Maoists are back in the news now, making headlines and grabbing column space. While the likes of Arundhati Roy are too extreme in their views to be taken seriously, most other columnists end up reinforcing many prevalent myths about the Maoists. Let us look at a couple of such myths.

The biggest myth is that Maoists are tribals, or are fighting for the tribals. Little do people realise that out of nearly 1,100 persons killed by the Maoists in 2011, 700 were tribals. The complete top leadership of the Maoists is exclusively non-tribal. Tribals are only recruited as foot-soldiers, to be used as cannon fodder in operations against the security forces. Gurucharan Kisku aka Marshal, an ex-Maoist leader of tribal origin, explained it best in 2010: “This impression about the Maoists was painted by some city-bred intellectuals like Arundhati Roy. Media-savvy that he is, Kishenji has instantly taken the cue and uses every opportunity to say that he is leading a just war on behalf of “poor and deprived tribals” and that he is the Messiah.”

Too few good men: The government can’t find the forces to concurrently ‘clear’ and ‘hold’ the 40,000 sq km area being contested by the Maoists. It has to select smaller areas to begin with

Although there is a short-term overlap in their actions, the difference lies in the long-term goals of the tribals and Maoists. Tribals want justice and development from the state while the Maoists want to overthrow the state. Tribals seek redressal of their grievances while the Maoists seek a total revolution. Because Maoists are today using the tribals’ short-term grievances for their own protracted war, it is critical to distinguish between the Maoists and the tribals.

Another myth which has gained credence is that development, independent of security operations, is the answer to the Maoist problem. Because the problem has been caused by underdevelopment, development will work in a vacuum: security operations don’t matter.

Astonishingly, there is little correlation between underdevelopment and Maoist influence. In fact, most underdeveloped areas are not Maoist strongholds. In their 2007 study on measuring regional backwardness in India, Vani Borooah and Amresh Dubey found that out of the 100 districts with highest poverty rates, only 26 are Maoist-affected. Similarly, out of the 100 districts with highest infant mortality ratios, only 9 districts are Maoist-affected. And out of the 100 districts where households do not have enough food, only 15 are Maoist-affected.

Notwithstanding this, the state is duty-bound to bring development to these areas. Additionally, it will help win over the tribals. But despite the emphasis on development, there has been little discussion about the kind of development tribal areas need. The centralised plans formulated by Delhi haven’t worked so far and the Planning Commission’s latest Integrated Action Plan (IAP), which gives Rs 30 crore this year directly to the district officials of 78 backward districts, is destined to meet the same fate. As an aside, at least a fifth of the 78 districts aren’t Maoist-affected but have been included under political pressure.

Even if the IAP projects are tailored to meet the local needs, Maoists are not going to let the government implement them. The tribals want development but the Maoists don’t. That is why they abduct hard-working government officials like Alex Menon. Security thus becomes the essential precondition for development. Without security, a 10 per cent extortion on this year’s road construction budget will give the Maoists Rs 740 crores to buy weapons to target the police and terrorise the locals. The dictum is simple: security, without development, is meaningless but development, without security, is unachievable.

This also fits in with the counterinsurgency doctrine of ‘clear, hold and build’ where security forces first ‘clear’ an area of the Maoists, then ‘hold’ it to prevent their return while development starts in the ‘build’ phase. Because the government can’t find the forces to concurrently ‘clear’ and ‘hold’ the 40,000 square kilometre area being contested by the Maoists, it has to select smaller areas to begin with. An encouraging attempt to implement the ‘clear, hold and build’ strategy has recently been made in the Saranda forests of Jharkhand.

Let us get this right. Maoists are bloody, ruthless killers who are neither tribals, nor supporters of tribals. Security operations are required to defeat the Maoists so that development work can take place. Development is a must, but it needs security first.

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