The war zone, Reports from Bengal, Orissa, AP, Maharashtra, Chhattisgrah & Jharkhand
Posted by Admin on October 21, 2009
The war zone, Frontline
The state’s writ hardly runs in large parts of India’s Maoist heartland stretching from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra to the western districts of West Bengal.
“FROM what was a one-sided affair, we have moved to a see-saw battle now. It still cannot be said that the balance of power is in our favour, but it would not be out of place to claim that the Maoists are a bit rattled. Of course, there is a long way to go if we need to tilt the scales decisively in our favour.”
This is how a senior Home Ministry official in Delhi summed up the situation in Jharkhand and Bihar with respect to the tussle between the security forces and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). He added that this change had come about essentially over the past four months and that it would indeed be a trying task even to hold on to the present situation. “Especially because the Maoists are trying every trick to wrest back the advantage they had on the ground,” the officer said.
Any neutral observer of the two States would find merit in this observation. It was indeed a one-sided affair in favour of the Maoists for long in the two States. In Jharkhand, the Maoists virtually dominated life; they even influenced vital administrative and police functions in as many as 20 of the 24 districts. They had significant presence in large parts of Bihar. The Maoists in the two States always shared their strike power and this resulted in daring attacks such as the “Jehanabad jailbreak” of November 2005.
The most notable signal of the “one-sided affair” changing into a see-saw battle came when the Maoists called an indefinite bandh in five States, including Jharkhand and Bihar, in the third week of August. The bandh was called demanding the release of two Maoists who, party spokespersons claimed, had been under the illegal custody of the Bihar Police since mid-August. The two activists, who were initially referred to as Anil and Karthik, turned out to be two of the senior-most leaders of the CPI (Maoist) in Jharkhand and Bihar. The 55-year-old Anil is actually Amitabh Bagchi alias Sumit-da, a politburo member of the party, while 35-year-old Karthik alias Tauhid Mula is a central committee member. Bagchi was the founder of the erstwhile CPI (ML-Party Unity) in Bihar and had worked among the landless in both Bihar and Jharkhand right from the 1980s. Significantly, Bagchi was also a member of the central military commission of the CPI (Maoist), which coordinates guerilla acts in different parts of the country.
On August 25, two days into the Maoist bandh, which witnessed widespread violence and arson across Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and West Bengal, Bagchi and Mula were produced in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Ranchi and remanded to the central jail there. The police version in the court was that the duo had been arrested on August 24 from Ranchi. CPI (Maoist) spokespersons, however, claimed that the two leaders had been in police custody since August 19 and that they were detained in blatant violation of the democratic norms that the Indian state was supposed to follow. Whatever the merit of these arguments, the fact is that the capture of the two leaders has been a major blow to the Maoists.
The days following this did indicate that the CPI (Maoist) was indeed rattled by the turn of events. The party carried out a series of small attacks across the two States, many of which were not in keeping with the normal style of functioning of the organisation. As a rule, the party cadre do not attack women or children and refrain from targeting educational institutions or making a gory display of their victims. Normally, the institutions that are attacked are police stations, railway stations and other government establishments. But, following the arrest of Bagchi and Mula, reports from several parts of Bihar and Jharkhand indicated that the attacks had become somewhat indiscriminate. There were a couple of cases of attacks on educational institutions, including primary schools.
The Taliban-style execution of the police inspector Francis Induwar on October 6 was indeed out of character for the CPI (Maoist). The inspector, who worked in the intelligence wing of the Jharkhand Police, was abducted on September 30.
Highlighting his abduction, various committees of the Maoists made several demands, including ones for the release of Bagchi and Mula as also that of Kobad Ghandy, another politburo member of the party who was arrested in Delhi in the third week of September. Neither the State governments nor the Union government responded to these predominantly informal demands. Ten days after the abduction, Induwar’s body was found on a road in Ranchi, with the head chopped off.
A Maoist poster that was found near the body did not make any reference to the demand to release the leaders but said that the “execution” had been carried out to avenge the “encounter killing” of a party activist by the State police in September.
BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
This brutal killing sent reverberations through the lower echelons of the State police. So much so that Ram Sarek Rai, president of the Special Branch Police Association, asserted that police constables and other lower- and middle-level officers would not work in rural areas if sufficient protection was not provided. Clearly, with this killing, the CPI (Maoist) has also rattled sections of the State police.
