“I have consistently held,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in September 2009, “that in many ways, left-wing extremism poses perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces.” Monday's massacre of more than 30 people in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh was a horrific case in point. It has also demonstrated that India's response to the challenge is deeply flawed. For at least the last two years, Maoist insurgents have been preparing for what they knew to be an inevitable assault on their heartlands by government forces. Key roads were heavily mined; ambushes planned; traps prepared. The 58 battalions of central forces hastily deployed to strengthen under-manned, poorly trained, and outgunned police found themselves reduced to protecting their lines of communications and logistical infrastructure against a well-entrenched adversary. The New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management estimates that, despite the surge of forces, just 294 insurgents were killed in 2009, against 214 in 2008, and that for the loss of 312 security force personnel, up by 50 per cent from the previous year. It is clear that simply pumping in more forces will achieve little. Knee-jerk use of military resources will create more problems than they will solve.
In his September 2009 speech, Dr. Singh opined that the Maoist threat could not be “treated simply as a law and order problem.” In a recent study, the Planning Commission found that just 7.5 per cent of residents of 33 districts hit by Maoist violence had access to safe drinking water; and less than 15 per cent had electricity. Decades of injustice and exploitation created the socio-political conditions in which the insurgents have thrived — and Maoists have ensured that efforts to drain this swamp have been stillborn. In 2008, 25 school buildings were destroyed by insurgents; that number went up to 71 in 2009. More than a hundred rural infrastructure assets like roads and culverts were destroyed last year, three times as many as in 2008. In Chhattisgarh alone, at least 71 State highways have been rendered unusable. Large-scale extortion and violence has scared away the teachers, doctors, and administrators who must spearhead change. Political opponents of the Maoists have been slaughtered, LTTE-style. But the situation is not hopeless. Governments must demonstrate their credibility by getting serious about development in relatively safe areas around those controlled by Maoists. They must work with democratic political groups to ensure that communities get a just share of the revenues from the mining and industrial projects being executed on their lands. They must scrupulously abide by the rule of law. And the Union Home Ministry must seek honest counsel from the many Indian counter-insurgency experts who have been warning of the flaws in its counter-Maoist campaign. Democratic India's long-term success against the armed extremists lies in abandoning unsuccessful strategies — and learning the right lessons from failure.