Would a country with the second largest military in the world protect its’ civilians against terrorism?
It seems extraordinarily outrageous and almost impossible, that a big, well known country, could hide an entire guerrilla army’s activities. But welcome to India, a place where that can, and is happening, and to which we, the rest of the world are completely oblivious. The Naxalites are a terrorist group committing atrocities regularly on civilian and military personnel. In fact, it’s not new news, they’ve been attacking their own for almost half a century now, yet it is still no more publicised or persecuted by the authorities or the wider world.
“There are two India’s. The dazzling India which we see every day on our tv channels. But there is another India which we rarely see or write about”
On 18th May 1967, in the remote south Indian village of Naxalbari, a splinter group of the Communist Party of India declared their readiness to adopt armed struggle to redistribute land and take control of the state. Despite initial fame and success in their early years, the Naxalites became estranged from the political system and were forced to hide in the more remote areas of southern India. In the last decade however, a massive resurgence has been underway, as the Indian government allow foreign companies to exploit their natural resources, thousands of India’s rural poor suffer and the Naxalites’ Maoist doctrine increases in appeal.
In 2006 the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared the Naxalites to be the single greatest threat to Indian security, since then however, there has been apparently no progress made against them as the Indian military is occupied on the Indian-Pakistan border and in the disputed Kashmir region. Between April and June last year, a spate of attacks killed and wounded over 150 civilians and security personnel, since then the violence has continued – several more people were killed last month alone.
“They are not terrorists but leaders of a political movement who want to ‘liberate India from the clutches of feudalism and imperialism”
It is estimated that sixteen of India’s twenty-eight states are ‘infected’ to some degree, India’s intelligence agency has estimated that the number of Naxalites could be as high as 70,000, though other estimates go as high as 120,000.
Of course, in the world’s largest democracy, such a huge movement can hardly have gone unchallenged. Over the past decade individual states in Central and Southern India have affected their own campaigns with varying degrees of failure. Strategies have mainly included arming local resistance movements and emptying villages where there is support for the terrorists. A group called ‘Salwa Judum’ formed around 2005 out of unknown circumstances but claiming to be a spontaneous counter-movement of the people. If it ever was independent, it quickly became a tool of government who armed its members and gave them training and leadership.
After Manmohan Singh’s 2006 declaration, these strategies intensified and almost amounted to civil war with 50,000 villagers dispossessed and displaced by both sides to deny support to the other. The violence of the militias only increased the support for the Naxalites, the conflict peaking with a number of reprisal attacks and accounts of child soldiers being pitted against each other. Even government forces were drawn into the mess of accusations and atrocities, many critics have claimed that their violence only fed support for the terrorists.
Even in the midst of this violence, Raman Singh, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh (the state which saw most of the violence) claimed that the Salwa Judum campaign was a ‘success story’ while other politicians emphasised its ‘peaceful’ origins. Both sides are accused of extortion, rape and murder; it would be fair enough to add crude propaganda to the list.
As a result of recent violence, this September the government of the state of Karnataka commissioned a permanent 500-strong force trained in jungle warfare, though KPS Gill, the former director general of police in Punjab who is considered an anti-insurgency expert, told reporters: “The anti-Naxal strategy is a flop. Someone picked up the strategy from some book and forced it down the throats of the paramilitary forces.”
While groups of Naxalites have offered ceasefires, the Indian Government says it will only consider peace talks if a complete ceasefire is forthcoming – the fact that this has not been offered undermines the image of cohesion and of a unified army made up of the many Naxalite groups.
The Naxalite spokesman Ganesh Ueike claims that they are not terrorists but leaders of a political movement who want to “liberate India from the clutches of feudalism and imperialism”. He has condemned militants in the disputed Kashmir region who have been blamed for attacks against civilians in Mumbai, claiming that the Naxalites only attack government forces: ‘Those who choose soft targets or do such things to create communal hatred have nothing to do with people. They are mercenaries funded by national or international powers … All this should be condemned.’
