Indian Army Raises the Stakes in Its War Against the Maoists

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Paramilitary personnel at the site of Maoist attack in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, June 10, 2011 (Photo: Sanjeev Gupta / EPA)

June has been a deadly month in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, the heart of the Naxal movement, India’s raging Maoist insurgency. Six security forces were killed on Sunday, bringing the total number of police and paramilitary fatalities to 43 in the month of June alone. That represents almost half of the fatalities among security forces in the state in 2011; and more than 10% of the total number of deaths, including civilians and suspected Maoists.

What’s behind the escalating violence? The Indian Army stepped into the fight. Army officials insist that they are there simply to train, not to engage in a direct confrontation with the Maoists, who hold vast stretches of central India. More than 5,000 people have died in Maoist-related violence since 2005, making this conflict far more deadly than jihadi extremism or militancy in Kashmir or the northeast. The idea of sending in soldiers to fight the Naxals is a controversial one — India would be, in effect, deploying its Army against its own citizens, and it would be doing so not on a restive international border but in its mineral- and forest-rich heartland. But as I reported earlier this year, the Army chief was careful to make sure that his troops had rules of engagement before entering Naxal territory, giving them legal authority to attack if attacked.

That now seems almost inevitable. The Maoists have issued statements condemning the Army’s presence in Chhattisgarh and criticizing the state government for allocating land to the defense ministry in a place where so many subsistence farmers and forest-dwellers are fighting to keep their own land. Several Indian newspapers have carried reports from Indian intelligence sources that the Maoists are planning an attack on the new Army camps. Whether they are there only for training or not, the presence of the Army will only complicate what is already a tense situation on the ground and exacerbate the already tense rivalry between the central and state security forces.

Meanwhile, there are continued reports of the repression of civilians. Aman Sethi’s recent piece in Caravan tells the story of a village near the site of the notorious ambush of April 2010. The people he met allege a year-long campaign of harrassment by security forces, who considered them Maoist sympathizers. It’s a vicious circle that the Indian security establishment has not yet  begun to address:  brutal attacks by the Maoists lead to indiscriminate crackdowns by security forces, which in turn fuels fear among civilians and their tacit support of the Maoists, who use that support to launch new attacks. Sending in the Army might inspire confidence in India’s cities, where people have grown weary of this endless war, but it is unlikely to break this disturbing cycle of violence.