When I wrote my post, this past January, about farmer suicides in India, I had originally wanted to add information about the growing Maoist insurgency which is taking over huge swaths of rural India. At the time, however, I couldn’t find any reliable reports on the subject. The thing is, from what I had heard in India it is a massive issue, one that could engulf massive portions of the country, areas encompassing hundreds of millions of people, and I was reluctant to make such outlandish claims without any backing. After all, if it were true wouldn’t it be the biggest news story of the year?
Well, I don’t know how reliable the New York Times is, but I do feel that today’s story on the subject provides some foundation for these claims. First, however, a linguistic detour to explain why India’s Maoist guerillas are referred to as Naxalites:
The Maoist insurgents are also known in India as Naxalites, after Naxalbari, the town north of Calcutta where an armed Communist rebellion first erupted 38 years ago. It was quickly put down, then quietly reappeared.
Now for the numbers:
Estimates by Indian intelligence officials and Maoist leaders suggest that the rebel ranks in India have swelled to 20,000, though the number is impossible to verify. One senior Indian intelligence official estimated that Maoists exert varying degrees of influence over a quarter of India’s 600 districts.
Now 20,000 is certainly a lot less than the 200,000,000 my Indian source quoted me. But its easy to see where they go the number. One quarter of India’s 600 districts is about a quarter of a billion people, less if they are sparsely populated, but still it must be at least 100 million.
The question then becomes what “varying degrees of influence” means. The problem is that the Times is only looking at the Naxalites themselves, and not at their allies. What my Indian source told me is that the past few years has seen an unprecedented rapprochement between various groups which were historically at odds: the Naxalites, the Adivasis (India’s indigenous population), and the peasants. If there is indeed such an alignment between these groups then the “varying degrees of influence” could be quite large.
The top government official in one of Chhattisgarh’s rural Maoist strongholds, Dantewada, acknowledged that the rebels had made some 60 percent of his 6,400-square-mile district a no man’s land for civil servants.
Not that there are many civil servants. His district’s police department has a vacancy rate hovering around 35 percent; in health care, it is 20 percent.
I heard of another report in which a senior army official said that if these areas ignited the army would not be able to intervene. I was informed that this had to do with the broad support the Maoists were seen as having among the peasants and the Adivasis. As Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, says:
Unless something radical is done in terms of a structural revolution in rural areas, you will see a continuous expansion of Maoist insurrection.
Instead of structural revolution, however, local governments are attempting to clear the forest of villages altogether:
Salwa Judum [a government-backed anti-Maoist group] leaders say they have waged their campaign with a singular goal in mind: to clear the villages, one by one, and break the Maoists’ web of support.
“Unless you cut off the source of disease, the disease will remain,” is how the group’s most prominent backer, an influential adivasi politician named Mahendra Karma, put it. “The source is the people, the villagers.”
Somehow I feel that such policies will likely make things even worse…
UPDATE: A more global perspective on the resurgence of Maoism.