Singh's War

India's soft-spoken prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is sometimes accused of failing to assert India's security interests. His language is measured, devoid of crude appeals to nationalism. So when he calls something "the single largest internal security threat" India faces, it is worth taking notice. That threat is the Maoist insurgency. To deal with it, the government announced in September Operation Green Hunt, which could mobilize more than 70,000 troops in territory "liberated" by the Maoists.

Singh was moved to act by the growing reach of the Maoists. The insurgency first appeared in 1967 and now fields an estimated 20,000 armed fighters, active in 14 of India's 28 states. Regions that were once ungoverned due to neglect have become ungovernable due to Maoists. The state is unable to exercise its authority; businesses are unable to invest. Maoist attacks have taken 2,600 lives since 2006, and the Maoists appear increasingly capable—attacking police stations, blowing up power lines, holding trainloads of people hostage, beheading policemen, and holding Khmer Rouge–like show trials of "class enemies" and "police informers" in towns they control.

Unlike previous rebellions in India, mainly by separatist groups in northeastern border states and in Punjab and Kashmir, the goal of the Maoists is to topple the Indian government. Their stronghold is in the center of the country—Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Orissa, the heartland states of India's tribal minority, whose abject poverty is the wellspring of the rebellion. But their violence is a dire threat to the heartland's hope for wealth—the keen investor interest in its stores of coal, iron, and bauxite. The need to defend those potential deals in the short term, and the Indian state in the long term, forced Singh's hand.

The state governments, unable to stop the Maoists on their own, had resorted to deploying irregular forces. They have recruited a few thousand special police officers and allowed a private armed group called Salwa Judum (Purification Hunt) to conduct vigilante operations. But Salwa Judum has been accused of human-rights violations—including rape, extrajudicial killings, and recruiting underage soldiers—stirring resentment against the states among many tribal groups. So one of Singh's aims is to bring this battle under the rule of the regular Army, and the laws of war.

Singh's strategy includes taking a hard line on peace talks. In the past, India has persuaded extreme leftist rebellions to abandon arms at the negotiating table. But New Delhi sees the Maoists, who have offered talks only to regroup and fight, as particularly untrustworthy and demands that they renounce violence and lay down arms or face the force of troops before talks can begin. The result is that for the first time in this region, India is likely to see its Army fighting alongside its police forces against an internal rebellion. Home Minister Palaniappan Chidam-baram has promised federal help to states under Maoist attack, which means, among other things, deploying paramilitary forces and commandos.

The next steps could be very dangerous. The Maoists have gained a certain degree of popular support by exploiting tribal grievances in areas they control, and it won't be easy for troops to discern rebels from sympathizers and complete innocents. Human-rights groups have urged Singh to roll back Operation Green Hunt before it begins. Singh, a development economist by training, understands that there will be no peace if the government fails to address inequity. In a recent speech, Singh said, "There has been a systematic failure in giving tribals a stake in the modern economic system. The alienation built over decades is taking a dangerous toll. The systemic exploitation…can no longer be tolerated."

So his government aims to decouple tribal groups from the Maoists through reforms focused on investment in development projects while surgically attacking the Maoists where necessary. This won't be easy: India has tried all these tactics in the past, but halfheartedly, which led to worse alienation and violence in tribal areas and massive corruption in development programs. This time, India has to get the mix right. For the tribal people, there will soon be opportunities; for the Maoists, there will be no mercy.