Why you should care
Because somebody’s hero is often someone else’s foe.
If I say “Naxalite,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For most Westerners, the answer is likely akin to an incoherent Google search query: “No results found.” Unless you live in India. For former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it’s India’s “biggest internal security challenge.” For policemen in the country’s southwest, it’s synonymous with terror. And for some forgotten tribal villagers, it’s their only hope for a better future.
But what, or who, are these Naxalites? They are the country’s Maoist insurgency. The so-called Naxalite rebellion began about 50 years ago across central and eastern India — a belt comprising almost a third of the country, which has been dubbed the Red Corridor. It was imported from Nepal, and the government seemed to have squashed the rebellion in the ’90s, but violence has surged since two Maoist guerrilla groups merged in 2004 to create the Communist Party of India.
Their goals seem admirable on paper: to protect the rural poor from the social oppression of a semifeudal state and the “eco-imperialist exploitation” of foreign mining firms. So they enjoy large support in rural tribal areas where the Indian state (whose economy is growing at a staggering 7.5 percent) has failed to share its wealth. “The government has been failing these tribal areas for decades,” says Daniel Wagner, CEO of consultancy company Country Risk Solutions, “so the Naxalites are stepping in and providing for them.”
Yet the Maoists’ methods often look more like terrorism than Robin Hood-style justice. Since 2004, the estimated 11,500 Naxalite fighters have spread their territorial reach one bomb at a time, murdering policemen and kidnapping villagers all in the name of liberation. In 2013, they attacked a convoy of Indian National Congress leaders, killing 27. Their attacks are doing significant damage to the economy of this mineral-rich region, where electricity and running water are but a dream for many of its 84 million inhabitants.
The central government’s response has historically been inefficient and heavy-handed, to say the least. Human Rights Watch has accused it of using “draconian” measures such as arbitrary arrests and torture of suspected Naxalite associates — which, understandably, have only added fuel to the already-raging fire.
That all could come to an end soon, though. “I think the government has finally learned its lessons,” says Harsh V. Pant, professor of international relations in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. “We could see a real softening of the conflict in the next decade.” Indeed, Narendra Modi, the current prime minister, campaigned extensively in the region and has spoken a lot about the importance of taking a fresh, development-first approach to the situation, undercutting support of the rebellion by providing better education, health care and access to land to locals.
But the road to progress isn’t so smooth. You see, there can’t be development without security, but it’s hard to have security without prosperity. “The only real chance at success is to do both simultaneously,” explains Pant. “Fight the military element of the insurgency while developing the region economically.”
Sounds simple enough.