A New Turn in India’s War Against the Naxals?

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A kidnapping drama is the latest twist in Operation Green Hunt, India’s 16-month-old fight against Maoist rebels, called Naxals. On Feb. 16, R. Vineel Krishna, the collector of Malkangiri District in the eastern state of Orissa, and a junior engineer were taken hostage by Naxals seeking the release of several of their comrades, among other demands. Collectors are the top administrative officials of the Indian government in each district, often the only ones in remote rural areas, so they are an obvious target for the Naxals, who consider the Indian state to be illegitimate. By Feb. 23, the Orissa state government had agreed to the Naxals’ ransom demands, including a hostage-for-prisoner swap, and the two officials were expected to be released unharmed. The episode will likely make it even harder to attract bright, motivated young Indians like Vineel, who is a graduate of IIT Madras, to the civil service. Tactically, it’s important for several reasons:

It’s happening in Orissa, a state that has seen comparatively little Naxal-related violence, although the Naxals have been trying, with little success, to organize the significant forest-dwelling tribal population there for years. Last year’s protests by the Dongria Kondh against the Vedanta bauxite mine, for example, was a peaceful movement, not a Naxal-sponsored agitation.

It’s another instance of Naxals targeting civilians, a tactic that they typically resort to only when they are under pressure from security forces and want to prevent the locals from cooperating. They do seem to be under pressure, as Sudeep Chakravarti points out in the latest of his excellent columns in the Indian newspaper Mint. Several top Naxal leaders have been arrested, and those losses are taking a toll.

It’s another sign that Operation Green Hunt has stalled. Even with all the arrests and casualties (2010 was the worst year yet for Naxal violence, with 1,180 people killed, including 626 civilians), the Naxals are strong enough to kidnap a top civil servant in a state where they were a minor presence just a year ago. That’s troubling news for Indian security forces, which seem to be unable to make real progress against the Naxals. P. Chidambaram, India’s Home Minister, admitted as much at a recent meeting of top state officials, when he said the fight against the Naxals had reached “a kind of stalemate.”

How to break it? Expect to hear renewed calls by security hawks to send in the Army. That would be a radical move — the Army isn’t meant to be used against Indians — and so far top military officials have resisted it. But they may be forced to consider it. In January, Army Chief V.K. Singh revealed at his annual press briefing a subtle but important shift: he has asked for rules of engagement against the Naxals. The Army plans to take over an airfield in the state of Chhattisgarh, the heart of Naxal territory, as a training ground. Singh made it clear that the Army has not changed its position on staying out of internal security matters, but he wants to make sure that if attacked, his men, who would be even more valuable targets than civil servants, are able to retaliate:

“Army can face any kind of threats. This is why I am hopeful that whatever the internal security situation is there at present they [the Naxals] will not do something like this. Because if they do something like this they know that the counter attack will be very harsh. Why we have asked for the rules of engagement is so everyone knows what they should or should not do.”

India’s state police and several central paramilitary forces are already fighting the Naxals; the door is now open for a new, more serious arena of confrontation.