Revolution in South Asia

An Internationalist Info Project

The Naxals and Salwa Judum

Posted by n3wday on July 29, 2008

This article was published by The Economist. Although coming from a thoroughly bourgeois perspective that Kasama does not endorse, it provides some important background information on the peoples war in India, including information on the Salwa Judum counter-insurgency movement.

A spectre haunting India: Maoist rebels are fighting a brutal low-level war with the Indian state


GANESH UEIKE, secretary of the West Bastar Divisional Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), seems a gentle, rather academic, man, who does not suit his green combat fatigues or clenched-fist “red salute”. He shuffles dog-eared bits of paper from a shabby file in his knapsack and writes down the questions he is asked. He answers them in slogans that he gives every appearance of believing. He wants to “liberate India from the clutches of feudalism and imperialism”.

The rare interview took place last month, in a thatched shelter in a clearing in the Bastar forest in southern Chhattisgarh. The spot was some seven hours’ walk from the nearest road, and there had been a day-and-a-half’s wait for such a “big leader” to emerge from a hideout even deeper in the jungle. His party, he said, was facing renewed suppression, because “the resources of finance capitalism are facing sluggishness in their development, and are looking for new routes,” such as the mineral riches of this forest.

Mr Ueike did not mention that, just a few hours beforehand, at the edge of the forest, in a place called Errabore, his comrades had fought back. Several hundred had mounted a co-ordinated attack on a police station, a paramilitary base and a relief camp for displaced people. They killed more than 30 of the camp’s residents, mostly by hacking them to death with axes. The scholarly Mr Ueike did boast that his army relied on “low-tech weapons”.

This was the latest battle in a year-long civil war in Dantewada district, in which more than 350 people have been killed, and nearly 50,000 moved into camps such as the one at Errabore. It is a remote, sparsely populated, under-developed region bordering three neighbouring states, and nine hours’ drive from Chhattisgarh’s capital, Raipur (see map). It is here that India’s widespread Maoist rebellion is most intense.

On August 15th, in his National Day speech in Delhi, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, linked Naxalism with terrorism as the two big threats to India’s internal security. The terrorism is all too familiar. India’s cities have endured repeated atrocities—culminating in July’s bomb attacks in Mumbai, which killed nearly 200 people. But many are surprised that Mr Singh accords Naxalism such a high priority. A primitive peasant rebellion based on an outmoded ideology is out of keeping with the modern India of soaring growth, Bollywood dreams and call-centres. Moreover, India has fought many better-known wars. A violent insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir has claimed tens of thousands of lives. Its north-eastern states are wracked by dozens of secessionist movements.

But Mr Singh may be right about the Maoists. Known as “Naxalites”, after the district of Naxalbari in West Bengal where they staged an uprising in 1967, they are these days almost a nationwide force. Greeted by China’s People’s Daily at the height of the Cultural Revolution as “a peal of spring thunder”, they were almost wiped out in the 1970s, as the Indian government repressed them, and Maoism went out of fashion, even in its homeland.

In India they splintered into various armed factions, of which the biggest were the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre. These merged and formed the CPI (Maoist) party in September 2004. P.V. Ramana, of the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, estimates the Naxalites now have 9,000-10,000 armed fighters, with access to about 6,500 firearms. There are perhaps a further 40,000 full-time cadres.
In nearly 1,600 violent incidents involving Naxalites last year, 669 people died. There have been spectacular attacks across a big area: a train hold-up last month involving 250 armed fighters, a jailbreak freeing 350 prisoners, a near-miss assassination attempt in 2004 against a leading politician. “Naxalism” now affects some 170 of India’s 602 districts—a “red corridor” down a swathe of central India from the border with Nepal in the north to Karnataka in the south and covering more than a quarter of India’s land mass.

This statistic overstates Naxalite power, since in most places they are an underground, hit-and-run force. But in the Bastar forest they are well-entrenched, controlling a large chunk of territory and staging operations across state borders into Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. In the tiny, dirt-poor villages scattered through the forest, the Indian state is almost invisible.

In one there is a hand-pump installed by the local government, but the well is dry. There are no roads, waterpipes, electricity or telephone lines. In another village a teacher does come, but, in the absence of a school, holds classes outdoors. Policemen, health workers and officials are never seen. The vacuum is filled by Naxalite committees, running village affairs and providing logistic support to the fighters camping in the forest. For the past year, those fighters—mostly local tribal people—have been battling not just the police and the six paramilitary battalions deployed in the district, but their own neighbours.

Not a dinner party

The single spark that lit this prairie fire was the formation a year ago of Salwa Judum, an anti-Maoist movement, whose name in Gondi, the language spoken by local tribes, means something like “peace hunt”. Its origins are disputed. K.R. Pisda, the district collector, or senior official, in Dantewada, dates it to a meeting in June 2005 of local villagers fed up with Naxalite intimidation and extortion. Others say that the Maoists were enforcing a boycott of trade in one of the main local forest products: tendu patta, the leaves used to wrap bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes).

