INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

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The Economist, Lazy Journalism and Brutality (or why I fell out of love after getting smacked in the face)

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I read a piece in the Economist that irritated me. It was about India’s energy future. Let me start with a premise. I love the Economist. I love its liberalism, sarcasm and sensible moderation. I’ve gone so far as subscribing, reading it in hard copy in spite of the fact that I have an e-reader and am otherwise 21st century.

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I look forward to Monday mornings when I get the ‘paper’ (as they, oddly, call themselves) in my mailbox. My love for the magazine is best expressed in a Seussian poem:

I read it on the train.

I read it on the plane.

I read it on the bus.

I read it with no fuss.

I read it before bed.

I read it for what’s said.

But this I won’t forget.

Why would I be upset?

Why would I be upset….

I opened my letterbox on Monday, put the magazine down with the intention of opening it when I had some free time. This afternoon I had a pint and sat down to read. An article drove me to blog.- I saw that someone had penned something called: “The future is black: Power is essential for India’s long-term growth. But electricity is unlikely to flow fast enough.”

What is the author saying? He/she is making the claim that India, as an emerging economic power, has increasing energy needs. Fair enough.

He/she is also making the point that India’s energy capacity falls far short of demand. Anyone who has spent time in Delhi, Bombay or anywhere else in the country, for that matter, knows this is a problem. Brownouts are all too common.

He/she then makes the point that India has explored numerous energy possibilities, ranging from nuclear power (not working because of ‘hostility from states and popular groups) to oil (promising, but reserves unlikely to3 be sufficient to meet growing demand). Ok. That makes sense. So, that leads to the following conclusion: coal is the way forward.

Why do I have problem with it? It’s lazy journalism. But, it’s more than that. It’s lazy journalism that could have adverse consequences for the people who live in India’s Maoist affected areas. The powerful may not be the average reader of the Economist, but the powerful do read the Economist. What their writers’ write has real world consequences. When they write dangerous and lazy crap, this is a problem.

As the Economist points out,reliance on fossil fuel is a problem. There are environmental risks from the use of coal, and fossil fuels in general. But, as the piece suggests, who are we in the West to deny countries like China and India the right to develop and reap the bounty of modern society as we have done for some time? I couldn’t agree more.

What is stopping India from tapping into the energy resources it needs for it’s growth?  It’s the state, of course:

Today east India remains coal’s heartland and control of the sooty stuff lies with one of the most important companies that most people have never heard of: Coal India.

It is a mighty odd beast. Its blood is of the public sector, with modest buildings, 375,000 staff, an empire of largely opencast mines and company towns, and even its own song. Its managers are proud scientists and engineers. And prices are fixed by the state, at far below international levels.

Ok. So now, the problem is reduced to a state monopoly. I’m not defending Coal India. They are probably as inefficient and bureaucratic as most corporate entities that the government in India runs. I get it. Is that really the problem?

Recently I read a piece by Kathy Le Mons Walker entitled, “Neoliberalism On The Ground In Rural India: Predatory Growth, Agrarian Crisis, Internal Colonization, And The Intensification of Class Struggle” (I can’t link to it as it’s a journal piece and access is restricted. For those of you who might be interested it’s in the Journal of Peasant Studies October 2008). Her argument is that India’s pattern of growth is displacing populations at a similar rate to that of China. The difference is that China is specializing in industrial production while India is specializing in service industries. Service industries cannot absorb as many people as consumer product industries and therefore, the logic of Indian development is genocidal.

While I don’t share her Marxist pessimism (nor do I share her worldview), I do wonder if she has a point. The coal reserves that India ‘needs’ in order to ‘develop’ are in areas populated by aidvasi. And what is happening in the adivasi areas right now is a resource war. India needs the coal. People live on top of the coal. There are also angry people with guns preventing you from getting the coal. In short, there are problems that go beyond Coal India.

For the Economist, however, this doesn’t matter. It’s incidental. Unlike real journalism (say, I dunno… this piece from Scotty Carney and Jason Miklian), the magazine (or this ‘paper’, as they would) sees the problem as one of state industries. When it comes to actual people, well, hell, it’s a problem that can be summed up with this:

At Gondegaon, a vast opencast mine in the Nagpur field, engineers need more space to dump the earth and rock that is dug up with coal. A map shows the pit hemmed in by villages and scrub land. Acquiring the land, compensating the villagers and making sure they shift poses a challenge harder than geology, says the company. “We do not have a magic wand in our hand to increase production,” 

They don’t have a magic wand! What to do? But, according to The Economist, pesky villagers are incidental. They can be compensated. Lets ignore the fact that over 100,000 people have been displaced in India because of development, over 70% of those being adivasi. Let’s also ignore the fact that ‘compensation’, when there is any (and there usually isn’t) usually takes the form of meagre lump sumps. But (says the company and I’ll even pretend a quote from ‘the company’ rather than a particular source isn’t, umm… lazy), they have a problem bigger than GEOLOGY! They have VILLAGERS. Incidental. Coal India is the problem.

