The Naxalite hijacking earlier today of a train en route to one of India's busiest stations (Mughal Sarai in eastern Uttar Pradesh, near Varanasi) highlights the truth of Manmohan Singh's claim, a few years ago, that the Naxalites constituted the single greatest security threat to India. Alarms about the Naxals might seem odd (the spate of attacks during the Indian elections notwithstanding), given the sort of 2008 the country has had, with multiple serial blasts in cities across India attributed to Muslim extremists, a handful of lesser bomb attacks in Western India attributed to Hindu extremists, all culminating in the hair-raising 1970s-style Mumbai attacks last November, carried out by Pakistan-based terrorists. Compared to the spectacular nature of these sorts of terrorist attacks, the slow drip of Naxalite violence -- a handful of dead people here, a bomb explosion there -- and often in some of India's dustiest and most faraway corners, might not seem like a very big deal at all. And certainly, the violence barely registers in the country's major metros, and, consequently, in the major Indian media outlets.
This is a mistake, for the Naxalite movement threatens the Indian state at a structural level, in a way that terrorist blasts do not. The latter might well account for more deaths (certainly in 2008, although even this is likely untrue in other years), and presumably threaten foreign investment and tourism; but the Naxalite movement represents a potent challenge to the Indian state's claims of sovereignty in large tracts of land across multiple states. It is a challenge that has withstood the test of time, and it would be no exaggeration to say that in multiple districts, the Maoist insurgency has, if not supplanted the Indian state, reduced it to the level of co-sovereign. In this it has much in common with the creeping Taliban insurgency in Pakistan: like the Taliban, the Naxalites insist upon an alternate legal and social regime in areas they control, complete with tax and judicial mechanisms. Like the Taliban, the Naxalites feed off the very real grievances of an oppressed peasantry, and it is no coincidence that the insurgency has deepest roots in those parts of India where post-1947 land reform has either not been meaningful, or where aboriginal ("tribal" or "adivasi") peoples have been excluded from both the political and economic fruits of the last sixty years (and this, even as they are disproportionately likely to be dispossessed by the sorts of large scale mining and other industrial projects that help fuel the industrial development the benefits of which are reaped by others). And like the Taliban, the Naxalites sap the state's prestige, by demonstrating that it lacks both efficacy and legitimacy. Typically, this is done by scores of attacks on policemen, soldiers, and indeed anyone wearing a government-issued uniform, but nothing makes the symbolic aim clearer than the train hijacking this post started out with: the insurgents took over a train (variously reported as having 700, or 75, passengers aboard), for over four hours, ultimately releasing the passengers unharmed. This operation, coming on the eve of the election's second phase of polling, and in the wake of a series of daring attacks during the first phase earlier this month, conveyed the message that the Indian state cannot foreclose large-scale Naxal attacks despite its intensive deployment of security forces to ensure a peaceful election. That's the kind of political ad worth a million posters, and the urban Indian public ignores it at its peril.
The solution cannot be a military one alone: as the example of states -- such as Andhra Pradesh, to an extent -- makes clear, tackling the Naxalite movement requires more than paying lip service to social justice. It requires, at a minimum, land re-distribution, judicious amnesties, and even cooptation of some Naxalite leaders by the Indian political process. But it will also require what no government, state or central, has so far shown the imagination to consider: a devolution of power in favor of Indian aboriginal communities, to an extent far greater than currently exists. "Federalism" need not be defined purely in terms of sub-national territorial units; it can be supplemented by a new kind of political arrangement better adapted to the needs of many of India's aboriginal/"forest"-communities. At present, these communities are almost as likely to be alienated from the state capital and its power structures, as they are from the national capital and its halls of power. The creation of ever-smaller states is not likely to address this problem, so long as so much power continues to be vested in a bureaucratic/urban class that simply does not include enough adivasis. By contrast, greater local/communitarian control over natural resources has worked rather well in the context of the Himalayan Chipko movement, and something similar, and more comprehensive, deserves to be tried in the context of Naxalite-hit Central India as well. It certainly would do no worse than the sort of "initiatives" used by the Chattisgarh government.