AT THE EDGE of Sukma, along a road that leads to Konta, lies a mosque. Until some years ago, locals described it as the border between government- controlled territory and ‘their’ area. This third-person plural refers to the domain of Maoists, who at one point controlled a large swathe of territory in the Bastar region of mineral-rich Chhattisgarh state. Since then, things have changed. A cemented road now connects the 75-kilometre distance, reducing travel time from an unbelievable seven- odd hours to a mere one hour. Built of square concrete blocks, the road is now virtually Maoist-proof: even if it is blown up by explosives, the destroyed portion can quickly be relaid within a couple of days.
The story of this civil engineering marvel is, of course, mundane for people in most parts of India. In south Chhattisgarh, it is a strong statement of political will. After almost a decade of struggling with contractors being scared away, equipment burnt to ash by insurgents and the literal powerlessness of the government, the road is finally ready for use and incidents of Maoist violence along the highway have gone down dramatically. One may think that it is a moot point whether the road led to a reduction in violence or if violence was first tamed by giving government-protection to contractors, allowing the road to be built in the first place.
In academic literature, it is a ‘guns versus butter’ question, or, if one is an ‘academic-cum-activist’ of a certain persuasion, a life-and- death one. The academic literature bears these marks vividly. On one hand are academics who look at big questions like injustice and government violence that fuel violent insurgency. On the other are scholars who parse the nuts and bolts of data and try to answer questions like how ordinary people behave in insurgency, the cause and effect sequences between economic growth or deprivation and violence, and how people pick sides—the government or the rebels—in conflict situations.
Alpa Shah’s Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas (Hurst & Co; 256 pages; Rs 1,900) is a memoir of a seven-night trek with Maoists in Bihar and Jharkhand. Shah, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, has done fieldwork in Jharkhand. In an earlier work based on that experience—In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand (2010)—she cast a harsh light on Maoist activities and came close to viewing them as extortionists. That perspective has undergone a silent but strong change in Nightmarch. In her new book, she is much more sympathetic to the Maoist ideal, largely because of their alleged empathy for Adivasis who, it is apparent, are dear to Shah. The seven nights of the march can be seen from the perspective of three dramatis personae—Gyanji, Kohli and Vikas—and a fourth character, Birsa, who was once a Maoist. Gyanji is a Veda-reading Maoist and a middle-ranking leader who commands the march. He exemplifies a typical Maoist leader to be found in East Central India today: upper caste, well- educated and idealistic to the point of no-return. In contrast, Vikas is a young Adivasi who has risen through the ranks but is now corrupt. Vikas has money, women and property, all forbidden under Maoist norms. Perhaps the most interesting character of the three is Kohli, again an Adivasi youth but one who remains idealistic and uncorrupted in the manner that Vikas is not. Evolutionarily, he represents a cusp between turning into another Vikas or, with much lower probability, a Gyanji. A further variant is Birsa who has completed the journey from a rebel Adivasi to a Maoist to a contractor and now a potential police informer. Left unsaid is the strong possibility that Vikas will soon turn into another Birsa. Keeping the rebellion alive requires money, and that money comes from ‘black’ dealings with contractors, mining companies and other similar sources. But in the bargain is the very real danger of Maoist cadres discarding ideals and going rogue. Viewed from the perspective of the government, the combination of money, corruption and coercion within Maoist ranks leads to receding horizons. Revolution is now just a dream for a handful of die-hards like Gyanji.
On one hand are academics who look at injustice and government violence that fuel insurgency. On the other are scholars who parse data to answer questions like the cause and effect sequences between economic growth and violence and how people pick sides in conflict situations
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Far away from Shah’s world is another reality, one that has been explored by Eli Berman, Joseph H Felter and Jacob N Shapiro in Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict (Princeton University Press; 408 pages; $29.95). Here there are no big questions but careful theorising and an evaluation of mechanisms that fuel conflict. For example—and this will be appreciated by observers who have watched India’s restive regions—does creation of a mobile telephony network help security forces reduce violence or does it lead to higher violence? The mechanisms in the two cases are different. In case locals can provide tip-offs, an effective response to rebels can be mounted. But at the same time, rebels, too, know that this is a possibility: the blowing up of such networks is a sign of that awareness. But in case tip-offs are not forthcoming—the local population is alienated—mobile phones are virtual weapons, making coordination easy. The differing responses to mobile networks in Kashmir and Sukma/ Narayanpur make sense when viewed in this framework.
At the heart of Small Wars lies an information-centric game theoretic model of behaviour between three players: government, rebels and an ordinary person who has to act and make a choice between rebels and the government. All three are assumed to be rational. This assumption is often held up as unrealistic, but if the detailed survey data analysed in the book from locations as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Maoist India is anything to go by, people do make rational choices. The key distinction is between asymmetric and symmetric conflict, where all calculations such as providing development aid, the role of suppression and the link between economic conditions and rebel activity show reversals. For example, it is not necessary that development will lead to a lowering of conflict in many zones. Consider the use of labour or the nature of labour markets in such zones. Those championing development argue that a low opportunity cost of labour—the absence of any worthwhile economic activity to engage poor people in conflict arenas—fuels their joining of rebel ranks. But here’s the catch: most rebels are part-time activists, and full-time cadres number a mere handful in most rebel organisations.
These authors cite a fascinating study that notes, ‘When crops fail due to low rainfall, both the civilians and Naxalites suffer lower income—Naxalites tax (extort) farmers—but the government does not (as crops are not taxed). Civilians, who are subsistence farmers, face lower income (and presumably lower wages) when crops fail and become more willing to accept payment for supporting the government (in return for information, political support, vigilance activity, or even defection from insurgency… this is in a sense and opportunity cost mechanism but with an important twist on the conventional wisdom: civilians with poor market opportunities are recruited to support the government side, not the rebels.’
Unfortunately, India has a drastic lack of such careful studies. In New Delhi, where major security decisions are made, the debate is highly ideological and centred on analytically meaningless expressions like ‘injustice’, ‘corporate loot’ and allegedly rapacious security forces that further fuels insurgency. In this cloudy (or up in the clouds) view, there is no room for analytical rigour and empirically informed studies that pin down the mechanisms by which violence escalates or goes down. It is not hard to understand the political affiliations of people who talk of allegedly humane approaches from Kashmir to India’s violent—but receding— ‘Red Corridor.’