unplanned and ill-conceived belligerence over the past months. Certainly since the re-election of the Manmohan Singh Government in May 2009, steady leaks from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and other Central departments and agencies have fed a media frenzy about ‘surgical strikes’ by combined teams of ‘Special Forces’ from the States and the Central Paramilitary Forces, in a ‘coordinated’ and ‘massive’ offensive across the Maoist ‘heartland’ areas. These imaginings have been backed with sci-fi visions of high resolution aerial, satellite and thermal imagery and air support for ground troops.
As the Centre loudly and continuously tom-tommed its projected ‘massive operations’, it became abundantly clear these would come as no surprise whatsoever to the Maoists. Indeed, there was ample evidence that the Maoists had been systematically preparing for the ‘imminent’ onslaught for months, and had already initiated operations to thwart and circumvent the state’s strategy. A Maoist Politburo document of June 12, 2009, had warned that ‘revolutionary cadres’ had to prepare themselves for “far more brutal, deadly and savage” state repression “than under any other regime hitherto witnessed” and would have to deal with “the state’s khaki (Police) and olive-clad (Army) terrorist forces”. The Politburo, however, also declared,
“Though the enemy is itching to suppress our Party and movement by deploying a huge force in all our areas, he has severe difficulties in implementing this at present; he has plans to increase the number of central forces in the next few years… but in the immediate context it is quite difficult for the Centre to send the forces required by each state to control our movement. Keeping this in mind, we have to further aggravate the situation and create more difficulties to the enemy forces by expanding our guerrilla war to new areas on the one hand and intensifying the mass resistance in the existing areas so as to disperse the enemy forces over a sufficiently wider area… tactical counter-offensives should be stepped up and also taken up in new areas so as to divert a section of the enemy forces from attacking our guerrilla bases and organs of political power.” (Emphases added).
As talk of an imminent ‘war’ against the Naxalites escalated, consequently, diversionary violence by the rebels intensified. As against 721 confirmed fatalities in 2008 (MHA data), the South Asia Terrorism Portal had already documented a provisional total of 873 fatalities in Maoist-related violence in 2009 (till November 16). 2009 has already witnessed as many as 77 major incidents (defined as incidents involving three or more fatalities) as against 59 in 2008.
This wave of pre-emptive Maoist violence has evidently had a sobering impact on the strategicians of the Centre’s ‘massive operation’, and there has been a dramatic dilution of the earlier ‘war rhetoric’. On November 12, the Home Minister dismissed talk of the Central operation as “pure invention of the media” (though he omitted mention of the significant and continuous leaks from the Home Ministry that had fed distorted public perceptions). He declared, further, that what was to be expected “in the months ahead is merely a more coordinated effort by the state police to reassert control over territory or tracts of land where regrettably the civil administration has lost control. And for that purpose we (the Centre) will assist them in every manner possible, particularly by providing paramilitary forces and sharing of intelligence.”
How did this happen? How could a group variously estimated to have no more than 15 to 20,000 armed cadre spread thinly across vast territories so quickly force the combined might of the Federal and State Governments into an apparent turnaround? The reality is that the Maoists have consolidated their disruptive dominance in areas where the state has little presence and, worse, the cumulative capacity deficits in the security apparatus are so great that there is little possibility of altering the balance of Force in any radical measure to secure a demonstrable victory against the rebels.
It is crucial to review the relevant state capacities in this context. First, police-population ratios for the whole country stood at a bare 125 per 100,000 in early 2008. According to the Prime Minister’s statement at the Conference of Directors General of Police on September 15, 2009, this has now risen to about 145 per 100,000 – still abysmally low, compared to required ratios for peacetime policing at well over 200, and ranging, in some western countries, at over 500 per 100,000. This is, moreover, a primitive, ill-trained and ill-equipped Force, and, in most States, has little capacity or orientation to deal with a full-blown insurgency. Worse, these numbers reflect sanctioned strengths, and not the actual strength available on the ground. Thus, there was more than a 14 percent deficit against total sanctioned strength in 2008. The situation in the States most affected by Naxalism is infinitely worse. Bihar has a Police-population ratio of just 60, and a deficit of over 33 percent against sanctioned strength. Orissa has a sanctioned ratio of 97, and a deficit of nearly 19 percent. In Jharkhand, the ratio is 136/100,000, and the deficit is 21 percent; Chhattisgarh has 128/100,000 and a deficit of 26 per cent; Andhra Pradesh, 96/100,000 and a deficit of 11 percent; West Bengal, 92 per 100,000, and a deficit of 25 percent.