The senior Home Ministry official in Delhi who spoke to Frontline was hopeful that the battle in Bihar would gather greater momentum, especially because the State had a fairly streamlined administration with a number of dedicated officers. However, he was not that hopeful about Jharkhand, where, he said, almost every politician had some connection or the other with local Maoist leaders.
“Many of them are dependent on Maoist clearance even to carry out their day-to-day political activity, and this is indeed difficult for the security personnel and administration officers to take their tasks forward,” he said.
Special Police Officers to fight the Maoists training at the police grounds in Konta in Chhattisgarh. They were drawn mainly from the Salwa Judum movement.
Obviously, the see-saw cannot be expected to tilt in favour of the government in the immediate future.
LIVING IN FEAR
Purnima S. Tripathi in Raipur
OCTOBER 1. Muchaki Handa of Bhandarpadar village in Chhattisgarh is on his way back home from Andhra Pradesh after earning Rs.30,000 to buy a pair of bullocks and a plough. He is hacked to death by the police and Special Police Officers (SPOs). Six others are killed with him. October 1. Tomra Mutta of Chintagupha village is killed by the police and SPOs.
September 17. Madvi Deva, also of Chintagupha village, is picked up and killed by the police and SPOs and his mother, Dudhi Muye, is assaulted brutally and killed.
September 17. Kawasi Kosa’s 70-year-old father, who can walk only with support, is killed at Gachchanpalli village by the police and SPOs.
These are taken from a long list of incidents in which the police killed innocent citizens in Chhattisgarh in the course of their anti-naxal operations, compiled by a fact-finding team of intellectuals and academics working with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) and the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram. The names they have listed, the team claims, are of people who had nothing to do with naxalites. The police dispute the claim saying every villager killed was a naxalite.
Human rights groups describe these killings in so-called encounters as cold-blooded murder. The police, admitting to a few of these instances, say some collateral damage cannot be ruled out in a war.
This unfortunate state of affairs arguably had its genesis in Salwa Judum (people’s peace movement, in the local Gondi language), which was launched in 2005 with government support. The movement, led by the then Congress legislature party leader Mahendra Karma, was described initially as a spontaneous uprising of people who took up arms to defend themselves against naxalites. Later, the government moved in to give these people shelter in camps in order to protect them from counter-attacks by naxalites and provided them with free rations and other logistic support.
Thus began a period of virtual civil war in the tribal, forested areas of Chhattisgarh, and it soon sucked everyone in. If you were not with the naxalites, you were with the police and Salwa Judum, and vice versa.
This mindless war is set to enter its most crucial phase now as the State prepares to launch a more concerted onslaught against the naxals. Since 2005, when the BJP government supported Salwa Judum, the tribal-dominated forested areas of Chhattisgarh have resembled a battlefield, with security personnel and naxalites engaged in pitched battle.
The violence has so far claimed over 1,000 lives and led to a massive exodus of tribal people from over 644 villages. Of the 3.5 lakh displaced tribal people, around 70,000 took shelter in the Salwa Judum camps of the government, while the rest went deeper into the jungle or to Andhra Pradesh or Orissa to escape police repression. Even in the camps they were not safe, as borne out by the July 2006 massacre by naxalites at the Errabore camp.
Though Salwa Judum was well-intentioned, it soon degenerated into yet another instrument of harassment, extortion and torture as its activists started indulging in loot, murder, rape and arson. Now most of these camps have been abandoned as people returned to their villages to try and piece together their broken lives.
But can normalcy ever return to this region? When a mere uprising by people against naxalites resulted in such massive destruction in the tribal areas, imagine what an armed offensive in conjunction with other States can do to the people, ask human rights activists.
But it is a war that cannot be avoided, says State police chief Vishwa Ranjan. “For far too long we have been in a state of denial. Initially, we did not even admit that there was a problem. Then, when the problem grew, we described them [naxalites] as deviant tourists who had wandered in from other States. When the problem worsened, we described it as a law-and-order problem, and still later we described it as a political/ideological problem, and now, when it has reached its climax, we realise that this is a national problem and a big threat to internal security. Now is the time we must fight to the finish,” he told Frontline.
With seven of the 20 police districts being badly affected, the State can no longer overlook the problem, he said. He admitted that past injustices led to massive deprivation and disparities, which provided a fertile ground for the naxal ideology to take root in these areas, but said “that cannot be an excuse for not fighting the naxalites now”.
