Maoists surge, State dithers
It's abysmal lack of development and injustice which have provided the Maoists a fertile ground to spread. But the State seems clueless
Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi
The operation of the joint forces at Lalgarh in West Bengal to flush out the Maoists was hailed by the media. It was the first well-coordinated joint operation by central and state forces.
The success of this operation will determine if this will be tried out in other states reeling under Maoist violence. Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa account for 80 per cent of the violence caused by the Maoists. There are plans to launch joint operations in all states affected by the Maoist problem in October. A big hurdle is the paucity of security forces.
Political leaders and senior police officers in the know admit that the joint operation in Lalgarh happened at the "instigation" of Union home minister, P Chidambaram. "The HM called up Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and proposed a joint action in Lalgarh. The Bengal CM immediately gave his nod, even before he consulted his cabinet colleagues or his party," a senior MHA official told Hardnews.
There has been a paradigm shift of sorts in the MHA ever since Chidambaram took over. Earlier, at the conference of DGPs and IGPs, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had mentioned Left-wing extremism as the biggest threat facing the country. But, the MHA never accorded it the priority it deserved. The entire focus was on 'Islamic fundamentalists' and terrorism perpetrated by them even though the Maoists have spread their influence in 13 states. In 2007, 361 police stations in these states were afflicted by Maoist violence. Besides, there are other states where the Maoists are gaining a toehold.
Repeated Maoist attacks, large-scale killings of security forces and armoury loots didn't change the Centre's emphasis. The Naxal management division at MHA was slack. And, the Maoists seized on the government's lax attitude and turned it to their advantage - they expanded the Red corridor, their area of influence.
Chidambaram has changed priorities in internal security. "The HM lays great stress on Left-wing extremism. He has rejigged the Naxal division and keeps them on their toes," said the MHA official.
But, did the Lalgarh operation achieve the objective it had set out for? Not yet, admit those in charge of the joint operation - state police force and the central paramilitary including CRPF and BSF - in Bengal. The forces did not face the retaliation they had expected by the Maoists. However, they had to negotiate a terrain which had been mined by the Maoists. During the joint operation at Lalgarh, there were IED and landmine blasts at several places.
Since November last year, Lalgarh was cut off from the rest of the state. After a landmine blast targeting Bhattacharjee's convoy at Salboni in West Midnapore on November 2, 2008, police conducted nasty raids in adjoining villages, beat up, arrested and harassed locals including tribal women. Bhattacharjee later apologised for the harassment by the police.
But, it didn't help. The police harassment and arrest of seven tribal youths including three teenagers for their alleged involvement in the blast triggered off widespread protests led by the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA). For the next eight months, Lalgarh was practically cut off from the rest of the state. It was kept out of bounds from any form of state administration. The police were not allowed to enter.
The state government let the problem fester. Also, with the Lok Sabha elections around, the government chose the path of inaction. When PCPA members held a large rally in Kolkata and blocked the roads for four hours, the administration did not act.
In June this year, the joint operation was launched with two primary aims: one, to bring back governance to Lalgarh, which had virtually become a "liberated zone"; two, to flush out Maoists who had consolidated their base in Lalgarh.
For the Maoists, it's a protracted battle. They always plan long-term. They are not in a hurry. Their strength does not lie in numbers. True to the ethos of guerrilla warfare, the virulence of their attacks with its surprise element makes them a lethal force.
At the 2007 party congress, the CPI (Maoists) had decided to form a full-fledged mobile army in addition to its guerrilla squad. It was proposed that the cadres for this army would be drawn from the existing action squads in various states and given a higher level of training in sophisticated arms. The Maoists decided to go for expansion through mass mobilisation to upgrade their military activities.
Maoists feed on crisis or grievances of the people to strengthen themselves. They harvest the grievances first through front organisations. Eventually, the Maoists infiltrate the area to foment mass discontent and proceed towards militant mobilisation and recruitment.
The tried and tested Maoist strategy was manifest in Lalgarh, too. During the eight-month blockade in Lalgarh, the Maoists recruited men and women, primarily for their auxiliary force, said sources.
According to a senior Congress leader in West Midnapore, the joint operation actually helped the Maoists. "Both the Centre and state governments are bereft of a proper understanding of how Maoists strategise. So, they almost played into the hands of the Maoists by launching this joint operation," he said.
Locals in the Maoist-affected West Midnapore and the adjoining Bankura district liken the joint operation to a hula party (beaters in hunting parlance). When elephants rampage through fields and villages, hula party members beat drums and wave burning torches to drive the tuskers from one village or forest to the next. "The joint forces have worked like the hula party and driven the Maoists out of Lalgarh into neighbouring districts and Jharkhand," said locals of Jhargram.
Also, cordon-and-search operations by the joint forces in villages are proving to be counter-productive. Men, especially, the young, have fled their homes in fear of the police. Their relatives are refusing to give them shelter for the same reason. "So, they are seeking refuge in the jungles where the Maoists are offering them food, a place where the police can't touch them, and gradually wooing these hapless villagers to their fold," said local sources.
Maoists are aware of their strength and vulnerability. Given their current capability, they know they cannot hold a "liberated zone" and fight the State forces. But, confrontations between the State, its police and the people (as in Lalgarh) create situations which Maoists use to identify their potential recruits for their military and front organisations. This helps in political mobilisation and spread their influence. Like Mao said, "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea."
That's why the security forces did not face any strong retaliation from the Maoists when they finally entered Lalgarh. The attacks followed later through killings of at least seven CPM men, attributed to the Maoists by the state government. Senior officers fear that more lethal attacks will follow once the central forces leave.
Since there is a vacuum in governance in these poverty-stricken areas replete with daily injustice, the Maoists are moving in and spreading their roots. Police action backed by strong intelligence inputs is the first step. The joint security action in Lalgarh was not backed by actionable intelligence. MHA suspects that intelligence available to the police may have been biased as several informers could have belonged to CPM in West Bengal. In Chhattisgarh, operations against Maoists failed due to lack of coordination and intelligence between the state and the Centre, said a former director-general of the CRPF.
Speaking to Hardnews, a home ministry official admitted, "Each state has its own policy to fight Left-wing extremism. Then, there is the problem of jurisdiction and coordination between adjoining states through which the red corridor runs." Maoists strike in one state and cross over to the next and hide. Joint operation of all Maoist-affected states is still not a reality. "It's high time a national policy is formulated before it spins out of control. It can't be left to states alone to handle it," stress police officers.