Is Covid-19 Crisis Giving Breathing Space to Naxalism in India?

 By Vaibhav Kullashri
0
626

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected the world like never before. For the first time, the globalized world remains standstill. In the Indian context, the pandemic has brought about various challenges, especially in the healthcare system.  Although, all the stakeholders’ collective efforts have helped reduce the death rate and minimize the overall impact of the pandemic. However, this could not stop the mass migration of labourers, daily wage workers from big megacities to their villages. The unemployment rate has risen manifold due to stringent nationwide lockdown and local restrictions across states [1] (See Fig -01). With that many people rushing toward the villages with a scarcity of health and medical facilities, the question generally arises can Naxalite utilize these people for their benefit?

Fig 01- Unemployment rate in India in the year 2021 (Source – https://unemploymentinindia.cmie.com/kommon/bin/sr.php?kall=wshowtab&tabno=0001)

Initially, the various reports claimed that the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted the Maoists and their activities [2]. They were struggling to meet the demand for food supplies and essential commodities. The police officers from Chhattisgarh have reported the incident of the Naxalite looting ration distributed under the public distribution system. However, of late, various reports started claiming that Maoists are enhancing their strength and preparing for future operations. They are recruiting jobless migrants in large numbers to beef up the declining carder, especially in the area they were finding resistant initially [3]. The migrant workers have returned to their native villages or towns in key Naxal-affected areas in large numbers (See Fig -02). Though there is no official data available on the number of migrant labourers returning home, various independent sources indicate huge numbers. Security forces face the additional challenge of providing awareness about the pandemic and providing assistance to the local people. The Maoists are exploiting the situation to their advantage over the security forces. According to the report, the pandemic has made the intra-state movement of the Maoist leader much easier [4]. Now they are quickly influencing the youth, including women, to join their grass route cadre.

Fig 02 -*Estimated Data collected from various sources (in lakhs)

Over the last decade, there has been a significant decline in Naxal attacks on the security forces and major Naxal-related incidents predominantly confined to the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Maharashtra. However, the game is still not over for Naxalite as the Covid-19 crisis has brought out the conditions that favour the Naxal movement. First and foremost, the decrease in the economic condition of the people. Second, the fissure within the society between having and have nots with downtrodden people believing that they were the ones who paid the price for strict lockdown and have to lose their lives while the rich increase their wealth manifold in the same period. Indian billionaires increased their wealth by 35% during lockdown [5]. This disparity in society can allow the Naxalite to gain the ground where they never reached before. To date, only a very minimal percentage of the population got fully vaccinated, and the threat of the third covid is lurking around the corner. The further economic and social distress can give enough space to Maoists to gain the lost ground.

The April 2021 deadly attack by Maoists on a joint team of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), District Reserve Guard (DSG), and Special Task Force (STF) could be a possible indication of their increased strength and morale. Various reports indicate a negative impact of the pandemic to Naxalite and indicate their depleting strength; the attack of this level on security forces that killed 22 Jawan and injured more than 30 soldiers is the point to reckon. However, this was not the first attack on the security forces this year. Earlier, the Naxalites blew up the bus carrying Jawan near Narayanpur district of Bastar division killing five. The Maoist-Naxalite movement is people-centric [6] and heavily dependent on the grassroots cadre and supply chain to effectively carry out their annual Tactical Counter-Offensive Campaign (TCOC). With many unemployed youths back home, the Naxalite can utilize this opportunity to increase its grassroots cadre and pose a severe security threat post-Covid-19.

Changing Tactic and Trend

The factor prevailed by restriction due to the Covid-19 pandemic and vigorous counter-insurgency operation by security forces, leading to the overall decline of Naxal-Maoist activities in 2020. There was a twenty percent decline in organized violence involving Naxal-Maoist insurgents in 2020 compared to 2019[7]. Further, the low level of violence between March and June, besides one full-blown incident in 2021, contrasts with the Naxalist best period to carry out TCOC. However, many migrant unemployed youths are still in the home, and the government system is busy tackling the virus. The Naxalite could be seeing it as the potential Movement to recruit people and beef up the carder rather than being offensive.