Why did the State allow the problem to fester for so long? Why did the political leadership look the other way for so long, and what has changed their perception now? “In our democratic set-up, the issue involved arriving at a consensus because there are other state players involved as well. It took time, but now all political parties, all States concerned, are on board and hence this concerted effort to fight them with a joint, coordinated operation,” he says.
The operation, called Operation Green Hunt, is likely to begin in November once the Centre sends more troops. The coordination among the States will be taken care of by the CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) force commander, Vijay Karan. In the respective States, the Chief Minister will be the supreme commander and the DGPs will oversee the operational aspect.
Vishwa Ranjan, who has over 20 years of operational experience in tackling naxalism, believes this is the “final assault” on naxalites. But “it could be a prolonged one”, he cautions.
With the government having made its intention clear, there is palpable fear among people in the Bastar region. Manish Kunjam of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who unsuccessfully contested the last Lok Sabha election from Bastar, says the exercise will only make matters worse. “Only poor, innocent people will die, nothing else will be achieved,” he said.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) agreed with this assessment. The party’s leader Balsingh, who lost from Sarguja in the last Lok Sabha election, said there was a great sense of fear among the people that the massive military operation would unleash unprecedented violence in the area. He added: “The lives of the common people have become miserable. They cannot even run away; where will they go? There is pressure from both sides.”
Human rights activists have launched a campaign to drop the plan for a military operation. The Bharat Jan Andolan, the National Front for Tribal Self Rule, the Jangal Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti of Maharashtra, the Adivasi Mahasabha of Gujarat, the Madhya Pradesh Jangal Jeevan Adhikar Bachao Andolan, the Jan Shakti Sangthan (Chhattisgarh), the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the Orissa Jan Sangharsh Morcha, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity and the Adivasi Aiky Vedike (Andhra Pradesh) have jointly issued an appeal against any such operation. Even the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) has issued a statement demanding immediate withdrawal of the proposal for a military operation. “The only road to peace in Bastar… can be for the State and Central governments to immediately put an end to the war on the people by private militia (Salwa Judum) and paramilitary, to ensure the return of the displaced Adivasis to their villages and guarantee them their rights to land, livelihood and life,” it said.
Human rights activists point out that the police took five hours to reach the site when the son of Baliram Kashyap, Bastar’s Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament, was killed by naxalites, when the police station was only half a kilometre away, and that they took 12 hours to reach the house of CPI(M) activist Shakti Dey, in Kanker, where he was brutally killed, when the police station was only 500 metres away. Can such a police force actually mount an effective offensive against naxalites, they ask. There is cynicism all over. “In order to justify the hype that they [police] have created, they will pick up the old and vulnerable as they are doing now and kill them,” said CPI(M) State secretary M.K. Nandy. “There has been no evidence to show that they are better prepared now, so I wonder whether this exercise will actually achieve anything.”
But it has been a long time since such views mattered in Chhattisgarh. “This is exactly what we have been saying for the last four to five years. Now the Centre and other States have come on board, and we are happy that a coordinated offensive is being launched against naxalites. Our stand has been vindicated,” says State Information Commissioner Baijendra Kumar.
Thus, while the State government pats itself on the back for being proved right and the police are polishing their weaponry, people are waiting with bated breath. Said Balsingh: “We are living in a war zone and cannot do anything about it.”
Venkitesh Ramakrishnan in Gadchiroli and Mumbai
The CPI (Maoist)’s recent activities in Maharashtra are a classic example of the organisation’s capacity to introspect on its organisational failures, overcome reverses, regroup and reassert its control. The outfit’s activity in the State covers five districts. In Gadchiroli and Gondia, which have areas contiguous with Chhattisgarh, it has a more militant and structured presence.
Five years ago, when the People’s War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) merged to form the party in its present form, Maharashtra was viewed, by both the Maoists and the security forces, as a State where the Maoists were suffering reverses.
The party suffered desertions from its ranks in the Gadchiroli-Gondia region, both from its armed cadre as well as from its front organisations, with some sections of the predominantly tribal population becoming disenchanted with it. When the Maoists first got a foothold there, they were perceived as “fighters” who had helped the Madi Gond tribals of the region to secure higher wages for collecting tendu leaves and cutting bamboo. With their strong-arm tactics, they had also checked corruption among forest staff. As the movement gathered momentum through the 1980s and 1990s, there was a period when the naxalite influence spread to almost all parts of Gadchiroli.
