International Herald Tribune
Maoists who menace India
HONG KONG If the murderous mess in Nepal can be said to have any silver lining, it is that it is finally spurring India to recognize the danger that Maoist rural insurgency poses to India too.

Naxalism (as this movement is referred to in India, after the district where it originated in 1967) is a serious menace in states stretching from the Nepal border through the most backward states of north-central India - from Bihar to Jharkand, Chhattisgarh and parts of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Summoning ministers of six affected states to Delhi last week to discuss the problem, the ever-realistic Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Naxalism was the "single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country."

Singh was not indulging in hyperbole. In the first three months of this year at least 235 people were killed in actions by or against Naxalites.

According to a former senior official of the Research and Analysis Wing, Indian's intelligence agency, some 20,000 Naxalites now have arms and are an important factor in states comprising 20 percent of India's population. There is no doubt now that the extent of Maoist success in Nepal has directly strengthened and emboldened the Naxalites, who can also claim to deliver votes in some rural areas and thus become a factor in state politics.

For a nation which has endured the running sore of Kashmir for decades, and more briefly faced a bloody Sikh secessionism in Punjab, the prime minister's remark was a remarkable admission of the extent of divisions within India between the burgeoning prosperity in many areas and the disorder and lack of progress in others.

It should be an even greater shock to foreigners who believed that Islamic fundamentalism was in India, as everywhere, the main security threat. Maoism now has more followers in India than China.

Until recently, official Delhi - which includes much of India's news media - tended to look on Nepal's problems as specific to that kingdom and ignore those in rural Bihar and other states. These were seen as isolated outcomes of their chronic underdevelopment and corrupt politics.

Instead of admitting the problem of homegrown insurgency, much was made of allegedly foreign-inspired security threats such as the hill-country tribal unrest in the northeastern states or Islamist threats from Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Ironically, the conditions that have given rise to Naxalism are a reflection of one of the pillars of India's political stability - the decentralization that enables huge variations in language and social culture to be accommodated within a single nation but also leads to mammoth differences in social and economic conditions.

Bihar and Jharkand, for example, are not only among the poorest states, but also, according to the 2001 census, have literacy rates of only 47 percent and 54 percent, compared with 93 percent in Kerala and a national average of 65 percent.

Naxalites do not form a single group. They include committed ideologists and local brigands. But they find ready recruits among the weak and dispossessed, generally including low castes in rural areas oppressed by higher-caste landlords, and in tribal areas by those whose lands have been appropriated by the politically influential.

Low-caste and tribal Indians sense they have not been receiving the equality in theory offered by the law and constitution. Victims include landlords and money lenders, and railroads are a particular target of attack on the state. In short, class and caste warfare are both cause and effect of lack of social and economic progress.

It is not easy for the center to address abysmal state governance standards. Central rule can be imposed, but only for emergency purposes, which is not long enough to correct deep-seated problems. In any event, India's fragile multiparty coalition governments may require political alliances with some none-too-holy state- and caste-based parties.

That said, Delhi now seems to be waking up to the need to pay more attention both to security issues in these states and to find ways of using money and administrative influence to promote law, development and social justice.

It would be gross exaggeration to suggest that the revival of Naxalism poses a threat to India as a whole. Nepal is not its future. Nor should it cause investors to doubt India's performance and potential. But it is a reminder of just how diverse the nation is, and just how much effort needs to go into reducing inequalities while allowing state identities and cultural differences to flourish.