As the Obama administration decides whether to escalate the situation in Afghanistan by further increasing troop levels, it is clear that foreign policy attention is fixated on Afghanistan and Pakistan, often shortened to AfPak since we prefer reducing countries to jargon. Even the occupation of Iraq has fallen off the radar despite periodic bomb blasts and the continuing presence of more 120,000 U.S. soldiers.
In the midst of all this, so-called experts and strategists have missed a significant development in the same region. The Indian government recently declared that it would launch an all-out offensive against the Naxalite movement, a revolutionary leftist movement that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called “the gravest internal security threat” to the country.
The Naxalite movement began in the 1960s as a peasant uprising against oppressive feudal land relations, but is part of a much broader history of peasant and tribal opposition to exorbitant tax collection, bonded labor, extreme exploitation and land dispossession. The notion of “land to the tiller” and equitable distribution of land are at the heart of many of these movements.
According to some Indian intelligence estimates, there are more than 20,000 Naxalites operating in 14 of India’s 29 states and more than 160 of the country’s 600 districts. The Indian government’s all-out response to this includes deploying up to 100,000 federal paramilitary groups in addition to the thousands of police and special task force paramilitary groups already stationed throughout the country.
This militaristic response can be understood when considering that the Naxalites pose a threat to urban elite of India and the collaboration between corporate interests and the Indian state. According to an article in Asia Times, there is violence between the State and Naxalites in 40% of India’s top 50 mineral-rich districts. Foreign and domestic mineral and industrial interests have been keen to seize upon India’s rich resources, land, and labor and the Indian government has gone out of its way to please these interests by forcibly expropriating land and pushing its own citizens further to the margins.
The existence and strength of the Naxalite movement is essentially an indictment of the Indian state and exposes its significant failures in providing people with basics: shelter, food, water, education, sanitation, health care and rights to land, among other things. It is also a challenge to the notion of thrusting and imposing progress and development onto people without any input in the process from the people who are affected.
Recently, Prime Minister Singh acknowledged that “the growth of Naxalism in central India obliges us to look at what causes this sense of alienation among certain sections of the community, especially the tribal community.” At the same time, the Indian government has been planning this assault against the Naxalites for more a year. As some social activists have pointed out, the government should have used this time to plan and implement programs to alleviate problems facing rural and agrarian areas.