However, there was no serious developmental activity in the region, and propaganda by the authorities, including the police, blamed the naxalites for it. This campaign reached the remotest parts of Gadchiroli and Gondia, making cadre desert the CPI (Maoist), which in turn discouraged potential recruits.
Many of the former Maoist cadre were provided government employment, particularly in the State police. Their inputs were useful for the forces in combing and detection operations. Consequently, the armed wing of the party had problems organising offensives against security forces or in laying improvised explosive devices (IED). The party, which once had large tracts of the region under its control, found its influence restricted to a clutch of 25 villages on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border.
In early 2007, the CPI (Maoist) held its first “unity congress”, and, by all indications it was decided that the reverses in the Gadchiroli-Gondia belt should be overcome. By the end of 2007, Gopanna alias Kosa, a senior CPI (Maoist) leader from Andhra Pradesh, was deputed to the region to rebuild the political and military organisation. Kosa’s introspection report in mid-2008 pointed out that the party had failed to strengthen its grip over Gadchiroli division and make any significant fresh recruitment in five years. It had also failed to launch serious attacks in this period. It also asserted that this situation could be changed with new military and political strategies.
At the military level, new tactical jungle training was imparted to the cadre. A separate military command was formed for North and South Gadchiroli regions as part of the Dandakaranya sub zonal committee. Developmental imbalances between the semi-urban and rural areas of the region were exploited effectively in the renewed organisational initiative. To give leadership to the new moves, motivated and well-trained leaders were brought in from Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
The net result was a resurgent cadre, particularly in Gadchiroli. Their morale got a boost with the accumulation of nearly 5,000 firearms including self-loading rifles (SLRs), light machine guns (LMGs) and AK rifles. Soon, this started reflecting in fresh offensives against the security forces. In 2009 alone, the CPI (Maoist) cadre launched five assaults on security forces, killing 39 security personnel. The last attack, on October 8, near Lahiri police station in Gadchiroli, was the most lethal; 18 policemen were killed in the attack on a patrol party. Earlier attacks by naxalites had targeted policemen in Karepalli, Markegaon, Mungner and Hattigota.
Following the October 8 attack, the Union Home Ministry has identified the Gadchiroli-Chhattisgarh-Andhra Pradesh border as the area to launch the first major offensive against the Maoists. It remains to be seen how the CPI (Maoist) will respond to this move and whether the government forces will be able to advance decisively. By all indications, the Maoists are likely to disperse to other regions and continue with their activity on a reduced scale. Already there are intelligence reports that the Maoists are recruiting cadre in several villages where people have been displaced for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). These are not villages in the faraway tribal districts but close to the commercial capital of the country. Maharashtra, it seems, will develop as an important point vis-a-vis the tussle between security forces and the Maoists.
K. Srinivas Reddy in Hyderabad
JUST a decade ago, Andhra Pradesh was a beacon for the revolutionaries in India. The Maoists showcased it at international fora as a model that could be replicated not only by the revolutionaries in other Indian States but also by their brethren elsewhere in South Asia. Today, the State stands as the best example of the success of counter-revolutionary strategies of a government. The Maoists were forced to switch to self-defence, roll back their operations and move their armed cadre into the Bastar forests in neighbouring Chhattisgarh.
The body of naxalite leader Patel Sudhakar Reddy at the encounter site near Lavvala village in Warangal district, on May 24.
The Maoist movement now appears to be getting consolidated in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa and is making rapid strides in 16 other States. At every meeting called by the Centre to discuss the vexatious issue, Andhra Pradesh is singled out for lavish praise and other States are asked to follow the awe-inspiring “Andhra model”. It is acknowledged even by the Maoists that the revolutionary movement in Andhra Pradesh has suffered a “setback”. But contrary to popular belief, what enabled the Andhra Pradesh Police to turn the tables on the Maoists is not just the military superiority of Greyhounds, an elite commando force raised in 1989, but various other social and administrative factors.
The seeds of the naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh were sown way back in 1969 as the Naxalbari movement was shaping up in West Bengal. A crackdown by the then Congress government crushed the armed struggle, which was mostly confined to the north coastal district of Srikakulam. But the post-Emergency period saw Maoist ideologues such as Kondapalli Seetaramaiah rekindle the revolutionary embers.
