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16 March 2017 Editorial

 

16 MARCH 2017

Gauntlet at Sukma

It would be tempting, but dangerous, to see the deadly ambush by Maoists in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district on 11 March 2017 as just a desperate act of a fading insurgent group. It must, instead, serve as a wake-up call for the security forces to beef up their standard operating procedures, especially intelligence-gathering capabilities, in the Maoist heartland in central India. Twelve personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in Sunday’s attack, and four others sustained injuries. A road-opening party of the CRPF’s 219 battalion was ambushed about 450 km from the State capital Raipur. The insurgents used improvised explosive devices, country-made mortars and arrows mounted with explosive heads, and made of with some weapons and radio sets of the force. Home Minister Rajnath Singh told the Lok Sabha that extremist groups were restless because of the “unprecedented success of the forces against them” in 2016, especially in Chhattisgarh where there was a 15% drop in left-wing extremist incidents. However, the precision and scale of the attack are an indication that the Maoists continue to hold formidable sway in Sukma, their long-time stronghold. In 2013 they ambushed a convoy of Congress leaders in Sukma district, killing more than 25 persons, including former Union Minister V.C. Shukla.

There have been periodic Maoist attacks in the region. It is estimated that over the last two decades at least 15,000 people have been killed in Maoist-related violence. More than 3,000 of them were security personnel. And while violence is down from its peak in 2009-10, in 2016 official estimates put the toll at 213 civilians, 65 security force personnel and 89 Maoists. The government has over the past decade taken a patchy approach to bringing the so-called “red corridor” under its writ. The only presence of the state consistently visible across the region has been of the security forces, not of the civil administration. Counter-insurgency operations by the security forces have often been undermined by poor intelligence, lagging alertness of the security forces and the absence of a multi-layered political strategy. The Maoists do not survive merely on ideology; they have a well-oiled machinery providing protection to various interest groups in the absence of a robust state responsive to the security and welfare needs of the civilian population. Ultimately, any fight against non-state actors will be effective only when the state puts forward its combined might to exhibit what it can — and indeed must — provide to the people.

 

It’s complicated

Until Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan started a high-voltage campaign for next month’s referendum on constitutional reforms that give him more powers, relations between Ankara and the European Union were relatively stable, though not without glitches. Trouble started when Mr. Erdogan’s allies drew up plans to organise campaign rallies in European cities to mobilise support among the tens of thousands of Turks living in Europe who are eligible to vote in the April 16 referendum. Several European countries, including Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, and some German towns, banned such rallies, raising security concerns as well as fear of domestic political repercussions. Mr. Erdogan, however, turned this into a Turkey versus West spat. When German towns blocked the rallies, Mr. Erdogan accused the country of “Nazi practices”. When the Netherlands refused landing rights to a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was on his way to address a referendum rally, Mr. Erdogan called the country “fascist” and “a Nazi remnant”. Ties between the Netherlands and Turkey deteriorated rapidly thereafter, with Ankara effectively removing the Dutch ambassador. The Turkish government has also hinted that it would scrap an agreement reached with Europe last year to curb the passage of migrants through Turkey in return for financial help from the EU.

The referendum is crucial for Mr. Erdogan’s ambitious plans to overhaul Turkey’s political system. If he gets the reforms approved by a majority of voters, Turkey would move towards a presidential system. He would then handpick his own cabinet and his Justice and Development Party’s MPs and gain at least two five year terms uncontested. It is therefore unsurprising that Mr. Erdogan is turning the diplomatic crisis into a political battle to appeal to nationalist sections of the electorate. But the crisis could have undesirable outcomes. European leaders fear that Mr. Erdogan’s outreach could help the anti-Muslim far-right parties in the continent. In the Netherlands, which went to the polls on Wednesday, the far-right candidate, Geert Wilders, has already questioned the “loyalty” of Dutch Muslims of Turkish origin and called for a tough response to Ankara. Mr. Erdogan might win short-term political dividends from this ongoing spat, but in the longer run he is endangering both Turkey’s ties with Europe and the prospects of the hundreds of thousands of Turks living in the continent. European countries could also have avoided extreme reactions, such as refusing to give landing rights to a plane carrying Turkey’s Foreign Minister. Such escalation is politically unwise, given the context in which Mr. Erdogan is running his campaign. Instead, the Netherlands and other countries could have opted for direct engagement with Ankara to avoid a showdown. After all, Turkey and Europe need each other. The EU is Turkey’s largest trading partner. And Turkey is a NATO member. Both sides will be tested on whether they can turn the focus to more positive aspects of this complicated relationship.

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