When you consider the tremendous volatility of Indian-controlled Kashmir, the communal violence that has broken out between Hindus and Christians in Orissa over previous years, and the explosive political and religious tensions that exist in Punjab; you get some idea of just how seriously India’s government views the country’s Maoist insurgency when they deem it the "greatest internal security challenge".
In many ways this is understandable. For over forty years the Maoists (known as Naxalites after the village of Naxalbari where their rebellion began) have been fighting to establish Communist rule. During this time tens of thousands of fighters have passed through their ranks and over six thousand people (a mix of rebels, government troops and civilians) have lost their lives. Perhaps of even greater significance to the government, is the size of the territory that the Naxalites affect, control or disrupt; their ‘Red Corridor’ of influence covering sizeable parts of no less than eight states and stretching almost the entire length of India. However, although the severity of the insurgency is clear, the authorities’ response has been far from logical.
Whilst Naxalite actions are indefensibly brutal, as underscored by incidents such as the violent slaughter of seventy-five government troops in a single ambush at Chattissgarah last year; the grievances of their support base are at least partly justified. Endemic poverty, illiteracy and poor health in Eastern India, combined with a longstanding neglect of indigenous tribes by successive central governments have given the Naxalites and their leader Koteshwar Rao undeniably substantive backing amongst local civilians – the very reason why the insurgency has been able to continue for so long. Tellingly, the ‘Orissa Gap’ –a sizeable break in the ‘Red Corridor’ where the Naxalites have virtually no influence– comes in the part of the East where the economy is strongest and the quality of life is highest.
Yet instead of recognising this situation and tackling the social grievances at the insurgency’s heart, Indian administrations have overwhelmingly chosen to fight fire with fire and flooded the ‘Red Corridor’ with troops, exacerbating the violence. This ill-fated approach was ratcheted up with the launch of Operation Green Hunt in November 2009- a vast offensive which has so far seen over fifty thousands troops and tens of thousands more police channelled into Eastern regions to take on the Naxalites at a huge financial and human cost. Human rights abuses by the government forces involved have only increased local support for the insurgency.
Last week however, some tenuous but nonetheless positive signs emerged, suggesting that a new tact may be on the horizon. After two local government officials were abducted by the Naxalites, government guns fell silent and the authorities opted for negotiation. Quickly the initial Friday deadline given for the government to meet demands (including the release of Naxalite prisoners in return for the officials’ freedom) was extended and the prospect of further “detailed talks” was floated. Whilst some will argue that negotiations on the back of kidnapping and coercion mean little, the channels of discussion that have been opened are virtually unprecedented in this conflict and mark a shift from over forty years of counter-productive brute force. If – and it is a huge “if” – the unofficial ceasefire of the past week can hold and the officials are released unharmed, then trust between the two camps will be immeasurably bolstered and an opportunity for discussions on long-term compromises may arise.
Of course ultimately the future stability of Eastern India will require huge changes including a renunciation of violence by the Naxalites and a commitment to regional development by the government – two factors currently not even close to realisation. But if negotiations this week are positive, both sides will have the biggest chance in years to, step-by-step, genuinely improve the lives of those they claim to represent: the Indian people.