On 3 June 2017, India's Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, summed up his government's performance in the past three years with regard to the challenge of Left Wing Extremism (LWE), and said "...there has been a decline of 25% in LWE related incidents of violence and casualties to Security Forces dropped by as much as 42% during the period May 2014-April 2017 as compared to May 2011-April 2014." He also claimed that Naxal-affected states including Chhattisgarh have witnessed major developments that have completely destroyed ('Kamar tod di hai') the support system for Naxal activities.
While the data is indisputable, its presentation as a comparison to the previous United Progressive Alliance-II (UPA-II) regime is interesting. It does make the official achievements vis-à-vis the LWE challenge impressive. However, two key questions remain. First, is the official achievement as impressive as the home minister claims? Second, has the official policy indeed been successful in weakening the extremist movement?
In May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power. That year, 1091 incidents of Maoist violence took place, which was lower than 1136 incidents recorded in the previous year during which the UPA-II had been in power.
Such incidents of violence have continued to decline. However, the BJP claiming credit for the reduction in violence is unsustainable as the declining trend in Maoist violence had already begun in 2012. In fact, data from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) demonstrates that the rate at which Maoism related incidents declined was much higher during the UPA-II regime (1760 incidents in 2011 to 1091 incidents in 2014) than what took place during the NDA regime (1091 incidents in 2014 to 1048 incidents in 2016).
A comparison of the data of years 2015 and 2016 further demonstrates that the LWE situation could actually be beginning to worsen rather than improve in the past two years. Civilian and security forces fatalities have increased by 20 per cent in this period. The first five months of 2017 witnessed the killings of more civilians by the extremists than in all of 2016. Two high profile attacks by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI-Maoist) in 2017 in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district and other incidents have already resulted in the deaths of 62 security forces personnel, which is almost equal to the number of security forces who lost their lives in 2016. Over the past three years, the area under CPI-Maoist domination has shrunk. However, the core areas that support the outfit's activities in a variety of ways have more or less remained intact. This does not unveil a spectre of optimism as far as the LWE scenario is concerned.
From an Action Plan to a Doctrine
The BJP's manifesto for the 2014 parliamentary elections had promised that the party, if voted to power, would "chalk a national plan in consultation and participation of the state governments, to address the challenges posed by the Maoist's insurgency." After coming to power, in June 2014, the home minister spoke of an 'integrated action plan' and sought 'commitment' of the states to 'eliminate' LWE. A 29-point action plan finalised by the MHA included measures to make "full use of media — social, electronic and print — to demystify" the local populace from the CPI-Maoist's propaganda. The MHA floated the concept of 'smart counter-insurgent' by seeking to improve the security forces' tactical skills. It also called for a legal crackdown against non-government organisations (NGOs) that act as front organisations of the Maoists. Some more improvements were brought in in the next couple of months, when the home minister called for a new counter-Maoist doctrine with a goal to eliminate LWE "within the next three years." This was in 2014.
It took three years to unveil such a doctrine. Launched by the home minister on 8 May 2017, the new LWE doctrine, named SAMADHAN, stands for eight ways of combating LWE by ways of making the security forces more capable and making the counter-Maoist operations intelligence-based. The doctrine was hurriedly launched within two weeks of the 24 April attack in Sukma that claimed the lives of the 25 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel. Although the doctrine is impressive for the uninitiated and serves as a demonstration of the government's resolve to get rid of the LWE problem, SAMADHAN, in its entirety, including the advice to the Intelligence Bureau to infiltrate the Maoist ranks, remains a mere compilation of the home minister's unimplemented directives since 2014.
Imposing a Solution Vs Finding a Solution
There can be variety of explanations regarding the government's inability to find a solution to the problem despite setting several optimistic time-frames. These range from the persisting weaknesses among the police and central forces to issues of intelligence gathering. Also apparent is a disjointed effort at the national level aptly demonstrated in the complaints made by various state governments governed by non-BJP parties like in Bihar and Odisha that New Delhi is not adequately supporting them either financially or logistically in their endeavour to deal with the problem. The larger problem with the approach to countering LWE, however, is at the doctrinal level.
New Delhi, instead of working towards evolving a solution with the participation of tribals affected by violence, community organisations, and grass roots politicians and activists, has been trying to impose a solution scripted in the national capital. Even while criticising the UPA-II regime's failure to deal with the LWE challenge, the NDA regime's policies appear to be a mirror image of its predecessor. Use of vigilante groups, increased deployment of central forces, and persecuting NGOs and activists working for the tribals in the remote areas have remained the hallmark of anti-LWE campaign. None of these strategies worked for former Home Ministers P Chidambaram and Sushilkumar Shinde; and these are unlikely to work for incumbent Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Singh may justify such measures against the NGOs and activists as destroying the Maoist support system, but in reality these only alienate the tribals further and drain the security forces off the much needed local support.
In recent times, New Delhi has spoken of a 'permanent solution' to the militancy problem in Kashmir as well as India's Northeastern states. Interestingly, no such promises have been made with regard to the LWE issue. Perhaps, the government, while indulging in self praise, realises that tackling the threat and imposing a solution of its liking would not be easy.