If the Srikakulam movement closely followed the class annihilation theory of Charu Mazumdar, Kondapalli Seetaramaiah adopted a different strategy. The idea was to seize power area-wise, starting from the ill-administered and inaccessible forest areas, and then encircle towns and cities. The second phase of the naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh took birth mostly in the plains of north Telangana districts, which later spread to the forest areas.
The epoch-making decision to suspend the armed struggle in the post-Emergency period marked the beginning of the current form of Maoist movement. The August 1977 declaration, as it came to be known, took into consideration regional, national and international political situations and called for the launch of mass organisations without which no revolutionary movement can survive. The Kondapalli Seetaramaiah group formed the Radical Students Union (RSU), the Radical Youth League (RYL) and the Rytu Coolie Sangham (RCS). This was when the party launched the “Go to Villages” campaign, which received instantaneous support from students, youth and the peasantry.
The historic Sircilla and Jagtial jaitra yatras in 1978 spoke much about the success of the mass movements. Riding on the crest of this success, the ideologues announced the formation of the CPI(ML) People’s War (PW). The blueprint for the spread of the underground party beyond the Godavari basin was finalised at this stage in anticipation of a crackdown on the movement. An interesting aspect of the Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh is that it got massive support from different sections of society when it depended more on mass organisations rather than on armed squads. (Much later, the Maoists termed the suspension of armed struggle as a “historic blunder”.)
A People’s War document, which chronicles the rise of the naxalite movement, notes that the “Go to Villages” campaign began with just 200 students, but the strength swelled to 1,100 in six years. “There were 150 propaganda teams working in villages, and 2,419 villages were covered in north Telangana between 1978 and 1984,” the document says.
Noted human rights activist K. Balagopal observed: “Unlike the rest of the State where naxalites spread through armed squads, in northern Telangana there was a clear period in the late 1970s and the early 1980s… when it was the mass organisations, mainly the agricultural labourers’ associations and the student and youth fronts, that were the instruments for the spread of Maoism as an ideology and a political practice.” However, the mass organisation activity was soon to give way to armed action. People, too, began to depend on the armed squads for “quick justice”.
The mass organisations began to bring more and more villages under their control in north Telangana districts – Adilabad, Nizamabad, Karimnagar, Warangal and Khammam. At the same time, with the idea of creating a retreat zone to which armed cadre could escape in the face of an imminent crackdown, six underground squads were formed in the forest areas of Eturu Nagaram (Warangal), Mahadevpur (Karimnagar), Bhadrachalam (Khammam), Sironcha (Maharashtra), and Adilabad and East Godavari districts (abutting Maharashtra and Orissa respectively).
Ironically, while the Maoist movement lies in a shambles in the place of its birth, the support structures established by these six squads beyond Andhra Pradesh’s borders – Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, Bastar in Chhattisgarh (formerly in Madhya Pradesh) and Malkangiri/Koraput in Orissa – are now Maoist havens.
The north Telangana districts provided a perfect “climate” for them to ignite the passions of the downtrodden against the oppressive features of society – the atrocities perpetrated by upper-caste landlords, insensitive public officials, and so on. Hence, when the armed activity began, people literally welcomed the annalu (brethren, as the naxalites were addressed) to their villages. It was a case of people becoming willing tools of revolution.
Their enthusiastic participation did indeed bring about some social change. The system of begar (bonded labour) faded out; untouchability was controlled to a large extent; atrocities by usurious businessmen and upper-caste landlords got reduced drastically as they fled the villages; peasants took over large tracts of lands though they were unable to cultivate it; and daily-wage workers started getting minimum wages. On the whole, a generation reaped the benefits of the Maoist movement.
The careful application of area-specific military strategies brought about a distinct change in the armed activity all over the State. North Telangana was declared a guerilla zone by 1995; and the south Telangana districts, the south coastal districts of Guntur, Prakasam and Nellore; and the Nallamala forests were regarded as prospective guerilla zones. The underground armed cadre took the shape of a proper military and the armed resistance against the police intensified as the squads mastered the art of laying landmines and carrying out ambushes.
Ideally, the naxalite movement should have grown from strength to strength in Andhra Pradesh, particularly in the north Telangana districts. But a decade later the movement began to fall apart and the aura of invincibility around the legendary naxalite leaders vanished. So much so that they had to abandon the battleground and take shelter in the Bastar forests. The retreat zone, which was felt necessary in the early 1980s, was to come in handy for them two decades later.
