LONDON: The Maoist insurgency raging through India’s rural heartlands has come to dominate the domestic security agenda in recent months, but this internal struggle for power should also be seen as a vicious by-product of India’s emergence as a global player.
Mining, critical for India’s growth as a global power, erodes traditional livelihoods and fuels armed struggle
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly describes the Maoists – otherwise known as Naxalites after the town of Naxalbari in north India, where the movement’s first uprising took place in 1967 – as India’s “gravest internal security threat.” That much of India’s mineral potential exists in its poorest regions, where the Maoists are strongest, represents a direct threat to the country’s growth trajectory at a time when it struggles to meet demand for coal, iron ore, steel and other commodities.
Although the Naxalite movement is somewhat diffuse, the primary threat comes from the Communist Party of India (Maoist), led by a Politburo of 13 members, with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 fighters and pockets of influence in at least 20 of India’s 28 states. A series of high-profile attacks dominated the news in 2010, including a 6 April ambush in the state of Chhattisgarh that left 76 paramilitaries dead and a 28 May train derailment by a Maoist-affiliated group that killed 148 civilians.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly describes
the Maoists as India’s “gravest internal security threat.”
These attacks are but a few of a daily stream of reports of assassinations, extortion and police gun battles. In the first six months of the year, 389 civilians, 177 members of security forces and 144 insurgents were killed, with the annual death toll expected to far outstrip the 997 people killed in 2009. By comparison, conflict in Jammu and Kashmir claimed 375 lives last year.
Critics blame the government’s counter-insurgency surge launched late last year, nicknamed Operation Green Hunt, for increasing police battalions in affected regions without addressing underlying grievances related to poor governance, lack of development and the denial of basic rights to India’s poorest citizens.
On the surface, the problem appears intrinsically internal. Former links to Nepalese Maoists were severed after the latter entered peace negotiations in 2006, while early support from China has long since dissipated in the face of improving Sino-Indian relations and the embrace of capitalism in both countries. In contrast to many Islamist extremist groups, the Naxalites represent a traditional form of insurgency, with little interest in attracting global attention through attacks on international targets or use of internet-based propaganda.
The geographical spread of India’s Maoist insurgency. (Map: Outlook, modified by Debbie Campoli, YaleGlobal) Enlarge Image
Nonetheless, India’s growing global stature fuels the Naxalite resurgence. Soaring growth rates of recent years, with the gross domestic product more than doubling to $1.2 trillion since 2003, are to a great extent a product of India’s economic liberalization over the past two decades. India’s potential as a market for foreign goods, the growth of its services and manufacturing sectors, and its critical geopolitical position between China and Central Asia combine to make the nation a central player in 21st century international relations, a position reflected in a raft of free-trade agreements and its exemption from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But while economic growth has benefited millions of its citizens, government promises to make that growth more inclusive of the poor through improved infrastructure, social-security programs and work-guarantee schemes have scarcely been realized. Most recent figures from the government’s Planning Commission show 41.8 percent of the rural population still lived below the poverty line in 2004-05, and here, Maoists find an abundance of potential recruits. Moreover, as communications increasingly reach these communities, so does awareness that they are excluded from India’s global success story. India has 550 million cell phone subscribers with around 20 million new accounts opened every month in 2010; the number of satellite TVs in rural areas increased by 49 percent in 2009 and 64 percent in 2010 – often reaching the poorest through communal viewing.
In particular, remote tribal communities, lacking in basic government services, have become the core constituency for the Maoists. After years of exploitation by landowners and corrupt forest officials, India’s tribals now find themselves awkwardly sitting atop some of the country’s richest mineral reserves and on land allocated as “special economic zones.” The government sees these resources as vital to boosting foreign investment, ensuring future energy security and meeting soaring demand from domestic industry. By contrast, India’s tribals view globalization largely as a source of intrusion, dispossession and pollution.
The Maoists show little interest in attracting global attention through attacks on international targets or use of internet-based propaganda.
Tribal protests against mining and industrial projects have gained international attention through global campaigning groups such as Amnesty International and Survival International. One sustained campaign targets Vedanta, a UK-listed mining company, for plans to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa, a deity for the local Dongria Kondh tribe. The campaign has led to a number of shareholders, including the Church of England, selling stock on ethical grounds. Similar protests against land acquisition have delayed major projects such as the $12 billion steel project planned by South Korea’s Posco, also in Orissa.
Regardless of peaceful protests, India’s economic trajectory exercises strong pressure to industrialize remote areas and expand India’s relatively small mining sector, which currently accounts for 2.8 percent of GDP despite vast reserves of coal, bauxite, copper, diamond and many other minerals. That pressure tends to be exercised through corrupt channels of state-level bureaucracy, facilitated by weak systems of property entitlement, that leave many of those affected without decent compensation or effective means of protest or redress.
These issues have provided the Maoists with the ideological underpinning by which to galvanize popular opinion. Theirs is essentially an extreme form of critique of the globalized, pro-capitalist direction set by India since 1991. In the absence of legitimate governance, the Maoists often represent the only form of political representation available to tribal communities. Once entrenched in a region, their presence instigates a cycle of deteriorating security, an exchange of violence with security forces, which embeds them deeper within the local population.
India’s tribals sit atop some of the country’s richest mineral reserves….and view globalization largely as a source of intrusion, dispossession and pollution.
The biggest obstacle to foreign investment in India remains stifling bureaucracy and rigid regulations on foreign ownership, but the Naxalite insurgency and the violent trend of anti-globalization is a growing source of disquiet for investors. The federal government has attempted to address some grievances of local populations through better protection of the environment and tribal property rights, or more equitable disbursement of profits to affected communities. One example is the Forest Rights Act 2006, which aims to recognize ownership of land that a tribe or individual has traditionally cultivated. However, such initiatives often fall victim to corruption or bureaucratic inefficiency at local level, with reports in the press of legitimate claims rejected or ignored. Elsewhere, an attempt to give 26 percent of mining profits to local communities through a revised Mining and Minerals Bill faces vehement opposition from mining lobbyists, and would face implementation problems if passed.
In the meantime, the recent surge in violence reflects a momentum that threatens government efforts to win the allegiance of local populations. Commentators urge improved governance and development, but the task is enormous. As just one example, a 2007 report by the Centre for Environment and Food Security found that Orissa government officials had pocketed 75 percent of funds allocated under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the government’s flagship anti-poverty scheme.
Poverty-reduction measures are crucial to undermining the Maoist insurgency and softening the impact of global economic processes on India’s most vulnerable citizens. But when endemic corruption undermines these measures, the case for a globalized India has little to recommend it to the millions still below the poverty line.
YaleGlobal , 29 July 20
Eric Randolph is freelance writer based in Delhi and London. He is deputy editor of Current Intelligence magazine and working on a forthcoming book on the Naxalite movement for Hurst & Co. Follow Eric on Twitter @IndiaDeskCI
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