The crisis of leadership is more acute. At the cutting edge ranks of Deputy Superintendent of Police to Senior Superintendent of Police, deficits in Andhra stand at 19 percent; in Bihar at 35 percent; in Chhattisgarh at 28 percent; in Jharkhand at 51 percent; in Orissa at 34 percent; and in West Bengal at 25 percent. In the ‘fighting leadership’ at the ranks of Assistant Sub-Inspector to Inspector, deficits in Andhra are at 15 percent; Bihar: 39 percent; Chhattisgarh: 41 percent; Jharkhand: 18 percent; Orissa, 34 percent; and West Bengal 30 percent. Crucially, sanctioned strengths in most leadership ranks are severely inadequate, and will become progressively so as recruitment to the lower ranks accelerates. The overall system does not appear to be geared to respond to these predicaments. In the worst case, for instance, Orissa has a current sanctioned strength of as many as 207 officers in the IPS ranks, but has just 84 officers currently available. The State had requested the Centre to allocate a trifling eight IPS officers from the graduating batch of 2009; the Centre allocated just four – a number that will be significantly exceeded by those retiring this year, and against the current deficit of as many as 123 officers.
Manpower deficits are, of course, infinitely compounded by extreme shortfalls in technical, technological and training variables, by irrational and wasteful deployment of Forces, and by persistently imprudent political interventions. The outcome is that current capacities of Police Forces in the afflicted States are simply insufficient to design an effective response to the Maoist challenge.
The Centre pretends to come ‘to the rescue’ with its ‘battalion approach’, and there has been much talk of ‘massive deployment’ of CPMFs. The reality is sobering. Prior to the much advertised ‘massive operations’ the total allocation of CPMFs in the Maoist affected areas was a mere 37 battalions, yielding a total of just 14,800 men in the field. There is now talk of 70 battalions being sent to these areas – though it is not clear whether this will be an additional 70 or an augmentation of current Force to this number. We would, in other words, have either 70 or 107 battalions allocated under the Centre’s projected operational plans, that is, 28,000 or 42,800 CPMF personnel, as the case may be, for six worst affected States with a total area of 1.86 million square kilometers and a total population of over 446 million. This is like trying to irrigate the desert with dewdrops.
Of course, the Centre’s operational strategy would seek to concentrate this Force in areas of specific Maoist dominance, to ‘recover’ these areas, and then ‘bring them under civil administration’. But the Maoists would simply refuse to confront the state in its areas of strength, and the state cannot, given existing capacities, maintain permanent saturation in the ‘recovered’ areas. Where the state’s deployments are heavy, the Maoists will simply walk away. Where State Forces are dispersed or their presence is eventually diluted, they will be selectively targeted in a campaign of attrition.
The reality is, the Maoist ideology and strategy finds fertile ground in the security, administrative and political vacuum that extends over vast areas of the country, where the state is systematically and chronically failing to provide the public goods and services that it is obliged to – including the security of life and property, criminal justice and opportunities for social and economic growth. In such circumstances, it is inevitable that other individuals and agencies will step in to fill the vacuum. It is inevitable, also, that in most such cases, these individuals and agencies will not be constrained by the limits of law or any established procedure, in their interactions with local populations, and, consequently, that these interactions will tend to be unacceptably violent, exploitative and even tyrannical.
The fact is that the entire structure of rural administration in the Naxalite-affected areas has been wholly emasculated, or has simply not evolved beyond the primitive structures of colonial governance, or has, through a combination of factors, including primarily the incompetence, corruption and criminalisation of the political leadership, deteriorated to the point of paralysis.
