Dispatches From The Edge
Nov. 12, 2009
“Rebels Widen Deadly Reach Across India” reads the alarming headline in the New York Times, and the prose that follows is pretty scary: “India’s Maoist rebels are now present in 20 states and have evolved into a potent and lethal insurgency.” According to the Times, the Maoists have killed 900 Indian security officers over the last four years, hi-jacked a train, burned two schools, and freed prisoners from jails. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls them the “single greatest security challenge ever faced in our country.”
Given that India has fought three wars with neighboring Pakistan—one that came within a whisker of going nuclear—plus a 1962 border clash with China, that is pretty strong rhetoric. Any truth in it?
According to a recent commentary in the The Guardian (UK) by Booker Prize winning author, Arundhati Roy, not much. Roy argues that the counterinsurgency operation that the New Delhi government is preparing to launch into the forests of Chattisgarth state have less to do with security than with corporate bottom lines.
“The Maoist guerrilla army is made up almost entirely of desperately poor tribal people living under conditions of such chronic hunger that it verges on famine…They are people who, even after 60 years of India’s so-called independence, have not had access to education, healthcare or legal redress…If the tribals have taken up arms, they have done so because a government which has given them nothing but violence and neglect now wants to snatch away the last thing they have—their land.”
There are an estimated 65 million tribals or “adivasis” in the five state region the Maoists are active in.
The territory in question includes parts of Chattisgarth and the neighboring states of Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, what the Indian press is calling the “Red Corridor.” The area embraces much of India’s Southeast, including thousands of square miles of forest inhabited by the country’s tribal minorities.
It is not so much the land that the Indian government is interested in, as what lies beneath it. According to Amarendra Das and Felix Padel, authors of “Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminum Cartel,” Orrisa alone has $2.7 trillion in Bauxite deposits, a figure that is twice the GDP of the entire country. That figure is a 2004 estimate, so the deposits might now be worth $4 billion.
Chattisgarh and Jharkhand have massive amounts of iron ore, plus uranium, tin, copper, diamonds and gold. The five state area also includes 85 percent of India’s coal reserves.
While Singh calls the Maoists a “threat,” at a meeting of state chief ministers this past January he described them as having only “modest capabilities.” The most telling comment by the Prime Minister was made this past June when he told the Parliament, “If left-wing extremism continues to flourish in parts which have natural resources of minerals, the climate for investment would certainly be affected.”
To take on the Maoists, New Delhi is unleashing 70,000 paramilitaries, which have been accused of committing widespread atrocities against tribal people in the region. More than 50,000 locals have been forced into government-controlled villages that look much like the “strategic hamlets” of the Vietnam War.
The Maoists—also called “Naxalites after the site of a 1967 uprising—are estimated to have between 10,000 and 20,000 fighters, although those figures are likely inflated. They are armed with AK-47 assault rifles, old bolt action Enfields, and explosives. Some of the tribals, use bows and arrows.
Against them is the fourth largest army in the world, which includes: 1,414,000 regular soldiers, 1,800,000 reserves, and 787,000 “territorials.” The latter train for 32 days a year. The military also includes 32,000 pieces of artillery, 20,000 ballistic missiles, 10,000 cruise missiles, 900 aircraft, and 5,000 tanks.
Over the past several years the Indian military spending has steadily risen, jumping 10 percent in the 2008-09 budget. India is currently upgrading its fleet of Russian Sukhoi-Su-30MKI combat fighters and MIG-29s, and is considering spending $10.6 billion to purchase 128 new MIG-35 Fulcrum fighter bombers.
In the meantime, according to Utsa Patnaik, India’s leading agricultural economist, the average rural family is eating less than it did a decade ago.
A study by the International Labor Federation found that India’s current economic boom is built largely on the backs of workers and farmers. While labor productivity has risen 84 percent, and India has created 100,000 dollar millionaires, real wages declined 22 percent, and 836 million Indians live on less than 50 cents a day.
P. Sainath, India’s leading independent investigative journalist, found that farm debt had almost doubled from 1991, and contributed to a huge increase in rural suicides. According to the Mumbai-based journalist, 182,937 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2007. Many of those were in Chattisgarth and Maharashtra.
