The September/October 2010 issue of Foreign Policy has a pretty illuminating article on the Naxalite Maoist insurgency operating throughout rural east India. This decades-old ideological rebellion was nearly licked when India began its steady booming climb out of world-economic obscurity back in 1991. Authors Jason Miklian and Scott Carney say that today it’s just a racket, set in motion by the remaining core of armed insurgents and fed by isolated and impoverished villagers and the vast opportunities for extortion in this vast coal-mining region.
Resource-rich regions are a classic inducement to insurgent activity. The authors also refer to the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s major oil-producing region, as an analogous case of a developing country resource-fed insurgency, but the comparison is inexact. The Naxalite insurgency poses a more-compelling threat to India of de facto secession than the autonomy movement in the Niger River Delta. Additionally, the availability of oil as a source of rents for insurgents in the Niger Delta has prevented some militant movements from organizing as an insurgence and launching a full-blown civil war. Paul Collier and Nicholas Sambanis‘ illuminating 2-volume case study collection, Understanding Civil War, includes a complicated examination of many failed civil war starts in unstable and fractious Nigeria. In the case of the Ijaw revolt in the Niger Delta, this conflict has been associated with successive rounds of militant attacks on oil companies’ facilities, from blowing up pipelines, to kidnapping and ransoming oil rig workers, to occupying oil flow stations and loading platforms. These actions usually result in a quick settlement by the oil company, which wants its workers back and to get the oil flowing again quickly and reliably. Successive Nigerian governments have been less-repressive of these occupations of oil company facilities, according to the contributor of that chapter, because while costly these very-local insurgent activities don’t directly challenge government power.
Initially, the Naxalites, a revolutionary Maoist group, didn’t manifest such naked material calculation. But right at the moment of Communism’s repudiation as a World-historical force and the collapse of possible outside sources of state funding or support–about 20 years ago–India aggressively stepped up its extraction of the region’s resources. The extreme unevenness of the development of this vast country (as well as the radical regional variation in the nature of the natural and human resources available) has become a serious problem.
As the article notes, this insurgency has grown in the wake of the formal separation of the states of Jharkand and Chhattisgarh, intended to give the locals more-direct regulatory control of mining operations there. The result was a more-local rentier state, as local officials took graft and skimmed revenues while outside companies, for a while at least, were able to mine the region’s coal aggressively and at times carelessly. Among the results are underground coal fires that can burn for decades and even cause massive cave-ins, and a series of other mishaps and conditions which continue to require the relocation of hundreds of thousands of locals. Offered ideological pretenses aside, the evidence from the field suggests that the Naxalite insurgency is really about its participants organizing to extort a cut of these rents.
All of this looks like another instance (albeit a surprising one) of a large developing country turning out to be internally-incoherent. India’s coal regions provide demanded energy resources for an increasingly energy-starved world. Much like the oil- and natural gas-producing countries of the Persian Gulf, the Former Soviet Union and West Africa, the diamond-rich Great Lakes region of the Congo and the drug-producing or -conveying areas of Colombia, Afghanistan and now Mexico, the association of certain commodities with protectionist oligarchy at best and the mass-murdering banditry of civil war at worst is very strong. Even as economic globalization lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty since the end of the Cold War, for those countries or regions at the initial points of certain commodity supply chains, the same economic forces are malevolent. When those who live with a resource that everyone wants are numerous and poor, they will become just one contender in a fight for control that will draw combatants who have crass intentions and no morals. One of the businessmen interviewed for this article freely admits that he is operating an illegal mine; when Maoists kidnapped him, the result was an agreement that he would pay them a 5% commission on his profits, and he was released. He describes the extortion money as a tax like any other. In Jharkand and Chhattisgarh, the “stationary bandit” has serious competition.