The challenges faced by the Naxalites in inducting new entrants help shed light on a key social science puzzle: How do people build relationships and organisations in environments in which there are no laws to protect contracts, and where trust is otherwise in short supply? Dr Pavan Mamidi explains the findings of a pioneering ethnographic study of Naxal recruitment strategies in south-central India and argues that underground organisations such as the Naxalites offer a fascinating laboratory for organisational scholars.
Mainstream discussions about the Naxalites often give in to the temptation to categorise them either as heroes fighting in the jungles for a higher social cause, or as terrorists destabilising the country and taking it down the path of communism. Very little empirical work about the Naxalites actually exists, and it is not uncommon for policy makers in India to let their subjective biases prevail. Based on ethnographic work spanning four years between 2007 and 2011, involving more than a hundred semi-structured inter views with various players who occupy the “Naxal landscape” in Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh, and south Bastar in Chattisgarh, I characterise the Naxalites essentially as political entrepreneurs who seek to provide governance services to civilians in exchange for “rents/taxes” from them.
The Naxalites typically operate in geographic enclaves that have limited formal legal institutions. In these institutional vacuums, there are no formal ways of enforcing agreements of compliance and non- defection that new entrants make with the group. Enforcement is also constrained by the fact that members can defect and vanish into the anonymity of the large Indian population. Sanctions backed by norms cannot reach defectors either. Defectors can be dangerous. It is a high- stakes game (see for example, Gambetta 1993 for similar work on the Sicilian Mafiosi).
The Naxalites also operate in areas that have inequitable feudal and hierarchical governance structures that dominate over formal institutions. Although there is some evidence to show that the beneficiaries of their governance services do not always exactly match the “tax”-payers, the Naxals generate legitimacy and some measure of social acceptance of their tax collection activities by the public good that they create.
The basic conflict with the Naxalites arises not so much because the government sincerely competes with the Naxalites in providing these public goods, but because several of these tax-payers are private businesses and corporations that are in the extractive sector (especially mining), and are resentful of these taxes. The Naxalites, and the tribal people who have improperly defined property rights on the resources underlying these extractive industries, in turn, resent the expropriation and privatisation of these resources without sufficient transparency.
But the legitimacy of the Naxalites is not my main interest here. They are incidental to the exploration of a larger puzzle in the social sciences. How do people build relationships and organisations in environments in which there are no laws to protect contracts, where trust is otherwise in short supply, and people do not have the patience to spend time with each other and get to know each other? My research investigates this question by exploring trust problems between the Naxalites and prospective entrants who are upper caste.
By necessity the Naxalites have to depend on ex ante, ie prior to induction, means of screening capable and non- defecting types from the types who are incapable and/ or the types who can defect and pose a danger to the organisation. In a scenario that relies heavily on ex ante methods, there are bound to be informational problems.
By necessity, the Naxalites have to depend on ex ante, ie prior to induction, means of screening capable and non-defecting types from the types who are incapable and/or the types who can defect and pose a danger to the organisation. In a scenario that relies heavily on ex ante methods, there are bound to be informational problems. The recruiters are likely to run into “bad apples” [or “lemons” in the economics literature (Akerlof1970)], and there is no easy way of distinguishing these candidates from sustainably trustworthy ones among the sympathisers.
I discover that the parties solve a major part of this informational problem by depending on demonstrations of self-abnegation by prospective candidates that either serve as costly to mimic signals, or that reduce their outside options of survival (a behaviour labelled “bridge burning”). Both these ex ante techniques (which may be jointly labelled “demonstrative self-abnegation” behaviours) help the Naxalites identify promising candidates who are predisposed to remaining committed to the group without having to rely on ex post methods (see Gambetta 1993).
According to the biologist Amotz Zahavi, costly to mimic signals indicate an abundance of an unobservable trait in the signaller: the signaller is able to bear the cost, but the signals are costly for others to produce. A signaller with a smaller endowment of that unobservable trait will not be able to bear the cost of producing that signal. Therefore, such signals help in reliably sorting between signallers that have an abundance of the trait from signallers that have less of that trait (Zahavi 1975).
