INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

Brutal and Media Friendly. The New Face of Naxalism?

with 5 comments

One of the most underreported developments in Naxalism in 2009 has been the emergence of a new leadership cadre that is guiding the CPI (Maoist) in an entirely new tactical direction. Less conservative and reclusive than has historically been the case, the new West Bengal-based group has chosen to undertake bold (and brutal) actions calculated to garner media attention. This has included the beheading of a captured police inspector in October and a dramatic train hijack during India’s election campaign.  This was preceded by the capture of Lalgarh in West Bengal, a move seemingly calculated to demonstrate to India and the world that the Maoists were a force to be reckoned with.

All of this suggests a dramatic re-orientation in Naxalite tactics. Historically, the Maoists have been a tactically conservative force. Rather than court media attention, they preferred to work quietly, expanding their reach and power methodically and patiently. Their leadership has been notoriously recalcitrant and media shy. What has changed? Significant numbers of party leaders, most notably Kobad Gandhi, were arrested in 2009 as the Indian government has improved its counter-insurgency intel apparatus. As a result, a new crop of people with different tactical ideas has emerged. This new face of Maoism has been best personified in Kishenji, the Andhra born, West Bengal-based rebel.

Kishenji is a new kind of Naxalite leader. He has actively courted media attention- holding numerous press conferences and maintaining regular correspondence with prominent journalists. He has demonstrated a flair for the theatrical:

Kishenji had a seven-minute telephone conversation with West Bengal Principal Secretary (Environment) Madan Lal Meena complaining about polluting mines earlier this week, the Chief Minister was forced to accept the state intelligence machinery’s failure to locate the Maoist leader, who is on the run.

It remains to be seen how effective this tactic will be. While Kishenji has succeeded in garnering interest in the Maoist movement (and perhaps gained the support of segments of the urban population), much of the Naxalite’s strength stems precisely from their patient expansion.  By refusing to draw attention to themselves, the government of India has felt little public pressure to respond, creating a space for he gradual expansion of Maoist territory. A new strategy centred around engagement with the press and audacious assaults against the state carries a great deal of risk.

5 Responses

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  1. Just discovered yr excellent blogsite. You might note that the Financial Times has recently featured this classic insurgency challenge in articles and an editorial. The editorial of 15 February points out:

    “The Naxalites feed on deprivation and the marginalisation of India’s forest-dwelling tribal people. They are canny at identifying local grievances. Well over three quarters of India’s 660,000 villages, for example, are not connected to a road and many have no drinking water, power, school or clinic.”

    It’s not clear that the Indian authorities have yet understood how to address the challenge. They show little understanding of standard counterinsurgency approaches. The FT report “Villagers trapped between rebels and police” 17 February says:

    “Security forces are slowly pushing into Maoist-held areas to battle the rebels, though local human rights groups accuse them of slaughtering innocent civilians then branding them as Naxal rebels.”

    Bringing security, democracy and development to even the most crucial subset of 660,000 villages would take some doing, even if the need was clearly understood. How does one alert India to the COIN perspective of Gen Petreaus and McChrystal?


    February 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    • Thanks! As for the Petreaus/McChrystal COIN perspective, I agree that it has very valuable lessons for India. A big caveat: India is a democratic state dealing with an *internal* insurgency. This changes the dynamics significantly re. co-ordination among various levels of government, the interests of regional parties, etc…. In a big, messy democracy like India, counterinsurgency is inherently more challenging.


      February 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm

      • I agree that Indian tiered democracy may make COIN challenging. So too does operating in a coalition far from home where you don’t speak the culture or the language. Counterinsurgency is slow and messy in any context, hence ‘eating soup with a knife’.

        However, before the relevant authorities can decide whether to attempt something challenging, they need to understand the options fully. That is, what would be required to get it sorted, as well as the implications of using the wrong approach or insufficient resources — and I’m not sure sufficient awareness of these risks and choices exists yet in India. Perhaps Indian policy makers need to look more at events in Afghanistan (and, by contrast, Swat), and worry less about state aggression from Pakistan.


        February 24, 2010 at 10:32 am

      • Andrew,
        You and I agree more than we disagree. Contexts *always* vary and you’re spot on with the comment that the authorities need to understand the options fully. What I find interesting is that the Indians have waged numerous counter-insurgencies. One successfully (in Punjab… where the level of state brutality was frightening and the insurgents defeated themselves more than anything else), one in which the jury’s still out (Kashmir) and a handful in the North East which are ongoing or been resolved through political means. They have plenty of internal templates to study. But, all of these are so flawed that it would be worth looking elsewhere.


        February 24, 2010 at 5:04 pm

  2. […] very much into the approach taken by Kishenji, one of the Maoists military leaders (see my previous post). As he stated (in the inevitable post-attack press conference): “We are calling it ‘Peace […]

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