India's hidden war heats up

NEW DELHI, India — Deep in the jungles of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, commandos from the police force's elite “Cobra” division launched a devastating surprise attack on an encampment of Maoist rebels last week.

Providing a wordless rebuttal to the prime minister's admission that India is failing in the protracted battle against the would-be revolutionaries, the police action took the commandos deep into Maoist-occupied territory. And together with a new blitz of government propaganda countering the rebels' claims to be fighting for justice for the common people, the push likely signals that India plans to step up action against rebels that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has identified as a graver threat to law and order than Kashmiri militants or terrorist infiltrators from across the border in Pakistan.

Simmering for nearly a decade, India's low-level war against these communist revolutionaries has been fought mostly under the radar, since the battleground lies in the remote jungles of some of the country's least developed states — like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa — where indigenous tribal peoples comprise a substantial part of the population. But as Singh pointed out in a recent speech to a gathering of police chiefs from the country's 26 states, the rebels have leveraged official complacency and local resentments to steadily gain ground against the state.

"I have consistently held that left wing extremism is, perhaps, the gravest internal security threat we face,” Singh said on Sept. 15, admitting that efforts to contain the rebels have failed to yield significant results. Two days later, the subsequent one-two punch of the surge-like commando strike and the propaganda campaign — full page newspaper ads featuring photos of seven innocents allegedly killed by the Maoists and the slogan “Naxals (Maoists) are nothing but cold-blooded murderers” — hints at the strategy the government plans to adopt as the mostly hidden war heats up.

But it remains to be seen whether deploying crack commando units, whose numbers are limited, can generate real results against the Maoist's guerilla army, or whether media propaganda will be effective in diminishing support for the rebels among the dispossessed — for whom newspapers and television are often unknown luxuries.

Without a doubt, India needs a new strategy. According to the latest data released by the home ministry, roughly 220 districts across 20 of India's 26 states are variously affected by Maoist activity — a fourfold increase since 2001. At the same time, the Maoist struggle has surpassed Kashmir as the deadliest conflict on Indian soil, and the number of fatalities per year continues to grow.

The reason, says Ajai Sahni, an expert on terrorism at the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, is that India has yet to come up with a sustained, coherent response to the revolutionary threat. Political sensitivity has prevented the government from launching full scale, military-type actions against the rebels, and the piecemeal efforts to fight them with small units and civilian militias have been disastrous.

“How can you send men out in a 12-man force or 20-man force when you know that the Maoists are going to come in the hundreds, if not the thousands to overwhelm these posts? You cannot say to people, 'I've recruited you as a policeman, now go commit suicide.'”

At the same time, public and political sympathy is relatively strong for the Maoist cause — unlike the cause of Kashmiri separatists, for instance — because the inequalities and injustices of society are blatantly obvious and the Maoists have been very effective at tapping into resentments of controversial government actions like the acquisition of tribal land for mining projects.

“There is a bottom 7 to 10 percent of the population which has been treated very badly by Indian policy makers,” explained Ashis Nandy, a sociologist with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. Though a revolution is not on the cards anytime soon, the constant gains made by the Maoists over the past decade are of grave concern, because the disruption of public services in remote areas threatens to have a snowball effect.

“If they can create substantial disruptive activities across India, the government will be confronted with a situation that will get more and more difficult as time goes by,” said Sahni. “We cannot come to a situation such as what happened in Nepal, where they had no government anywhere except in Kathmandu.”