Of course, there Maoists are preventing business from mining the coal as well (I wonder if this too is a problem even bigger than Geology). The Economist recongises this with one line in a three page article:

In east India the firm faces another problem: most reserves are in remote areas where Maoist guerrillas operate.

As with the local populace, the Maoists are incidental to the problem Indian development and coal extraction. After all, there is Coal India.

The Maoists are not incidental. Nor are the adivasi. Until the government recognisez that something is going on, that these areas that they’d like to exploit are populated by human beings who may not like the state very much, they have a problem. The Maoists are a symptom of the relations between India and the local population. Maybe relations between India and her indigenous people have a tragic dimension that can only be resolved through violence. If that’s what is necessary to resolve India’s resource dilemma, at least have the decency to not write the indigenous out of the story. Don’t wave a magic wand that turns what is actually going on in India’s land of coal to a problem of corporate organization with ‘villagers’ and ‘Maoists’ becoming an incidental problem. Not only is this lazy, it’s dangerous.

The Economist wrote a story about coal that doesn’t talk about the place where the coal is. Badly done.

Written by Michael

January 25, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Upping the Ante

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As Operation Green Hunt continues, the Maoists continue to strike with relative impunity while sustaining minimal casualties.

Earlier this week the Naxalites blew up a commercial bus travelling in Dantewara, killing around 50 people. Traveling aboard the civilian carrier were around 20 so-called Special Police Officers (SPOs). These are local tribals empowered as temporary constables to combat the Maoists. While they are valued for their local knowledge, they have also been criticised for child soldiers, inadequate training and their use as little more than cannon fodder by the CRPF.

While the Maoists have engendered a great deal of )understandable) outrage from their killing of dozens of non-combatants, the use of civilian transport by paramilitary forces engaged in a counterinsurgency is negligent at best and criminal at worst. More to the point, it is indicative of the lax discipline and poor tactical planning on the part of the government.

A little over a day later the Maoists, this time in West Bengal, carried out another landmine attack that killed 4 CRPF personnel. Today, in Bihar (a state only moderately affected by the insurgency) derailed a train transporting fuel and then proceeded to torch the carriages.

The relentless attacks by the Maoists and myriad failures by state forces has revealed not only problem inherent in Green Hunt, but also the serious divisions in the government over how best to deal with the insurgency.

The government is undertaking a review of its policies with Chidambaram pushing for a greater mandate. He is echoing the demand made by some state ministers for the deployment of the IAF.  From the Indian Express:

Chidambaram said he would ask the Cabinet Committee on Security for a “larger mandate” — an apparent reference to approval of air support for ground operations — for the Home Ministry in dealing with Naxalites. “The security forces, the Chief Ministers want it (air support). The Chief Ministers of (West) Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa have all asked for air support,” Chidambaram said, speaking on the day Naxalites blew up a bus in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, killing at least 35 people, mostly civilians.

While the Home Minister has claimed that the IAF would be used for transportation and surveillance, rather than aerial bombardment, it is not at all clear why the currently deployed helicopters from the BSF’s air wing are inadequate for the task.

Use of the air force would engage the Indian armed forces in a battle which they are neither trained nor structured for. The armed forces have been prepared and equipped for conventional warfare between neighbouring states, not for precision attacks within their own borders. It is not at all surprising that the leadership of the IAF is opposed to such involvement.

Up until now, Green Hunt is a failure. It is premised on an uncertain blend of massive manpower and the funneling of development assistance to the affected states. The government’s response has been incompetent and inconsistent. The Maoists, on the other hand, have used the opportunities created by the presence of so many additional security forces to lethal effect.

A Moment of Respite

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After my previous post on the major Naxalite attack, interest in my blog grew significantly. I’d like to thank all of my new readers.

In the past few weeks, however, traffic has returned to less manic levels. Of course this is not because of anything I wrote, but rather a product of the audaciousness of the Maoist attack. Since then eastern India has been relatively quiet. The rebels have engaged in a few isolated attacks on the railways and the government has killed a few Maoist ‘sympathizers’. After the hysteria, it seems that the status quo has returned- low level violence against people and property.

