Containing a virus

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

prime Minister Manmohan Singh rightly called Naxalism a "virus" during a meeting with chief ministers of Naxalite-affected states. Unfortunately, he did not take the analogy further. A virus cannot grow or reproduce without a living cell. Naxalites, thus, must have living hosts. Singh failed to identify the living organism that sustains the Naxalite 'virus'. Not surprisingly, his prescription for eliminating this virus was misplaced.

Singh's response to Naxalism is typically bureaucratic--he sees it as a law and order problem and has thus asked for a specialized security force to 'crush' the Naxalites. The home ministry has responded by setting up a 37,000-strong Indian Reserve Force battalion dedicated to anti-Naxalite operations.

It is perhaps not true to say that Singh entirely failed to spot the widespread poverty in the districts affected by this armed insurgency. All Naxalite-affected districts feature in the Planning Commission's list of 150 poorest districts. And most of them have been among the poorest over the past four to five decades. Going by the most recent poverty estimate, these districts have 35 per cent of India's poor. But his response remained bureaucratic because all he had to offer by way of a more penetrating response was lip-service to questions of development. The problem is lip-service is good for pr, to assuage urban consciences, it doesn't fill bellies, so all Singh has left is the option of repressive force. But how will that work?

The new force will be added to the existing 43,000 central police personnel on anti-Naxal duty. This means for every Naxalite, there will be seven armed personnel. Compare this with other data: in Naxalite-affected areas, average landholding is less than half a hectare and there is hardly one drinking water source for every 10,000 people. In such conditions, the new measure has to fail. Deploying security forces has not contained the Naxalites so far. Rather, it has resulted in further alienation, as the experience of counter-insurgency in Chhattisgarh shows. If the government wants a solution, it should look to Operation Barga in West Bengal, which virtually finished off the Naxals in the state.

It would be naive to believe that the government does not know that meaningful reform is the answer. What is probably true is that reform does not suit its purposes. It is easier to let things drift because it gives it the opportunity to brand all those who oppose its smash-and-grab acquisition strategies to fuel untrammelled industrialization as Naxalite and beat them into submission.

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