Two years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalites, or Naxals as they are often known in India, as the ‘greatest threat’ to the country. Manmohan Singh, who has earned, deservedly or otherwise, something of a reputation in India’s educated middle-class circles as a man of integrity and even gentleness, is not known for the expression of extreme sentiments. He was not even known as a fighter, though the steadfastness with which he refused last year to bow to pressure to undo the nuclear deal, and the ‘grit’ with which he rode the storm that threatened to remove him from power, surviving a dramatic vote of no-confidence in Parliament, have perceptibly altered some people’s previous estimation of him as a weakling or, to put it even less charitably, a mere instrument of Sonia Gandhi. There is even the sense that Manmohan may well have mastered Indian idioms of power holding much better than those who openly flaunt their power. Meekness may be the best disguise for strength, just as often allowing the impression of being subjected to manipulation may be a subtler exercise of power. Sonia Gandhi’s mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, certainly learnt these lessons well as she put the old Congress leadership through spins and turns following the death of her father and, shortly thereafter, Lal Bahadur Shastri.
The Naxals have now surfaced again, in pronouncements from Manmohan and Home Minister P. Chidambaram, as the ‘gravest internal security threat’ to the nation. Addressing a conference in mid-September of Director Generals and Inspector Generals of Police, Manmohan admitted that there had not been much success in containing the ‘menace’ represented by the Naxalites. ‘It is a matter of concern that despite our efforts,’ Manmohan told the gathering of the country’s highest law enforcement officers, ‘the level of violence in the affected states continues to rise.’ Manmohan has admitted that reducing Naxalism to a ‘law and order’ problem is not likely to yield the desired results, and in a recent speech he argued for a more ‘nuanced’ approach, which consists in nothing more than putting forward ‘development’ alongside the ‘maintenance of law and order’ as the twin-fold way of fighting ‘the Naxal menace gripping several parts of the country.’ Is it Manmohan’s stint at Oxford, awareness of the repression unleashed against fellow Sikhs during the height of the Khalistan insurgency, simple humanity, or what passes for his gentle demeanor that has made him less likely to embrace the more totalitarian vision of his home minister, who does not mince words when he describes ‘left-wing extremism’ as ‘the gravest challenge to our way of life, our republic and our democracy.’
Perhaps there is nothing subtler in Manmohan’s sense of how best ‘the Naxalite problem’ may be contained than the realization that the carrot may soften the blow of the stick. Everything in the language of the state is reminiscent of India under colonial rule. P. Chidambaram, the enlightened voice of reason, one of the heroes of India’s ascendancy into the ranks of what we might call ‘seriously developing’ nations, has even offered to make available the old colonial remedy, first practiced by the British in the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), of bombing ‘Naxalite-infested’ areas from the air. Indian Air Force helicopters with mounted guns, Chidambaram has argued, might legitimately be used to produce results. As George Orwell noted in his essay on the debasement of the English language, the bombardment of people from the air came to be styled ‘pacification’. The Naxalites are a ‘menace’, and the ‘infested’ areas must be rendered into submission: but if all this sounds, as indeed it does, as though vast tracts of the land and people have become diseased, ‘tribal and other under-developed areas’ should be brought under the blessings of civilization. I shall save for a later post my brief ruminations on the idea of ‘development’, which may be a slower way of leading ‘under-developed’ people to their death. No state ever devised a more perfect recipe for the elimination of a people than by the promise that, for every atrocity committed under the name of ‘law and order’, they shall be compensated by the gift of a development project. As one ponders India’s ‘Naxalite question’, it becomes transparently clear that the ‘greatest threat’ to India resides somewhere else than among the Naxalites.