The scale of the problem is staggering and extremely worrying. The ineffectiveness of the prevailing anti-Maoist strategy calls for a fresh approach.

Understanding the exact nature of the Maoist threat is of great importance, as the strategies and solutions to counter the threat will flow directly from this understanding. Improper understanding can result in strategies that are not only flawed, and hence ineffective, in countering the threat but also result in great costs, both in terms of opportunities and lives. The current impasse in dealing with the Maoist threat results exactly from this kind of improper understanding and the failure of strategies framed from such an understanding. Here, we suggest a shift in the government’s anti-Maoist strategy after attempting a better understanding of the nature of the Maoists. Hopefully it will be the beginning of a new debate on an alternative approach to counter the Maoist threat, in light of the fact that the existing strategy is not showing results, and has failed to stem the rise in the number of body bags piling up in the jungles of Central India.

It is astonishing that, when all the evidence is to the contrary, even well educated and informed people including those in key decision making positions, continue to be under the impression that Maoists are fighting for development, justice and an egalitarian society. That it is the lack of these that causes Maoism. That they are only misguided in that they use violent means to achieve their otherwise noble goals. This is largely because of a successful propaganda campaign that portrays Maoists as do-gooders frustrated and disillusioned with a rotten and draconian system that fattens the rich and emaciates the poor, and eager to change this bourgeois system through violent means. The Maoist as Robin Hood model has an intuitive “feel good” appeal and even highly educated members of society are seduced by it.

From this understanding flows the forceful argument that to eradicate Maoism, along with police action, it is equally important to undertake development and provide justice to the poor rural and tribal populations who are being “exploited”, “tortured” and “raped” by policemen, government officials, landlords and moneylenders, and whose lands are being “snatched away in the name of development” to be given to rich corporates.

The numbers

Following the increase in the scale and audacity of Maoist attacks on security personnel, civilians and infrastructure, one would have thought that public perception is changing. While the attack on the CRPF 62nd Battallion in Dantewada in April 2010 that killed 76 jawans, and the derailment of the Jnaneswari Express that resulted in 148 deaths, did provoke more outrage than usual, it was only of an ephemeral nature. The scale of the Maoist threat, going by statistics, far outweighs that posed by terrorism. While 840 lives were lost in terrorist attacks during the period 2006 – November 30, 2010, during the same period 5374 lives were lost in Maoist attacks.

The prevailing perception is that Maoists usually target only policemen and other symbols of government authority. Being the do gooders that they are, they would take care not to cause even a scratch to civilians, on whose behalf and for whose wellbeing in fact they are fighting and making great sacrifices. The statistics speak an entirely different story. As the pie diagram below shows, civilians by far form the largest proportion of those killed, accounting roughly for two thirds of all deaths.

The tribals and the poor – on whose behalf the Naxal “struggle” is being ostensibly waged – are the biggest victims of Maoism. On an average, three deaths occur per day in Maoist incidents, two of the three deaths being civilian. Civilians – tribals and rural poor – are routinely murdered by Maoists on the pretext of being police informers. They also face extortion and harassment.

While the perception is that Maoists are fighting for development, the profile of the targets chosen by the Maoists completely shatters this myth. Besides security personnel and police infrastructure, their primary targets are basic physical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railway tracks, telephone towers and exchanges, substations and so on. Blowing up schools and murdering teachers is the latest Maoist fad in West Bengal and Jharkhand. Maoists raise funds through extortion of poor villagers and tribals, contractors building infrastructure like roads, officials implementing social sector schemes such as the MNREGS and employees of public sector units and private companies operating in Naxal-dominated areas.

Sexual exploitation and child soldiers

Inspite of overt allegiance to egalitarian ideals and human rights, the Naxal organization exhibits a clear class- and caste- based pyramidal structure where those on the top hail from rich, landed, well-educated, upper caste communities and the foot soldiers – who are sent into battle and become cannon fodder for the leadership – comprise poor, illiterate, lower caste villagers, dalits and tribals. Within the rank and file exist practices such as sexual exploitation and rape of female personnel. A female Maoist leader who was subjected to sexual exploitation by male personnel informed that most women recruits are sexually exploited by senior Maoists. The Maoists also use child soldiers and have a childrens’ wing called Bal Sangathan consisting of hundreds of children. Children as young as twelve years old are armed with weapons.

