It's a debate that's been raging within the Congress, and outside it. Should the government adopt a largely law-and-order attitude towards the Maoists and deal with them like criminals or should the focus be more on cutting the ground from under their feet through a development agenda that wins over the population of the affected areas?
An exclusive survey of the once Maoist-dominated districts of the Telengana region by IMRB, well-known market research organisation, for The Times of India has found that while attitudes towards the rebels are ambivalent, the condemnation of the government and its means of tackling the problem is quite clear.
The findings raise disturbing questions about whether focusing largely on the policing aspects of the problem may be a flawed strategy in the long run. They also throw up another poser: Has the battle in AP truly been won or can the Maoists stage a comeback in a few years?
Tied to this is the question of how the Maoists are viewed by the populace of these parts. Are they perceived essentially as a bloodthirsty, extortionist bunch or as rebels standing up for people's rights?
TOI decided to do an opinion poll of the affected areas to find out. The problem, however, was that this was a region where pollsters found very difficult to enter. We finally decided to conduct the survey in those areas ofAndhra Pradesh which were till not too long ago strongholds of the Naxalites but where their activities have been checked. The survey was conducted, therefore, in five districts of the Telengana region Adilabad, Nizamabad, Karimnagar, Warangal and Khammam. These districts were chosen not only because they were till recently severely Naxal-affected, but also because of their proximity to current hotbeds in Chattisgarh and Maharashtra.
To tap into the mood of the aam admi in these areas, the survey was restricted to the not so well off socio-economic categories, SEC B and SEC C and to men and women between the ages of 25 and 50. What we found has come as an eye-opener for us and should be worrying for everybody. The state may have won the battle of the guns, but the Maoists are clearly ahead in the perception game. This is particularly true in the districts of Warangal and Nizamabad as the accompanying charts show only too clearly.
The root cause of the disaffection is the overwhelming feeling of neglect of the areas by the government. About two-thirds expressed this view and in Warangal the figure was as high as 81%. That, you might say, is hardly alarming. Similar figures would probably be thrown up anywhere in India. True. But when two-thirds also say that the Maoists are right in choosing the methods they have to highlight the neglect, it is difficult to dismiss it as normal.
Perhaps the most revealing answers are in response to questions on whether the Maoists — still better known as Naxalites in this belt — were good or bad for the region and whether their defeat by the AP police has made matters better or worse.
Almost 60% said the Naxalites were good for the area and only 34% felt life had improved since they were beaten back. As for whether exploitation has increased after the Naxalite influence waned, 48% said it had against 38% who said it hadn't, the rest offering no opinion.
Those answers are buttressed by the responses to three other questions. The first of these was on whether the characterization of the Naxals as extortionists and mafia was accurate. Two-thirds disagreed. An elaboration of this came in response to a slightly more open-ended question. Over half said the Naxalites worked for the good of the area, another one-third said they had the right intentions but the wrong means. Only 15% were willing to describe them as just goondas.
Equally importantly, 50% of the respondents felt the Naxalites had forced the government to focus on development work in the affected areas. What these responses show is just how negative the perception of the government is in these parts.
That the people here are not entirely comfortable with Naxalite methods is also quite clear. Even a question on what explained their strength in these parts showed that very few attributed it to popularity alone, a majority saying either that it was due to fear or that it was a combination of approval and fear. That despite this ambivalence there is a sympathetic view of the Naxals only betrays the people's desperate search for any means to shake shaking up the state.
Given these findings it is hardly surprising that killings by Maoists are looked upon more leniently than those by the government and that the state's claims about encounters are viewed with extreme suspicion.
The government may say, and with some justification, that the Maoists represent the biggest threat to India's internal security, but what this poll shows is that the aam admi in these parts views government apathy as the biggest threat to his wellbeing.
The towns in which the poll was conducted were Kamareddy in Nizamabad district, Gudi Hathnoor in Adilabad, Sirsilla in Karimnagar, Mahbubabad in Warangal and Palwancha in Khammam. A total of 521 people were polled in these five towns, a statistically robust sample size.