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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 25, June 12, 2010

Understanding the Maoist Threat and Dealing with It

Monday 14 June 2010, by Balraj Puri


After the massacre of 76 security persons in Dantewade in Bastar, a part of the Chhattisgarh State, a sort of war began between the government and the Maoists which, according to the Union Home Minister, was started by the latter, more so in the mindset of the combatants. Since then the situation has been aggravated. Forty persons travelling in a police bus in the same area were killed. The latest is a train blast in Jnaneshwari Express in the Midnapur area of West Bengal, alleged to be the handiwork of the Maoists; it took a toll of about 150 human lives. Since 2005, 1441 Naxalities have been killed whereas civilian and security forces causalities have been almost double this figure—1647 + 189 respectively. (TOI, May 30) The Home Minister has vowed to wipe out what he called the enemy number one of the country. The Maoists are equally determined to not only demolish the government but also the entire system.

In the 1990s, Maoists were active in only 15 of the 650 districts of the country. Now, according to the Home Minister, they are operating in 200 districts—covering the entire tribal belt starting from Andhra to Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. They are reported to have established contacts with the ULFA and other insurgents in the North-East. They thus constitute, in the words of the Prime Minister, the greatest internal security threat.

The emphasis of the policy-makers was to strengthen the security forces. The Dantewada debacle was attributed by the security agencies and commentators mainly to inadequate training, particularly in jungle warfare, of the CRPF jawans, ill-equipped weapons, lack of knowledge about the local terrain, no contacts with the local people and poor intelligence. The E.N. Rammohan report, too, deals with mainly deficiencies in security operations.

Some decisions have been taken to make up these deficiencies. The number of security forces was increased by over 30,000, apart from training 47,000 police and paramilitary personnel. They are being provided better weapons and training. When the Chiefs of the Army and Air Force advised against the use of their help in combat operations, the government enlisted the services of the ISRO to map the locations and movements of the insurgents. After the train blast of May 29, the Army Chief met the Home Minister and the armed forces finalised an action plan “to meet any emergency if their role in anti-Naxalite operations is extended beyond the present training, surveillance and logistics.” The Army Chief said: “If the government orders, we will step in and take the lead.” (TOI, May 30)

Not to be outdone by the government, the Maoists also geared up for modern warfare. According to a report published in the Hindustan Times (April 21, 2010), they have developed a geographic information system (GIS) which collects, shares and analyses data about a place or an area. According to the intelligence sources, the Maoists are preparing for a big haul and will use “out-of-box” methods. They have collected all possible information about their areas of influence and are keeping up with the technology to take on the security forces. The intelligence agencies have quoted from a document published in the Awam-e-Jung, a publication of the CPI (Maoist), in March. The GIS data of Naxal strongholds will enable them a quick deployment of forces and can be used for precision strikes through air and guided missiles. Naxals also use net and Google Earth for collecting information. They have digitised topographical maps of the survey of India and are eyeing the security data of the security agencies.

Factor of Popular Support

A more crucial factor than use of technology and arms in the current war in the tribal areas is the popular support. The rapid expansion of the influence and area of operations of the Maoists is due to increasing alienation of the tribal communities. Arundhati Roy in her 32-page essay “Walking with the Comrades” (Outlook, March 29, 2010), describes the large scale devastation and displacement caused by corporate companies, industrialists and multinationals whom the government has leased tribal land for mining and other projects. At a meeting of civil liberties groups in Delhi attended by her, the question was raised: “How was a government, that professed its inability to resettle even a fraction of the 50 million people displaced by what it called development, able to identify 1,40,000 hectares of prime land to give to industrialists for more than 300 special economic zones?”

The leased projects she lists include a $ 4 trillion bauxite one in Orissa, high quality iron ore ones in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and 28 other mineral projects in other parts of the tribal belt called Red Corner or the Maoists’ corridor. Add to that the power plants, the dams, the highways, the steel and cement factories and all other infrastructure projects. That makes the displaced tribals desperate to say: “Jaan denge per zameen nahin denge.”

