Insurgencies in India
0 comments | by Paul Staniland
India is often hailed as a triumph of democracy in a poor, multi ethnic society. This success must be qualified by the armed challenges to the Indian state that have regularly erupted and endured during its modern history.
India’s future holds more internal conflict. The Naxalite challenge poses a serious threat to the state’s reach in large areas of the interior. Though this insurgency will never seize state power it will nevertheless be able to disrupt normal economic and political life for millions of Indian citizens and drain the resources of the state. There is a risk that inept state responses will play into the hands of the Naxalites and contribute to the endurance of the conflict. India’s Northeast remains militarily volatile and politically unsettled, particularly Manipur and Nagaland. The Kashmir issue will haunt Delhi until it summons the political will to change how it governs the state. India’s dramatic growth and democratic survival are remarkable and worthy of attention, but rebellion and coercion constitute politics in worrisomely large swathes of the country
Insurgencies in India have been motivated by religious, ethno linguistic and leftist ideologies, reflecting the heterogeneity of the peoples ruled by the Indian state. Separatist conflicts in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura have turned many of India’s border regions into war zones for years and even decades. Maoist insurgents in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh operated and continue to operate in vast interior areas of the country. Insurgency and counterinsurgency has taken an extraordinary cost in human suffering, economic costs, and social dislocation. Internal conflict is an integral, if often under studied, part of India’s political experience
Northeast India’s Northeast is a collection of seven states wedged between Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and China. Though the region includes only about 4% of the Indian population, it is strategically important, includes remarkable linguistic and religious diversity, and has become a site of enduring violence and conflict (as well as some changes towards peace and diminishing violence). At independence in 1947, the region consisted of the state of Assam, the princely states of Manipur and Tripura, and the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). Manipur and Tripura became Union Territories in 1949 and then states in 1972. NEFA was part of Assam until becoming a Union Territory in 1972 and a state in 1987 as Arunachal Pradesh. Other states 4 would emerge from Assam: Nagaland in 1963, Meghalaya in 1973, and Mizoram in 1987. Some of the areas of the original Assam state and its various successors have had autonomy or been substantially controlled by New Delhi. These political reorganizations over time reflect the mobilization and tensions within the Northeast, which are often intertwined. Insurgencies have occurred in contemporary Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, and Tripura, involving dozens of armed groups with complicated links to external states, illicit economies, and electoral politics (Lacina 2009). India’s management of its northeastern frontier has combined violence and bargaining, and has been largely ignored in mainstream politics. The Northeast is important for strategic reasons but lacks the emotional resonance and publicity of the Kashmir and Punjab crises, and thus sees different political dynamics than in these conflicts. The conflicts in the region are extraordinarily complex,
The experience of the Northeast reflects the difficulties of managing extraordinary diversity in areas with comparatively weak historical links to contemporary India, an international context that allows and encourages violence, and a lack of sustained political interest from the Centre. Large swathes of the region have been turned over to the security forces and local politicians to run as they see fit, reducing accountability or oversight from the central government and press. The deep political and organizational divisions within linguistic, religious, and tribal groups in the Northeast has allowed the Indian state to play games of divide-and-rule but has undermined lasting political settlements. 6 The major success story is Mizoram, where a political bargain was struck. Militancy has been contained but not eliminated in Tripura and Assam, a tacit deal exists between the state and insurgents in Nagaland, and significant violence endures in Manipur. This variation reveals both the different types of insurgencies that exist – from highly cohesive in Mizoram to massively fragmented in Manipur – and the diverse types of Indian government response, ranging from intense repression to co-optation and bargaining. The Northeast faces serious economic and social problems alongside the challenges of militancy and political disaffection, and it is likely to continue being an area of instability and local crisis for the foreseeable future.
A very different type of insurgency has become a major force in a swath of India stretching from West Bengal into northern Andhra Pradesh. Rather than the separatist militancy described above, India’s Maoist Naxalite guerrillas seek to capture power in India and transform it into a communist state. This movement originated in West Bengal in the late 1960s amid the tumult of leftist mobilization and feuding during that period. After being suppressed, Naxalite organizers took to interior jungles and forests and maintained their war at a much lower level. Since the early 2000s, another surge of Naxalite activity has become hugely important in much of eastern India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the Naxalites the largest internal security threat to India. The major centre state issue in this context has been coordination of counterinsurgency efforts across different states, each with its own capabilities and political interests.
