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State Agenda: 'Curbing Maoist Menace'

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The Indian State is getting mobilized to take on the resurgent left radicalism of a section of the population. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has described the Maoist upsurge in roughly 40 per cent of the country's land mass 'the gravest threat to India's security.' His hyper-active Minister for Home Affairs, the Harvard University educated, P. Chidambaram is sounding tougher - at least in his words - each day. Reports suggest that he is bent on involving the Indian armed forces in anti-Maoist operations. Till now, a major section of the Indian establishment has resisted a military solution to the problem.

The Maoists too are getting bolder by the day. Not a day went by in the past few weeks when no news appeared about their increasingly lethal forays against security forces, comprising armed police and paramilitaries.

A recent debate showcased the ideational divisions in the Indian establishment about actions against the Maoists. The issue was whether the Indian Air Force, involved in support operations to the anti-Maoist forces, would be allowed to fire in self-defense. The fact remained that IAF helicopter units, undertaking surveillance, insertion and extraction of troops and casualty evacuation, are increasingly coming under fire of the Maoists.

So the IAF top honchos decided they needed direction from the government about taking lethal action when fired upon. They requested their administrative ministry, Ministry of Defence for a directive. The ministry, headed by a politician who belonged to a state with a long tradition of left politics, of both the Constitutional and extra-Constitutional variety, thought it beyond his competence to take a decision on the issue.

So he referred the question to a Cabinet sub committee, the Cabinet Committee on Security. The latter kicked it back to him saying he should decide on his own. In the process, a window was opened for various shades of opinion-makers to weigh in on the subject. And it reflected a clear division.

Some said self-defense is a right enjoyed by every individual of the country. Hence, the IAF would not need a directive from the government if it had to fire back when fired upon. Others said 'no'. They argued when the State exercised its monopoly over violence, it needed to devise Rules of Engagement under a legal paradigm to maintain the sanctity of constitutional governance.

But interestingly, neither of the groups argued in favor of an 'all-out' war against the population that is currently imbued with notions of Maoism. In fact, the defense establishment was one in arguing that they were against the usage of armed forces in internal security situations when it does not impinge on external security.

Many also believed the other side of the story. They pronounced that the sharp divisions between sections of the population in terms of their material well-being were the cause of this upsurge. They pointed out some recent reports appearing in the news media that the statistical figures denoting declining poverty levels in the country being touted as a sign of success of the economic liberalization program were now being questioned by the government's own committees.

A recent committee headed by a former bureaucrat, NC Saxena, set-up by the country's central Planning Commission has found that the current statistics of poverty severely undermines its actual levels by inflating the numbers of those who have been uplifted.

Thus these kinds of fictional statistics paper over the societal faultlines upon which the Maoist insurgency is based. This phase of the Indian Maoist movement is unique in the country's history in the sense that it has eschewed creating pockets of urban terror as a sign of their strength and has instead, focused on strengthening their bases amongst the dispossessed, disenfranchised and marginal population of the country. In a true reflection of the Centre-Periphery theory, they have created a huge footprint on the periphery. They now effectively control 180 districts of the country out of a total of 600 odd.

While Indian media has not reported much on the ruling dynamic in these 180 districts, it is natural to expect that if they are holding territory, they would be administering it also. Now much is known about their organizational activities in these areas.

So the abiding image remains of them being a guerrilla force that hides in jungles and mounts foraging attacks on the police where they are at their weakest. There is not a word about how they are realigning the social forces in areas under their control; nor is there any inkling of their plans for governance of those areas.

At the end they remain a shadowy force that is seen fighting a distant war, which has little possibility of putting up a substantial threat to the Centre. In other words, those who argue in favor of not using the armed forces against these Maoists do not consider them anything beyond a 'law and order' irritant. While Chidambaram believes they could be taken out in a series of surgical strikes that could stamp out the phenomenon. There by hangs the tale.