Features | Security | South Asia

India’s Greatest Threat?

Brute force may not be enough to beat the Naxalites, David Axe reports. More focus on development might yield better results.

On the early morning of April 6, the 81 troopers from the Indian Central Reserve Police Force were exhausted. For three days straight, they and a single district policeman had patrolled the thick forests of Chhattisgarh, a state in rural western India. They were on the lookout for fighters from the Naxals, an armed group originating in West Bengal that had split off from the Communist Party of India in 1967. Forty-three years on, senior officials in New Delhi consider the Naxals India’s most serious internal threat.

Just 2 days earlier, the Naxals had killed 11 Indian Special Forces soldiers in a bomb attack. In February, 24 government troops died in a pitched battle with Naxals.

The CRPF troopers, known as ‘jawans,’ were resting from their patrol in Chhattisgarh when a large Naxal force hidden among the trees opened fire; a bomb blast destroyed one of the jawans’ vehicles. The Naxal group numbered up to a thousand fighters, according to the government.

Gunfire peppered the weary, confused CRPF troopers. After just minutes, 72 jawans and the sole district policeman lay dead. When a government helicopter rotored in to retrieve eight survivors, it too came under fire.

Something had gone ‘drastically wrong’ to have allowed the Naxals such a complete and bloody victory, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said in the aftermath of the attack. ‘The casualties are very high and I am deeply shocked at the loss of lives.’

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The April attack underscored the seemingly growing danger posed by India’s Maoists and highlighted the government’s lack of preparedness. The Naxals have efficiently adopted tactics and weapons from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Indian forces remain hamstrung by the government’s state-based approach to internal security and the inability of states to effectively share ideas.

More broadly, the Naxals’ apparently growing strength speaks to the inability of the Indian government, at both federal and state levels, to offer residents of impoverished western states an alternative to rebellion. The Naxals don’t exist in a vacuum; they are the products of the inequality and failed governance that plague rural India, and which underpins many of the world’s insurgencies. Where India has succeeded in suppressing the Maoists, this limited success has hinged on progressive economic policies bolstered by sustained police efforts.

Naxal Origins

Communism has been a powerful political force in India since the 1920s. Over time, there emerged two major communist parties: one rooted in Chinese communism and the other in the Russian brand of the ideology. The Naxals were a ‘splinter offshoot’ of the pro-Chinese party, according to Teresita Schaffer, an analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, D.C. ‘These guys split off from the pro-Chinese crowd because they [the formal party members] were not radical enough.’

The schism that gave rise to today’s Naxal movement began in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, in India’s extreme northeast. In May 1967, a group of armed Maoists attacked police in Naxalbari following a land dispute. Later that year, the Naxals formed their own governing bodies and emerged as a distinct movement.

Naxalbari and the surrounding area were fertile ground for rebellion. ‘They [the Naxals] did a lot of recruiting in an area with a large tribal population that was socially distinct from the Indian mainstream,’ Schaffer told The Diplomat. ‘India is socially diverse under any circumstance. Even in that large salad bowl, these guys were distinct. They’re not Hindu. It’s an area with a large, poor, rural population.’

From this base, the movement gradually expanded over the decades. Sporadic Naxal violence has claimed thousands of lives, particularly among police and the Interior Ministry commandos assigned to hunt Naxals. But recent attacks seem to indicate an escalation of the violence.

‘The Naxal threat has been described by the Indian prime minister as the most serious security threat being faced by the nation,’ retired Indian army general Dhruv Katoch, an analyst at the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, told The Diplomat. ‘The movement isn’t externally abetted and second, the movement is not a secessionist movement but aims at capturing power in Delhi much as Mao did in China in 1949.’

Today, Naxals are present in around 200 districts of India ‘in varying degrees of effectiveness,’ Katoch says. ‘Generally it’s confined to the tribal belts, especially those regions which are rich in mineral resources but are underdeveloped.’

Katoch emphasizes that last point. ‘In simple words, we can put the causative factors down to poor governance, which is being exploited by the Naxals to gather the support of the locals. The Naxal movement will die if governance issues are seriously addressed.’

Government Strategy—or Lack Thereof

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In one state, better governance has worked in suppressing Naxal violence, Schaffer said. Andhra Pradesh, a state in eastern India, has successfully reformed its corrupt, once mostly-rural economy and, as a result, has reduced the local Naxal influence.

For years, Andhra Pradesh has enjoyed six percent growth rates in Gross Domestic Product, thanks in part to honest leadership and policies encouraging higher education and information technology. To its traditional foundation of agriculture, the state has added biotech firms and auto plants. As the economy and education levels have grown in the state, and with continued police action, Naxal power has waned.

‘There’s an argument made that Andhra Pradesh has had considerable success in regaining ground where the Naxalites [had] become very strong,’ Schaffer says. ‘They have essentially developed a template that can be adapted and replicated. This has given a lot of people hope.’

‘Having said that, it turns out that doing “lessons-learned” turns out to be a very difficult exercise,’ Schaffer adds. ‘The message you get is that each of these locations and organizations that has done counter-insurgency work has developed the same successful model on their own, and remarkably little has transferred from one place to another.’

This inability of Indian states to cooperate against the Naxals betrays what Schaffer calls the ‘uncomfortable seam between the federal government and the states when it comes to internal security.’ It should be the job of the central government to help unify the actions of the states into a coherent national policy.

But that’s legally complicated in India. ‘That’s the nature of the Indian Constitution,’ Sunil Dasgupta, a professor at the University of Maryland, tells The Diplomat. ‘The constitution says that law and order is the function of the state or province and not the central government and so the states have to respond [to the Naxalite threat].’

Even during the terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008, ‘you didn’t see a take-over of the law-and-order apparatus by the national government,’ Dasputa points out.

Weapons of Choice

Not only does the strictly state-based approach to defeating the Naxals preclude a coherent national strategy, it also means that the Naxals—who aren’t restricted by legal considerations—can adapt faster to a changing military environment. Indian police lack the resources, training and leadership of the army. They just can’t keep up with their Naxalite opponents.

The Naxals have speedily adopted many of the tactics and weapons being refined by Islamic insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, Improvised Explosive Devices—the biggest killer of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan—are the Naxals’ weapon of choice.

‘IEDs not only threaten the safety of our men, but also considerably hamper the speed of operations because the security forces, fearing IEDs, usually walk in the Maoist-prone areas as they do not have the latest mine-protected vehicles, which can guard from such threats,’ Indian Intelligence Bureau Chief Ajit Doval told defence reporter Manu Sood. Doval called for India to buy US-style Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected armoured trucks, each costing around $1 million.

But there’s no process in place, and no money, to buy the trucks and other bomb-defeating equipment for the police. ‘The Indian government and the security agencies have lagged behind in developing a doctrine to fight the IED threat of the Maoists,’ Sood concluded.

Katoch dismisses the equipment debate. ‘Equipment is not the issue,’ he says. ‘Leadership and training is. We already have a successful example of handling Naxals.’ That is, the improved governance and economic development paired with sustained security operations that allowed Andhra Pradesh to diminish the local Maoist threat. States just need to adopt and adapt that basic model.

For his part, Dasgupta says he believes the Andhra Pradesh approach is already taking root in other states, despite the communication ‘seams’ that Schaffer identifies. Ironically, increasing violence is actually proof of that, Dasgupta claims. ‘Any rebellion will have greater violence when government begins to contest their levels. So I think what you’re seeing is a function of the government trying to contest the Naxals.’