Losing to the Maoists

A  couple of days ago, in a conversation with a top executive heading telecom operations in a Maoist-affected state, a couple of truths were driven home. Having served in the army earlier, he was able to bring an informed perspective to the situation. His first observation was that the security forces, and also the Maoists, are operating on a common principle: 'Live and let live.' Facts bear him out because among the 200 odd districts afflicted by Maoist insurgency, nearly 80 per cent of violent incidents are reported from only 30 districts. Secondly, he said, Maoist insurgency has become a catch-all phrase for all the law and order problems in the region, including criminality and extortion.

But what is wrong with the 'live and let live' philosophy, where neither the security forces nor the Maoists attack each other. After all, violence is contained and the situation isn't worsening any further. This is a huge fallacy. In an insurgency, there is no stable equilibrium.

Tragic loss: Officials carry the coffins of the personnel who died during
the Maoist attacks in Dantewada. File pic

The insurgents win by not losing; and the security forces lose by not winning. Every day the security forces eschew aggressive operations against the Maoists, they cede ground to the Maoists in the minds of the locals. The 'live and let live' philosophy bestows a sense of legitimacy on the Maoists as they come to be viewed as co-equals of the state. The authority of the state is further undermined as the Maoists continue with their propaganda, recruit new people, garner funding and build their strength.

When the Maoists grab the initiative against the state at a time and place of their own choosing -- as they did at Dantewada last year -- the security forces, lulled into complacency, suffer ignominiously. To deflect criticism, the government is then forced to rush in more security forces to stem the threat. These newly inducted security forces -- ill-prepared, poorly-trained and hampered by a lack of intelligence -- do not add significantly to the combat power of the state. With little coordination between various states suffering from Maoist insurgency and the Centre unable to get all the stakeholders on board, the cycle continues to repeat itself.

As the state has withered away under the onslaught of the Maoists, the criminal elements in the society have taken advantage of the fragile law and order situation. Ransom and extortion have become an industry in this confluence of crime and conflict. A new conflict economy has emerged, sustained by the large quantum of development funds being sent to these areas.

The status quo is reinforced by a Maoist-criminal-politician-bureaucrat-police nexus. Without adequate security, a significant share of the development funds end up feeding this nexus. Meanwhile, the credibility of the state to deliver governance continues to take a bigger hit. The state thus loses the battle for the hearts and minds. This leads to some bizarre situations.

While Assam, Punjab and Kashmir witnessed barely 10 per cent voting during elections held at the peak of insurgency in those states, Maoist-afflicted states continue to witness 60 per cent voting. The charitable explanation is to credit it to the heavy deployment of security forces but the reality is that the Maoists are totally invested in perpetuating the gravy train brought in by elected governments in the name of development. If there was say only five per cent voting in Chhattisgarh tomorrow, the whole country would be united in seeking President's Rule in that state. The unholy nexus underpinning the conflict economy would then be broken -- the profiteering of the Maoists would come to an end.

A single column is insufficient to explain the intricacies of Maoist insurgency in India. However, the lesson to be driven home is that Maoists can not be defeated by violating the basic counterinsurgency dictum of 'Clear, Hold and Build'. Or in other words, while development is a must, there has to be security first.

Sushant K. Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review.

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