Naxalism: National Security Implications

By

Lt.Gen Eric A.Vas [Retd]

 

                        The first recorded incident of left wing insurrection in free India was in  Telengana.[1946-1951].  The movement was launched by peasants in their struggle on economic issues against forced labor, illegal exaction and unauthorised evictions.  The movement was directed by the Communists and soon developed into an uprising against the feudal rule of the Nizam.  More than 4000 lives were lost before the communists finally withdrew the struggle.

                        Naxalbari 1967

                        A revolt took place in three police stations in the Naxalbari area in 1967.  About 65 per cent of the population of those areas are Scheduled Castes and tribals.  When the land reform act was passed in 1955, jotedars started malafide transfer of land.  Tribals armed with bows and arrows forcibly occupied the land, lifted stocks of hoarded rice and killed an inspector of police.  Thereafter there were a number of similar incidents.   The leadership of the movement was by communist cadres The CPI[M] government of West Bengal ordered a major deployment of police forces and after several operations the movement was squashed.  This culminated in the formation of the Communist Party of India, Marxist-Leninist [CPI-ML].  About 30 people were killed in this uprising.  But the term Naxalite came to stay.  Naxallites are followers of Che Guevara.  They believe that once the masses are convinced that the social wrongs cannot be rectified by pacific action, it is possible to ignite the spark of revolution.  Their aim it to create condition where the authorities are forced to break the peace.  The resultant violence then gathers its own momentum. Naxalism had a far reaching impact on the entire agrarian scene in India.

                        Tribals of the Srikakulam district of the eastern ghats are mainly involved in the organistion and collection of minor forest products.  The British had decreed that no land could be transferred from the tribal to a plainsman without a permit of the district collector.  After independence, traders took full advantage of advantage of inexperienced Indian administrators and the poverty of the tribals.  They gave them their daily requirements of tobacco, kerosene, salt and cloth on credit and also lent money for the purchase of seeds.   Ignoring the British decrees, they forced those who owed them money to part with their land which was then sold to plainsmen who squeezed the tribals, paid them low wages and made them give up two-thirds of the produce.

                        In 1967 a clash occurred between a group of tribals going to a meeting of the Marxist Party and a group of landlords armed with guns.  Two tribals were killed.   The movement became violent.  There were a series of raids on houses of landlords and moneylenders, cash was looted and houses burnt down.  Charu Mazumdar, the CPI-ML leader who had inspired the Naxalbari operations, visited the area and gave a fillip to the movement.  From December 1968 to January 1969, 29 policemen were killed in action.    During 1969 the Naxalities committed 23 murders and 40 dacoities before the situation was brought under control.

                        The West Bengal districts of Midnapur and Birbhum bordering Bihar and Orissa have a sizeable tribal population. The majority are landless labourers.  A few are cultivators.  From 1967 to 1971 the area saw well planned and organised Naxalite movements fostered by CPI-LM workers and a host of students from Calcutta University who identified themselves wholeheartedly with the tribals.  Groups armed with spears, bows and arrows attacked houses of landlords, killed some of them, looted cash and burnt all land deeds.  The Government deployed CRPF and state police and brought the area under control.  Almost 150 CPI-LM supporters were arrested and the movement died down.

                        From 1968 to 1970 tribal violence erupted in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar.  This followed the usual pattern of blatant oppression of landlords and peasant reactions.  These uprisings caused ripples and spread to other districts of Bihar and into Uttar Pradesh [UP].  These movements were coordinated by CPI-ML leaders who believed that there would be a mass uprising and that they could build a Peoples Liberation Army from peasants who had revolted against the atrocities of landlords and moneylenders. 

                        A British girl, Mary Tyler, who was living in an adivisasi village, was rounded up during a police search operation.  She later wrote about her experience. "The Naxalite crime was the crime of all those who cannot remain unmoved and inactive in an India where a child crawls in the dust with a begging bowl, where a poor girl can be sold as a rich man's plaything, where an old woman must half starve herself in order to buy social acceptance from the powers that be in her village; where countless people die of sheer neglect, where many are hungry while food is hoarded for profit, where usurers and tricksters extort the fruits of labour from those who do the work, where the honest suffer, while the villainous prosper, where justice is the exception and injustice the rule and where the total physical and mental energy of millions of people is spent on the struggle for mere survival."  It is no wonder that the movement attracted idealistic students from major universities across India. They left their studies and went to live in forest villages and share the tribulations of the tribals. However the movement fizzled out when the Central Reserve Police Force [CRPF] and state police carried out well-planned raids and search operations.

                        Peoples War Group

                        In the 80s, the CPI-ML formed the Peoples War Group [PWG], which over the years grew into the most formidable Naxalite formation in the country.  The first actions undertaken by the PWG was in Telenga, Andhra Pradesh [AP], where long suffering tribals were still being economically and socially exploited by landlords, traders, money lenders and indifferent government bureaucrats.  The crux of the unrest was that in AP, as in many other states, the land ceiling act was not being imposed.  The PWG took the law into their hands and redistributed nearly half a million acres across AP.  In the process, the PWG fought a running battle with the Telugu Desam government.   When the Congress Party came into power in 1989, the government took a soft line with the Naxalites and released a number who were in detention.  The government however did nothing to control the exploitation of tribals.  The PWG began running peoples' courts and giving the general impression of a parallel government.  The Government was forced to adopt a hard line.  However, by now the PWG had acquired AK 47 rifles and began stepping up their violence.  They began attacking railway and electrical installations, police patrols and police stations.  Their influence spread to adjoining tribal areas in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh [MP], Bihar, Orrisa, Tamil Nadu [TN] and Karnataka. 

