Maoist fighters in India. Photo: Flickr

Is India’s obscure battle against left-wing extremism going off the rails? A deadly attack on a contingent of paramilitary personnel guarding road construction workers in a remote tribal district in India’s heartland early last week clearly points to serious tactical deficiencies in dealing with this five-decade old menace.

Despite being fairly successful in engaging rebel leaders in its peripheral north-east, India has failed miserably to control violent movements ostensibly protecting the rights of indigenous people, in the country’s tribal hinterland. As Emani A.S. Sarma – a former government secretary renowned for launching genuine tribal welfare measures – explains candidly, “a near total apathy to the problems and the needs of India’s tribal communities has created avoidable space for extremist movements to gain strength.”

An exhaustive 2006 Indian Planning Commission expert committee report found that many of India’s indigenous tribal people – who comprise a quarter of the country’s population and are victims of the country’s socio-economic system – find salvation in insurgency movements. Sarma, who was part of the committee, feels the situation has deteriorated because the Indian state has reneged on commitments made to indigenous people in its constitution.

“Unfortunately, successive governments have failed to appreciate the unique importance of [these commitments] over the more than six decades since the constitution came into force,” laments Sarma, adding that his appeal to higher authorities to constitute a special committee to revise tribal welfare laws fell on deaf ears.

So, the big question is this: have Indian governments unwittingly made the lives of tribals and under-privileged citizens worse? There is no denying that beyond the media glare lies an India that is disproportionately destitute and abnormally low on all human development indicators. Prakash Singh, an eminent security expert and former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board who has studied development challenges in extremism-affected regions, says, “the conflict between ultra-leftist guerrillas and security forces is only bringing suffering to commoners.”

“Any dialogue with the extremists will be futile without doing something tangible to gain the trust of the tribal communities”

Sarma points out how thousands of Guthi Koya tribal people were forced to migrate to adjacent areas with practically no belongings, having been caught in the cross-fire between state forces and extremists in the central Indian province of Chhattisgarh – one of the hotbeds of Maoist revolt in India. In their places of refuge, they face harassment from local officials.

After last week’s massacre, the Indian government, justifiably, wants the security apparatus to focus its operations on high-value targets, abandoning a softer, development-based approach. Indeed, no sovereign state would ever tolerate such a violent challenge to its authority. But is this really the only answer to addressing the deep-rooted alienation and disgruntlement prevalent among India’s indigenous people? The mess in Kashmir and the north-east is a reminder that force cannot be a permanent solution to intractable problems.

Sarma advocates empowering tribals through making them equal shareholders in development projects and strengthening democratic processes at all levels. Singh, on the other hand, argues for a serious efforts be made to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table: neither the rebels nor the Indian state can achieve their aims through force, he believes. The Indian Supreme Court’s suggestion of a Colombia-style peace accord merits serious consideration, he says. Sarma insists, however, that “any dialogue with the extremists will be futile without doing something tangible to gain the trust of the tribal communities.”

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