Comparing Pakistan’s Islamists to India’s Maoists

December 16, 2009

chhattisgarhOne of the more controversial arguments doing the rounds is the question of whether you can compare Pakistan’s Islamist militants to Maoist insurgents in India. Both claim to champion the cause of social justice and have been able to exploit local grievances against poor governance to win support, and both use violence against the state to try to achieve their aims.

The differences are obvious:  the Islamist militants come from the religious right; the Maoists from the far-left. In Pakistan, the militants have become powerful enough to strike at the heart of the country’s major cities. In India, the Maoists remain largely confined to the country’s interiors, although their influence is spreading through large parts of its rural hinterland.

In Pakistan, the military initially nurtured Islamist militants to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan – with U.S. and Saudi support – and later to fight India in Kashmir. In India, the Maoist movement has grown organically from its origins as a local 1967 uprising by communists over a land dispute in the village of  Naxalbari in West Bengal, from where its followers derive their name as Naxalites.

In Pakistan, the question of whether support for Islamist militants is underpinned by local grievances over social injustice is highly contentious.  Many in Pakistan dismiss the Pakistani Taliban as right-wing ideologues, fired up by an alien religious philosophy imported from the Middle East by al Qaeda, and joined by a motley crew of criminals and thugs bent on the pursuit of pursuit of power and money.

bows and arrowsIn India, even those who oppose the Maoists’ violent methods acknowledge that poverty and the alienation of its rural poor – especially among the indigenous tribal people - have contributed to their appeal.  (I have rarely been so powerfully struck by the desolation of hunger than on a trip some years ago to Chhattisgarh, the heartland of the Maoist revolt.  It is a state where deep in the forests you find children with the protruding bellies and vacant eyes of the seriously malnourished, whose fathers use bows-and-arrows to catch animals (see pix).  It also has vast mineral resources which villagers hope might one day make them rich, and which Maoists argue will be exploited by international mining companies.)

But granted the obvious differences, some of the similarities offer a perspective which at the very least allows room for discussion about the challenges faced by national governments in dealing with insurgencies, both from the Islamist right and the far left.

In Pakistan, the Islamist militants are recognised by many as an existential threat to the state. In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Maoist insurgency as “perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces”.

Both the Islamists and the Maoists have aimed to take control of parts of the country, using violence to keep out the writ of state. In this respect, argued Faisal Devji in an article in Britain’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper, insurgencies behave more like private companies which operate independently of the state.

“Pakistan’s Muslim militants are developing into the analogues of Maoist rebels in India, who also take over certain areas and attack government forces there to provide an alternative but non-governmental form of order. Managing territories within a state without apparently wanting to form a new government suggests a privatised and non-political ideal of governance, one that both Indian Maoists and Pakistani militants seem to espouse. The task before both governments is therefore not to de-politicize but rather bring these groups into the political arena…” he wrote.

“In Pakistan, however, this task has been made difficult due not to the extent of militant support and firepower, but because institutions of the state appear themselves to have become a set of non-governmental actors like their enemies. In this sense Pakistan is not a failed state so much as the perverse culmination of a more familiar process of privatisation that affects us all,” he said.

Both Islamists and Maoists have also been able to exploit the divide between rich and poor opened up by globalisation in two countries where rapid economic growth failed to make a significant difference to the poorest sections of the population. As a result the poor have been able to catch only a glimpse of the consumer gains offered by global capitalism – at least enough to know what they are missing. Al Qaeda and its Islamist allies have rejected this capitalist model wholesale; the Maoists have taken up arms against its perceived excesses.

In openDemocracy, Paul Rogers argues this gap between rich and poor will be aggravated by climate change and ultimately present a far greater security challenge to governments than al Qaeda.

“A more relevant symbol of the pattern of conflict that will result from an increasingly divided and constrained world is less al-Qaida than the resurgent Naxalite rebellion in India,” he says. ”India has achieved impressive economic growth since the 1990s, but it is facing pervasive internal dissent from the marginalised and dispossessed. The same can be said of China … The experience of these Asian giants is but one part of what is likely to become a much wider predicament – and it cannot be controlled by force.”

Citing a study from the Oxford University Group titled “Global Security after the War on Terror”, he says: “In a divided and increasingly constrained world, an elite minority will not be able to prosper at the expense of the majority – a transition to a sustainable security policy rooted in emancipation and justice is essential.  The war on terror has been a disaster, but recognising its failure might at least help us develop our understanding of global security in a manner appropriate to the 21st century.”

No two insurgencies are the same.  But in understanding the challenges in bringing stability to the region, their similarities are worth studying, if nothing else but to understand the risks they pose in a world where competition for scarce resources, food and water is likely to intensify.

(File photos from Jashpur, Chhattisgarh/Kamal Kishore)

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