India prepares new assault on its 'biggest threat'

India has sent 20,000 more troops to eastern states where a Maoist Naxalite insurgency is gaining strength. Some analysts question whether India has the breadth and strength for an escalated campaign.

India's government is planning a major new assault on Maoist rebels, known as Naxalites, across the four states where their presence is strongest. The move comes as new evidence emerges the Maoists are stepping up their military and operational tactics – and winning new recruits across the country.

Some experts are skeptical about what the campaign, whose details are murky, can achieve.

Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, says India's security forces do not have the strength – in terms of "numbers, training, transportation, arms" – to gain control over such vast swaths of territory.

"Until there's been a steady, tremendous capacity-building, all deployments will be irrational; it will just be a nibbling away at the peripheries, and a lot of security forces will be killed," he says.

Security analysts say that ahead of the announced campaign, which may begin as soon as this month, paramilitary forces are being sent into the eastern states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and Bihar, where the movement is most heavily concentrated. Though it is not known how many extra troops will be deployed, at least 20,000 were being sent to Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where some 35,000 troops are already operating.

Naxalites, who claim to fight for India's poorest, powerless people, have a strong network – estimates of their cadre numbers vary from 10,000 to 20,000 – across many tribal and landless communities of eastern India.

The government recently said that the insurgency, which started in 1967 as a peasant uprising in the village of Naxalbari – hence the name – has now spread to 20 of India's 28 states. At least 700 people, including civilians and police, have been killed in the rebellion this year, up from 638 total last year. In September, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has described Naxalism as India's greatest security threat, said the police were failing to halt it.

Naxalites dig in

In previous attempts to tackle Naxalism, the police – the force that leads the fight against the rebels – have been outnumbered and hampered by their own outdated weapons. The Naxalites, meanwhile, are skilled in jungle warfare and increasingly well equipped with rocket launchers, automatic rifles, and explosives.

Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram said recently that Maoists had improved their operations, from making increasingly sophisticated bombs to "laying greater emphasis on attacking economic and development infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, power, and telecommunication networks."

A Maoist strategy report, recently leaked to the government, calls for attacks on Indian security forces and efforts to prevent multinational companies taking over mines in central and eastern India.

"This time, the fight will be more long-drawn and more bitter than the one against the British imperialist armies," the document says.

Some have suggested that the Army should be used in the fight against the rebels, though traditionally, state-level police have been considered better suited for the law-and-order problems that Maoists often pose. On Oct. 1, the Indian Air Force, which assists the state police with evacuation and intelligence-sharing, asked the government for permission to fire at Maoists if it came under attack. The government denied permission.

Nonviolent alternatives

Others point out that the poverty and alienation that lie at the root of the rebellion should be tackled first. In his column in Mint, a leading Indian newspaper, Mukul Kesavan, a professor at New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University, alluded to "the predicament of those likely to be collateral damage in this war … the rural poor of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh and every other state and district where insurgency feeds off the desperation of violently exploited Indians."

In a more peaceable attempt to deter people from joining the Maoists, the government has also launched a newspaper campaign. The first advertisement, in national newspapers, featured graphic photographs of people killed by Maoists, among them a child, and the words, "These are innocent people – victims of Naxal [Maoist] violence."

Mr. Sahni says the media campaign is "too obvious and clumsy to have any real effect. On the ground, it is by word of mouth and example that things spread, and the Maoists are more effective at communicating the [perceived] atrocities of the state."

Meanwhile, there are growing fears that the Naxalites, traditionally a rural-based organization, are stepping up their attempts to recruit in cities.

But it is unlikely the organization would organize any major attacks in an urban area until it had a sufficiently well-established base there, says Sahni. "There is only the danger," he says, "that if too much pressure was exerted on their stronghold, they would engineer some actions in the cities."

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