Hong Kong, China — The increasing number of violent incidents involving Naxalite and Maoist cadres operating in India paints a worrying picture of the internal security of the country. During the past three months, violence involving these two extremist groups operating from hundreds of pockets across rural India has claimed more than 400 lives, from both government forces and the extremists.
The Naxalite and Maoist problem is complex. A concoction of caste issues, feudalism and lawlessness in rural India intoxicates the people, so their minds become fertile ground for extremist ideologies. The government has responded by opting principally to counter violence with violence, adding fuel to the fire. Between these two diametrically opposing forces is no middle ground, which leaves the common people no way to avoid violence.
In minimalist terms, Naxalism and Maoism in India are the response of a highly oppressed community, forced to remain silent for decades, against the forces it sees as its oppressors. The fact that this community is fragmented – made up of villagers living in geographically, ethnically and culturally different areas throughout the vast expanse of India, responding to myriad causes – makes the problem even more complex.
The Naxalite or Maoist extremists have no central chain of command and no defined area of operation. They resort to guerilla warfare, striking wherever they can as it suits their interests and fits into the ideological framework of a local extremist leader.
So far, these groups have largely targeted government establishments like police stations. But now they are targeting innocent civilians who, according to the view of a local extremist commander, might resemble the state.
The situation has deteriorated to such a state that the government now must spend huge resources to combat Naxalite and Maoist extremists. Had the government cared to spend such resources in the past for the welfare of the people, and ensured that the resources actually reached the people, extremism would not have spread as it has done.
Extremist activity now affects almost all states from north to south and east to west, highlighting the shortsightedness with which the government has handled important problems. For instance, irrespective of their political color, national and state governments in India have failed to implement land reform policies that would have ensured the people’s ability to sustain their lives in rural India.
In states where comprehensive land reform policies were effectively implemented, as in Kerala, for instance, Naxalism and Maoism were concerns of the past. However, when the Kerala state government ignored the concerns of the people, particularly when their rights to sustainable resources were denied, extremism resurfaced, as occurred during a recent tribal uprising in Wayanad district.
Creating the Salwa Judum, a state-sponsored militia, was the worst possible response from the administration to the challenges posed by the Naxalites and the Maoists. From the beginning the Salwa Judum was engaged in systematic violence against the Naxalite and Maoist cadres – and against anyone the Judum thought should be silenced. This was not surprising, given that the Judum was the result of a criminally negligent state agenda that advocated meeting violence with violence.
Of course the Judum received support from those who feared Naxalite or Maoist action, irrespective of their political color. The lack of accountability enjoyed by the Judum – as opposed to a state agency bound by a legal framework, at least in theory – defined the group’s character from the beginning as one with impunity for criminal acts.
Most of those who joined the Judum did so in the belief that once the Naxalites and Maoists were suppressed, they would be given jobs in the state police force. Similar tactics have been employed in several states in India, where villagers were recruited, trained and deployed as special police officers, with the false promise that they would soon be absorbed into the state police force. These men and women are lured into joining an irresponsible state action with the additional bait of being offered some pittance as pay.
Naxalites, Maoists, Judum and the special police forces all recruit, train and deploy children, in direct violation of accepted norms and international and national laws.
Even after a decade of active engagement with the Naxalites and Maoists, neither the state nor national governments have tried to understand why people would choose to take up arms and risk being killed. An incident that occurred in Kerala on Saturday possibly explains why such an attempt was never made.
P.L. Darbar, an officer from Gujarat state who was posted as an election observer to Kerala, forced a subordinate officer, K. Soopy, to do ten half-squats after a verbal duel between them over sealing a voting machine. The officer was merely asserting his superiority and punishing a subordinate officer, which would not have become an incident of any relevance had it happened in any other state in the country.
In Gujarat and in most parts of India, superior authority defines absolute power. For Darbar, awarding punishment – immediately and in front of other officers – to a subordinate who dared to argue with him was in keeping with his understanding of authority. The meanness of such an act, its inhuman nature and arbitrariness, were not matters he would be worried about elsewhere in India.
India has millions of Darbars, and many even worse examples of misplaced authority. Naxalism and Maoism will not end in India until such men as this stop deciding policies.
(Author of this article, Bijo Francis is a human rights lawyer currently working with the Asian Legal Resource Center in Hong Kong. He is responsible for the South Asia desk at the center. Francis has practiced law for more than a decade and holds an advanced master’s degree in human rights law.)