Also, the elevation of a commander like Hidma, having a tremendous high sense of belligerence, is unlikely to change the operational outlook of the Naxalites [8]. The brutal attack on security forces in the Sukma-Bijapur border shows the intent and morale of the Naxal cadre under his leadership. The elevated level of dissatisfaction among the people due to the economic distress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic can fuel the Movement further.

Government response and Recommendation

Besides, the known fact that purely military means are not feasible to subdue the insurgency. Only 7 percent of the insurgency is known to resolve through military means, and almost 43 percent has been resolved through political means backed by the strong military presence [9]. Knowing the fact, many states in their capacity have pushed for a non-kinetic approach and brought about the desired result over time. However, both state and centre lack holistic, synchronized, and long-term strategies to eradicate the menace that is termed India’s biggest internal security challenge. Ironically, the more the authority turned toward a force-based outcome, the more space the Maoists got to shape their narrative among the people.

The testing time of Covid-19 is an opportunity for the government to allure the ultras to shed weapons and join the mainstream. When a restriction is already in place, the government needs to push for more non-kinetic methods for winning hearts and minds. Even the Maoist want the government to respond through kinetic means rather than through a developmental perspective. It is of no surprise that Naxalism flourished mainly in underdeveloped, mineral-rich forested areas of Central India, where they have a support base of downtrodden, uneducated, and Tribal populations. The percentage of people living below the poverty line is very high in the core Naxal affected area (See Fig -03).

Fig 03 – Data collected from various sources (in percent) National Average – 21.9 %

Thus, the government’s focus shall be on monitoring the migrant workers returning home and having statistical data about their employment status and livelihood condition. Further, the government shall focus on giving more rural-based employment opportunities to unemployed migrants. Last, the government shall keep a tight vigil on the recruitment drive carried out by Naxals in areas where migrant workers have returned in large numbers.

Endnotes

  1. India Today Web Desk (2021), “Covid-19: India may see 10% unemployment rate in May as local lockdown hits jobs”, 28 May 2021. Available at https://www.indiatoday.in/business/story/covid-19-india-may-see-10-unemployment-rate-in-may-as-local-lockdowns-hit-jobs-1808181-2021-05-28, accessed on 06 July 2021.
  2. Rajbala Rana (2020),” Covid-19: Impact on Left Wing Extremism in India”, 28 April 2020. Available at https://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/covid-19-left-wing-extremism-rana-siomon-280420, accessed on 06 July 2021.
  3. P Naveen (2020), “Madhya Pradesh: Maoists trying to recruit jobless migrant back home,” The Times of India, 16 May 2021. Available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bhopal/maoists-trying-to-recruit-jobless-migrants-back-home/articleshow/75767580.cms, accessed on 06 July 2021.
  4. Reuters (2021), “India grappling with rising Maoist Violence, fuelled by Pandemic”, The Hindustan Times, 05 April 2021. Available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-grapples-with-rising-maoist-violence-fuelled-by-pandemic-101617616227893.html, accessed on 06 July 2021.
  5. Jagriti Chandra (2021),” Indian billionaires increased their wealth by 35% during lockdown, says Oxfam report”, The Hindu, 25 January 2021. Available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/oxfam-study-shows-rich-got-richer-during-pandemic/article33655044.ece, accessed on 08 July 2021.
  6. Aastha Kaul (2021), “Naxal-Maoist Insurgency Trends in India during the Coronavirus Pandemic,” ACLED, 11 March 2021. Available at https://acleddata.com/2021/03/11/naxal-maoist-insurgency-trends-in-india-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/, accessed on 07 July 2021.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Tarun Nair, “Despite Covid-19 the Future of India’s Maoist Insurgency Looks Like Its Past”, The Diplomat, 31 August 2021. Available at https://thediplomat.com/2020/09/despite-covid-19-the-future-of-indias-maoist-insurgency-looks-like-its-past/, accessed on 07 July 2021.
  9. Lt Gen (Dr) V K Ahluwalia, “Re-Calibrating Strategies to Combat Maoist Violence,” CLAWS, 06 April 2021. Available at https://www.claws.in/re-calibrating-strategies-to-combat-maoists-violence/, accessed on 06 July 2021.