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Using Sports to Fight Naxalism in India

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Using Sports to Fight Naxalism in India

Evidence suggests that sports-based interventions can discourage youth from violence, and also aid social development.

Using Sports to Fight Naxalism in India
Credit: Flickr/ Pabak Sarkar

The U.S Department of State’s “Country Reports on Terrorism 2016″ was released recently. In the list of countries that faced the most terror attacks, India was ranked third, behind Iraq and Afghanistan. The report made a special mention of the Naxalite (Maoist) attacks that India faced in 2016, which upped its ranking. Though the U.S. State Department report created a strong media frenzy in India, the by now regular encounters between Naxalites and the police in the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Telengana, or Maharashtra have become so common that they hardly merit mention in the media. Unless there is a massacre, such encounters do not evoke debates anymore.

While the regularity of the encounters makes them stale news for the media, it is this constancy that warrants discussion from a policy perspective. The Indian government’s traditional approach — using force combined with economic development programs — has so far failed to stop the Naxalites from mobilizing tribal youths. It is time that Indian policymakers looked at new avenues of engaging young people in Naxalite areas, for they have fueled the Naxalite movement for too long now.

Naxalism has existed in India for more than 40 years now and is considered to be the biggest threat to India’s internal security. From 2005 to 2017, Naxalites killed about 2,000 security personnel and more than 3,000 civilians. The worst-hit states have been Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

An expert group of the erstwhile Planning Commission of India, in 2008, had lamented the government for considering Naxalism as a law-and-order problem and concentrating its efforts on curbing violence, instead of addressing the grievances of the tribal people through development programs. Since then successive governments have adopted multi-dimensional approaches to address the issue of Naxalism in India. There are several development programs currently being run by different ministries to promote the economic development of the Naxalite-affected districts.

While poor economic development indicators might look like the most obvious reasons for Naxalite insurgency in these states, a study conducted in 2017 by researchers of the London School of Economics has shown that there is no conclusive evidence to prove this. The Naxalite-affected states have similar growth trends to other states, and do not score significantly lower on development measures. Though the government has intensified the implementation of development programs in these states, incidents of violence have not abated. It is thus time to scrutinize the motivations of the tribal youths for joining the Naxalites.

While exploitation and oppression of the tribal people at the hands of ruling classes, abject poverty, and deprivation are some serious reasons that cannot be discounted, tribal youths’ reasons for joining the Naxalites are varied. A study by a Harvard Law School researcher in 2010 suggested two main reasons: “Motivation of public mindedness” (where youth commit to violence unselfishly because they think it enhances public good) and “Motivation of rational mindedness” (where youth want to regain power and social prestige in their own villages). Naxalites use these two motivations to sell their ideology to youths while recruiting.

In 2005, when 157 Naxalites surrendered to the Andhara Pradesh police, they made interesting revelations about their reasons for joining the movement. While 32 percent joined after being attracted by the revolutionary songs of the cadre, 17 percent were instigated by motivational speeches, and the rest joined due to social exclusion. In 2015, a study  by researchers from the Department of Defense Studies at Government Science College in Raipur revealed that very few who joined the Naxalites understood their ideology. Rather, 92 percent joined after being attracted to their “Army-like” green uniform, guns, and motivational speeches, besides interests in dances, sloganeering, and other activities of the cultural outfits of the Naxalites.

These evidences point toward a much-neglected problem. Apart from doling out economic benefits, there’s a need for engaging the vulnerable tribal youths in a meaningful manner in society. No development program can be successful unless it results in social inclusion and mainstreaming of the marginalized communities. A study published in 2017 in “Psychology of Terrorism,” a special issue of the journal The American Psychologist, notes that a healthy partnership between the government and community members can provide early warning systems for prevention of violent extremism. True partnership builds community resilience and results in a level of community engagement that effectively serves to reduce the threat of violent extremism. So what kind of development programs can effectively engage these youths?

After coming into power, the National Democratic Alliance government formulated a new National Youth Policy 2014. The policy highlights the need to socially include youths of the 88 districts affected by Naxalism. It has identified 11 priority areas of focus; sports is one of them. Evidence shows that sports-based interventions (SBI) have a positive impact on crime reduction in youth. In England, actively participating in sports has been shown to wean youth away from violence. Engaging in sports helped the “at-risk” youths in two ways. First, it diverted the individuals and prevented them from participating in violent activities; and second, it aided in overall physical and mental development of the individuals by addressing health, welfare, and educational issues.

Undoubtedly the context of violence in England is very different from Naxalism in India, but the strategy of using sports to address the development issues of conflict prone areas is worth testing. A report from the United Nations Inter Agency Taskforce on Sport for Development and Peace emphasizes that programs of “sports for development and peace” need greater attention and resources from governments. It strongly recommends that sports should be incorporated as an integrated tool in the development programs.

In 2016, the UN reported the recruitment of children by Naxalites in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, and West Bengal. It raised concerns that the child recruits were trained and used as couriers and informants, to plant improvised explosive devices, and in front-line operations against national security forces. While force may be used to induct very young children, teens are mostly mobilized through lure of guns and stories of heroism by the Naxalites. Targeting the children of these vulnerable communities with sports-based interventions can help them learn life skills and enhance their psycho-social wellbeing through resilience, and social bonding. In Sierra Leone, former child soldiers were rehabilitated by UNICEF with the help of a local NGO. The program used community-based sport programs to demobilize the children and create in them a sense of belonging to the mainstream.

Conventionally too the Indian tribal youths have a strong track record in physical endurance-based sports, as well as traditional sports like archery. Deepika Kumari, from a Jharkhand, village has won accolades in prestigious international archery competitions while tribal youths from a village in Chhattisgarh have won 94 medals in archery at the national level, and are eyeing the next Olympics. A village in the Naxalite area of Jharkhand boasts 20 international women hockey players, including Nikki Pradhan, who represented India at the Rio Olympics. The Indian contingent at Rio consisted of five players who came from the tribal hinterlands of India.

In India, sport is a state subject and it is the responsibility of the state governments and national sports federations to promote sports. In 2014, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Abhiyan (RGKA) was launched to support building sports infrastructure and access to sports equipment at the panchayat level, in rural areas. Though the scheme also helps in organizing sports meets, it does not cover comprehensive coaching and training. There is an acute shortage of professional coaches in rural areas who can train the local villagers to take up sports in any meaningful manner. In 2015-16, the government spent 8.48 billion rupees on sports, and 3.39 billion rupees on youth welfare schemes, but the total funds released for RGKA from 2014-16 was only 134 million rupees.

Though organizations like UNICEF have partnered with NGOs in some of the Naxalite-affected states to use sports for peace-building, the approach is isolated and scattered. The central government should partner with these organizations in a consolidated effort to use sport in a targeted manner for the reduction of violence. It should fund special sports packages for the Naxalite-hit areas.

Indian policymakers need to realize the potential of sport as an engine of development, to support peace-building and prevent conflict. When applied in a nuanced manner, well-designed sports programs can promote social integration and help bring the vulnerable tribal youths living in the Naxalite pockets into the mainstream. Sports can be an agent of real change, not just mere fun and entertainment. While the main development programs of the government can continue in their original forms, sports should be integrated into them in a coherent manner. Maybe the Naxalite belts of India can usher in a new dawn for India in the world of sports, along with the peace that has eluded these areas for so long.

Kavita Tatwadi is a public policy analyst.

Sumit Kumar is a development professional and a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow. The views expressed here are personal.