Meanwhile, the Indian Government continues to oscillate between encouraging the misjudged violence and denying that there is a problem. In January this year, the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen brought condemnation from Amnesty International and several Nobel laureates. On flimsy evidence he was convicted of sedition after campaigning against the arming of local vigilantes, saying that innocent people were becoming the victims of something close to a civil war. His arrest gives more credence to what many critics have said; that while it was the terrorists who started this conflict, it was the cheap and almost laissez-faire approach by central government which brought the country close to civil war.
To put all of this into a broader context: since 1990, an estimated 10,000 people have died as a result of this conflict and over 50,000 have been dispossessed. A guerrilla army is active across a huge region of India, their outdated and archaic ideology given credence by the misjudged and repressive actions of central government. The Naxalites are easily comparable in size to the Taliban and have been active for decades, yet in comparison they are almost unknown by the wider world. The question which therefore jumps out is why does this conflict not receive more media attention? Or more precisely how and why does the Indian government downplay its significance?
Bahukutumbi Raman, a former head of the counter-terrorism division of India’s external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, said in 2007: “There are two Indias. The dazzling India which we see every day on our TV channels, in the spins of our political leaders and in the writings of our so-called strategic analysts. But there is another India which we rarely see or write about. This is the India of grinding poverty, a victim of social exploitation of the worst kind, where the inhabitants – mainly tribals – are treated like chattels and domestic animals by the upper caste political leaders, landlords and forest contractors… It is this India coming out from under the carpet, which is flocking to the banners of the Maoist ideologues.”
The success with which this conflict has been hidden is remarkable and can be seen as symptomatic of the Indian Government’s attitude. While some politicians and activists have raised their voices against the military operation, most of the Indian media is often largely unquestioning of the government’s claims and actions. At the same time, activists claim the authorities have launched a smear campaign against them, labelling anyone who speaks out as a “Maoist sympathiser”. The government routinely claims that the rebels are opposed to development and progress, yet GN Saibaba, an activist and professor at Delhi University, said: “The government has no other explanation to offer for why there is an uprising. It is not true that the Maoists are against development but the question they ask is ‘whose development’ and ‘what sort of development’.”
Meanwhile in the international media, the terrorists are usually referred to under the blanket term “Maoists”, and the attacks are usually distant and ineffectual enough to receive little close attention, blurring the overall picture. During the spate of major attacks in 2010, several western journalists were beaten up by the Indian army when trying to get close to the site of an attack. As recently as 23rd September, the journalist David Barsamian became the latest to be deported for broadcasting opinions that were not in keeping with the government line. None of these events have apparently drawn much concern or attention to the running of a country which claims to be the biggest democracy in the world and which Western governments are all vying to get closer to.
Many have tried to draw attention to this conflict though, and the implications of its existence and the way in which it has been hidden. Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy has campaigned tirelessly to draw attention to the conflict and even defended the Naxalites’ tactics. She has attacked the government as a ‘charade of democracy’ which has used the Naxalites as an excuse for a ‘land-grab’ of areas high in natural resources in central and southern India. Roy was accused of sedition by the Indian Government last year though not convicted. Even for someone of milder views, the whole issue of this conflict and the way it has been treated must call into question the attitude the Indian government takes to dissent and its international image. Roy’s criticisms bear even more weight when they bring her an accusation of sedition – an arcane blanket charge that has been described as an ‘imperial hangover’.
It is easy enough to see why this conflict would be embarrassing for the Indian government, the causes of the dissent are not fictional or even ideological and the more of a problem the terrorists come to be perceived as, the more these are highlighted. But it is the entire history of this conflict which is embarrassing, from the failure to crush the rebellion to the woefully misjudged tactics which essentially led to fighting terror with terror. What lengths are the government prepared to go to ensure their great-power status? The longer there isn’t a sufficient reaction, the more the civil war will escalate. The prospects for innocent civilians ought to be better, but the reality is that unfortunately, little will change unless the West, or the Indian government attempt a resolve. It seems, the secret will continue to be kept, and the harm will hidden for longer yet.