Separatist Movement Threatening India’s Existence

  0 comments   |     by Dr Bettina Robotka

That India is confronted with a large number of separatist movements is not surprising given its ethnic and religious diversity along with a history of multiple sub-nationalisms. Webpage “Quora” counts 135 different separatist movements in India in 2017. Many of those movements being small or even dormant only proves the multiple tensions that such a large state like India has to manage. The map of India indicates three main clusters of separatism: The extreme Northeast with its so-called ‘seven sisters’ has Arunachal Pradesh (37 movements), Mizoram (2), Nagaland (3), Meghalaya (4), Tripura (30), Manipur (39) and Assam (2). The second center of separatism Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) is presently boiling over and the third center, and most dangerous, is the so-called Naxalite movement (named after the place of its beginning Naxalbari in West Bengal). Since 1967 it has affected many Indian states including parts of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkand, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. Influenced by the Chinese cultural revolution and initially led by the CPI (Marxist) the movement started with an incident when a local sharecropper near Naxalbari was attacked and killed by goons sent by the local landlord. This triggered a period of violence that rocked West Bengal and other parts of India for a long time. The reason for the uprising was extreme poverty, exploitation of lower and backward castes by the upper classes and denial of social justice and opportunity to the exploited classes were the main reasons of simmering discontent among the masses.  I learned this at first hand from a close relative of the original leader Charu Majumdar who I met during my brief incarceration in Agartala Jail in April 1971. The Naxalite movements continues to be popular among the tribal regions of India like Jharkand and Orissa where the tribal population resents the loss of their traditional way of life and the cruel manner they are treated by the crust of upper class Hindus. Among the Naxals, the main recruits are Dalits, Tribals and Muslims.

The second wave of the movement made its presence felt in other regions of the country.  The early 1980s saw the revival of armed militancy with the People’s War Group (PWG) being formed in Andhra Pradesh (AP) to fight for the cause of peasants and the landless. In the late 1990s, when the AP police forces ultimately decimated the PWG, many thought this was the end of the insurgency.  A new wave spread into Central India in the early 2000s, particularly the mountainous Dandakaranya and the adjoining regions covering Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and parts of Maharashtra. Eventually spreading across such a vast area the movement surpassed all other insurgent activity including those in Indian Held Kashmir and the Northeast by 2009.  At its peak the Naxalites dominated more than 200 districts across the country, prompting then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April 2006 to call the Maoist movement “the single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country”. While the implementation lies in the hands of the respective states the danger arising from the movement led the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) govt to formulate an all-Indian Counter-Insurgency (COIN) strategy, which the current BJP government has accelerated with effectiveness. West Bengal has tackled the problem with an impressive record of land reforms which includes a ceiling law for landholdings. With the CPI-M changing from militancy to an electoral policy, a repetition of the Naxalbari uprising of 1967 today is unlikely. Having gained and staying in power for many years, they want to continue using the ballot box instead of bullets. In Andhra Pradesh when the PWG had dominated 20 districts of the (undivided) state in the 1990s, even an attempt to kill the CM was made in 2003. The AP govt embarked on a rapid modernisation of its police force while ramping up its technical and operational capabilities. The state then launched full-scale COIN operations, effectively wielding its intelligence arm to conduct a massive crackdown that killed key Maoist leaders in the state. In addition, the discontent was fought by undertaking development and good-governance measures to address the grievances of the civilian population sympathetic to the insurgent cause, including the tribal communities.

