With the 15 March slaughter of fifty-five policemen by Naxalites (or Maoists) in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, India's Maoist insurgency once again entered the international limelight. The local state government launched an operation involving 8,000 security personnel, indelicately described as an "act of revenge". As the conflict escalates, human rights monitoring becomes next to impossible. The ongoing counter-Maoist offensive remains largely opaque to scrutiny, with egregious violations on both sides.
In suppressing insurgencies, national and local authorities have developed a reputation for committing unlawful killings in so-called "fake encounters" - incidents fabricated by security forces in order to justify the murder of dissidents. The guidelines of the National Human Rights Commission of India on fake encounters were developed after incidents with Naxalites in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. On 23 July, 2006, eight Maoist rebels, including Gurra Chennaiah, were shot dead by state police in an alleged encounter in the Nallamala forests in Prakasam district. The opposition Telugu Desam Party claimed state malfeasance, joining a groundswell of popular and intellectual protest. Despite the public outcry, the state Home Minister K. Jana Reddy rejected the demand for a judicial probe into the killings.
Government excesses are matched - if not exceeded - by the Maoists. Their targets are no longer restricted to the "petty bourgeoisie", police informers or "class enemies". The chilling massacres of 27 Adivasis ("tribal" people) at Darbhaguda on 28 February, 2006, 13 Adivasis at Monikonta on 25 April, 2006 and 31 Adivasis at Errabore on 17 July, 2006 evidence the widening reach of Maoist violence. Hostages released after the Monikonta massacre told the Asian Centre for Human Rights that the Naxalites "selected" 13 hostages, tied their hands from behind and blindfolded them, before stabbing the bound captives repeatedly and slitting their throats in front of other hostages.
With increasingly brazen rebel attacks, it is difficult to foresee a negotiated solution to the insurgency. The ultimate aim of the Naxalites is to win power in Delhi like their counterparts in Nepal. India is not a weak state like Nepal where the Maoists took advantage of the absence of governmental machinery and expanded their base of support to the point that they became a determinant factor in the democratic struggle against King Gyanendra. The Naxalites certainly speak the language of the rights of the poor and the "tribals", a language that many Adivasis and Dalits can relate to, but their true interests are not Adivasi or Dalit-centric. The Adivasis and the Dalits are pawns, both perpetrators and victims in the Maoist insurgency.
A robust challenge
The offensive capabilities of the Maoists should no longer surprise the Indian security establishment. In the past two years, attacks on state and government facilities - including Jehanabad jail in Bihar on 13 November, 2005, security and electricity installations in the town of Udayagiri in Orissa on 24 March, 2006, and the detention of the Tata-Kharagpur passenger train in the forests of Jharkhand on 10 December, 2006 - show that the Maoists are not another rag tag armed opposition group.
Officials from states in the grip of Maoist insurgency - which has cut through central India - have met frequently to hone their counterinsurgent efforts. These meetings do not seem to be having any impact on the ground. India has never been able to suppress armed insurgency in its forested areas through military means (since independence, Indian forces have attempted to defeat separatist movements in the northeast of the country, which continue to plague the region). There is no reason to believe that the Maoists will prove any easier an opponent. Following the killing of 13 police personnel at Kanjkiro on 2 December, 2006, Madhu Koda, Chief Minister of Jharkhand, claimed that even with 50 companies, he could not guarantee security in the state. The recent killing of Jharkhand parliamentarian Sunil Mahato testifies to the precarious hold local forces have on sections of central India.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April 2006 stressed a two-pronged strategy to addressing the Naxalite problem: effective policing and accelerated socio-economic development programmes. However, at the state level, the demand for more security forces has been the common refrain.
Doing more harm than good
Given the lack of infrastructure in the areas where Naxalites are strongest, no development activity can be undertaken without creating the necessary security pre-conditions. Maoists have consistently opposed development activities, killing two villagers yesterday in Chhattisgarh for allowing the construction of a steel plant on their land. However, whenever security forces are deployed in a concerted manner, they only accentuate the conflict through gross human rights violations.
It does not appear that the New Delhi foresaw the implications of the Salwa Judum campaign, an effort begun two years ago to equip paramilitary citizen militias against the Maoists. The central government has supported such so-called civilian "uprisings" in other insurgency-hit areas. However, Salwa Judum has made little positive impact. Poorly equipped (because state officials are wary of losing sophisticated weapons to the Maoists), the paramilitaries have struggled to compete with the strength and tactical sharpness of the Maoists. Furthermore, the militia has deeply disrupted the lives of locals, displacing nearly 50,000 civilians into government-managed relief camps in an effort to isolate the populace from the rebels. Rather than weakening the Maoists, refugees, Salwa Judum fighters and ill-trained state police officers have become cannon fodder for the insurgents. Furthermore, the paramilitary effort threatens to alienate local people despite being calculated to win their support. It is preposterous to expect that the ineffective Salwa Judum campaign in "six blocks" of one district (Dantewada) can serve as a model in denting an insurgency spread over 170 districts in 13 states across the country.
Chhattisgarh state officials have not plotted a way out of the mess created by the Salwa Judum campaign. If the Salwa Judum relief camps are dismantled, the civilians living in them will be even more vulnerable to Maoist retaliation. At the same time, so long as the Salwa Judum campaign continues, the loss of lives will be high, and the killings will continue to draw international attention.
The present Naxalite movement is not similar to the one launched in the backstreet of Calcutta in 1960s, one driven in large part by students in keeping with the idealistic uprisings of the period. The present Naxal conflict brings the peripheries of India to the national mainstream and directly springs from the concerns of those historically oppressed and dispossessed. If the Naxal conflict develops into the intractable crisis plaguing Jammu and Kashmir, it will bleed mainland India.
Despite the difficulty of such a route, the Naxal conflict can be addressed only through the rule of law and rights-based approaches to development. The government must ensure compliance with the common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocol Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II); ban forcible displacement of civilians, the recruitment of child soldiers and the destruction of the means of survival of civilian populations; better protect vulnerable civilians and ensure accountability for the violations by security forces.
Insurgent movements like that of the Maoists are in large part sustained by the human rights violations of the government. India has never before relied on the rule of law to combat its rebels. Such an approach may be New Delhi's best and only option.