There’s nothing like a long procession of Soviet-era ordnance to make the country feel safe. But even without the annual weapon-worshipping ceremony of Republic Day, the government has plenty to crow about when it comes to its record on internal security over the past year.
Dramatic falls in insurgent and separatist violence across India seem to suggest something is actually going right for the government for a change.
Kashmir, where separatist protests led to over 100 deaths in 2010, was relatively trouble-free last summer. Almost all the major rebel groups in India’s restive northeast are engaged in peace talks. Killings related to the Maoist insurgency – considered the “gravest threat” of all by the government – fell by half from the previous year.
In a back-slapping, end-of-year report card, the Home Ministry attributed these improvements to a range of policies it had implemented in recent years, from increased paramilitary forces to new rural development schemes.
But look into the details of each conflict, and these positive trends start to look less like the product of government policy, and more like a fortunate coincidence of factors.
Away from the glare of India’s urban-focused media, a steady stream of violent incidents continue to occur.
In the Maoist heartlands of central and eastern India, there have been no repeats of the massive ambush in April 2010 in Chhattisgarh that left 76 police officers dead and forced urban India to finally sit up and take notice of the 40-year-old conflict.
But there are frequent, less newsworthy attacks – primarily involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) made out of materials looted from local mining companies.
On Saturday, a huge IED ripped through the mine-proof vehicle in which 13 police officers were travelling in Jharkhand. Any survivors were shot in the head at point-blank range.
“The police are sitting ducks whenever the Maoists want to strike,” said Rahul Pandita, author of a book on the Maoist movement. “If clashes are down, it’s because the police have scaled back their combing operations in these areas.”
More than 600 lives were still lost to Maoist-related violence in 2011, almost half of them civilians, and abortive attempts to open peace talks in West Bengal came to nothing.
“The Maoists use peace talks to give local villagers a breather,” said Aman Sethi, who covers the Maoist conflict in Chhattisgarh for The Hindu.
“But ultimately the Maoists want to replace the state, and there’s very little chance the government will agree to its own obliteration.”
In Kashmir, stone-throwing protests in support of autonomy and a withdrawal of the massive army presence still occur on a near-daily basis. They have not snowballed into the violent chaos of 2010, partly because the government has been very careful this year not to set off the cycles of violence that came with each new death the previous year.
But beyond this added restraint from the security forces, Ajai Sahni, director of the South Asian Terrorism Portal in New Delhi, says any reduction in violence has little to do with the government’s slow-moving attempts at a political resolution.
“People were fatigued after the violence in the previous summer and there was a backlash against the separatist leaders,” he said. “Pakistan, where the separatists have always taken their inspiration, has descended into chaos, making many of them question where they are headed.”
Violence is also down in the northeast, where the government has brought several insurgent groups to the negotiating table recently. Yesterday, Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced a huge rebel surrender in Assam, as close to 700 cadres from seven rebel groups handed themselves in.
“But look at Manipur,” Dr Sahni interjects, referring to another insurgency-wracked state in the northeast where violence has dropped off in recent months.
“It is completely inexplicable – it is a state that is utterly misgoverned, where the security forces have not had any extraordinary operational successes, and yet the insurgencies are collapsing.”
Where the government has attempted structural reform, it has largely failed.
The National Counter-Terrorism Centre, dreamt up in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 170 people, was supposed to streamline intelligence and response capabilities. It would be useful against the Islamist networks that planted three bombs in Mumbai last July, and the Delhi High Court bomb in September.
But already a year overdue, it has been gradually undermined by competing government departments fearing a loss of responsibility.
“I don’t think the government has done anything much in recent years to improve the security situation anywhere in the country,” said Bibhu Routray, former deputy director at the National Security Council in New Delhi.
What ultimately saves the republic is perhaps its sheer size and bewildering variety, which make it difficult for any one rebellion or issue to threaten the state as a whole. The government’s lumbering response – referred to as “masterly inaction” in the corridors of power – can often appear effective.
“In the long run, the government’s indifference and inactivity bring everyone to the point of exhaustion,” said Dr Sahni. “The rebellions whither away, but nor they ever resolved.”
(A different version of this article appeared in The National today.)