Development, Security and Maoist Insurgency

Why we shouldn't take the nexus of security and development for granted: Eric Randolph explores what it means in India.


PEOPLE interested in tackling insurgencies, rebellions and humanitarian crises spend a lot of time discussing the right balance to strike between security and development. A liberal trend in global thinking tends to assume that you need development (things like education, aid money, reduced poverty, healthcare) to deal with the underlying causes of a conflict, and you also need enough security (in other words, you need to shoot enough rebels, terrorists and other spoilers) to allow you to carry out that development work in the first place. In post-Cold War thinking, it has become a truism that “security without development is questionable, while development without security is impossible.”

However, it is easy to take our understanding of ‘development’ and ‘security’ for granted. Whose security are we talking about? Is a development-centred approach really as humanitarian as it is often presented? Can welfare schemes wean people away from insurgent groups? Below I explore these questions with particular reference to the Maoist insurgency in India.

Development is just another offensive weapon

The state seeks to present development as an altruistic, benevolent force driven by moral impulses, but in reality it has never existed outside the state’s desire for control and security. In Development, Security & Unending War, Mark Duffield shows that development – in the sense of improving the lives of the poor – first emerged in nineteenth century Britain as a way of ensuring order during the tumultuous early decades of the Industrial Revolution. This paternalistic impulse went beyond a moral concern for poor individuals and was motivated by the need to formulate a liberal response to the basic problem of capitalism: what to do with all those people left behind in the relentless march of progress? Capitalism’s furious and incessant quest for expansion into new territories and communities inevitably creates what Duffield calls ‘surplus life’ – “a population whose skills, status or even existence are in excess of prevailing conditions and requirements”. In other words, they are Marx’s “useless people” – the detritus that washes up on the shores of the glittering capitalist paradise. These people can be dangerous, since the governing system has very little legitimacy in their eyes.

The concept of development-as-control was gradually transferred to Britain’s colonies in response to various mutinies and rebellions. Duffield argues that the political freedoms granted to colonial societies and the trusteeship in which they were placed were not part of a gradual move towards decolonisation, but were actually designed to legitimise colonial control, dampen discontent and thereby delay the granting of independence.

While this liberal approach was certainly a step up from arbitrary rule or the fascist solution of simply eradicating surplus people and opponents, it was directly opposed to real freedom for the governed. The people were given incentives to accede to colonial rule, but did not have the option of rejecting it. Development was a tool of state security, just as it is today in fragile states and conflict zones around the world. In post-Cold War humanitarian interventions, governments explain the need for development on the grounds that poverty breeds dangerous radicalism, which is why the US government spends millions of dollars on new roads and irrigation facilities in Helmand province and the West pumps billions of dollars into Pakistan in the hope it will stop acting as a training centre for suicide bombers. 

The Indian government plays the same game. Its anti-Maoist Integrated Action Plan provides large amounts of discretionary money to the 60 most “Maoist-affected districts” in the country to spend on development projects. Rs. 250 million ($5.5 million) was allocated last year, with another Rs. 300 million this year. District officers can use the money to provide facilities like drinking water, electricity, roads, sanitation and health services. Home Minister P Chidambaram said the idea was based on the concept that “abject poverty breeds extremism … No matter how much we romanticise life in the forest, let us remember that they are very poor.”But just as elsewhere, concern for the poor is framed as a security dilemma, and the security that really matters to the government is that of the wealthy elite living far away from the conflict zone. The poverty and malnutrition of tribals and lower classes are not a threat to the Indian establishment in themselves, but Maoist leverage of these issues does pose a potential existential threat to the state in the future, and poses an immediate economic threat through their disruption of trade and resource extraction. Development schemes are explicitly understood as a way of altering the way of life of the tribals, regardless of their own desires: “They must know that the government is friendly to their way of life, but wants to help them change their way of life,” said Mr Chidambaram.

