On May 28, an overnight passenger train en route to Mumbai derailed roughly 55 miles southwest of Kolkata. It was then hit by a freight train barreling along the parallel track, killing over 100 people and injuring over 200 passengers.
The incident is believed to be the latest in a rash of violent attacks by the left-wing Maoist group, also known as the Naxalites.
As investigators try to ascertain whether an explosive was used to blow up a section of the tracks or it was removed by the miscreants manually, the Indian government is devising strategies to contain the growing insurgency.
In the recent months, the guerrilla campaign has acquired an increasingly virulent form, becoming more brutal and brazen, striking at infrastructure—bridges, electricity pylons, mines, pipelines, vehicles—and security personnel.
Under no illusion about the strength of their disruptive power, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Naxalites as the single most internal security threat that the nation faces.
In what’s believed to be the most audacious attack on record, in April this year, Maoist rebels ambushed and killed 75 federal paramilitary troops in the remote Dantewada district, in central India. Government figures indicate that since 1998, they’ve claimed roughly 7,500 lives and over 900, in 2009 alone, the highest casualty rate since 1971.
The movement, which began as a small-scale peasant rebellion in 1967, in Naxalbari district, in the state of West Bengal, has over time, spread its reach stealthily but systematically.
Today, they have a presence in almost one third of India and are active in a vast arc of a heavily forested, largely tribal belt, which stretches from West Bengal to Andhra Pradesh and loops through Chhattisgarh.
This zone, the so-called “Red Corridor,” encompasses some of the poorest regions, marked by extreme illiteracy, economic deprivation, and social backwardness, where even basic civic amenities have failed to make inroads.
The Naxalites have been a part of the Indian socio-political ecosystem for some 40 years now, but their activity—and hence, also public visibility—has tended to wax and wane throughout this period.
Beginning in the 1990s, however, they found a fresh momentum and have been on a roll since. A resurgence, brought on by India prying open its economy to liberalization, has in a large part, been fueled by its galloping, if skewed, economic growth.
While India has been able to successfully ride the crest of globalization to bring to a sliver of its population—a small metropolitan elite and a burgeoning middle class—luxury goods and technology penetration, the rural poor have continued to lead a parlous existence, far removed from the hubs of affluence.
It’s the inequitable distribution of wealth and the resultant “economic fault lines” that Naxalites have been able to tap into to garner popular support and which they’ve held on to either by providing governance—notably different from government—or by force at the grassroots level, said Shlok Vaidya, a Department of Defense terrorism analyst and author of a forthcoming book on India’s security future.
One only need take a look at these figures to get a sense of India’s lop-sided development. According to a recent United Nations report, while there are roughly 545 million cellphone subscribers, only 366 million have access to clean toilets. While Reliance Communications handsets sell for under $25, it costs $300 to build a modern sanitation facility.
The Naxalites have a “hybrid,” two-tier structure, Vaidya said. At its core, is a tight coterie of individuals, inspired by the radical leftist ideology of Mao Zedong, which believes in the armed overthrow of the state, with ambitions to march victoriously to the nation’s capital and foist a crimson flag on the parliament building, the Lok Sabha, he added.
Members of this cadre, who lead the Maoist faction of the Communist Party of India, mastermind the operations of a ragtag band of foot soldiers, which, by some estimates, exceeds the 20,000 mark.
K.P.S. Gill—the former police chief, well-known for leading “Operation Blue Star” in the state of Punjab, in the early 1990s—told The New York Times that Naxalites are typically strong in areas that have a weak state police force.
Last fall, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram launched “Operation Green Hunt,” a paramilitary offensive aimed at quelling the uprising. But this approach has been less than successful in stopping the Naxalites in their tracks.
Some like Sudeep Chakravarti, author of “Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country,” question the efficacy of New Delhi’s tactics and is less than certain that it offers a genuine cure for the malaise.
In an interview with a local publication, he offered one, urging the government to ensure an even unfolding of development and to “ensure efficient administration, policing, and justice.”
While opinion about how best to tackle the situation tends to vary, there’s little doubt that at a time when India is aspiring to reach dizzying eminence as a regional superpower—or, perhaps more—it must realize that it can’t do so by forgetting its downtrodden. Before it can’t sprint ahead, it must listen to the voices of those clamoring to be heard.
And until then, as Sharmila Mukherjee, professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business said, “the brand ‘Superstar India,'” as echoed by novelist Shobhaa Dé in her eponymous book, “will lack luster.”