After the Death of Key Leader, What’s the Future for India’s Maoist Rebellion?

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Mahesh Kumar A. / AP

Relatives and supporters accompany the body of Kishenji, a senior Maoist rebel leader killed in a gunbattle with security forces in eastern India, during his funeral procession at Peddapally village in Karimnagar District of Andhra Pradesh, India, November 27, 2011.

The man known as “Kishenji” was chief ideologue, spokesman and military strategist for India’s Naxals, who have been waging a violent Maoist insurgency against the Indian state for decades. He was killed by Indian security forces last week, and the Maoists have called for a nationwide strike on Dec. 4 and 5 to protest his death. Jason Miklian, writing in Foreign Policy, has an interesting take on Kishenji’s death, a major symbolic victory for the Indian state in its long war against the Maoists:

In a way, the offensive that claimed Kishenji bears an eerie similarity to the past. After its founding, the initial Naxal movement grew for a decade, turning increasingly violent as demands for more egalitarian economic and human rights reforms went unheeded. By the late 1970s, the government had had enough of the unrest and liquidated dozens of the movement’s leaders. The violence subsided and the campaign was declared an unconditional success. But little was done to address the underlying causes for violence: inequality, a lack of justice, and a broken local government. …Military advances may once again break the grip of Maoist violence, giving India another once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop the violence in its heartland. But the gains will be similarly short-lived this time around unless Delhi finally corrects the discriminatory practices towards its indigenous communities that have lingered since its independence. If not, it is only a matter of time before the next Kishenji heads down a jungle path into the shadows.

The movement has faded and revived itself every few years, and in this avatar it has taken the form of a tribal movement whose main targets are the mining companies eyeing the mineral wealth lying underneath India’s forests and mountains. The conflict against the Naxals is often called India’s “hidden war” because, with few exceptions, it takes place far from public scrutiny, in isolated villages in some of the poorest parts of India. When I visited Chhattisgarh in May 2010, less than two months after a massacre there in which 76 security forces were killed, I came back to Delhi and was greeted by a neighbor who said, “Where’s Chhattisgarh?”

But I don’t think the future described above is the only one possible, in which military might wins nothing but a temporary peace. The Indian government has certainly made its strategy clear: it has chosen the hard option and is going after Maoist leaders with the full force of the Indian security apparatus. Firepower and surveillance technology are the only real advantage that the Indian state has over the Maoists, who have a big advantage on the ground, despite a lot of talk from Indian security forces about its “hearts and minds” strategy in districts affected by what it calls “left-wing extremism.” The Maoists, too, seem content to continue their low-grade conflict, unable to escalate the violence and unwilling to come to the negotiating table.

The new variable — one that has the potential to change the path of this conflict — is the emergence of illegal mining as a national issue in India. The Indian media over the last several months have uncovered allegations of widespread illegal mining in several states, in many cases benefiting elected officials. Already, the Chief Minister of one state, Karnataka, has resigned over his alleged links to illegal mining operations. The brutal murder of a nun in Jharkhand, another state where illegal mining is rampant, has given the issue some recent momentum, with activists calling for better enforcement of Indian laws protecting forest-dwellers.

Even some corporations have joined the call to reform India’s outdated laws governing land acquisition and the use of natural resources. They are, of course, acting in self-interest. Protests over these laws have delayed billions of dollars of contracts and helped fuel support for the Maoists, who make it difficult (and expensive) to operate in areas under their control. As long as these issues remain confined to a violent insurgency and its supporters, they are easy for the Indian government to ignore. When they become a political liability, New Delhi tends to sit up and take notice.