This is the bare reality of India’s Red Robin Hoods. We have not even gone into the matter of districts which have been declared as Naxal-prone where the writ of the state barely runs and Maoists run parallel administrations. Even though the scale of the problem is staggering and extremely worrying, Maoism does not seem to occupy the place that it deserves in the country’s mind space. Worse, the do gooder image of the Maoist endures, thanks to the activities of the overground faces of the Maoists who masquerade as intellectuals, activists and so on, as well as the tendency of the Left-liberal dominated mass media to portray Maoists as misguided Robin Hoods out to bring justice albeit through the wrong means.

Then what exactly are the Maoists doing and what do they want? Whatever their overground faces and sections of the media tell us or imply, the Maoists are very clear and make no secret about what they desire. Without resorting to the sophistry that their overground faces routinely employ, the Maoists plainly state that their objective is the overthrow of the existing “bourgeois” democratic system in the country and its replacement by a “peoples” totalitarian Communist dictatorship. The Naxalite movement, therefore, is basically a “struggle” to capture political power through violent means, as opposed to a do-gooder movement to help the poor villager or tribal keep his land from being grabbed by corporates, for instance. Once that basic truth is understood, recognized and internalized, the question as to how to confront them becomes easier to answer.

The strategy

Though the government fully understands the true nature of the Maoist threat, the existing anti-Maoist strategy is informed by the old school of thought. The government’s approach is “to deal with naxalite activities in a holistic manner, in the arenas of security, development, administration and public perception management.” The strategy, put briefly, consists of deploying security personnel in massive numbers in Naxal-dominated areas and using the secure environment created as a result to allow government officials to enter the areas and implement development works.

While the strategy looks good on paper, it is flawed on three fronts. Firstly, it is based on the impression that it is lack of development that causes Maoism. We have seen that this is not true. Second, it is difficult to see how improvement of development, administration and public perception management can take place as long as the Maoists operate. Further, improving governance and development in Naxal-prone areas may cut off oxygen supply for Maoism but will not remove the root cause – CPI (Maoist) and its objective of replacing the democratic system with a Communist dictatorship. This objective will remain as long as the CPI (Maoist) exists. The only long term solution to Naxalism, therefore, lies in the complete destruction of the CPI (Maoist). Improvement of governance and development is certainly important but these tasks should progress independently, as they do anywhere in the country. While development and security are certainly related, linking up the anti-Maoist strategy to governance and development is not only based on a flawed understanding of Maoism but also introduces unnecessary confusion and results in resources spreading thin.

The third flaw with the government’s anti-Maoist strategy is pumping large numbers of security personnel from the generalist central police forces (CPFs) such as the CRPF into Naxal-prone areas for the specialized task of fighting Maoists. The CPFs are not appropriate for the purpose, as they are not adequately trained or equipped, nor are they aware of the local environment, including terrain, culture and language. Hundreds of jawans, men with families operating far from home, poorly paid and equipped, low on morale, low on local knowledge, are losing their lives every year fighting an enemy they understand little.

We suggest that the blunt deployment of large number of security personnel in Naxal-prone areas must be held back. When you are fighting an enemy that retreats into the shadows soon after attacking you, it is better to operate on specific objectives, take the fight to the enemy camp and strike at its heart, instead of wandering around and exposing yourself to repeated attacks. Follow the beast to its den and then slay it. Instead of flushing the jungles with battalions of poorly trained and equipped paramilitary soldiers, it is better to have a smaller specialized strike force neutralize important members of the Maoist rank and file, acting on precise intelligence inputs. Such a force would ideally be made of personnel drawn from the state police forces and would be experienced, well trained in jungle warfare and covert operations, in top physical condition, be familiar with the local environment including culture and language, high on morale and armed with latest equipment and technology. Large deployments of CPFs could follow much later, once Maoist presence in the area is significantly weakened, as a means of holding areas already secured. A precedent for such a strategy already exists, specifically in Andhra Pradesh where the Greyhounds special force has been successful in weakening the Maoist presence in the state. The state took little help from the CPFs to solve the problem, adopted a focussed approach and is today enjoying an improved security environment. It is time other states share Andhra’s relative freedom from Maoism.