Saturday, January 15, 2011


The threat of domestic terrorism is never easy to grapple with, but it's especially hard in India, where Gandhian values of tolerance and nonviolence have led political leaders to define the fight as a police matter. Last week's massacre of 76 policemen in the northern state of Chhattisgarh exposed how ineffective and dangerous that approach really is.

For over four decades, the Maoists' goal has been consistent and clearly articulated: to mount a "people's war" aimed at extinguishing the very existence of the Indian state and installing a socialist republic. That's the definition of an existential threat, perhaps not on a par with the threat posed to India by nuclear Pakistan or China, but certainly one to be taken seriously.

Yet India's national leaders never really took responsibility for coordinating a response to the Maoists, known locally as Naxalites, preferring to fob off the problem to local politicians. Many economically poor states such as Jharkhand simply didn't have the resources or wherewithal to equip their police forces to fight guerilla warfare. The policemen killed in Chhattisgarh Tuesday had no jungle training and were easily overcome by a force of over 500 rebels.

Associated Press

The wreckage of paramilitary vehicle after an attack by Maoist rebels in the state of Chhatisgarh, India.

Citizens of these states had little way to fight back or escape to safer areas. The Maoists generally occupy areas without infrastructure or economic development. Local farmers can't sell the land they till because property rights are weak. The Maoists have also launched successful propaganda campaigns against "capitalism," which wasn't exactly refuted by the successive socialist regimes in Delhi.

When Delhi did intervene, it was to call for a "holistic" approach and for talks. The Maoists, like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, used these lulls to regroup and rearm. After four decades of fighting, they are now present in 20 of 28 states. They have a "dominating presence" in 10 of those states and control some 40,000 square kilometers of territory, according to former Major General Ashok K. Mehta, a security analyst.

Congress has been slowly hardening its tone as deaths have mounted; last year, around 1,125 people were killed. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly dubbed the Maoist menace the "single biggest threat" to India's security. Last year, the government launched a massive operation called Green Hunt to help the states fight the Maoists.

There are good precedents for this kind of tough approach. The Andhra Pradesh, state minister set up a special counterinsurgency group called the Greyhounds specifically trained to take on the Maoists. They have largely neutralized the threat—in a state that was once seen as one of the epicenters of the violence. Other states, such as Orissa, have set up similar groups.

But for the effort to really succeed, the central government has to take more control. Current Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has been moving in that direction since assuming his office after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. He is in the process of setting up a unified command structure to coordinate strikes and share intelligence. Just as importantly, he is also changing the government's rhetoric. Last week he said engaging in talks with the Maoists would "mock the supreme sacrifice" the slain soldiers had made for their country.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has thrown its support behind Mr. Chidambaram, rejecting calls last week for his resignation. Such political unity is rare in India. It's good to see that partisanship ends at the jungle's edge.