What brought about a sea change in the situation was the determination of the police and the politicians to change the conditions on the battleground. The “climate” that proved conducive to the growth of the Protracted People’s War (PPW) changed over a period of time because of social evolution. By this time, there was also a generational change. If in one generation people felt beholden to the naxalites, in the next the movement acquired the characteristics of an insurgency. With this “disconnect” staring in the faces of the revolutionaries and the State’s “panicky” reactions metamorphosing into a readiness to fight through well-coordinated measures, the turnaround was evident from the late 1996. Mass organisation activity decreased as naxalite squads were mercilessly hunted by Greyhounds, closely supported by specific, actionable intelligence inputs.
Encounter killings became the order of the day as the police, assisted by the paramilitary forces, waged a “do-or-die” battle, which was unreservedly supported by politicians of all hues though they publicly distanced themselves from the counter-revolutionary measures.
That made the political class the number one enemy of the naxalites, who went on a killing spree. Former Home Minister A. Madhava Reddy paid with his life and other politicians such as N. Chandrababu Naidu and N. Janardhana Reddy (both former Chief Ministers) escaped by the skin of their teeth.
A decisive victory appeared within the reach of the police by 1999 itself as they brought about a qualitative change in the counter-insurgency strategies. The dreaded “cordon-and-search” operations, which meant torturing and foisting cases on all those suspected to be supporting naxalites, were called off. There were no more instances of midnight arrests, no more destruction of property and displacement of the kith and kin of underground naxalites.
These measures were initiated even while selectively using the most notorious tool – killing. The police top brass had become acutely aware that it was the indiscriminate use of this that was distancing them from the people, whose participation was essential for changing the conditions on the battleground.
Large sections of society did not approve of the extrajudicial killings, euphemistically called encounter deaths. Similarly, they were opposed to the killings by the Maoists. The police used this social dichotomy in respect of society’s reaction to the state violence as well as the Red violence to the maximum. They now resorted to selective killing of naxalite leaders while discarding the practice of torturing and falsely implicating naxalite supporters and sympathisers.
Coincidentally, the sweeping economic reforms introduced in the country too changed the situation. The working class (predominantly coal miners and the farming community), students, women, and the middle class (most of whom had hitherto supported the cause of the naxalites) began distancing themselves from the movement as the relevance of revolutionary activity in setting things right was diminishing fast. It is this change in the conditions on the battleground and to some extent the change in the social climate that contributed to the downfall of the naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh, and not just the military capability of the elite commando force – Greyhounds.
Prafulla Das in Bhubaneswar
THE increase in Maoist activities in the forested and backward interior regions of Orissa in recent months is a clear indication of their growing strength in the State. On the other hand, the State government’s plans to thwart them have failed in virtually all aspects, barring the arrest and killing of some of them.
Roadblocks put up at Malkangiri district in Orissa during the bandh the Maoists organised on October 3 in protest against the arrest of Chhatradhar Mahato, leader of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities.
The Maoists have capitalised on the virtual absence of the administration in areas that do not have roads and other basic facilities, including hospitals and schools. They now have a strong presence in 18 of the State’s 30 districts and are entering newer areas every day.
The Special Operations Group (SOG), the anti-naxal strike force of the police, has not been able to penetrate the Maoist strongholds deep in the forests. Malkangiri district, which shares its borders with Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, is a good example of this.
The Maoists obviously enjoy the support of both tribal and non-tribal people in these areas. Faced with neglect by the administration, the local people have turned silent supporters of the extremists.
The Maoists have won over the majority of the tribal people by taking up their demands with the administration. The extremists have boycotted elections, observed bandhs and put up posters and banners to highlight the people’s demands.
For the police and the administration, the situation has taken a turn for the worse since the Centre and the State government announced recently the launch of a special operation. The Maoists, who almost routinely targeted railway lines and telecommunication networks, besides attacking policemen, forest staff and “police informers”, recently turned their focus on a member of the political class. In Mayurbhanj district on October 13, they attacked Sudam Marandi, president of the Orissa unit of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and a former member of the Lok Sabha. Marandi escaped under cover of darkness, but the Maoists killed three policemen and took away two AK-47 rifles.
The State government had announced that top officers of various government departments would visit different districts to review development works. But most of the bureaucrats simply did not go. As a result, development work suffered and the Maoists gained support. Now, the situation has reached a point where bureaucrats are scared of visiting the districts because of the naxal strikes.