                        In 1992, the PWG was banned and central para-military forces and state police undertook coordinated operations against it.  The results were good. About 3500 Naxalities were arrested and 8500 surrendered.   The PWG lay low but in 1993 commenced operating in  tribal districts of MP and Maharashtra.  By now the Group had attained expertise in the making and detonation of improvised explosive devices [IED].  In 2001 the PWG announced that it would give sophisticated arms to its guerrillas and extend the war to as many other states as possible.

                        It is evident that the Naxalites operate in the tribal belt and are welcomed by tribals because of the administration's indifference to the persistent criminal activities of landlords, money lenders, forest officials and traders.  There has been a response to this simple analysis in two states.  The CPI[M] in West Bengal carried out Operation Barga under which share croppers were registered and given permanent and inheritable rights on cultivation of their plots covering a total area of 11 lakhs acres.  Besides this, 1.37 lakh acres of ceiling surplus and benami lands were acquired by the state government and distributed among 25 lakh landless and marginal cultivators.  This saw the emergence of a new class loosely termed rural rich, which weakened the social and political power enjoyed by landlords in the countryside, and resulted in the disappearance of moneylenders and Naxalites.  In Kerala the upper classes were generally landlords.  They had tenant farmers on their land who deposited half the crop to their landlords.  The landlords and their progeny were educated and took up white collar jobs in the cities.  When the CPI[M] government was elected in the late 50s, it legislated land                                                                                                                                                                              &n bsp;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               &n bsp;                                                                                                                                                                                         

                        tenancy laws that transferred ownership of tenant holdings to those having a tenancy for 12 years.  At one stroke hundreds of landlords lost their holdings and tenant farmers got ownership rights of land they had tilled for long years.  This is one of the reasons why the Naxalite movement did not grow roots in Kerala.  It had no cause.

                        When the Chief Ministers of Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, AP, Orrissa and Bihar ask how the Naxalite problem could be solved, they have to be told to impose the land ceiling.  Many would admit in private that this is impossible as the upper caste landlords would never allow the land ceiling act to be enforced.   Here then is the crux of the problem

 

                        Solving the Naxalite problem

                        The main reason for the upsurge of Naxalism is exploitation of tribal and poor scheduled castes.  Naxalites support the poor against exploitation by corrupt government official in collusion with landlords, contractors and moneylenders.  In Naxalite infected areas the first step is to enforce land ceiling laws.  This has to done despite the pressures of landlords, money lenders and influential castes.  The CRPF and state police which are now being used in operations against the Naxalites should be used to enforce the land ceiling, evict landlords for excessive holdings, and ensure that surplus lands are cultivated by the lower castes and tribals.  They should ensure that the crops grown by the new land holders are secure. 

                        In forest tracts, laws should be legislated that only forest dwelling tribals and scheduled casts should have access to forest lands.  Others should be prevented from entering the forests.  Cooperatives should be organised of tribals who can be trained to trade in forest produce.  Para military forces should be used to enforce these new laws and keep the moneylenders out.  They should guard the branches of the micro-credit banks that sanction loans to cooperatives. When this is done, the tribals and scheduled castes will know that the government is now with them and they will turn away form the CPI-M:L cadres and will befriend the police.  But it is romantic to believe that this will result in a cessation of hostilities and that the Naxalite movement will wither away. 

                        The PWG has become a well-armed force and will fight to try and retain power by targeting the para military forces and police.  States will find it difficult to deal with this problem.  Some states have attempted to mobilize the tribals and arm them against Naxalites. [The Salwa Judum organinsed in Chattisgarh is an example of this.] This has been criticized as a dangerous practice, which leads to high handedness.  Others condemn this move as a clever ploy by upper caste politicians and bureaucrats to avoid the main issue, which is land ceilings.  Whatever that be, it should be evident that if the CRPF find it difficult to deal with the PWG and are often overwhelmed by them, it would be unreasonable to expect that untrained armed tribal will fare better.

                        Some suggest that the army should be given this task.  The army could no doubt deal with the PWG but this a dangerous suggestion and not acceptable in a democracy.  It is not the army's role to deal with such internal problems.

                       The Soli Sorabjee Committee on police reforms, which is drafting a model Police Act, has told the Supreme Court that it strongly recommends the creation of a federal agency to combat terrorism, arms and drug trafficking, money laundering and even organised crime.  As per the Constitution, "police" and "public order" are subjects in the State list of the Seventh Schedule.  The Sorabjee Panel has made a strong case for handing over such operations against such crimes to this newly created force.  "Such perilous activities cannot be left to be routinely dealt with as ordinary crime or law and order problems by state police who do not have knowledge of the inter-state and international dimension of the crimes in question.  There is need for a specialized national level agency, other than the Central Bureau of Investigation [CBI], to be constituted by a statute of Parliament which can tackle these federal crimes.  The proposed agency should not be confused with existing CBI, which is essentially an investigative  agency.  The prevention and control of national-security crime does not fall within the CBI's charter of duties."                                                                     

                       Thus, the fight against Naxalism has to take place on two fronts: against Naxa;lites and against the causes of Naxalism.  The latter will prove to be the more difficult task. The Prime Minister is right when he said that the greatest security threat facing India is the Naxalite movement.  If the Government is serious about dealing with this threat, then the slogan for the coming decade should be ":get tough with the Naxalites but get tougher with the causes of Naxalism."