But has it? The Dantewada attack may have been a game changer. The Maoists demonstrated that they have the capability to engage in dramatic strikes that can garner the attention of the national and global media. Was it a tactical victory? Likely not. But, it was a strategic victory in the information war and a show of strength that can only boost the appeal of the Maoist forces. Conversely, it couldn’t have been good for morale amongst the paramilitary police. The government, on the other hand, learned that simply pouring troops into the so-called ”Red Corridor’ is not enough. Without sufficient intelligence the CRPF personnel are little more than targets.

What does this all mean? At the risk of making an excessively decisive prediction, I think that the attack in Chhattisgarh has made the conflict with the Naxalites more of a war. The government learned that it needs to be smarter and that the Maoists are a very real threat. They will be more cautious and measured in the future. This is no longer about a group of violent malcontents running around the peripheral regions of India. It is about the Indian state facing a disciplined, tactically superior force that has demonstrated its ability to gain victories both militarily and informationally. It is a war. And war is not always a good thing.  Especially if you believe, as I do, that the Naxalites are a symptom and not the cause.

Soutik Biswas on the Maoists

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I haven’t had many substantive posts recently. It’s the end of term and I’m swamped. I’m also working on some pieces on the Naxalites for a few publications. I’ll put up the links once they’re online.

The BBC has a really, really, really (!) good piece on the Maoists by the always solid Soutik Biswas. I have a few minor quibbles with what he has to say (in particular his link with the Maoists of the past and the Maoists of the present… they’re an entirely new rebel group that has re-constituted itself since the 1980s), but this observation is spot on:

As the toll rises, the conflict provokes a sharply polarised debate.

On the one side are the city-bred romantic revolutionaries. One perceptive analyst calls them a “Maoist-aligned intelligentsia vicariously playing out their revolutionary fantasies through the lives of the adivasis [tribespeople], while the people dying in battle are almost all adivasis”. They protest against the government’s plans to smoke out the rebels.

On the other, are supporters of strong state action who believe the security forces should annihilate the rebels and wrest back areas under their control. Collateral damage, they believe, is par for the course.

So India’s Maoist rebels, in the words of another commentator, are either “romanticised, eulogised [or] demonised”. It depends on which side you are on.

I couldn’t say it better. The debate lacks nuance. The Maoists are neither evil terrorists nor are they freedom fighters worthy of support. The only benefit of the Maoist insurgency is derivative. They have forced India’s elites to confront the marginalisation and miserable social conditions of much of its population. If a counter-insurgency strategy emerges that provides even a modicum of the services and political empowerment that citizens in a democratic state are entitled too, then some good has come out of the insurgency. I’m skeptical. But, I like to be proven wrong.

Written by Michael

March 17, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Media Roundup February 2010

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Now that the media has taken notice of the Maoist insurgency there have been a slew of features coming out from both the domestic and the international press. One of the things I love about India is its vibrant and extensive English language media. While the quality can be spotty, the fact that there are so many newspapers and magazines means that there’s always something interesting to read. And, now that urban India has noticed the war raging in its hinterlands, there are a hell of a lot of good journalists on the story.

Each month, I’ll provide a brief roundup of features which I think our worth reading.

Smita Gupta, writing for Outlook, makes a journey to Chhattisgarh where he spends time with the state elites in Raipur and visits Bastar to meet with the villagers who are caught in the midst of war. While the piece doesn’t provide many new insight into the war, it does bring into sharp relief the dilemmas and the suffering of the local tribal population who are caught between the state and the rebels. It also shows the collusion which exists between the Maoists and the governing elite.

The second feature is from India Today. Shafi Rahman visits the Maoist ‘liberated zones’ to report on the governance structures that the rebels have set up in areas which they control. Well worth a read as it provides a rare glimpse into the actual workings of the civil component of the ‘revolution’. The Maoists have been able to establish alternative systems of government partly through force, but also because of the vacuum which exists in the most backward parts of the country where historically the state has had a minimal presence. Rahman puts a human face to this reality.

Enjoy!

Written by Michael

February 24, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Are the Naxalites Winning?

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The Indian government just released the official figures for combat deaths across all of the country’s insurgencies. I haven’t yet been able to track down the official report (if there is one), but, from what’s being reported in the media, it doesn’t look good for the government:

In Naxal affected States, the number of the number of Civilians and Security Forces personnel killed upto Oct.31, 2009 was 742 while it was 721 in 2008. However, the number of Naxalites killed during the same time is 170 (till Oct.31, 2009), which stood at 199 in 2008.

An approximate 4:1 ratio is not an indication of anything approximating victory. India The Indian government should be worried.

Written by Michael

December 9, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Security Assessment- Chhattisgarh

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A good assessment of the current security environment in Chhattisgarh, courtesy of the South Asian Terrorism Portal. As always, a must read.

India's Red Army