India’s 21st-century war

In an age of climate change and deepening inequality, the spreading Naxalite insurgency in India - not al-Qaida - may show the world its future.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 November 2009

A year on from the election of Barack Obama as United States president, the conflicts that dominated Washington’s concern under his predecessor are still raging - and even increasing in intensity. This is particularly true of the arc of insecurity that stretches from the middle east through to southwest Asia, where - from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Israel-Palestine and Iran - the reality and potential of violence have hardly been diminished as a result of the change of administration.

Moreover, alongside the high-intensity conflicts where Washington is directly or by proxy involved in this region, there are other slow-burn insurgencies that often receive less attention than they deserve. The persistent rebellion in India of the Maoist guerrilla movement known as the Naxalites is one such. A reason for paying more heed to this issue is that the evolving nature of the Naxalite conflict - including the Indian government’s approach in attempting to combat the movement - may represent a more accurate indicator of future trends in global insecurity even than the al-Qaida network.

A potent legacy

The internal United States debate about its future strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular has as much of its specific focus the current status of al-Qaida, and whether it still represents a major threat to US security interests.

The argument over whether (and by how much) to increase US deployments in Afghanistan - prompted by General Stanley A McChrystal’s request for at least 40,000 more troops - is now complicated further by the political fallout of the now aborted rerun of Afghanistan’s presidential election. The effect of the confirmation of Hamid Karzai as the election winner and thus president for a third term in office (after the withdrawal on 1 November 2009 of his rival, Abdullah Abdullah) makes it even harder for the pro-”surge” advocates to make their case (see Charles A Kupchan & Steven Simon, “Pull the Plug on the Afghan Surge”, Financial Times, 3 November 2009).

Many of those who oppose such a move argue that the US is making a strategic mistake by seeing the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban groups as the main focus of its efforts. These are so embedded in local societies on either side of the border that they cannot, so the argument goes, be defeated in the conventional sense. It is far more important in this view to concentrate specifically on the al-Qaida leadership and that movement’s most determined adherents. By doing so, the US military will lead the task of defeating terrorism and making the world a safer place.

This argument, though yet to be won, can be seen as a significant departure from the dominant thinking of George W Bush’s “war on terror” - especially its tendency to describe any radical paramilitary group anywhere in the world as “terrorist”. The logic of this view, embraced with glee by the neo-conservatives that provided the Bush administration’s ideological fuel, was the radical division of the world into two absolutely polarised sides: with us or against us, there is no room for doubt or compromise.

The search for a more nuanced and targeted approach reflects a degree of new thinking from Barack Obama. The problem he faces is that the mentality of the “war on terror” has proved so influential, including by other states facing their own domestic insurgencies, that it is very difficult to change course.

A hidden rage

A case in point is the New Delhi government’s developing assault on the Naxalite rebels in India.

The Naxalite movement has its origins in a land dispute near the village of Naxalbari in the northern part of West Bengal in 1967. This lasted several years and appeared to have been brought under control. But later, a number of leftist groups fired by a Maoist ideology made links with disadvantaged peoples in parts of rural eastern India; in the early 2000s, this coalesced into a renewed movement (see Ajai Sahni, “India and its Maoists: failure and success”, 20 March 2007)

Since then, the Naxalites have grown in power and influence. They are often brutal in their methods but have managed to win support from huge numbers of marginalised people, in part because of the great brutality inflicted by security forces in the areas the guerrillas control. The Indian authorities are increasingly concerned at the threat the movement poses to the country’s internal security - and even its much-vaunted economic miracle. For the state, and much of the economic elite, the Naxalite/Maoist rebels are simply terrorists who must be put down with whatever force is necessary (see “A world in revolt”, 12 February 2009).

Since then, the Naxalites or Maoists have grown in power and influence, as part of a conflict with the authorities in which there has been great brutality on both sides. They are reported to be active in 220 of India’s 602 districts across fifteen of India’s twenty-eight states.