Arundhati Roy is much maligned in official circles. An FIR has been lodged by a social worker in Chhattisgarh against her for glorifying the Maoists. But to be fair to her, let me also quote her comment on the other side. She says: “It is impossible to defend much of the violent excesses of the Naxalite movement.” She adds: “It is a great disservice to everything that is happening here (in Chhattisgarh).” She also criticises Charu Mazumder, one of the founders of the Naxalite movement, for his silence over the egregious excesses of the Chinese and Russian revolutions.

However, the Prime Minister has taken notice of the economic aspect of the Maoist challenge. In his address to the Civil Services Day function on April 21, he said: “We cannot overlook the fact that many areas in which extremism flourishes are underdeveloped and many people, mainly tribals, who live in these areas have not shared the benefits of development.” He advised the civil servants to fight Naxals with develop-ment. (The Indian Express, April 23) Even the Rammohan report, besides dealing with strategic aspects of the problem, advises the government to refrain from signing more MoUs with the corporate sector for starting their enterprises in tribal areas. The report impresses upon the Centre and States to respect tribal rights and not agree to rampant industrialisation in these areas. (The Indian Express, April 23)

A Planning Commission task force has admitted that “not a single claim of the tribals over land has been entertained under the Forest Rights Act in Dantewada”. Among other facts that the report mentions is this basic truth: “the entire district of Dantewada had just three doctors”. The report covers 33 Maoist hit districts. The expenditure for rural development, road connectivity and health is 30 to 40 per cent of the allocated funds in these districts. (The Indian Express, May 1)

Not by Development Alone

However, this, too, is not the entire story. B.D. Sharma, the former SC/ST Commissioner, who had also served as the Collector in Bastar, draws a distinction between development and exploitation. In an interview to The Times of India (March 10), he says: “God has given the tribals everything. They claim that they have three moneylenders who look after them throughout the year—the forest, the river and the land. They live off them for four months each.”

Sharma insists that the government must accept that the resources they want belong to them. According to the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule, he says, resources in the tribal areas belong to the tribals. He quotes the report of the 1995 Bhuria Commission which recommended that for industries in tribal areas, 50 per cent of the ownership must remain with the community, 20 per cent with the landowner and only 30 per cent with the investor.

Allied with this is the question of identity of tribals and those of their ethnicity, culture and way of life. It may be useful to re-read Verrier Elwin’s work on India’s tribes. He was a British anthropologist, fell in love with the tribes and married a tribal girl. His pioneering and scholarly work on Indian tribals and his plea to preserve their rich culture and way of life was criticised by many nationalists and champions of development and modernisation as a plea to keep alive some islands of museum pieces. However, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on whose table I found his book, told me on my enquiry that the author knew India much better than his critics.

The point is that development at the cost of cultural and ethnic identity becomes counter-productive. It is no substitute for the enjoyment that they get in their music, dances and fairs which need to be preserved from the threat of films and other modern means of entertainment. In fact the process of modernisation should incorporate their culture and thus help in preserving them.

Already a fierce debate is going on between orthodox Marxists, mainly belonging to the People’s War Group of Andhra, which pioneered the Maoist movement but is declining there, and the more pragmatic cadres in central and east India on class versus caste/ethnicity. The lesson of West Bengal is particularly relevant in this context.

The Left Front, led by CPM leader Jyoti Basu, came to power and maintained its popular base for over three decades on the basis of its progressive programme, in particular its radical land reforms, as well as on the appeal of a Bengali nationalism which had always been a potent force, though articulated by widely different political parties. Jyoti Basu asserted the Bengali identity against the authority of Indian nationalism.

