GoI must arrest this trend of surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals.
Someone once said that al-Qaeda was now essentially a media propaganda machine, with a terror wing. The same argument could also be made of the Naxalites in India. As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media wing, has done a remarkable job in news content and propaganda delivery over the Internet — from the indiscretions of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, to disseminating audio and video propaganda from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to regional network stations.
The battle for the “hearts and minds” is a critical aspect of successful COIN campaigns and it is here that controlling the narrative becomes critical. Propaganda campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab serve as morale boosters to followers and as effective recruitment tools, far beyond the epicenter of the insurgency. They are also effective in turning public opinion against COIN forces — both in the “besieged” countries as well as in those leading the COIN effort. U.S. and Western allies have found it significantly difficult to counter this unrelenting propaganda in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Although the differences between the Af-Pak and Naxal insurgencies are plenty, there are lessons for India to draw from the American experience. Indeed, even in the Indian context, one of the many aspects that makes the Naxal insurgency different from either Kashmir or Punjab is that the government has been so far unable to control the narrative of the conflict. The leadership structure of the Naxals — which includes among its ranks, suave, highly educated and very eloquent men and women very adept at information dissemination — plays a significant role in denying the government of India monopoly over the Naxal narrative. Hence the demands ad nauseum from “root cause” advocates and deliberate attempts to obfuscate differences between the treacherous objectives of the Naxals and the legitimate demands of the tribals.
This counter-narrative has also been adopted by some for political expediency, by self-styled “activists” and human rights groups, further diluting the central government’s version on the issue. Controlling the narrative is important in any unconventional war — more so in one being conducted in remotest and poorest corners of the hinterland. Public perception during such operations is important. But the nature and area of the Naxal conflict has contributed to public sentiment largely indifferent on the issue. Dantewada, after all, is not Mumbai.
The Indian government has thus far not been capable of countering this insidious propaganda war, and has been religated to fighting on the backfoot. Campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab and the Naxals aim to achieve one simple objective — demonstrate that the enemy (the U.S. and its allies, and India, respectively) is not morally infallible. India has involuntarily assisted in partly achieving this objective, through instances of excessive use of police force on the tribals and through ill-conceived ventures such as the Salwa Judum.
To be sure, India’s success in defeating the Naxals depends on a number of factors, including availability and reliability of local intelligence, quality and capabilities of COIN forces, development and rehabilitation of tribals, better local governance, and a government (central and state) willing to see the operations through. But the government will remain weak, and its objectives, discombobulated and confused, so long as public perception remains apathetic or cluttered.
The full extent of the state’s resources must therefore be used to both counter existing propaganda and launch counter-offensives to regain control of the narrative. No doubt, the Indian government will not be able to end the insurgency merely though the use of media guile, but further losses of life and territory are almost assured if it is unable to arrest this trend of surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals and their sympathizers.