The Naveen Patnaik government is contemplating a special drive to reach out to the people by involving both the administration and the police in it. “We are now planning to adopt a two-pronged approach to deal with the Maoist problem,” said Prakash Mishra, Director-General of Police (Intelligence). The administration would reach out to the people in Maoist strongholds with the help of the police, women’s self-help groups and such other social groups, he said.
The State government has also not been able to strengthen its police force. The policemen on duty at police stations in the naxal-affected areas face frequent attacks. On several occasions the Maoists have been successful in looting arms and ammunition from police stations and armouries.
The SOG has been ineffective largely because it does not have enough men – it has only 1,100 personnel. As regards raising India Reserve Battalions, the State government has been able to raise only three so far. For two more IRBs, the recruitment process has been completed and the cadets are to undergo training. Although the Centre has sanctioned another IRB, the State government has not been able to start the process of recruitment.
The State police have also not been able to coordinate effectively with the police of neighbouring States except Andhra Pradesh. While Orissa and Andhra Pradesh have special forces to deal with the Maoists, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand do not.
With the administration failing to implement the pro-poor welfare schemes, including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and the police ill-equipped to take on the Maoists, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik demands additional Central forces whenever there is a major Maoist attack in the State.
There are six battalions of Central paramilitary forces deployed in different parts of the State for various duties, including the anti-naxal operations. The Centre is yet to fulfil the State government’s demand for seven additional battalions of Central forces for the anti-Maoist operations.
“The State government cannot fight the Maoists by using the police force or announcing development schemes,” says Janardan Pati, secretary of the Orissa State Committee of the CPI(M).
When thousands of tribal people sought land rights and agitated against the non-tribal people who had taken away their land in the past, the State government did not arrest even a single non-tribal person on the charge of taking away tribal land, says Pati.
He was of the view that the armed struggle by the outlawed CPI(Maoist) would not succeed in defeating the ruling class in the country. He, however, said the Maoists should not be treated as an enemy of the country. The problem, he added, could be solved only by ensuring economic development of the poor by providing them land, employment and basic necessities.
Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata
THE Maoists continue to hold on to their base in Lalgarh and its surrounding forest areas, known as Jangalmahal, in West Bengal’s Paschim Medinipur district despite the presence of Central forces in the area and the Centre’s plans to step up operations against the banned CPI (Maoist) across the country.
On October 12, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee discussed the Maoist problem with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. That very day Maoists shot down two people, in Binpur and Belpahari near Lalgarh. On October 10, a Congress worker was shot dead in Belpahari.
ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY
Chhatradhar Mahato, who was arrested on September 26, being brought to Kolkata on October 2.
A combined force of 50 companies of Central and State Police is deployed in the area. But that has not stopped the killings and abductions. Intimidation, murders and destruction of private and public property have continued unabated. The CPI(M), which leads the ruling Left Front, has been the target of most of the attacks. According to party sources, more than 120 CPI(M) supporters and activists have been killed in Paschim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia, three adjoining districts with a strong Maoist presence, since November 2008. In the Lalgarh region alone, 117 CPI(M) members were killed, and more than half of these murders were committed after the combined forces were deployed on June 18.
Though the root of the Maoist movement can be traced back to the 1967 uprising in Naxalbari in Darjeeling district, its impact in the State was, until recently, limited to Paschim Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura districts, which share a border with Jharkhand, though there were occasional reports of Maoist activity in other districts.
But the CPI (Maoist) started making its presence felt in the State from 2007 onwards. The Maoists were involved in the year-long bloody turf battle in Nandigram (Purba Medinipur district) in 2007 between the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress-led Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee, a ragtag consortium of naxalites, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind and the Congress. They also participated in the violent agitation in Singur (Hooghly district) against the prestigious Tata Motors small-car project. All this pointed to long-term plans, “Nandigram in 2007, Singur in 2008 and Lalgarh in 2009 clearly point to the increasing strength of the Maoists in West Bengal,” a senior police intelligence source told Frontline. However, it is only the Lalgarh movement that the Maoists can take full credit for. The other two agitations were led by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
The extent of the Maoist network in the State became clear when an attempt was made on the Chief Minister’s life on November 2, 2008, at Kalaichand near the forested Lalgarh area. The arrests made in the area after the blast directed at Bhattacharjee’s convoy resulted in an unprecedented eruption among the local tribal population and the formation of the Maoist-backed People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) headed by Chhatradhar Mahato. Under the PCPA’s leadership, the tribal people commenced a violent agitation and refused to allow the police to enter the area in a bid to establish a “Muktanchal”, or liberated zone, on the lines of what had been done in Nandigram.
