The fight against left-wing extremism

  • Blog Post Date 23 October, 2012
  • Notes from the Field
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Varad Pande

Omidyar Network India

In this Note From the Field, Varad Pande of the Ministry of Rural Development argues that left-wing extremism and violence is a major challenge for India. He says that while this is definitely a security issue, it is as much a political and a development issue. We will not end this war by bullets alone; we will win it only if we win over hearts and minds.

Left-wing extremism or Naxal/Maoist violence as it is commonly called, is a major national challenge in India today. Recent evidence suggests some successes in addressing such extremism, but there is a long way to go. It is clear that while this is definitely a security issue, it is as much a political and a development issue. We will not win this war by bullets alone; we will win it only if we enable conditions for grassroots political mobilisation, improve the delivery of development schemes and ensure a fair-benefit sharing of resources with local people – in other words bridging the trust deficit that exists today.

Understanding the Naxal problem

In the Indian context, the so called ‘Naxals’ or ‘Maoists’ are left-wing extremists that profess to be working in the interests of local people in the central Indian tribal belt. They reject parliamentary democracy and use violence against the state as their main weapon, with the objective of overthrowing it. The local terrain – highlands and forests – suits their guerrilla warfare tactics. Attacks on public assets – especially schools and roads that enable connectivity and nurture a questioning spirit among locals – is their preferred way of operating.

A major cause of the Naxal problem has been a misplaced approach of the state in these areas– a reliance on a paternalistic colonial model of administration, without adequate sensitivity to the local sensitivities. Most starkly, this approach has often involved forced alienation of locals from their lands and livelihoods, without adequate compensation or recourse to justice. It has also involved a failure to deliver the basics of development – schools, health facilities, roads.1 This, combined with the absence of any major grassroots political mobilisation made these areas fertile breeding grounds for the rise of Naxalism. The Naxals, with their tribal-friendly rhetoric, small acts of benevolence, speedy dispensation of ‘justice’, and the power of the gun, were able to make inroads.

Addressing Naxalism – a three-pronged approach

The traditional response of the state to the Naxal issue has been quite one-sided, relying on a ‘security’ approach – taking Naxalism as something that could be tackled through a larger and more well equipped security machinery. But this approach fails to address the root cause of the Naxalism issue. As the limits of this approach are becoming obvious, a new mindset is beginning to define the government’s approach. This has three distinct pillars – security, development and political mobilisation.

The first is the security pillar - With greater focus, more resources, better-equipped security forces and better coordination between the centre and the states, we are beginning to see a reduction in incidence of extreme left-wing violence. Some so-called ‘liberated’ zones like Saranda in Jharkhand have also been re-captured from the Naxals. Two things will further strengthen the state’s security response.
  • First, we need greater representation of local people in the police and paramilitary forces; this is essential to bridge the trust deficit.
  • Second, we need a better understanding of local social and tribal networks and need to make the local tribal leadership our allies. This goes beyond the current approach of treating some tribals as ‘informers’– it will require a proactive effort to engage with local communities,2 and proper sensitisation and training of the security forces.

The second is the development pillar - Ensuring that basic infrastructure and public services – roads,functioning health centres and schools,etc. – reach deep into these areas. Current efforts are increasing focus in this direction. For example, under the new Integrated Action Plan (IAP) programme, 78 districts have been identified in nine statesfor additional funding of Rs 30 crores3 per district per yearwith the objective of bridging the ‘development deficit’. More than 65,000small projects have already been taken up, but the challenge remains to reach remote areas that are still under Naxal domination.Special Development Authorities are also being created in the most affected areas, such as in Saranda (Jharkhand) to implement integrated programmesthrough the convergence of various vertical government schemes. More professional human resources are being provided at the frontline, for example, through the newly launched Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows Programme. In addition, where local resources are being exploited, such as through mining, a greater share of the value is proposed to flow to local communities through the proposed Mines and Minerals Bill.

Three things will further help the development pillar.

  • First, just like in the police, we have to ensure greater participation of local human resources – the local administration must be given the flexibility to hire locals to deliver public services.
  • Second, the administration must work closely with local NGOs and Community Based Organisationa (CBOs), many of whom are doing stellar work in adverse conditions for several decades, and have well-developed relationships of trust with local communities.
  • Third, sustainable livelihood opportunities for tribals need to be expanded. Tribals must be given access to minor forest produce, especially bamboo, a hugely lucrative commodity. Initial experiments in this direction, such as in Mendha Lekha (Maharashtra) have been very encouraging4.

The third is the political pillar – creating conditions for political engagement, bringing locals into the political mainstream as partners and decision-makers. Political parties have an important role here – they must conduct local membership drives and provide opportunities to local leadership in state politics. The recent push to conduct elections to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in many of these areas is a step in the right direction, but many states like Jharkhand have a long way to go. Political engagement also requires that tribals have more secure property rights and a greater say in local decisions, especially those relating to their land and livelihoods. A number of recent legislations have made a start – Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) and the Forest Right Act for example. The proposed Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill, 2011, will also ensure a greater role for local communities in land-related decisions, especially in Schedule V and VI areas.5

However, the challenge of implementation continues to plague these laudable new laws on the ground. This political pillar is supplemented by the centre’s open offer for talks with the extremists.


It is clear that in the war against left-wing extremism, there is no silver bullet. Success requires courage, commitment and coordinated action. It also requires a paradigm shift in how we engage with local communities and in the power relations between the state and local people. Recent trends suggest that we have begun to recognise this, through a new three-pronged approach of security, development and political engagement. However, there is a long way to go if we are to win this battle for hearts and minds. If we let go of the opportunity for victory that we have today, we may not have another chance.

The views expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect those of the Ministry of Rural Development.


  1. To be fair, these areas are extremely difficult to administer, given the terrain, dispersed habitation patterns, lack of local human resources and paucity of funds for development. These factors are often cited by the state administrations for the lack of development in these areas and the growth of Naxalism
  2. It is instructive to note that during the ‘surge’ by US forces in Iraq, the US used a similar approach to co-opt Sunni tribal leaders in the war against Al-Qaeda
  3. 1 crore = 10 million
  5. The Fifth Schedule covers Tribal areas in 9 states of India namely Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa and Rajasthan. The Sixth Schedule covers Tribal Areas in the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram

Further reading

  • Chakravorty, S (2012), The Price of Land: Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence.’ New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
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