The First Wave
The 1960s were a time of ferment and dissension within the Indian left. Debates over the Sino Soviet split and internal rivalries encouraged fragmentation and competition, particularly among West Bengal’s students and intellectuals. A movement aiming to equalize land holdings turned violent in 1967 (in the village of Naxalbari, giving its name to the movement). This led to a mix of confrontation and collusion between the CPM and radicals, even as the CPM was in alliance with the Congress Party in the state. Members of thesplinter10CPI-Marxist-Leninist (ML) mobilized in West Bengal and in certain areas of Andhra Pradesh. Political competition between parties in West Bengal intersected with the Centre’s fears of the state spiraling out of control. The Naxalites took advantage of this political space to launch an intense escalation of violence (Kohli 1990, Chapter 10)
Conflict occurred in rural areas as a somewhat disorganized guerrilla movement, and also in Calcutta in the form of bombings and assassinations. Intellectuals and students were heavily involved in both kinds of violence. Two bouts of President’s Rule were imposed amidst this chaos, followed by a Congress government that intensely repressed the Naxalites from 1972-77. A state government backed by the Centre proved capable of beating back the Naxal challenge. The movement was deeply internally divided which made it easier for counterinsurgency to succeed.
Naxalite cadres gave up the fight, were killed or arrested, or fled into the jungles. West Bengal transitioned to CPM rule in 1977, marking a decisive shift into the institutionalization of non-violent leftist power in the state.
Despite the defeat of the Naxalites in West Bengal, the movement did not die off. Committed organizers retreated into poorly or ungoverned areas of eastern and central India, including Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and what are now the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. These areas historically lacked significant state presence and were not the focus of political interest or strategic importance. This context provided a permissive environment for mobilization. These organizers failed to create the mass uprising they aspired to, but their persistence during decades of marginality kept the movement afloat. A number of distinct organizations operated during the 1980s and 1990sand were often involved in fratricidal feuding.
Naxalites were able to involve themselves in caste and tribal mobilization, allying with the components of Indian society most repressed and victimized (Jaoul 2009). This proved a clever strategic move and gave activists access to communities that might otherwise be difficult. They were particularly linked to violent caste wars in Bihar in the 1990s (Nimbran 1992). Consolidation of the movement occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the merger of several leading Naxalite blocs. The movement remained fragmented but has clearly become more able to coordinate attacks and logistics. Naxal mobilization also occurred in areas with natural resources that were becoming increasingly valuable to large corporations. This set the scene for clashes over the use of tribal lands. Violence began to rise in particular in Andhra Pradesh, which responded with a reasonably effective reform of the police. West Bengal also faced a resurgence of Naxal mobilization in opposition to the part in state of the CPM. Brutal violence has erupted in clashes between the CPM and the Naxalites in the state.
Even more problematic was the growth of Naxalism in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. These states are much poorer and less administratively capable than Andhra Pradesh and they have faced deep problems in responding to the Naxalite challenge. Chief Ministers of these states have argued that they require more support from the Centre, which in turn suspects the chief ministers of inefficiency, corruption, and lack of political will. These tensions (which also include conflicts between neighboring states) have undermined the coherence of the response. The federal system is important not just in explaining why conflicts erupt but can also shape the government response to rebellions.11
As attacks mounted in the second half of the 2000s, MHA forces become increasingly drawn into counterinsurgency and security operations. They have suffered serious losses in the face of a Naxalite movement that has taken advantage of weak state presence, byzantine political maneuverings at the state level, inaccessible terrain, and tribal discontent to prepare for a pitched war. Government responses have ranged from apathy to support for pro
-state militias to sweeps of affected areas. Though there has been much discussion of development and good governance as a cure to the Naxal challenge, neither the central nor local government response has suggested much ability to implement this ambitious agenda. Similarly, massive expansion and training efforts have been put into motion to improve the security forces but their progress has been seriously uneven thus far. The Naxalite crisis in India is the result of radical ideologies finding space to mobilize amidst marginalized populations far from state power or presence. Finding ways of bringing the state to these areas without engaging in full-scale repression will be difficult given the realities of local governance in India’s interior.