It now became clear that the Maoists, whose presence was so far thought to be restricted to Paschim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia districts, had for a long time been doing the “groundwork” to bring about the kind of situation that now exists in the State. The unaddressed backwardness of the forested areas of the three border districts and the abysmal living conditions of the tribal people gave the Maoists enough scope over the years to quietly spread their propaganda and present themselves as the “liberators” of the people. They came to be known locally as the “Bon” (Forest) Party.
A 10-page note submitted by A.K. Maliwal, Director, Security, West Bengal, to the Home Department said: “The militancy demonstrated by the local population and violence unleashed by Maoists indicate that the initial stages of the protracted war, namely, the survey stage, followed by the struggle stage had nearly been completed in Lalgarh Axis by them. Exploiting the opportunity, they scaled up their activity to the resistance stage and the guerilla action stage and temporarily gave impression [to others] of liberated/base area stage, though they themselves must be clear that their job of creating resistance area – guerilla area required much more to be done and required much more time.” The note also said that the heightened Maoist activity in Lalgarh in the months preceding the deployment of forces “appears to be a part of their strategic plan to extend the guerilla action zone beyond Belpahari-Binpur-Barikul-Rani Bandh-Bandwan Axis and attempt to create stretches of corridor to be linked up later to access Durgapur-Asansol–Dhanbad industrial centres and Birbhum-Burdwan-Hooghly strategic interest centres, and from Paschim Medinipur to Purba Medinipur for Nandigram-Haldia industrial centre.”
The first, and so far the only, police breakthrough was the arrest of PCPA convener Chhatradhar Mahato. The PCPA served as the public face of the Maoists and enabled them to strike root in the State. It was the mask the Maoists used to make themselves more acceptable to a greater number of people. “At the end of the day they are one and the same,” a senior police source told Frontline.
However, Dr Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, who was a senior naxal leader in the 1970s, has a different view.
“In my opinion, the agitation in Lalgarh was initially an autonomous movement, which was not inspired by anything other than the success of the people’s movements in Nandigram and Singur and the Santhal heritage that is repeatedly emphasised in the way of their protest. I feel that the intervention of the state distorted the movement and brought the Maoists strongly into the picture,” he told Frontline. Even if this is true, the line separating the PCPA and the Maoists has long become blurred. This is also clear from the Maoists’ reaction to Chhatradhar’s arrest – they clamoured for his release, called bandhs, warned of dire consequences, and carried out more killings.
Mamata Banerjee, whose party workers fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Maoists against the CPI(M) in Nandigram and Singur, has distanced herself from the Lalgarh movement after her success in the Lok Sabha elections and her induction into the Central government. She had at one time extended her party’s unequivocal support to the PCPA’s cause and on one occasion she shared the dais with Chhatradhar. Neither party has ever openly acknowledged being associated with the other, except for sharing certain common concerns, but Mamata Banerjee’s sudden turnaround has stung the Maoists, who have accused her of indulging in “opportunistic politics” (see interview with Koteswar Rao).
The Maoists have also lost the support of many old veterans of the naxal movement who once believed that annihilation of the class enemy was the only way to bring about a revolution. “We realised later that individual assassination was not a fruitful approach, and I see the Maoists making the same mistake. Our main targets were big landowners,” said Rai Chaudhuri. It is small farmers who are now being killed in Lalgarh for the crime of being CPI(M) supporters. The Maoists say, though, that party affiliation has less to do with the murders than association with the combined forces or membership of the Ganapratirodh Committee, a local resistance group.
As of now, officially, areas under 18 police stations in Paschim Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia districts have a strong Maoist presence. North Bengal is next on the Maoist agenda.
“With all the crises in north Bengal, the situation is rife for a revolutionary movement there. There is the tea garden crisis, it is a gateway for the north-eastern States, it is on the Nepal border, and Bhutan too. Both Nepal and Bhutan are our friends in CCOMPOSA (Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia). Keeping all this in view, we have decided to extend our movement in north Bengal,” CPI(Maoist) politburo member Koteswar Rao (alias Kishenji) told Frontline.•