LEFT-WING extremists have once again proved that they can strike at will against government forces despite official assertions to the contrary.
The Maoist attack last week in Orissa’s Malkangiri district, killing 20 policemen, is the second in less than 20 days.
The carnage comes close on the heels of another ambush on June 29 in the Chitrakonda reservoir on the Orissa-Andhra border, when Maoists waylaid a boat carrying personnel of the crack Greyhound anti-insurgency unit from Andhra Pradesh, killing over 40.
Maoists are not only in the forests of India. The frequency of attacks indicates that the extremists are consolidating their hold in rural belts and building buffer zones from where they could move towards urban areas.
They are spreading influence in non-forested areas of Vidarbha and Marathwada in Maharashtra, industrial hotspots in Orissa, the villages of West Bengal, plantation areas of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and even in Punjab and Haryana.
Maoists are today allied with civil society groups, from those protesting displacement on account of large projects to those protesting ill treatment on account of caste.
Besides several thousand armed cadre with new weapons, Maoist sympathisers number several tens of thousands.
If there’s anything more unfortunate than the Maoist killing of police personnel, it is the government’s attitude towards tackling the menace.
Both the Centre and the states initially treated Naxalism and its fallout as a law and order issue and devised counter-offensives to fit that theory. When pressure intensified, the rebels just shifted their trenches and operations to the forests and hideouts of neighbouring states, leading to a to-and-fro operation that distorted official assessment of the effectiveness of the counter-strategies and consequently of the extent of Naxalite entrenchment.
Even now the kneejerk reaction, predictably, will be to crack down on Naxal-infested areas for a few days. The home ministry that is responsible for internal security has done little to address the reasons why people are lured in droves to these anti-State movements.
Why are they placing their life on the line against the undeniable might of India’s state apparatus.
Maoism is not India’s greatest internal security threat. But poverty, non-governance and corruption still are. Maoists merely mirror India’s own failings as a nation and their presence suggests abdication and neglect by the government in an area that equals a third of India.
The Maoist movement attracts people treated poorly, denied livelihood and justice, and other ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Perennial frustration, helplessness, misery and official apathy drive them to embrace violent methods for a change.
Growing socio-economic disparity and a deepening sense of that killer reason - hopelessness - is sending people in vast pockets of rural India closer to the edge. Nonchalant officialdom gives them the impression that unless they take up arms, they are not listened to.
The government overlooks the root cause of the malady. It is easy to say that the situation must be firmly treated as a law and order problem. To combat them, the state provides two questionable examples. One is of the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, which pits tribal against vigilante tribal, a cynical strategy to divert attention from failures of governance and socio-economic development.
The other example is that of Andhra Pradesh, where the Maoists are on the defensive, on account of a largely successful, ruthless policing strategy.
While the Maoists can sink boats carrying elite strike forces or raid jails to free hundreds of rebels, the police personnel of the affected districts are a pathetically demoralised lot, with neither the resources nor the will to end the crisis. And the vacuum of enforced peace is not filled with development beyond urban centres, leaving vast territory vulnerable to recurring anger.
It is time that the attraction they hold, at least initially, for the poor living in underdeveloped areas must be countered with positive and clear-cut policies and action. The task of bringing development to remote areas where Naxalism has gained a foothold is easier said than done. For this, the state cannot impose development models from afar but needs to engage people closely in the process.
This will yield dividends in more ways than one. It will take the sting out of people’s longstanding grievances that the Naxals have been able to cash in on and also encourage human intelligence that can benefit the state in its fight against the militants.
Officialdom has been woefully wanting in imagination and innovativeness in devising measures to entice the rebels back to the mainstream. The government should singly or collectively open a dialogue with Naxalite leaders instead of persisting in hounding them as criminals and vandals. It will be a long haul, but it is a challenge that the state cannot afford to falter over if it is to preserve the idea of India.