At the same time as it draws people out of the forest and away from the influence of non-state groups, the Integrated Action Plan also aims to extend the writ of the state by encouraging reluctant officials to travel into rebel-controlled areas – the most obvious incentive being the opportunity they will gain to syphon off funds from the scheme. The construction of new buildings also has practical uses for the police and paramilitary forces, given their predilection for camping out in schools, while the success or failure of construction projects provides a useful gauge of which areas are under Maoist control.
Of only marginal interest to the authorities is whether any of this really improves conditions for the locals, and that is because at some level they understand that…

Development is ineffective at stopping recruitment

The link between poverty and militancy is increasingly being questioned. A group of US academics recently interviewed 6,000 Pakistanis and found that, contrary to received wisdom, militancy was less popular among the poor than the middle class. The authors argued that this was because the poor bear most of the brunt of terrorist attacks.

On the surface, this should not directly relate to the Maoist insurgency in India, whose leaders are much more explicit in stating that they fight for the poor and oppressed, and who have shunned random terrorist attacks on civilians (even if the conflict has occasionally spawned such attacks). And yet, the statistics show that there is no real correlation between economic grievances in India and the Maoist insurgency. A defence analyst recently crunched the numbers on this topic, and shared his findings in a telling series of tweets:

Out of the 100 districts in India with highest poverty rates (population below poverty line), only 26 districts are Maoist afflicted.

Out of the 100 districts in India with lowest literacy rates (gender-sensitive), only 20 districts are Maoist afflicted.

Out of 100 districts in India where households do not have enough food for all their members, only 15 districts are Maoist afflicted.

Out of the 100 districts in India with highest Infant mortality ratios, only 9 districts are Maoist afflicted.

This being India, of course. Not being on the list of 100 poorest districts does not necessarily make you a wealthy district. In a country where almost half the children are malnourished, an insurgent group does not have to look too far to find some poverty to exploit.

Nonetheless, other factors are clearly at work beyond lack of development. A recent paper by Jason Miklian, Kristian Hoelscher and Krishna Chaitanya Vadlamannati found that the key determinants of where the Maoists operate were the presence of mining operations and forest cover. “Our results do not support the grievance-based arguments presented by Maoists as a current explanation for the insurgency,” they argued. “Due to the mobility of the Maoists and their lack of ties to one particular ‘homeland’ or other essential territory (like a separatist movement would have, for example), strategic decisions about where to fight may outweigh the rationales for fighting.”

In social science jargon, economic grievances are ‘a necessary, but not sufficient variable.’ There has to be some poverty or exploitation in the district for the Maoist message to have relevance, but the realities of fighting a guerrilla war mean that other factors must also be present.

Clear empirical research on why people join the Maoists is hard to come by, but those with close experience of the movement say that recruits are often motivated by a range of emotions not directly related to their economic prospects. People can put up with a great deal of structural violence in their lives, finding ways to cope psychologically with the slow burn of poverty and low status, particularly when it is all they have known. Instead, what tends to trigger acts of violent rebellion are specific flashpoints of injustice. The murder of a friend, harassment by a local moneylender or landlord, the rape of a family member that goes uninvestigated by the police – these are the things that push an individual into the arms of an insurgency.

“Can you imagine how angry you would be if your sister was locked up for three months without charge and then came back and told you she had been tortured? This happens all the time,” said Gladson Dungdung, a human rights activist from a tribal area in Jharkhand. “So many people I talk to say they picked up the gun just to shoot a policeman and get revenge for the way their people have been treated.”

Economic grievances tend to be corollaries of a broader injustice against the tribals and lower classes in rural India. Maoists appeal above all to feelings of structural injustice rather than a lack of development, not least because they are far more effective as a tool of immediate reprisal than as a solution to long-term problems, however much they wish to be both.

Some individuals will indeed join simply for the wage packet – around Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 4000 ($66-$88) per month for the lowest cadres – but there are plenty of other reasons for donning the olive green uniform which are only indirectly linked to economic prospects. Some may be attracted by the lure of guns and the power they bestow, others may be looking for a more adventurous life than their humdrum village existence. A study by Lucien Pye into Communist insurgents in Malaya in the 1950s found that a quarter of the former insurgents he surveyed had joined the movement simply to stay close to their friends, even before they had developed any particular dislike for the government. Discussing this study, Ken Payne writes: “hostility to the government followed the adoption of the insurgent social identity, rather than preceding it. The identity of the group shaped the attitudes of its members, rather than the other way about.”