This give rise to strong advocacy in the India establishment and among armies of international ‘activists’ and ‘experts’ for another bogus ‘solution’ to the Maoist rampage: bringing ‘development’ and ‘civil administration’ to areas currently under Maoist disruptive dominance. But this ‘strategy’ – if kite-flying deserves such a title – has no possible future. It is based on a simple logic of inversion: if the lack of administration is the problem, providing administration is the obvious solution. But this is not as easy as it may first seem.
There has been a long-standing myth that India suffers from ‘too much governance’; that its ‘bloated bureaucracy’ needs to be ‘rationalised’ through drastic reduction. This is another bit of the most extraordinarily contrafactual nonsense that has taken firm root in the Indian imagination. The reality is, India’s administrative capacities are collapsing, not just qualitatively – because of the rising incompetence and corruption of the system – but even in terms of minimal quantitative variables. Thus USA, with its belief that “the best government governs least” has as many as 889 Federal Government employees per 100,000 population. India’s Central Government employs just 295 per 100,000, and a large proportion of these are flogged out to a number of public sector enterprises and units entirely unconnected with core governance. The Railways, for instance, is the largest single Central Government employer, accounting for over 42 percent of the total pool. If Railway employees were to be excluded from the strength of Central Government Employees, this would leave us with a ratio of just 171 Central Government employees per 100,000. Moving on to State and Local Government employees, we find that, in the US, these account for another 6,314 per 100,000; in sharp contrast, Uttar Pradesh has 352; Bihar, 472; Orissa, 1,007; Chhattisgarh, 1,067; Maharashtra, 1,223; Punjab, 1,383; Gujarat, 1,694. Worse, in India, the overwhelming proportion of Government employees is in the lower cadres, as against the ‘thinking’ element of the state in higher echelons. Even in the latter category, qualitative profiles, including modern and administrative skills, training and technological competence are severely limited. Crucially, there is no plan or programme, given current resource configurations, that can address the cumulative developmental deficits in India in any timeframe that is relevant to counter-insurgency goals. Given current state capacities, it must be clear, no proposed strategy can offer the possibility of a decisive victory, or even enduring gains, against the Maoists.
It is the infirmity of the state, and the effective absence of its agencies and services across India’s vast rural hinterland, and not some inherent and irresistible appeal of the Maoist ideology, that explains the seeming ‘popularity’ of this anachronistic doctrine in a modernizing world and an apparently modernizing India. The Maoist strategy simply harnesses a complex of inducements and terror to enthral populations that have fallen into the blackholes of India’s administrative and security system as a result of decades of political neglect, vacillation, collusion, corruption and ineptitude.
Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; Executive Director, South Asia Terrorism Portal; and Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. He is also a founding and Executive Committee member of the Urban Futures Initiative. This article first appeared at the South Asia Terrorist Portal – SATP – (http://www.satp.org) – produced by the Institute of Conflict Management.
1. Mao Tse Tung, “The People’s Liberation Army Captures Nanking”, April 1949.
2. Ajai Sahni, “Naxalites: While We Were Sleeping”, South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 3, Number 19, November 22, 2004, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/sair/Archives/3_19.htm#assessment1) Nihar Nayak, “Naxalites: The Economy at Risk”, South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 3, Number 31, February 13, 2005, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/sair/Archives/3_31.htm.
3. Nihar Nayak, “Naxalites: The Economy at Risk”, op.cit.
4. Ajai Sahni, “Bad Medicine for a Red Epidemic”, South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 3, Number 12, October 4, 2004, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/sair/Archives/3_12.htm#ASSESSMENT2.
5. Union Minister’s statement at a meeting with representatives of political parties and voluntary organisations in Bangalore, The Telegraph, April 25, 2005, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1050425/asp/nation/story_4658169.asp
6. Ambassador Mulford, during a visit to Andhra Pradesh. See “India rejects Mulford remarks on Naxal violence”, The Times of India, January 29, 2005, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1004832.cms