Winning by out-governing

Now that India’s co-ordinated anti-Naxalite strategy (widely referred to as Operation Green Hunt) is in full swing, New Delhi has committed itself to a major push against the insurgents. Envisioned as a cross-state, sustained counter-insurgency drive, ‘Green Hunt’ is, in rhetoric at least, holistic. The goal is to defeat the Naxalites militarily while also facilitating economic and social improvement in the states where they have a significant presence.

While the development component of the operation is vague, the government has given some indication of how much money it plans on spending. During a Supreme Court hearing in February of this year, the centre stated that it would disburse approximately Rs 7,300 crore ($1.6 billion) to those states participating in the security operation.

However, all is not well. Green Hunt has been the target of vigorous and sustained criticism from many representatives of civil society. In particular, the anti-Naxalite push has been attacked for being little more than a brutal assault on civilians by a government determined to re-establish their writ in large parts of its hinterland.

Others, more sympathetic to New Delhi and supportive of the police action, have argued that little planning or funding has gone into the post-conflict development phase. These critics argue that unless the conditions that sustain insurgency in India’s tribal belt are also fought any military victory will be short-lived.

The claim that economic under-development in central and eastern India’s tribal belt has lead to the rise of Naxalites has become an unchallenged truism. The ‘backwardness’ and poverty of the adivasis (tribals) in places such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand is so acute that the Naxalite ‘option’ is, for some, the only option. There are few livelihood alternatives. The solution is, according to this argument, massive investment and development which will provide access to jobs and give people a stake in India.

This misses the point. The problem is not under-development. It is a lack of effective and democratic governance. It is not incidental that during the past decade Naxalites have had the most successes in adivasi districts. In central and eastern India, there is a clear correlation between below-average social and economic indicators and the adivasi populations. As a result the Naxalites have—as part of a broader set of ideological and tactical commitments—pursued an active tribal strategy that has alternated between terrorising the local population and providing pro-tribal governance policies.

The adivasi are by no means monolithically—or even broadly—supportive of the Naxalites. However, the rebels have cultivated a political support base among the tribals. By strategically inserting themselves into struggles over issues such as the tendu leaf collection, the Naxalites have presented themselves as an alternative to the state. However, the violence that the rebels have unleashed upon the tribal belt far overshadows any positive contribution that some of their strategies have made.

One of the striking things about the Naxalite heartland is that little has changed there since the colonial era. The state continues to interact with the adivasi as if they were a troublesome subject population. Little has been done for empowering the local population as citizens of a modern and democratic state. Rather than being represented by nurses and teachers, the state has made its presence felt through government agencies such as the Indian Forest Service and the Central Industrial Security Force.

For the British, the adivasi posed problems of governance and control. They could not easily be integrated into the larger colonial economy and were a security problem that needed to be ‘tamed’. As a strategy of ‘taming’ the local population, the British implemented both the Criminal Tribes and Indian Forest acts. They proscribed entire groups, restricting individual and collective mobility and economic rights. The second effectively stripped the adivasi of the right to forest usage by designating large swathes of India’s tribal heartland as reserved land held in trust by the state.

While the Criminal Tribes Act was abolished shortly after independence, its legacies haunt the present. Democratic India continues to interact with tribal populations through institutions of repression that enforce the criminalisation of traditional life through deeply flawed legislation such as the Indian Forest Act.

Less concretely, the legacies of colonialism have created a situation where the practices of governing the adivasi have neither facilitated capitalism nor preserved traditional ways of life. The adivasi have been stripped of their capacity to function as a pre-modern society without being given the tools needed to succeed in a modern, democratic India. It is the worst of both worlds and has given the Naxalites nearly ideal social tools to cultivate an insurgency.

This is why a conventional development-based counter-insurgency strategy is bound to fail. It is based on a false premise. Large scale investment has been flowing into the tribal belt for decades. In fact, the presence of industrial and mining companies has provided the Naxalites with a steady source of income through extortion.

Take the example of Jharkhand. The state holds 40 percent of India’s precious minerals and the state government has signed over a hundred MoUs with industrial and mining companies in the past few years, translating to roughly Rs 467,240 crore ($102 billion) in investment. This is not an insignificant sum, not least for areas populated largely by adivasis. Rather than being a welcome development, increased investment has led to intensified struggles against land acquisitions.

Estimates suggest that while three-quarters of the people displaced by development in the state are adivasis, they are given only one-fourth of the jobs created. The reason is evident. While the governance structures of India since the colonial period have effectively prevented the adivasis from exploiting the forests, there has been little provision of the educational and social infrastructure needed to provide people the ability to succeed in a modern economy.

New Delhi’s counter-insurgency strategy is rooted in a flawed assumption—development in the eastern and central tribal heartlands will help eradicate adivasi poverty and destroy the Naxalite’s support base. Neither is likely to happen. Without a radical overhaul of the area’s governance structure, development will do little more than accelerate dislocation and deepen alienation. What India needs to do is provide greater autonomy to the adivasis and improved social infrastructure in the Naxalite heartland. While recent developments such as Forest Rights Act, granting formal land titles to adivasis, are signs that things may be changing, so far it has been a case of too little too late. The adivasi themselves must be given an increased role and say in both forest management and investment.

This is the fatal flaw of Green Hunt. It is rooted in the two approaches that have always coloured the state’s interaction with the adivasis: repression and top-down development. The Naxalites are able to articulate an alternative vision. Theirs represents a complete rejection of a framework that has done little more than breed poverty and alienation in the tribal heartland. The only way that the government can demonstrate the poverty of the Naxalite vision is by giving the adivasis a real stake in the governance of democratic India.

5 Replies to “Winning by out-governing”

  1. Andrew Gibbons

    This article well describes the roots of the problems that have arisen from official neglect of adivasi people in the tribal belt.

    But Michael Spacek risks muddying his own argument by saying that “The problem is not under-development. It is a lack of effective and democratic governance.“ Surely both of these are the problem, as he admits when concluding that policies have tended to breed “poverty and alienation”. He is right to criticise top-down development, but that is not the same as “a conventional development-based counterinsurgency strategy”.

    The Indian states affected need to move together quickly to gain the support of the people of the area through a counterinsurgency strategy based on detailed analysis of the needs of the situation. This requires a shift from the current enemy-centric campaign (which just antagonises the locals) to a population-centric approach based on offering local people a better future than the Naxalites. This will have three essential elements: security which safeguards the people and protects them from threats and reprisals from the guerrillas; a political strategy of reconciliation, engagement, reform and state capacity-building; and as Michael implies, a development strategy based on meeting basic needs such as education, health care and infrastructure, as well as addressing livelihoods, perhaps through agricultural extension services as much as industrial jobs.

    All this will of course be costly, messy and difficult, but this is the only practicable way out.

    Such a ‘war amongst the people’ cannot be won by killing guerrillas, which is perhaps where Operation Green Hunt is flawed. To quote a modern British general, John Kiszely: “The war [against any insurgency] is in large part a war of ideas, the battle largely one for perception, and the key battleground is in the mind – the minds of the indigenous population, and the minds of regional and world opinion”.

  2. Michael Spacek

    Thanks for the comments. I do see your point about my article potentially ‘muddying the waters’ and don’t disagree that ‘development’ is inconsequential. But, the point I was making is that it is governance (broadly defined) that is the cardinal problem. The paternalistic development argument risks missing the point and bringing governance into the debate is, I think, a necessary corrective.


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