Much of the activity is spread across India’s so-called “red corridor”, which stretches from the Nepalese border down to the southern state of Karnataka. A current report says: “With a force of 15,000 armed cadres, they control an estimated one-fifth of India’s forests. They are also believed to have 50,000 underground activists. Around 100,000 people, including the intelligentsia, are associated with various front organisations in different parts of the country” (see Prakash Nanda, “India’s deadly war within”, UPI Asia Online, 4 November 2009).

The problem with this view is that the guerrillas draw on the genuine injustices inflicted on poor Indians in rural areas, including (for example) the many thousands dispossessed of their lands and livelihoods by mining corporations and new industries (see Arundhati Roy, “The heart of India is under attack”, Guardian, 30 October 2009). These injustices are part of the entrenched and increasing disparities in wealth and poverty that India’s breakneck race for growth has created.

The war between the Indian state’s security forces (including the armed militias it has organised) and the Naxalites is taking place amid this landscape of desperate poverty and inequality. The rebels’ tactics include the use of roadside-bombs and ambushes, which have helped them kill over 900 Indian security personnel in 2006-09. In the period from April-June 2009 alone, they killed 112 security personnel in four key regions of combat: Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa; over three days in early June, twenty police lost their lives in two attacks (see Divy Khare, “Naxalites strike again, kill 10 cops in Jharkhand”, Times of India, 13 June 2009). In Maharashtra, two Naxalites lured a police patrol into a trap and iTimes of Indin an hours-long fight, seventeen policemen died (see Jim Yardley, “A growing Maoist rebellion vexes India”, International Herald Tribune, 31 October 2009).

The authorities are now being shocked by years of accelerating conflict into raising the level of their response. New Delhi is mounting a large-scale operation - Operation Green Hunt - that is expected to involve some 70,000 paramilitary forces. The aim is partly to counter the spread of Naxalite influence beyond the most densely forested areas that have been their core domain into open countryside; Operation Green Hunt seeks to force the rebels back into the forests where they can (it is supposed) be more easily contained (see Anuj Chopra, “Jungle lair of the Maoist rebels”, 5 November 2009).

The carefully planned operation could take several years to complete. At its root is the firm belief that the target groups, however strong their support, constitute a threat to the emergence of the new India as a global economic power. In such circumstances, strategic ores must be mined and factories built on suitable land. Those in the way - leftist rebels or local villagers - simply cannot be allowed to interfere with India’s onward march to western-style modernity (see “China and India: heartlands of global protest”, 7 August 2008).

It is especially pertinent to note that this rebellion has caught India somewhat by surprise. At the very time that India has finally embraced the consumer society, when burgeoning cities are replete with shopping-malls, entertainment venues and gated communities - violent extremists appear, as if from nowhere, to wreck the party and threaten the future (see Manmohan Singh, “’A Systemic Failure’”, OutlookIndia, 4 November 2009). The fact that much of what is happening can be understood as a desperate response from intensely marginalised people is discounted.

A warming conflict

The import of the Naxalites and other Maoist groups in India may go far beyond the major internal-security problem they pose. From another perspective, they represent an early example of the kinds of radical response that could - if present dominant policies continue - become far more widespread in the coming decades (see “A world on the edge”, 29 January 2009).

In the 2010-40 period, climate change will affect the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world in ever more pervasive ways. As the continents warm up much faster than the oceans and the croplands dry out, the consequence will be a sharp decline in the land’s ecological “carrying-capacity” (see Shanta Barley, “A World 4 degrees C warmer”, New Scientist, 3 October 2009)

This is also a world where there are enormous gaps in living-standards, life-chances and access to resources; where 10% of the world’s people have over 85% of the household wealth; and where hundreds of millions of people in the global south (and north) are marginalised and resentful. The results, if such trends are allowed to continue, will be a combination of more fragile and failing states with intense migratory pressures; in turn this will reinforces the tendency of the world’s elites to seek to “close the castle gates” (see “A tale of two towns”, 21 June 2007).

In this perspective, the rational approach would be led by an awareness of how the dangers of socio-economic divisions and environmental limits make a new definition of security essential (see “A world in need: the case for sustainable security”, 10 September 2009). A continuation of the current path may mean that al-Qaida will be seen as a short-term problem that withered away - and the Naxalite rebellion as the prototype conflict for the 21st century.

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