Some years back, the Maoists boasted they were expanding their sphere of influence right up to Nepal. Their slogan was: From Tirupati (in Andhra Pradesh, India) to Pashupati (in Kathmandu, Nepal). They weren’t taken seriously then. But things have changed now, especially following the deadly attack earlier this week I blogged about yesterday.
Today, the Maoist insurgency, which started in the 1940s in a small place called Naxalbari in West Bengal (hence the name ‘Naxalites’), has spread to at least 16 of India’s 28 states. Everything the Maoists say today must be taken very seriously indeed.
But the insurgency—in security terms described as left wing extremism—has raised some troubling questions for Indian policymakers . These include:
1. Is the Naxal fire being stoked from abroad, by state or non-state actors? Indian officials have spoken rather mutedly about the foreign hand behind the Naxals. Even if the foreign involvement is currently minimal, what happens if these foreign actors eventually come forward in a significant way (for example backed by terror outfits funded out of Pakistan like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed) to extend training, funding and arms to the Maoists?
2. Militarily, how should the Indian state should deal with the Maoists? Should the Indian government use the Army and Air Force to give a decisive edge to Operation Green Hunt against the Naxals—something New Delhi never did in countering insurgencies in Kashmir or terrorism in Punjab?
3. What would be the political cost for the UPA government if it were to take the war against the Naxals to a new and decisive level, yet even bigger Dantewada-type massacres then take place more frequently in response?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Personally, I see the Naxal problem as the biggest security challenge for India, with its roots a complex mix of non-governance, mis-governance, corruption, illiteracy, unemployment and a pathetic lack of infrastructural development. The government will have to adopt a two-pronged approach: launching better planned surgical strikes by competent security personnel at Maoist strongholds while simultaneously giving a fillip to developmental efforts.
But this is easier said than done. To begin with, New Delhi must do two things immediately. One, it must prevent a further spread of the Maoist insurgency, rather than focusing on reclaiming or liberating territory under Maoist control. Second, the central government needs to create a separate ministry or a division directly under the Prime Minister’s Office to initiate, implement and monitor developmental and infrastructure-related schemes in the Red Zones.