Peace is a prerequisite for development. However, when development is lopsided, peace cannot be sustained. Punjab saw an insurgency, followed by peace, followed by prosperity, and now, disparity, leading to widespread frustration. If this simmering anger leads to the outbreak of a Naxal insurgency again, what are the options available to the government? Can the government stop this from happening? What is being done, and what can be done, to control the spread of Naxalism in Punjab?
After his arrest in September 2009 in New Delhi, Naxal leader Kobad Ghandy had admitted to conducting a recce in Punjab in 2006 and preparing a report suggesting that Punjab is ‘fertile ground to start a revolution’.
Punjab Police has information of latent Naxal activities beginning to take shape in the state, and with the arrest of some top Naxal leaders from the Red Corridor in Mansa, Barnala and Sangrur in 2010 and earlier this year, these fears have been confirmed. “The return of Naxalism to Punjab is at present in its preparatory stages; the Naxal leadership has started the process of establishing front organizations (17 so far) and mass protests against the government,” said a senior Punjab Police official. Reports suggest that Naxal district committees have been formed and they are now conducting recruitment drives and spreading the Maoist ideology in the state. Punjab DGP PS Gill has sounded an alert and the state government has requested the Centre to release a Rs120 crore special package to maintain law and order in the state. A Naxal Cell has also been set up in the state which is headed by an SP rank official and functions under the intelligence wing. Moreover, increasing evidence suggesting a resurgence of the Khalistan movement in the form of posters, t-shirts, mugs etc bearing Bindranwale’s photos; this has lead state authorities to worry about links between the Naxals and those sympathetic to the Khalistan movement.
Punjab has not developed in line with modern concepts of development. Over 75 per cent of the population in the state is rural and overly-dependent on agriculture. There is large-scale rural unemployment due to deteriorating land quality, and cyclical unemployment because of the extended gaps between farming seasons. Growth of family sizes remains unchanged despite land holdings becoming smaller. Interestingly, Punjab has the highest Dalit population in the country (almost 33 per cent of the total population). Dalits work as agricultural tenants and are ill-treated by the landowners. Moreover, the Green Revolution, which led to immense wealth for the farmers, has set standards of living for the population that has forced them into debt traps. Also, unlike Gujarat, Punjab’s proximity to Pakistan has limited the development of large or small-scale industries in the state due to various security concerns. Punjab’s situation, though better off than many other states, has been progressively declining year by year. The per capita income has reduced drastically in the last decade; state GDP growth rate has also slowed down.
In terms of agricultural reforms, farmers have no say in establishing the price of their produce. Moreover, landless peasants who perform the actual farming activities are getting the least returns. They are asking for the removal of middlemen from this process which has already been initiated in some other states. While landholdings in Punjab come under an 18 acre notified limit, there are combined family landholdings that have defeated the purpose of these ceiling laws. A focus on heavy industry in Punjab will help reduce the over-dependence on agriculture and generate round-the-year employment.
Punjab’s terrain is working to its advantage for now as in the absence of a hilly and thickly forested topography, chances of a guerilla warfare-like situation erupting are slim. Perhaps the Naxal leadership wishes to cultivate Punjab as a transit-planning centre, sympathizer base and hideout for Naxal cadres.
Punjab’s development problems are different from those in the Red Corridor. There is no problem relating to accessibility or communications. Instead, the problem is the growing frustration due to depleting resources and flawed development priorities. This requires allocation and implementation to be monitored to ensure the proper execution and remuneration of government schemes like MGNREGA and the Public Distribution System.
In any insurgency situation, the local police are the first to obtain information as they hail from the local villages. They need to be empowered and the Central Paramilitary Forces should only act as auxiliaries. A new law on the lines of the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA), specifically dealing with Naxalism along with strong preventive detention laws must be enacted.
Having faced insurgency once before, the state government is cognizant of the critical need for preemptive capacity-building rather than waiting for the insurgency to gain a foothold and then indulging in firefighting. However, this cognizance is only at the law and order and policing front and not on the developmental front. The government has to take comprehensive action which addresses not only the law and order problems posed by the Naxal threat, but also socio-economic development to ensure that a holistic solution is found.