How India's war on Naxalism is being lost

IS India losing the fight against the violent Naxalite movement, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described as "the greatest internal security threat"? That is indeed happening.

By Praful Bidwai

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Sun 30 Sep 2007, 8:22 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:55 PM

Since 2005, more people have been killed in Naxal-related violence than in Kashmir or the Northeast. Naxalism has spread to more than 150 of India's 600 districts. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are the worst-affected states. Since January 2006, Chhattisgarh has recorded over 500 deaths in Naxal-related violence.

Yet, Chhattisgarh demonstrates how Naxalism should not be fought-by unleashing repression against unarmed civilians and violating their liberties, and by instigating bandits who target Naxalites, even while perpetuating gruesome injustices, especially against the disadvantaged Adivasis (tribals) who form a majority in the worst-affected districts.

This conclusion was reinforced during my visit to Chhattisgarh last fortnight with Mukul Sharma, director of Amnesty International-India. We went there to express solidarity with Dr Binayak Sen, health activist, and general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties-Chhattisgarh, detained since May 14 under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004, and Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (PSA). Besides capital Raipur, we toured parts of Dhamtari district, where Sen's organisation, Rupantar, has run a clinic for 10 years. Upon talking to more than 20 people in villages, we failed to find any evidence that Sen incited the public to extremism. Sen has been doing exemplary voluntary work in the Gandhian mould in providing primary healthcare to people in an area where no medical personnel exist, often not even a chemist within a 30-kilometre distance. The public is forced to depend on quacks, and corrupt but apathetic, and usually missing, government employees. Rupantar's clinic in Bagrumnala village offers impressive services at nominal cost, including rapid testing for the deadly Falciparum strain of the malaria parasite, which has saved scores of lives. The clinic largely depends on "barefoot doctors", who advise the public on nutrition and preventive medicine too. The clinic caters to villages in a 40 square-km radius. Its work is irreplaceable.

Everyone we talked to expressed gratitude towards Sen for empowering disadvantaged people, and his efforts to make them aware of their rights-for instance, to water and housing, besides healthcare. All of them see Sen as noble and selfless. No one spoke of even the remotest sign of his instigating people to extremism.

However, it's not an aberration that Sen was detained under the nasty PSA, which criminalises even peaceful activity by declaring it "a danger or menace to public order... and tranquility", because it might interfere with or "tends to interfere with the maintenance of public order..." and encourage "disobedience to established law..."

This extremely harsh preventive detention law makes nonsense of civil disobedience, a cornerstone of India's Freedom Struggle. It should have no place in a democracy.

Yet, the state government has filed a 750-page charge sheet against Sen, including offences like sedition and "waging war against the state"!

There's a purpose behind this-to intimidate all civil rights defenders through a horrible example. This is probably the first time in India that a civil liberties defender has been explicitly and exclusively targeted, and that too, from a politically unaffiliated organisation like the PUCL, which has defended people of all persuasions against state excesses. Sen was victimised precisely because he formed a bridge between the human rights and other civil society movements, and empowered disadvantaged people. The state government, whose very existence is premised upon the rapacious exploitation of Adivasis and Chhattisgarh's staggering natural wealth-and whose primary function is to subserve Big Business, forest contractors and traders, cannot tolerate such individuals.

If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider this:

One of India's most creative trade unionists, Shankar Guha Niyogi, who ignited a mass social, cultural and economic awakening in Chhattisgarh, was assassinated at the behest of powerful, politically well-connected industrialists in 1991. Those who planned the murder roam scot-free.

Chhattisgarh has among India's worst indices of wealth and income inequality. Its cities, including Raipur, are booming with ostentatious affluence and glittering shopping-malls.

At the other extreme are tribal districts like Dantewada, marked by starvation deaths and severe scarcity of health facilities and drinking water. The tribal literacy rate here is less than one-third the national average-30 per cent for men and 13 per cent for women. Of 1,220 villages, 214 lack primary schools.

Worse, 1,161 villages have no medical facility. Primary health centres exist in only 34 villages. The worst off is Bijapur, the district's most violent tehsil, where Naxalites gunned down 55 policemen in March.

The difference in life-expectancy between Kerala and tribal Chhattisgarh is 18 years. They belong to different continents. Chhattisgarh is extraordinarily rich in mineral wealth, including iron ore, bauxite, dolomite, quartzite, precious stones, gold and tin ore, besides limestone and coal. Its iron ore is among the world's best. This wealth is voraciously extracted-without gains for local people.

The only railway line in the state's largely tribal south runs straight to Visakhapatnam, carrying ore for export to Japan. Less than one-hundredth of the mineral's value returns to the state.

Naxalism has thrived in Chhattisgarh as a response, albeit an irrational one, to this system of exploitation, dispossession and loot, along with the state's complete collapse as a provider of public services and impartial guardian of the law.

Yet, to defend the system of exploitation, the state is waging war against its own people through the sponsorship of Salwa Judum (Peace Campaign), an extraordinarily predatory militia trained to kill Naxals.

Its violence has rendered homeless almost 100,000 people, who now live in appalling conditions in camps.

Salwa Judum represents an unholy nexus between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, buttressed by powerful economic interests.

Its atrocities ensure that the Naxalite problem will never be settled. Chhattisgarh is getting polarised between "Red" (Naxals) and "Saffron" (BJP). If the Chhattisgarh government has proved bankrupt in dealing with Naxalism, the centre fares no better.

By relying solely on brute force to fight Naxalism, it's inviting disaster.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

More news from