Similar boycotts in the past had succeeded in forcing up prices and had earned the Naxalites some kudos. This one, the story goes, backfired. If it ever was a spontaneous movement, Salwa Judum soon became an arm of government policy—and a paramilitary force. Some 5,000 of its members have been inducted as “special police officers” (SPOs) and given some training and arms.

As the local government tells it, thousands of people started turning up by the roadside, fleeing Naxalite reprisals. There was no choice but to house them in relief camps, of which there are now 17. This is a dirty little war in which truth was long ago a casualty. Salwa Judum itself is also responsible for displacing people—a “scorched village” policy intended to starve the Maoists of local support. This recognises that the Naxalites’ real strength lies not in their guerrillas in the jungle, with their peaked caps and “country-made” rifles, but in their civilian networks in the villages themselves.

In the largest camp, at Dornapal, some 17,000 people are housed in huts of mud and corrugated iron. Health workers say that many of the children are malnourished. One man, Wenjam, says he took refuge here after Naxalites in his local village beat him, and threatened him with worse, because he had a government contract to fence the pond. He had a pukka house, he said, and a herd of cattle. But, after five months in the camp, he had not been back to the village.

Armed police do sometimes escort groups home for a visit. Mr Ueike says there are no “ordinary people” in the camps, only “SPO people and their families”, whom he dismisses as “village feudal families and some lumpen elements”.

Yet some of those displaced are openly critical of Salwa Judum, which they say forced them to leave their villages. They are caught between two vicious enemies. In some villages, residents fled into the forest rather than follow the drive to the roadside. The camps are very controversial. Even K.P.S. Gill, a retired policeman known as a “supercop” for his vigorous role in putting down various insurgencies, and now an adviser to the Chhattisgarh government on dealing with the Maoists, says it would have been better to protect people in their villages.

When the Chhattisgarh government’s home minister, Ramvichar Netam, visited Errabore the day after the massacre, he was surrounded by angry survivors. They pelted his helicopter with stones. Some of the bereaved even refused the money he was handing out as compensation. The Salwa Judum campaign, however, has important backers. Raman Singh, Chhattisgarh’s chief minister, calls it “a success story”, a “non-violent movement against exploitation”.

The same tune is sung by the leader of the opposition in the state, Mahendra Karma of the Congress party, who is, in effect, Salwa Judum’s leading light. A native of Dantewada itself, Mr Karma, like Mr Singh, sits under a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi and stresses the movement’s “peaceful” origins. But he also links it to the global fight against terrorism and asks: “Are we not supposed to protect ourselves in our homeland?” Even the central government seemed at one time to endorse the campaign. In a statement in March the home ministry promised to “promote local resistance groups” against Naxalites.

Now, however, V.K. Duggal, the home ministry’s top civil servant, who, like state officials, calls Salwa Judum “spontaneous”, says that at a meeting last week the central government advised the Chhattisgarh government not to extend the movement to other areas. Delhi is offering assistance: an extra paramilitary battalion; armoured vehicles; minesweeping equipment; and imaging technology to help locate remote Naxalite camps. It draws the line at helicopters for offensive operations. Its emphasis is on persuading the Maoists to join mainstream politics. In his speech this week, the prime minister said he wanted Naxalites to understand that “real power flows from the ballot box”.

Mr Karma and local officials in Dantewada make much of the Maoists’ inhumanity. He says they load the corpses of their victims with mines, so those retrieving the bodies are also killed. Om Prakash Pal, the police superintendent at Dornapal, displays a gruesome photo album of mutilated bodies. Even Mr Gill, who has seen more brutality than most, thinks the Maoists stand out in this respect: “Their ideology is that the manner of killing should frighten more than the killing itself.”

Salwa Judum, too, is accused of intimidation, extortion, rape and murder. Its thugs have been manning roadblocks, supposedly to hunt for Maoists, but also to demand money. Some SPOs—like some Naxalites—may be local hoodlums, who have signed up for the money on offer, and the shiny new bicycles and motorbikes still wrapped in plastic at the Dornapal police station. Some families refusing to join Salwa Judum on its “combing” operations—rampages of arson, thuggery and pillage—have been “fined” or beaten. A report on Salwa Judum produced in April by a number of civil-liberties groups concluded that its formation had “escalated violence on all sides…Salwa Judum and the paramilitary operate with complete impunity. The rule of law has completely broken down.”

The barrel of a gun

For local officials in Dantewada, and the state government in Raipur, the Naxalites are just bandits: extortionists who hold sway through terror alone. Their ideology, they say, long ago imploded in a welter of violence. There is little doubt that they do use terror and extortion. Himanshu Kumar, who runs aid projects in the district, says he used to respect the Naxalites as working “for the betterment of the masses”. But he now found “people supporting them out of fear of their guns, or to gain power to loot others.”

