As folk wisdom goes, pre-empting problems is better than curing them. If not prevented from arising in the first place, the next best thing is to resolve them with appropriate solutions. The worst thing to do is to allow a problem to develop and then attempt to solve it so ineptly as to make a bad thing worse. The case of the problem of Naxalite violence in certain parts of India falls into the last category.
Across many states in India, especially Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Orissa, Naxalites have been at war against the state. Through their violence, they have held the state at ransom and it appears that the government has decided to capitulate and pay the ransom.
A collection of schemes at the central and the state government levels are being discussed that aim to address the problem of Naxalite violence. One involves the payment of Rs 300,000 into a fixed deposit scheme and which becomes available to a surrendered Naxalite after three years. There is an additional stipend of Rs 2,500 per month.
There is also a “buy back” scheme for arms, a reward for turning in arms. Surrendering a light machine gun is worth Rs 300,000, and for an AK-47 the reward is Rs 200,000. The central government expects to attract 10,000 Naxalites under the scheme which would cost around Rs 4 billion.
There are two parties involved in this conflict: the government and the Naxalites. While the schemes speak of getting the Naxalites to surrender, the only surrendering that is being done is by the government.
This response by the government is inappropriate for a number of reasons. The policy is ineffective in the sense that it will not achieve the stated goal. It can be seen to be a tacit admission of impotency. It is because the government has not been able control the Naxalites using legitimate force that it has resorted to financially bribing the insurgents. This admission by the state has two very dire consequences. It sends a signal to all groups—not just to the Naxalites—that violence is an appropriate strategy for gaining the upper hand in any conflict with the state. And that the state can be blackmailed into submission provided sufficient violence is employed.
In effect, by rewarding the Naxalites, the government has set in motion a mechanism that increases violence instead of reducing it. How the state responds to organised violence has repercussions on the long run stability of society. If the response is weak and ineffective, and is perceived to be so by the aggressors, it makes the problem even worse.
The policy is inefficient also because it does not address the underlying problem which gives rise to the insurgency. Even if the current batch of disaffected people surrender, because the underlying causes persist, others will emerge to replace those that surrender. The supply of insurgents is not inelastic—depending on the incentives, more people can be expected to join. By offering to pay the ransom, the state is essentially increasing the supply of Naxalites through “demand-pull.”
In economic terms, the government program of paying a lump sum to those who have engaged in violence increases the incentives for being a Naxalite, and therefore the quantity of Naxalites supplied increases—clearly not the desired nor the intended result. Similarly, payments for surrendered arms actually increase the supply of smuggled arms. The supply of illegal arms cannot be perfectly inelastic. Therefore increasing their “street price”—which is effectively what the buy-back scheme for arms does—just increases their supply through demand-pull.
The problem of organised violence—regardless of whether it is politically motivated or economically motivated—is a systemic problem. The solution therefore has to be systemic rather than idiosyncratic. One basic feature of the problem is that governments, at the state or the central level, have an interest in papering over it by addressing the symptoms and not attempting to address the underlying cause of the problem. Expediency demands that they somehow get the violence to stop for at least as long as they are in power. That their current actions will have seriously adverse consequences for the well-being of the nation is not of interest to them because those future problems will be the concern of the succeeding generations of citizens and governments.
The problem can be seen as a repeated prisoner’s dilemma game but where the players change in each iteration of the game. The current administration will be replaced by a future administration and the Naxalites by some other disaffected group with their own particular grievances. In this game of complete information, the players will have knowledge of the previous outcomes of the game. Government capitulation will set up the reasonable expectation that the current government will also capitulate. And the then present government will have the same incentive to hand over the problem—at a much greater cost —to the future generation of citizens and governments. The outcome as predicted by game theory is an equilibrium that no party would have chosen.
The solution therefore is to change the rules of the game. The solution has to strengthen the government’s incentive to address the problem instead of merely suppressing the symptoms. The apparently paradoxical move is to handicap the government to make it more capable of solving the underlying problem instead of merely postponing it. One way to do this is for the government to announce an unambiguous policy of no-negotiations with any violent group. But given our history and federal structure, such a commitment is unlikely to be seen as credible. The best—but harder—method is to have a constitutional measure barring all governments from negotiating with armed groups.
If the constitution prohibits any government from giving in to the demands of groups that use violence as a means of achieving their goals, every government will be forced to seek a solution to the problem instead of just paying off some aggrieved group the ransom they demand.
The constitutional restriction of non-negotiation must be well understood and become common knowledge. Not just to the government but also to any potential or actual group of insurgents it should be clearly known that the government does not have the ability to bribe or capitulate to the demands of any violent group.
This will force, first of all, governments to seek appropriate solutions: to redress economic grievance, for instance, instead of just buying off some group more vocal or violent than the norm. Second, it will convince violent or potentially violent groups that the government does not have the flexibility of responding to their demand by paying them off.
A large, diverse and heterogeneous country such as India can be reasonably expected to have groups with seriously conflicting interests. There has to be some systematic way of resolving these conflicts. Most importantly, the system has to be designed such that it precludes the instrumental use of violence. Non-violent methods of resolving conflicts have a special place in India given its history and its civilisational ethic. For non-violent methods to work, however, groups with grievances need to fully understand that violence precludes all negotiations. That can only happen if the constitution does not allow any government from surrendering to terrorists.