While most the Indian media has trumpeted the figure of 900 security forces killed by the Maoists in four years, between 2002-06, the average yearly number of farm suicides was 17,513. That is, writes Sainath, “one farmer took his or her life every 30 minutes on the average.”
The debt crisis is largely fueled by a series of neo-liberal “rural economic reforms” that stress cash crops like cotton, coffee, sugarcane, pepper and vanilla over traditional food crops, like rice, wheat and maize. When landlords forced farmers to shift to cash crops through their control of water supplies and credit, says Sainath, it “meant much higher cultivation costs, far greater loans, much higher debt,” and being locked into the “volatility of global commodity prices,” which are “dominated by a handful of multinational corporations.”
Malnutrition rates in India are worse then they are in sub-Saharan Africa, and considerably worse then they are in one of India’s major economic competitors, China. According to Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in economics, while China has reduced childhood malnutrition to 7 percent, the rate in India is 42.5 percent.
So the question is, what is the greatest threat to India’s democracy? A handful of insurgents deep in the forests of Chattisgarh, or an economy that leaves the bulk of its population mired in crushing poverty and debt?
The name of the counterinsurgency thrust into Chattisgarth, which will level forests and siphon off water sources, is “Operation Green Hunt.”
Irony is dead.
Japan’s new Democratic Party government is finding out that the U.S. is an ally—as long as you do what Washington wants. Show a little independence, and you get leaned on.
When newly minted Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama indicated that Japan wanted to re-visit a 2006 agreement basing Marines in Okinawa, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates growled that any attempt to change the deal would be “counterproductive.” And in case Tokyo didn’t get the message, Gates boycotted a dinner for Japan’s Defense Minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, and refused to attend a welcoming ceremony at the ministry.
Tokyo responded by canceling talks between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Washington has since tried to patch things up before President Barak Obama’s Nov. 12-13 visit to Japan.
The base in question is Futenma, which sits amid a major urban area in Okinawa. The 2006 agreement would move the base to a different part of the island, but the locals want the base moved to Guam. Okinawa houses more than half of the 47,000 U.S. troops deployed in Japan.
Behind the clash are very different views of the neighborhood. The old right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was more than happy to house the U.S. because the LDP was hostile to China and Korea. The Party’s stubborn refusal to apologize for the atrocities committed by Imperial Japanese forces in World War II was a continual source of friction with other Asian nations.
But the Democratic Party ran on a platform of improving relations with other Asian nations—in particular China—and for a more “equal” alliance with the U.S.
“Under the government of the Liberal Democratic Party, foreign policy was excessively dependent on the U.S.,” Okada told the Financial Times. “My fundamental thinking is that we would like to secure the peace and prosperity of Asia, and through that achieve peace and prosperity for Japan.”
However, that was not the aim of the 2006 agreement, which was designed to confront China by building up Okinawa and Guam. A big part of challenging China involves stationing nuclear weapons aboard U.S. ships in the region. In theory, U.S. nuclear-armed ships are barred from Japanese ports, but the LDP turned a blind eye to the practice.
Not so the Democratic Party. Asked about U.S. ships carrying nuclear weapons, Hatoyama said bluntly, “I wouldn’t let them in.”
The Democrats ran on a platform of abolishing nuclear weapons and will find it difficult to retreat from that position, U.S. pressure not withstanding.
Having an anti-nuclear government in Japan will add weight to the growing campaign to abolish the weapons. Both President Obama and UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon have called for ridding the world of nuclear weapons, This past July the 170-million member International Confederation of Trade Unions called for of a “nuclear-weapon-free world” by 2020. The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a similar resolution in 2008.
As Lawrence Wittner, a professor of history at State University of New York-Albany and author of “Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the Nuclear Disarmament Movement, writes, the Democratic Party victory “should hearten opponents of nuclear weapons, for it provides not only a symbolic victory for antinuclear forces but a potential significant shift in the nuclear policy of a major nation. Above all, it serves as an indication that, around the world, the antinuclear momentum is growing.”