The roots of Sikh militancy in the Punjab are tightly intertwined with electoral and coalitional politics both in Punjab and in India more broadly. Sikhs were badly affected by Partition in 1947, being driven in large numbers from the Pakistani Punjab amidst intense violence. Sikhs found themselves a tiny minority in the new India. Ethno-linguistic reorganization led to the split of Haryana from Punjab, which created a Sikh majority in Punjab. The two states shared (and continue to share) Chandigarh as their capital city. Punjab was the home of a major, if often divided, Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, The Akali Dal would become a prominent opponent of Indira Gandhi during and after the Emergency, creating endemic state-centre tensions. The Green Revolution triggered economic growth in Punjab even as political instability grew in the 1970s. The Akalis were part of the coalition that opposed Indira Gandhi and that briefly supplanted her after the Emergency.
Conflict between the Akalis and Indira came to a head in the early 1980s. Indira returned to power and tried to re-centralize power in Delhi. The confrontation between the two involved Indira dismissing state governments in Punjab and the Congress Party supporting a militant Sikh preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, as a way of splitting the Sikh vote. In turn, the Akalis mounted a campaign of contentious politics and rhetorical escalation to counterbalance Indira’s political maneuverings. The status of the capital, of water crucial for farming, and of language policy was also mobilized as issues of discontent with the Centre (Kohli 1990, Chapter 12). Violence escalated from 1980 to 1984 as the state machinery began to break down, militant mobilization increased, and various attempts at cutting a deal failed. The Sikh militants received some limited support from Pakistan and extensive support from the Diaspora as they pursued the goal of an independent Khalistan. The militants drew heavily from the Jat Sikh community and networks linked to Sikh gurdwaras.
Finally in 1984 the Centre decided to crack down on the militancy it had helped to create in Punjab. Bhindranwale and other militants had taken shelter in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a Sikh holy site. The Army went into the Golden Temple in force in June 1984 in Operation Blue Star (Tully and Jacob 1985). The damage to the holy site incurred in this operation triggered outrage among many Sikhs, who saw it as a repressive case of government overreach signaling malign intentions toward the Sikh minority.
The aftermath of Blue Star was disastrous. Militant mobilization surged in Punjab. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984, which in turn led to Congress Party-backed anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Rajiv Gandhi attempted to bargain with Akali Dal leaders, but the fragmentation of the Akalis and pressures within the Congress Party undermined these efforts. Punjab became the site of deadly guerrilla warfare, with numerous Sikh armed groups facing off against the Punjab police and central military and paramilitary forces (Dhillon 2006). Civilians died in significant numbers, though not nearly at the level of Kashmir.
Conclusions and Implications
Insurgency and counterinsurgency in India have affected the lives of millions of people. Government responses to militancy have ranged from political deal making to sustained repression. Some of these responses challenge an understanding of India as a liberal democracy. Torture, human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, and forced population displacement have all been used, often with legal impunity. Insurgent violence has also regularly been horrific. Significant swathes of India have been ravaged by brutal warfare since independence, even though many of these conflicts barely register in studies of Indian politics and in the popular imaginary. Yet other responses challenge our assumptions about the state’s pursuit of a monopoly of violence. India’s government has sometimes simply ignored insurgent mobilization, cut tacit deals with militants, and directly bargained with them outside of the electoral process. This heterogeneity in reaction to insurgency, across groups and conflicts, and over time, is quite remarkable. It hints at the complexity of insurgency as a political phenomenon: different rebellions threaten different interests and worldviews, and thus attract varying responses. The ultimate success of these policies has been mixed, with success in Punjab and Mizoram, but enduring instability in J&K and other areas of the Northeast.
India’s future holds more internal conflict. The Naxalite challenge poses a serious threat to the state’s reach in large areas of the interior. Though this insurgency will never seize state power it will nevertheless be able to disrupt normal economic and political life for millions of Indian citizens and drain the resources of the state. There is a risk that inept state responses will play into the hands of the Naxalites and contribute to the endurance of the conflict. India’s Northeast remains militarily volatile and politically unsettled, particularly Manipur and Nagaland. The Kashmir issue will haunt Delhi until it summons the political will to change how it governs the state. India’s dramatic growth and democratic survival are remarkable and worthy of attention, but rebellion and coercion constitute politics in worrisomely large swathes of the country.
This an abridged version of a paper written by Paul Staniland in
‘Routledge Handbook of Indian Politics’ (2012).