The recent assessment by author Jan Myrdal that the Left-Wing extremist (Naxalite) movement in India is headed nowhere, is bound to come as a shot-in-the-arm for the Indian state. Coming from a man who has observed the movement from close quarters for a long time, and who is also known to be in close contact with several senior Naxalite leaders including its elusive general secretary Ganapathy, the assessment is as realistic as it can get. However, the fact remains that it is not ideology, but the potential to carry out violence, which sustains the movement and will do so for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, the state approach towards the threat must be predominantly oriented towards meeting the firepower of the extremists.
Myrdal bemoans the fact that Naxalite ideology has failed to galvanise the urban class which limits its spread into the cities. He even goes on to provide tips to correct the anomaly — highlight human rights violations committed by security forces, inclusive development in rural areas, and persist with social struggle in urban pockets. Without the Naxals being able to encircle the cities and capture them, the grandiose scheme of overthrowing the present system of governance cannot be realised.
However, it is doubtful if the Naxals continue to attach critical importance to the goal of overthrowing the government, periodic calls to that effect in their publications notwithstanding. Or will they, for the time being, be content with protecting their base areas, which seems to be shrinking somewhat over time?
The movement has lost several top leaders and cadres in the past few years. Naxal publications have, as a result, underlined the need to preserve their leaders, even at the expense of decreasing the number of armed actions against the state. It has also been admitted by the top Naxal leadership that the act of expanding the movement into new areas too fast, without the adequate ground level work that should have preceded it, has spread the movement too thin and weakened it as a result. Assuming that the Naxal leaders are pragmatic strategists, they can be expected to retreat into a self-preservation-and-recoup mode, rather than venturing into an all out war with the state, which enhances the risk of their decapitation. Odd violence would continue, for that is necessary to keep their constituency intact.
Direct fallout of this strategy will be a visible decline in the number of fatalities among the security forces and civilians, which can conveniently be interpreted by the state as an improvement in the situation. The real dangers flow from such a state of mind. In 2011, 589 civilians and security forces were killed in Naxal violence. Fatalities were significantly less than 2010, which had recorded 1,003 deaths. There are reasons to believe that much of the improvement in the situation is primarily due to policy of a tactical retreat by the Naxals, and not by a dramatic augmentation in the capacities of the forces.
Innocuous developments do tell long stories. Consider for example, the advice of the chief of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), asking his men to become “junglee” to neutralise the Naxals. In his official communication in January 2012, Vijay Kumar wrote, “Let us also modify our tactics — be like hunters, hide in his area and hit him hard. Learn to be a junglee.” This certainly isn’t a novel advice. Painted rocks at the Counter-terrorism and Jungle Warfare School in Kanker, which trains about 3,000 policemen every year in counter-Naxal operations, boast of the motto, “Fight a guerrilla like a guerrilla”.
By all means, anti-Naxal operations have remained CRPF-dominant manoeuvres. One would have expected that several years after the CRPF got deployed in the Naxal theatres, this basic trait of fighting the extremists would have been internalised. The fact that the CRPF Director General had to reiterate it, underlines the huge challenges of breaking the shackles of a defensive mindset that has pervaded the CRPF since the huge reversals it suffered in 2010. It is not surprising that the success rate of even the specialised anti-Naxal commando COBRA battalion of the CRPF, according to an estimate, has remained at a meagre 17 per cent.
Since the middle of 2011, a development-led approach has become the cornerstone of New Delhi’s counter-Naxal strategy. Enormous amount of resources and efforts are being made available to develop areas that are “worst affected by left-wing extremism”. Amidst this official hullabaloo, serious efforts to instill a sense of purpose among the forces must continue. The state is bound to discover, sooner than later, that the strategy of developing conflict affected areas without neutralising extremist firepower, is not only an unsustainable project, but also counter-productive.