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October 4, 2009

Money and friends

They have claimed to represent the poorest and most oppressed sections of society for around four decades now. Their attacks have primarily targeted representatives of the state, including politicians and the police, as well as the rich landlords and infrastructure developed by multinational companies. There is little doubt that the Naxalite threat had been severely underestimated over the past few years, as was candidly admitted by the home minister recently. It is important to step back and analyse the way the Naxalites have managed to carve out their unique identity as a terrorist entity. This is an issue which cannot be dismissed entirely as a “law and order” problem—as suggested even by the Prime Minister of India—but needs a holistic solution.

Naxalites have acquired their funding from consistent sources, having established their own parallel governments in many Indian states. Common methods of funding include extortion and taxes. Since the area under their de facto control is usually heavily forested and rich in natural resources, the Naxalites often extract protection money from trade in timber and other forest produce.

Furthermore, their connection with narcotics cultivation is well documented. According to the Narcotics Control Bureau in India, the Naxalites thrive on money earned through illicit cultivation. Its 2007 report found out that of the total quantity of marijuana seized in the country, a disproportionately high percentage came from Naxalite controlled pockets in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Prakash Jaiswal, then minister of state for home affairs in India, informed the Parliament in April 2008 that cannabis cultivation and its trade has become a source of finance for the Naxalites in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. He further stated that Naxalites get “protection money” from narcotics traders who engage in trafficking, and also safe passage money from narcotics smugglers.

A more subtle mode of financing comes from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), some of who have often been accused of diverting funds to the Naxalites. According to June 2007 report by CNN-IBN, a television channel, 22 NGOs had been issued a show cause notice by the Bihar government for allegedly funding the Naxalites. Similarly, in 2006,  DNA newspaper revealed that 57 NGOs and social groups had been blacklisted by the Jharkhand state intelligence department for funding the Naxalite movement

One of the factors which exacerbates the already violent threat posed by the Naxalites are the  growing external linkages which the Naxalites appear to have cultivated or are in the process of cultivating with other terrorist entities. The Indian Naxalites have historically had a deep connection with their ideological brethren in Nepal. This connection has been extensive on a tactical level too with reports of the Naxalites and the Nepalese Maoists receiving training and obtaining weapons and explosives in each others’ territories.

Recent events in Nepal—where the Nepalese Maoists joined mainstream politics—have shaken up their counterparts in India. The Naxalites do not appear to support this transition,  with CPI (Maoist) politburo member Koteswar Rao openly calling it a mistake. At the same time the Nepalese Maoists have demonstrated that they have not necessarily given up on their radical ideology—they still maintain their armed cadres. The volatile situation in Nepal leaves open the possibility of a return to violence there, with which their ties with the Indian Naxalites could well pick up, if they had indeed ever waned.

An even more worrying aspect of the Naxalites’ growing tentacles is its strengthening relationship with insurgent groups in the North-east such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in Assam, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Manipur. In an interview earlier this year, Mr Rao talked of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) being signed with these groups based on opposition to a common enemy, the Indian state. The Naxalite linkages to insurgencies and separatist movements are not restricted to India. Their links with the Tamil Tigers were reported to be close, particularly with respect to arms procurement and training. Their empathy with the Tigers’ cause was evident when Velupillai Prabhakran’s killing evoked strong condemnation from the Naxalites and was one of the reasons for the Naxalites calling for a two-day all-India bandh in June this year.

The Naxalites’ linkages with Islamist organisations based inside and outside India are more abstruse and may well be speculative. The arrest in June this year of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) leading terrorist in Nepal, Mohammad Umair Madani led to rather interesting revelations regarding LeT’s intentions to align with the Naxalites. His task of integrating LeT militants with Naxalites might not be enough to shed light on the extent of their links or to the possible benefits that both intend to gain from this possible alliance. The Naxalite sympathy for the cause of Islamist organisations in India such as the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI)—as was seen in its condemnation of extension of SIMI’s proscription—may well reflect a purely rhetorical support.

The strength of the Naxalite movement has hitherto relied on the lack of attention paid by respective state governments to alleviate poverty and tackle perceived discrimination faced by the tribals and dalits. It is also a testimony to the success achieved by the Naxalites in convincing the disoriented poor that joining ranks with them is the only way to overcome their suffering. This undeniable social inequity and large scale destitution has resulted in the increasing appeal that the Naxalites have among significant sections of Indian society, which not only includes the tribal communities and disillusioned rural youth but also the members of the intelligentsia. This gave the Naxalite movement a certain gloss which has helped them distinguish themselves from the common criminals or terrorists.

But the situation may well turn grim for the Naxalites if recent actions by the central government are reflective of a change in strategy and will in executing it. The Naxalite problem has been treated largely as a state problem till now since law and order is a state subject. But with the Naxalite affected states reporting more violent incidents this year than Jammu and Kashmir and the North-east put together, the central government has finally woken up to this threat. The government appears serious about trying to eliminate the Naxalites by large scale use of paramilitary forces, with talks of the special forces of the army being called in at a later stage. While necessary to contain the burgeoning influence of Naxalites, securing the population can only be the first stage of the government strategy. It will have to be followed by a cogent and equitable developmental policy to wean the locals away from the pernicious influence of the locals. Simultaneously, the government also needs to do more to take the sheen away from the Naxalites and their ideology. The recent media campaign launched by the government showing Naxalite brutalities is designed primarily to prove that the Naxalites are common criminals with no ideological moorings and is a step in the right direction. But a lot still needs to be done if we are to hear the end of this bloody conflict.


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