Chhattisgarh is today considered the epicentre of Maoist insurgency in India. At their pinnacle, the Naxalites had influence over as many as 18 districts out of a total 27 in the state. Nearly 25,000 sq km of Bastar, the Maoist citadel of the so-called Red-Corridor is believed to be intensively dominated by Maoists. Here the insurgents executed some of the most daring attacks in all of the country, such as the Chintalnar massacre of 76 CRPF soldiers in 2010, and the killings of top leaders of the Congress Party, including its party head for Chhattisgarh, Nanda Kumar Patel, in 2013. To fight the widening uprising the state government adopted a combination of hard COIN measure by uplifting its police force and using special COIN units in combination with ‘winning hearts and minds’ policy. While the territory it controlled has shrunk in size, the Naxalites remain strong in some pockets like Dandewada, Bastar, Gadchiroli, Bijapur, Malkangiri. Its current operational strength is about 6000 with new leadership having military knowledge and connections as the recent killing of an BJP MLA and his security guards in Gadchiroli has shown. Since being carved out from Bihar in 2000, Jharkhand is second only to Chhattisgarh among the states that are worst affected by the Naxalite movement.   The mineral-rich state with substantial Adivasi populations has remained a laboratory for the parallel system of government that the Maoists are attempting to establish in their strongholds. At their height in Jharkand in 2010 the rebels had a sway in as many as 20 districts across the state with increasing attacks on economic infrastructure and state symbols such as police stations and jails. After the BJP won the state elections in December 2014, the new Chief Minister Raghubar Das began various COIN initiatives. The Maoists suffered the highest number of casualties in 2017 in their ranks, 25 were killed in encounters with security forces. A high number of rebels also surrendered—as many as 108 in 2018 - but the left-wing extremism has not been completely eliminated in Jharkhand, several active rebel hotspots remain across the state’s vast terrain. Modi's BJP government launched other initiatives, among them the SAMADHAN (final solution) which was announced by the Minister of Home Affairs in May 2017. The acronym stands for the following: S - Smart Leadership, A - Aggressive Strategy, M - Motivation and Training, A - Actionable Intelligence, D -Dashboard Based KPIs (Key Performance ​​​Indicators), and KRAs (Key Result Areas), H- Harnessing Technology, A - Action plan for each theatre and N- No access to Financing. This policy aims to re-energise the government’s anti-Maoist initiatives, with the basic elements the components of any effective COIN campaign. The Naxalite movement may be losing ground support presently because of the erosion of the idealism of the 1980s. West Bengal and Jharkand are examples of how good governance rather than strong arm tactics can help to curb the movement. Given that social and life style issues were at the bottom of Naxalite discontent rather than religious or sub-nationalism issues, good governance was the important thing, but with discriminating local development policy complicating the problems one must note that unlike Indian propaganda putting the blame of all terrorism on Islam i.e. Islamic terrorism, other than Northeast India and Kashmir there is no Muslim-angle to the Naxalite movement. However, the three main clusters of terrorism have not much in common. However counter measures has emasculated the Naxalite capacity to really challenge the authority of the State but their potential for  harm to the State has not diminished. Consecutive governments have tended to respond to crises, like in the language question and autonomy demands, by creating multiple new states and union territories in India. However having declared 1.8 million of the population (mainly muslims originating from Bangladesh) stateless the simmering of discontent is already evoking considerable violence from both the sides.

After Operation "Blue Star" the Sikhs who formed the fighting backbone of the Indian Army have never been fully trusted. In 1984 there was mutiny in many Sikh units, and many deserted. The major  loss was seen in the psyche of the men in uniform, both towards Sikhs and among the Sikhs themselves. The Sikh insurrection for Khalistan may have been stamped out but the anger is still seething among the men in turbans. This is the reason that many Sikh units have been assigned duties away from those Indian Army formations facing Pakistan. If the movement for Khalistan begins in earnest again the whole of Northwestern India becomes vulnerable. If the BJP hierarchy in power persists in their clandestine militant activities using Balochistan as a platform, why should we also not similarly give tacit support for Sikh freedom? Most positive initiatives to control terrorism peacefully have been scuttled by Modi’s fascist surge to spread Hindu nationalism.  Indian Held Kashmir is simmering because of the repeal of Article 370 while the Indian heartland is bracing for another wave of terrorism because India’s economy has economically devastated a vast majority of farmers among the population.  The repression in Kashmir is not going to go unanswered, while the protest presently was mostly confined in the streets, how long before more of the youth take guns into their hands to join those already engaged in fighting Indian repression?   Will Pakistanis be able to contain their sympathies within the country and not begin to actually support militancy in Kashmir?  Bangladesh will not be able to control its reaction to the so-called Bangladeshi made situation in Assam, how long before, despite Hasina Wajed, they start supporting the insurgents in India's northeast?

Dr. Bettina Robotka is formerly of Department of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin.

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