The logic of costly to mimic signalling was first extended into the world of economics by Spence (1973) in his famous paper on job market signalling to show how education can signal a relatively more productive type of individual to a prospective employer, even if the education is not directly relevant to the productivity of the job. This is because education can be acquired by a more productive person at a lower psychic cost than by a less productive person. Two important points of this theory need special mention – first, that it is less costly for someone with an abundance of a certain trait to bear cost of producing the signal; and second, that in the case of Spence’s education model, the education of a job seeker itself need not be directly relevant to productivity when a job seeker joins a job.
In the case of the Naxalite aspirants, costly to mimic signalling behaviour includes caste abnegation, killing victims of their own family members, courting extreme hardship in nature, severe physical self-harm, renunciation of family, crime with high expected costs of punishment, etc.
Demonstrative self-abnegation by bridge burning allows candidates to demonstrate their privately known, trust-warranting traits to others because bridge burning reduces the candidates’ outside options (see Gambetta 2006). In contrast to these methods of demonstrative self-abnegation, compliance with norms by candidates who wish to join the Naxalites attempts to avoid the costs of punishment imposed on them by someone else Norm compliance under threat of punishment in itself does not signal or demonstrate trust-warranting traits. In contrast, the latter can be relied on even when no one is watching.
An interesting fact allows me to explore these solutions in the case of the Naxalites. It is well known that the Naxalites started as an organisation to fight for the empowerment of the lower castes (LCs) against the domination of upper castes (UCs). Yet, UCs do successfully make their way into the Naxalites. Membership into the Naxalites means an official membership in the party, involving a highly demanding, but informal social process of interaction, and if the candidate is successful, a method of induction formally stipulated (by their constitution). The former is considered to be a very difficult process during which both UC and LC candidates have to demonstrate their trustworthiness. My research empirically investigates how promising UC candidates are able to engage in signalling during this process, which is too costly for unpromising UC candidates, and in burning bridges. This enables the Naxalites to distinguish promising from unpromising UC candidates. I find that although promising LCs are able to bear slightly costlier signals than unpromising LCs, and burn more bridges than unpromising LCs, the difference is not as much as between promising and unpromising UCs.
In order to be considered trustworthy, candidates must have both the intention as well as the capacity to comply with the recruiters’ expectations.
Intentions and Capacities
I also discover that in order to be considered trustworthy, candidates must have both the intention as well as the capacity to comply with the recruiters’ expectations. Often, this distinction between the two ingredients of trust is blurred in the literature, although Gambetta (2006) and Biggs (2003) are exceptions. This research finds that there can be differences in the ways that the intentions and capacities for compliance with promises are established in agency relationships. Costly to mimic signalling can be used to establish an aspiring candidate’s intentions to comply, as well as his capacities for compliance; bridge burning may be used to establish his intentions for compliance alone.
I also find that having high capacities is a double- edged sword when it comes to producing trust. High capacities may mean the agent is able to fulfill a promise, increasing trust in some contexts, but also that he has better outside options, decreasing trust in a other context. A highly skilled candidate may be trustworthy because the rebel group can rely on his skills, but depending on the circumstances, he may also be seen as having enough outside options to become a defector. High capacity candidates may thus burn bridges to mitigate this ambivalence and build trust.
The challenges faced by the Naxalites in inducting new entrants are many times more complex (and life-threatening) than those faced by business organisations that operate above ground and have the advantage of laws and courts that punish defectors. Yet the Naxalites have succeeded at putting together one of the largest underground organisations in the world in extremely difficult conditions. This in itself merits attention from people who study organisations.
For further reading
Akerlof, George A (1970). “The Market for ‘Lemons’: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”, Quarterly Journal of Economics (The MIT Press)
Biggs, M (2003). “When Costs Are Beneficial: Protest As Communicative Suffering”, Working Paper 2003-04, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford.
Gambetta, D (1993). The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private
Protection (Harvard: Harvard University Press).
Gambetta, D (2006). “Trust’s Odd Ways.” in Jon Elster, Olav Gjelsvik, Aanund Hylland and Karl Moene (ed): Understanding Choice, Explaining Behaviour. Essays in Honour of Ole-Jørgen Skog (Oslo: Oslo Academic Press).
Spence, M (1973). “Job market signalling”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 87(3): 355-374.
Zahavi, A (1975). “Mate selection – a selection for a handicap”, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53(1): 205-214.