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Forgotten conflicts part V: Identifying the threat

Image credit: Al Jazeera English (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In 1992, Alexander Wendt penned one of the most famous sayings in international relations: 'Anarchy is what states make of it'. Wendt’s intention was to reveal how our engagement with the world is shaped by the ideological lens with which we view it. For instance, we respond differently to a gun in the hands of a friend to a gun in the hands of an enemy. As people have differing ideological views, threat perceptions vary greatly. This can have important consequences when assuming the threat perceptions of other actors.

A 2014 study by the Pew Research Centre illustrates how identity shapes threat perception. When asked to name the ‘greatest threat to the world’, sub-Saharan Africans were most likely to name infectious disease, even before the major outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Respondents in the Middle East said religious and ethnic hatred was the world’s top threat. With major religious and ethnic conflict underway across the region –from Yemen to Syria to Libya – this is no great surprise. Europeans, suffering through a drawn out economic crisis, named inequality as the greatest threat, and the Japanese, citizens of the only state to be attacked with atomic bombs, picked nuclear weapons.

The Pew study places India’s security perceptions in an intriguing light. India has a long and bitter rivalry with its nuclear-armed neighbour, Pakistan, which is largely based on religious and territorial disagreements. The two states have fought three wars since they achieved independence from the British in 1947 and have confronted each other numerous other times over the ‘Line of Control’ – their mutual border in disputed Kashmir.

India also accuses Pakistan of supporting terrorist groups operating in its territory, including the 2008 Mumbai attackers who killed 171 people. After India responded to the murder of 20 of its soldiers in September 2016 with a ‘surgical strike’ against militants in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Islamabad threatened to 'annihilate' India with nuclear weapons. Pakistan would therefore seem to be India’s main security threat.

Yet this external analysis does not tally with India’s own threat assessments. In 2006, and again in 2010, former Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh claimed the ‘Naxalites’ were the India’s 'single biggest internal security challenge'. A 2013 survey found almost half of Indians agreed. In April 2016, India’s Chief of Air, Staff Marshal Arup Raha, accused Beijing of supporting the Naxalites and warned that 'external and internal threats to India are increasingly impossible to separate'.

So who are the Naxalites? In the late 1960s, a violent uprising based on Maoist communist ideology began in the West Bengali village of Naxalbari. The Naxalites have sustained their insurgency for over half a century despite numerous paramilitary campaigns. The group says it's fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples, as well as equitable distribution of resources and land ownership for rural communities. It is active or has influence in a third of India’s districts and it commands thousands of fighters.

Naxalite militants have proved tenacious hit-and-run fighters. In 2009, Naxalites claimed control of a district near Kolkata for several months, and in 2010, the group carried out its most lethal ambush of paramilitary forces killing 76 soldiers. In 2013, Naxalites attacked a political convoy, resulting in the deaths of two dozen Indian National Congress party leaders, including a former state minister. At least 12,000 have died in the conflict since 1996.

The Naxalites find support amongst India’s tribal communities, rural poor, some intelligentsia and youths. These demographics are heavily represented in a territorial band running from India’s northeast to south, a region known as the ‘Red Corridor’. Within this area, the Naxalites represent a rejection of the current government. It is this idea that underscores the Naxalite threat. India’s astounding diversity of class, race, language, religion, and culture makes the state susceptible to dismemberment, while any group that can prove the viability of an alternative government is a major security risk to New Delhi.

A nationwide 'Integrated Action Plan', intended to improve economic development in Naxalite-affected areas, as well as a targeted paramilitary campaign, has seen a decline in Naxalite activity in recent years. However, Naxalite attacks as recent as October have delayed rural infrastructure projects – a key element in economic development. These delays will help the Naxalites retain rural support. Yet the Indian government has continued to call the Naxalites a law and order issue, in effect resisting demands to deploy the military against the insurgency. As far as New Delhi is concerned, the 'single biggest internal security challenge' needs to be handled by state police forces to avoid inflaming local tensions.

New Delhi’s stance on the Naxalite threat returns us to the issue of threat perception. If Pakistan is India’s principal security challenge, New Delhi should be focusing on bolstering its conventional military forces. By identifying the Naxalites as the country’s biggest threat, however, military force becomes less of a priority than economic development. Threat perception suddenly morphs from the theoretical to the realistic, with dramatic consequences for sectors ranging from government spending to strategic engagement. The Naxalites are just one example of the importance of threat perception.

William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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