During his May 2017 visit to Naxal (Maoist) hotbed Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested that Naxal rebels lay down their weapons and return to the negotiating table. However, he failed to follow up this request with any governmental commitment and the attacks and ambushes by Naxal rebels continued, causing immense loss of lives and property. In two major attacks in April and March of 2017, Naxal rebels ambushed and killed a total of 36 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and injured many more. The attack of April 2017, which occurred at Sukuma in Chhattisgarh, surpassed the casualty count of the deadly attack of 2013, in which 25 leaders, including a state minister, were killed.
Since its inception at Telangana in the 1930s, the insurgent movement has become one of the major threats to the democratic structure of the Indian nation. The sustained violence by Naxal rebels and security forces has claimed the lives of 3,000 security personnel and 2,000 civilians in last 13 years. Previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh characterized the “Left Wing extremism” Naxal movement as the “biggest threat to internal security.” In recent years, the frequency of Naxal attacks has increased at a rate that led to the U.S. Department of States ranking India third on its 2016 list of nations facing the most terror attacks. The unnecessary loss of lives and resources warrants a major policy remodel pertaining to Naxalism in India.
The feudal state machinery and oppression of land workers and farmers prominent in pre-independent India led to the rise of Naxalism. Even in post independent India, the Naxal movement continued to flourish in states such as West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra where tribals and land workers were oppressed or ignored by government officials and big businesses.
Since the beginning of Naxal movement, the government of India has treated it as a mere law and order problem and followed a standard repetitive strategy of mounting a massive police response after each Naxal attack. Due to increasing police combings and diminished accountability, news of security forces burning villages or sexually assaulting children have become all too common. The near-constant fight has also disrupted or destroyed many basic services such as access to schools, hospitals, clean water, etc. A government study found that nearly 593 schools were destroyed as of 2013 due to the conflict in Chhattisgarh. In Dantewada, which is one of the worst hit districts in Chhattisgarh, only 2 percent of the rural households had access to clean tap water; official data reports that 84 percent still depend on unreliable “hand pumps.” A survey by the Ministry of Women and Child Development also found that 38 percent of tribal children below 5 year of age are underweight and 44 percent have stunted growth.
It is evident that the government’s strategy of curbing the violence after the fact is not working. The few developmental programs, such as training and placement of tribal youth (under Pandit Deen Dayal Upayadhaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana) and skill development centers, are also not able to reduce the spread of Naxalism. The continued immense loss of lives and resources warrants that Indian government and policymakers search for new avenues to end this war. One of such promising avenues can be bringing the rebels to the negotiation table by creating a holistic process of disarming the rebels, integrating them into society, and ensuring that the socioeconomic conditions are improved.
The Colombia peace deal can provide a skeleton for developing such an approach. The Colombia peace process was signed between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP), which ended the approximately five-decade-old civil war. The FARC represented the underprivileged and poor sections of Colombian society against the Colombian government. President Juan Santos initiated peace talks with the rebels and was successfully able to sign a peace deal, which has since became a blueprint for tackling any such civil war or insurgency.
The Colombia peace agreement is based on few underlying provisions, such as comprehensive rural reform to ensure holistic development of the rural population, increasing and improving citizen participation in the government through strengthening democratic and electoral opportunities, and involving the victims of establishment or rebel atrocities in the actual negotiation process. All these provisions formed the basis of the final ceasefire between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. Despite a few hiccups, the peace deal seems to be working in Colombia. Thus, it can act as a framework to develop a more efficient strategy to bring India’s own rebels to the negotiating table.
Some provisions of the Columbia peace deal, such as comprehensive rural reform, can be adopted verbatim for India.
The astronomical economic segregation between rural and urban areas, social inequity, and weakness of administration mechanisms were the primary reasons of the rise and spread of Naxalism. Although the government attempted to tackle rural poverty by enacting sweeping land reform and tenant reform policies immediately after independence, poor implementation of laws and numerous loopholes made such reforms unsuccessful. Similarly, continued access to forest produce became a bone of contention between the government and tribal people. The latter have used the forest for their sustenance for centuries and sudden restriction to its access due to mining and developmental projects led to discontent. Naxal rebels have used this discontent as a recruiting tool; thus comprehensive rural reforms would be a positive step toward addressing the socioeconomic issues behind Naxalism. Comprehensive rural reform for India would include land access and use reform such as proper implementation of Schedule 5 and 9, a special rural land legal system to resolve land conflicts between government officials and tribals, and improving laws for equitable access to forest produce.
The Columbia peace deal also incorporated reforms targeted at reducing the poverty level of tribal, underprivileged, and marginalized people.
Although the national GDP growth rate of India is 7.2 percent, most tribal and marginalized peoples live in abject poverty. As noted earlier, governmental institutions such as schools, hospitals, and public housing are lacking and due to war there has been no infrastructure development in these regions for many decades. Comprehensive rural reform in the Colombia peace deal ensures government commitment to developing rural infrastructure like road networks, power services, and irrigation facilities, facilitating rural integration into the urban center.
The lack of proper electoral representation of the tribal and under-privileged people led to the disenfranchisement of people with government. The Columbia peace deal ensures increased political participation through improved access to the political system and provides for the promotion of electoral participation among tribals.
The Columbia peace deal is also unique in the way that it involves the victims of the conflicts in the actual peace and policy negotiations. As there have been numerous reports of Naxal rebels’ brutality and police excess since the inception of the Naxalism movement, no peace deal would work if the victims of such brutality are not acknowledged through judicial and security mechanisms. Thus, the Columbia peace deal helped in restoring the confidence of victims and rebels alike toward the government.
The Colombia peace deal provides Modi with a model to fulfill his election promise of stopping the “the drama of death” and achieving his mantra of “development is the only way to solve your problems.” A peace deal, if properly executed, will go long way in both ensuring the development of Naxal belt districts and cementing the legacy of Modi.
Swaptik Chowdhury is policy commentator for Swarajya and The Quint.