Development as propaganda

There is a great scene in last year’s Peepli Live, a funny yet coruscating look at debt and farmer suicide in rural India, when a local government official decides he must be seen to take action on the family’s problems. A truck suddenly appears in the village and dumps a brand new water pump in the family’s garden, then disappears again. No one hangs around to make sure it is installed properly, or to ask whether it is actually useful to anyone in the village.

Similarly, the Integrated Action Plan promises new school buildings, roads and government offices, but seems completely disconnected from more fundamental problems such as the lack of teachers, the lack of political representation and the lack of jobs. No one hangs around to ask whether the plan has improved the lives of the locals. Rather, its success is measured by asking local officials how much of the money they have spent.But perhaps that is beside the point, since the more crucial rationale from the government’s perspective is how these development schemes play as a form of propaganda aimed, once again, at those areas that are far away from conflict zones.

The one group of people that are clearly motivated to join the Maoists by issues of poverty and underdevelopment are the leaders of the insurgency, the middle class urbanites who give up their relatively comfortable lives to come fight in the forests and villages of rural India. It is their Marx-inspired rhetoric that colours the ideology of the movement and places the immediate impulses of the local people within a political framework. At one level, the government’s development schemes are a rather ham-fisted attempt to counter this rhetoric – to show that the government does care about the people and can provide for them. It is propaganda designed to show that the government is applying liberal solutions to conflict rather than the purely exterminatory policy that would define it as the opposite of liberal.

Fortunately for the Maoist leadership, the Integrated Action Plan runs little risk of being an effective piece of propaganda for the government. Initial figures suggest that, of the money released so far, less than a quarter has been spent and only 15.5% of projects actually completed. Not only is the scheme dubious in its ability to live up to its own promise, but it also misses the central point of the Maoist critique, which is that the system is structurally geared against the poor and therefore incapable of providing real, long-lasting improvements in their lives. While the announcement of the Integrated Action Plan might create the momentary mirage of a state that caters for its most deprived, the reality of meagre hand-outs and inept implementation only serves to support the Maoist argument.

Security is for those who are already secure

A key argument in Duffield’s book is that the world is divided into insured and non-insured peoples. To illustrate the point, he compares the Asian tsunami of December 2004 with Hurricane Charlie which hit Florida a few months earlier. The hurricane cost reinsurers an estimated $14 billion, and claimed 25 lives. The tsunami cost reinsurers half that amount, and killed 200,000 people – a stark example of how lives in the developed world are (quite literally) worth more than those in developing nations. Around 80% of people in industrialised countries are part of a contributory welfare scheme, compared with less than 10% in most African and Asian countries. Although the life insurance market in India grew five times larger between 2001 and 2009, it still covered less than 5% of the population. As with other developing countries, the state is intrinsically geared towards protecting this small band of insured and successful people, whose economic strength gives them a hugely disproportionate influence in parliament.

Development schemes are presented as the alternative to insurance for those less valued in society, but their real benefit lies in the tactical advantages they provide for security operations against therebellious poor, and their potential as propaganda in convincing the middle class not to feel too guilty about rapidly amassing wealth.

In some cases, the Indian government’s development initiatives have started to have a positive transformative impact on the lives of the poor. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which gives 100 days work to the poor, is basically a cash-transfer scheme – and one that has been beset by corruption in its first few years of practice – but it has also become a powerful entitlement around which to mobilise the poor, thanks largely to the way civil rights groups involved themselves in the formation of the Act, ensuring there were powerful ways to monitor its progress and punish offenders. The Right to Information (RTI) Act also has vast potential for reconstituting power relations at the local level. One recent study found that an RTI request was now as effective as paying a bribe in getting officials to do their jobs.

Elsewhere, however, the government’s attempts to alleviate poverty and provide for the betterment of rural India remain superficial and ineffective. The fact that the largest chunks of aid money go to conflict zones (particularly Kashmir and now Maoist areas) exposes the extent to which development is primarily about securing the elite – those who, ironically, are already secure – and protecting a capitalist structure that has brought only limited benefits to the vast majority.

It is a common misconception of the anti-war liberal that a choice exists between security and development – that the state might one day be convinced to choose altruism over inhuman military action. At its heart the priority of the capitalist state is to protect its most successful capitalists, and all the tools at its disposal are geared towards this goal. The state is benevolent only until an individual refuses its help, at which point its true character is revealed.