Most of their young recruits—illiterate tribal people—have never read Mao. But not all support is coerced or opportunistic. And those who have studied the Naxalites credit them with far greater organisation, discipline and ideological fervour than any criminal gang. Ajai Sahni, for example, of the Institute of Conflict Management, a Delhi think-tank, points to the detailed socio-economic surveys they conduct before starting operations in a target area, helping to identify grievances they can exploit.

He also says that the Naxalites have been among the most principled of terrorist groups in selecting their targets. Their attacks are not random; though, because they so often use crude landmines, they may kill the wrong people. Their leaders are thinking far into the future, taking a 20- to 25-year view of their struggle. “Liberated” areas, such as their part of Dantewada, would be expanded until they pose a threat even to India’s cities.

Nepal’s Maoists, with whom the Indian party has “fraternal” links, are a model of how such a strategy can work. Having managed to exclude the state from virtually all the countryside, and waged war for a decade, the Maoists in Nepal are now negotiating, from a position of some strength, their share in government—a decision their Indian comrades quietly deplore, despite a pretence of solidarity.

Early Naxalite leaders like Mr Ueike, who has spent nearly 30 years in the movement, were students and middle-class intellectuals. But the tribal peoples among whom they find most of their new recruits are among India’s poorest: “the most exploited, the bottom rung”, according to Ajit Jogi, a tribal leader and former chief minister of Chhattisgarh. Typically, they live in forests and have no rights to their land. A law to remedy this is under consideration, but resisted by conservationists. According to the 2001 census, about three-quarters of Dantewada’s 1,220 villages are almost wholly tribal; 1,161 have no medical facilities; 214 have no primary school; the literacy rate is 29% for men and 14% for women.

Most of the inhabitants are subsistence farmers eking a meagre cash income from selling forest products, such as tendu patta. Markets in the forest have been closed, to throttle the Maoists’ supply chain. For many inside the forest, a visit to the market is now a long hike, camping overnight on the way. A big iron mine, Bailadilla, on the edge of the forest, employs few local people and in the rainy season turns a river bright orange and undrinkable. A railway has been built to take the ore to the sea.

The government blames the Maoists for blocking development, such as road-building. But the Maoists tell people that roads are intended simply to help the state plunder the forests and take wealth out, not bring it in. Many believe them. The Maoists profit from what Mr Sahni calls “asymmetric expectations”: people expect the state to provide for them, and it is failing; any good coming from the Maoists—social work, land redistribution, a price rise for local produce—brings disproportionate gratitude.

Contradictions among the people

To bring development to these neglected reaches, the government needs to assert control. Salwa Judum is the wrong way to go about it. A larger, better-trained police force would help. In India, on average, there are 55 policemen for every 100 square kilometres; in Chhattisgarh just 17. In districts such as Dantewada, policing is an unattractive, life-threatening career. Mr Pal, the Dornapal policeman, is a young and competent-seeming officer from the state of Uttar Pradesh. But he has been criticised in the press for lacking experience.

Some 2,000 policemen have attended a Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare Training School, which opened a year ago at Kanker, on the road from Raipur. The director, B.K. Ponwar, a retired army brigadier, wants to teach policemen “to fight a guerrilla like a guerrilla”. They learn to slither down ropes, as from a helicopter, practise peppering a range with live bullets, run fierce obstacle courses and study survival skills, such as “jungle cooking” (“First, catch your cobra…”).

A policeman’s unhappy lot

Eradicating Naxalism, however, is more than a local policing problem. One difficulty has been that, under India’s constitution, security is a matter for state governments rather than the centre. So national policy for dealing with the Naxalites has been inconsistent. In 2004, the government of Andhra Pradesh held abortive peace talks with local Naxalites, while other states continued to fight them.

Mr Ueike talks boldly of expanding Naxalite influence into new areas: Kashmir, the north-east, and India’s cities. The spread of Naxalism is causing justifiable alarm. Just as Mao Zedong mounted the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing in 1949 to tell the Chinese people they had stood up, Mr Ueike dreams of seeing the red flag fly over the Red Fort in Delhi in his lifetime.

It will not happen. For all their geographical reach, the Maoists’ power base remains on the margins of Indian society. They are far from sparking a general insurrection. But, in places such as Dantewada, almost a hole in the map of the Indian polity, it is easy to see how a crude, violent ideology, promising land and liberation, might take root. Mr Singh had a point when in April he said the Naxalites posed “the single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country”.

Other terrorists attack the Indian state at its strong points—its secularism, its inclusiveness, its democracy. Naxalism attacks where it is weakest: in delivering basic government services to those who need them most. The Naxalites do not threaten the government in Delhi, but they do have the power to deter investment and development in some of India’s poorest regions, which also happen to be among the richest in some vital resources—notably iron and coal. So their movement itself has the effect of sharpening inequity, which many see as the biggest danger facing India in the next few years, and which is the Naxalites’ recruiting sergeant.

Brigadier Ponwar, who joined the Indian army as it went to war in Bangladesh in 1971, says he spent the rest of his career fighting terrorists at home. After fighting low-intensity wars on its periphery for a generation, India risks having to endure another, in its very core, for the next.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: