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The folly of using violence to quell violence

As early as 1986, the government was warned of the “backlash of modernisation” in the central tribal belt. But the colonial precedent of using violence to quell violence has been government’s only response to Maoist extremism to date, writes K S Subramanian .Why are there no peace efforts? When and why did the Union home ministry, once tasked with the delivery of social justice, especially for adivasis and dalits, become just a law and order ministry?

A Supreme Court judgment recently ordered state governments, including that of Chhattisgarh, to ‘immediately cease and desist from’ creating and using Special Police Officers (SPOs) against Maoist violence. Likewise, the Union of India was ordered to ‘cease and desist’ from using any of its funds in support thereof, as such activities violated Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The judgment made an eloquent exposition of the socio-economic factors behind the emergence of a militant Maoist movement in the country, and asserted that people do not “take up arms, in an organised fashion, against the might of the state or against fellow human beings without rhyme or reason”. It cited the 2008 Planning Commission Report, ‘Development Challenges in Extremist-Affected Areas’, which advocates a comprehensive developmental approach to Maoist violence.

The Government of India has studiously ignored this report and relied mainly on the law and order approach to Maoist violence, developed by intelligence agencies.

Elaborating, the Planning Commission report stated that “the development paradigm pursued since Independence has aggravated the prevailing discontent among the marginalised sections of society… The benefits of this paradigm have been disproportionately cornered by the dominant sections at the expense of the poor, who have borne most of the costs. Development which is insensitive to the needs of these communities (viz dalits and adivasis) has inevitably caused displacement and reduced them to a sub-human existence. The pattern of development and its implementation has increased corrupt practices of a rent-seeking bureaucracy and rapacious exploitation by contractors, middlemen, traders and greedy sections of the larger society intent on grabbing their resources and violating their dignity”.

The report went on to say that the “state itself should feel committed to the democratic and human rights and humane objectives that are inscribed in the Preamble, the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of the Constitution. The state has to adhere strictly to the rule of law. Indeed, the state has no other authority to rule… What is surprising is not the fact of unrest but the failure of the state to draw the right conclusions from it… There will be peace, harmony and social progress only if there is equity, justice and dignity for everyone” (emphasis added). 

Noted scholar Amit Bhaduri (2009) has observed that reliance on the market mechanism as the main driving force of efficient resource allocation and growth has accentuated poverty and created rumblings in the countryside that often spill over into fury and despair. Land in rural and urban areas is being acquired by government for the purposes of mining, industry and special economic zones. Mining, typically, displaces the poorest people: adivasis, who constitute 8% of the population and 40% of those displaced in the name of development. The state apparatus takes recourse to ‘silent violence’ in various ways. ‘Developmental terrorism’ is practised by the state with the sole purpose of enriching big business but under the guise of industrialising and modernising the economy.   


Maoist violence in India is the consequence of non-performance on basic issues related to tribal development in the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India. It is a response to the enormous state violence and structural violence against adivasis. The recent open letter to the President of India written by Dr B D Sharma, former commissioner for scheduled castes and tribes (Sharma, 2010), makes this abundantly clear.

The 28th Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes submitted to the President as early as 1986 also contained an elaborate discussion of the major issues in tribal and social development. The report was described as a “Constitution within the Constitution” by an eminent scholar.   

Unfortunately, central government institutions such as the Union home ministry and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), entrenched in their colonial past, have failed to play an appropriate role. The absence of proper policy mechanisms; the inadequacy, amateurishness and ad-hocism of available policy professionals; absence of interdisciplinary inputs of knowledge, skill, vision and expertise; dependence on past precedents; and reliance on the police machinery have dented the policy response to major violence in India. Humane governance has been a casualty at all levels of governance.  

This overall failure is to be located in the basic structure of conflict management in India at the district, state and central levels, inherited from the British Raj (Subramanian, 2007). E M S Namboodiripad once observed that India has “democracy at the top and bureaucracy at the bottom”. It is a little noticed fact that the basic criminal laws of the land such as the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Police Act, prepared by the British, prioritise state security, maintenance of public order and intelligence collection as the main functions of the police, at the expense of investigation and detection of crime -- the main function of the police elsewhere.

The Union home ministry’s information on conflict situations stems mainly from the IPS-controlled Intelligence Bureau and the state police forces. Both agencies are not equipped to study the multiple complexities of developmental conflicts but tend to view all conflicts through the lens of their state security preoccupations.

Given the limitations of police agencies in reporting developmental conflicts objectively, the ministry set up its own agency, the Research and Policy Division, in 1967, to report on conflicts independently. The Division worked well but was soon converted into a convenient parking lot for officers moving from one job to another in government. IB reportage on conflicts and the reports produced by the R&P Division often differed on facts and interpretation. The Division was mysteriously wound up in the 1990s.

Based on the Government of India Allocation of Business Rules, 1961, the Union home ministry had two divisions for the development and protection of dalits and adivasis. Steps had been taken, during the post-Emergency 1980s, to develop and implement special measures for the development of these communities, including a Tribal Sub-Plan for adivasis (STs) and a Special Component Plan for dalits (SCs). Special arrangements were in place to study and deal with ‘atrocities’ against dalits and adivasis. Increasing ‘atrocities’ against dalits and adivasis were seen as contributory causes in the emergence of Naxalite violence. The two phenomena were studied in juxtaposition with each other, and guidelines issued to state governments on dealing with them. The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act was passed in 1989 to deal with ‘atrocities’; implementation was supervised by the ministry.

In the name of re-organisation, however, the divisions dealing with SCs and STs were transferred in the 1990s to a newly-set-up Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Separate national commissions came up for SCs and STs. This arrangement has not worked well.

From a nodal agency for the development and protection of dalits and adivasis, the Union home ministry has gradually become just a law and order ministry. The constitutional obligation on the part of the state to protect and take special care of dalits and adivasis, and ensure their development, was given reduced importance with the transfer of the subject to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

The Union home ministry, with its command over police forces across the country, could have been a powerful agency for the delivery of social justice. But it was not to be. This had a particular impact on ‘atrocities’ management. In early-2004, atrocities increased sharply in the development-project-affected central tribal belt (CTB), which also saw increasing Maoist/Naxalite violence.     

Maoist violence, which originated in a single police station area in a single district in West Bengal, is now reported to have spread to over 2,000 police stations in 223 districts across 20 states, as stated by the Union home minister. And the police budgets of Union and state governments have reportedly gone up over a thousand-fold from 1967 to 2007.

The lesson seems to be that a mere police response is far from adequate to respond to Maoist violence. Though state violence tends to aggravate the cult of violence, the colonial precedent of using violence to quell violence appears to have become customised with our post-colonial rulers.  

While ‘public order’ and ‘police’ are state subjects in the Constitution of India, the Union home ministry plays a key role in formulating government policy to deal with Maoist violence. The prime minister stated at a chief ministers’ conference in April 2006 (he has repeated it frequently) that Maoist violence is India’s biggest internal security threat. This was probably based on IB analysis on the subject. The then Union home minister sent a large force of CRPF battalions to the Naxalite/Maoist-affected states. He told the states not to enter into dialogue with the Maoists unless they gave up arms. ‘Local resistance’ by vigilante groups (the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh) was to be “up-scaled”. Though the 2004 National Common Minimum Programme had said that extremist violence was not just a law and order problem but had deeper socio-economic roots, the state police agencies thought otherwise and acted on the suggestions contained in documents on ‘left-wing extremism’ produced by the IB.        

The home ministry, influenced by IB reports, further geared up to deploy central paramilitary forces on a massive scale. The ministry’s annual report for 2008-9 states that Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa together accounted for about 86% of all incidents of Maoist violence in 2008.

The prime minister’s statement on Maoism in 2006 did not make even passing reference to the growing violence against dalits and adivasis. Interestingly, neither the newly-created Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (now in charge of dalits and adivasis) nor the national commissions for SCs and STs were invited to attend the 2006 and 2009 meetings of state chief ministers though this is required under the Constitution. Speakers came out strongly against Maoist violence, but none referred to the issue of increasing violence against dalits and adivasis, especially in the central tribal belt, as reported by official agencies. 

A seminal 1969 home ministry report, the first major report of its kind prepared by the Research and Policy (R&P) Division, titled ‘The Causes and Nature of Agrarian Tensions’, had warned that the ‘green revolution’ could turn into a ‘red revolution’ in the absence of agrarian reforms. 

Ironically, though the Ministry of Home Affairs was aware of deficiencies in its information base on conflict resolution, as seen in the setting up of the R&P Division, it did not take the additional step of institutionalising policymaking. Traditional reliance on police reports has continued. The then home secretary (Srinivasavaradan, 1992) stated that the “available expertise at the bureaucratic level to understand, anticipate and evaluate an intricate problem was inadequate and amateurish. The situation in some cases was salvaged in the past because of the flexibility of the system, the sagacity of the political leadership and its openness to information from all quarters”. 


As early as 1986, the 28th Report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes to the President of India referred to the “backlash of modernisation” in the tribal areas. Its assessment was that the outcome of the developmental measures taken plus the adverse forces already at work was a negative one and marked a “slideback” in the fortunes of dalits and adivasis, notwithstanding some achievements in the sphere of reservations in government jobs. The report decried the “omissions, distortions, subterfuges and the studied silence on vital issues” in government policies which protected vested interests. The concern expressed in the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule, that the laws of the land should be suitably adapted in their application to scheduled areas, had been violated. The effect of non-recognition of the rights of local communities’ command over resources had resulted in “disorganisation, displacement and destitution” of adivasis.

The 2008 Planning Commission report states that the “methods chosen by the government to deal with the Maoist phenomenon (have) increased the people’s distrust of the police and consequent unrest. Protest against police harassment is itself a major instance of unrest, frequently leading to further violence by the police in the areas under Maoist influence. The response of the Maoists has been to target the police and subject them to violence, which in effect triggers a spiral. The rights and entitlements of the people which give rise to the Maoist movement find expression in the Constitution, the laws enacted by various governments and the policy declarations. The administration should not have waited for the Maoist movement to remind it of its obligations towards the people in these matters”.

The conflict is still going on with no visible peace efforts on the part of the government; indeed the government has rebuffed a Maoist initiative to start a dialogue process. Even if the conflict is eventually resolved, the consequences of the violence and the scars both on human survivors and in the national psyche need to be healed and a reasonable degree of ‘closure’ achieved so that the patterns of political violence and terrorism do not reappear (Wallace, 2007).  

(K S Subramanian was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Union home ministry (1980-85) and retired as Director General of the Tripura State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development. He is the author of Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage 2007, and Understanding the Police in India, Lexis-Nexis, 2009)  

Bhaduri, A (2009). The Face You Were Afraid To See: Essays On The Indian Economy,Penguin Books

GOI (2008). Planning Commission Report of the Experts Group on Development Challenges in Extremist-Affected Areas

Sharma, B D (2010). ‘Open Letter to the President of India’, Mainstream, May 22, New Delhi

Srinivasavaradan, T C A (1992). The Federal Concept: The Indian Experience, Allied Publishers, New Delhi  

Subramanian, K S (2007). Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage Publications

Wallace, Paul (2007). ‘A Grassroots Approach to Healing Terrorism’ in Democracy and Counter-Terrorism: Lessons from the Past (Washington DC, US Institute of Peace)

Infochange News & Features, October 2011