Ethnic Factor in Maoist Revolt

It was, however, mainly a bhadralok Bengali front. Gradually the momentum of radical land reforms started declining and lower castes, Dalits, Muslims, tribals and non-Bengalis, started asserting. The regimented system of West Bengal, where local bodies were instruments in the hands of the State Government as these were controlled by the CPM cadres rather than instruments of local self-government, blocked the avenues of dissent.

The protest of Nandigram with a sizeable Muslim population against acquisition of land was crushed not only by the police but also armed CPM cadres. This alienated Muslims who were feeling ignored. An incident of death of a Muslim young man who had fallen in love with the daughter of a Hindu industrialist in Calcutta, under mysterious circumstances, provided another occasion for Muslim protest. Extension of permission to Taslima, externed by Bangladesh for what the government there felt was her sacrilegious writings, to stay on in Kolkata was another provocation for the community to launch a campaign against the government. For a while the Trinamul Congress and Jamiat-e-Ulema provided an outlet for Muslim alienation. But the role of the Trinamul Congress was compromised after it joined the UPA Government which had declared an allout war against the Maoists. Gorkhaland is another alienated area which continued to have an outlet by electing Jaswant Singh belonging to distant Rajasthan on the BJP ticket.

Naxalbari was a tribal area from where the Maoist movement had first started 50 years ago and it got its name ‘Naxalite’. This time in many places in West Bengal, popular protests, for lack of alternative adequate outlets, got diverted into Maoist channels. In Lalgarh, for instance, people were organised under the banner of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities. The police action was supported in Lalgarh and neighbouring Bankura and Purlia districts by armed CPM “fighters” who had killed at least 60 persons, say police sources. (The Indian Express, April 25) Its leader Lalmohan Tudu, who was murdered by the CRPF, was not a Maoist. Another leader Manoj was arrested. He met a Maoist in jail for the first time, as if the CPM Government inadvertently brought the two movements closer to each other.

Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao movement is an excellent example of how the tribal belt, affected by the Narmada dam, opted for a Gandhian method of agitation instead of armed Maoist revolt.

Then again, not all Maoist movements are alike and organised under a strong uniform discipline. Recently when seven senior leaders were arrested in Andhra, it was suspected in the Maoist Polit-Bureau that the police got a tip off from within their ranks. Koteshwar Rao alias Kishenji, who was active in Lalgarh, was told to lower his profile and warned for using his cell phone too frequently endangering the lives of those around him. Eventually he along with his aides quit the Maoists calling them anti-tribal, though he patched up later.

Again, there is not a uniform pattern of Maoist activities. Brutal violence alone is not their practice. At some places they have undertaken relief and welfare work and opened dispensaries and schools where officially such facilities had not been provided. In Bankura, for instance, they are running a school.

Finally, any role for interlocutors, not so much for an agreement between Maoists and the government, as to understand them should not be dismissed. They have, for instance, welcomed to talk with Arundhati Roy, Trinamul Congress MP Kabir Suman and former Commissioner for Scheduled Tribes B.D. Sharma. While Arundhati has declined to play any role, the latter two are willing to intervene. Recently Gandhian workers had a 540 km cycle yatra through Jhargram, Binpur, Lalgarh, Devda, Panskura, Barkhpur etc. in West Bengal. It was led by leaders of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Sarvodya Mandal and Harijan Sevak Samaj. A Peace March was flagged off in the Maoist bastion Bastar on May 5. It was led by Chancellor of Gandhi Vidyapeeth, Gujarat Narayan Desai and included well-known personalities like President of the Gandhi Peace Foundation Radha Bhat, academician Yash Pal, veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, social activist Swami Agnivesh, leading Gandhians Amarnath and Lavnam, Magasaysay award winner Arvind Kejriwal, leading advocate Prashant Bhushan convenor of Azadi Bacho Andolan Prof Banwari lal Sharma, Telugu film actress Chandna Chakravarty and IIM’s Trilochan Shastri.

Every critic of the government need not be dubbed as a Maoist. The detention of PUCL leader Dr Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh for his sympathies for the Maoists is, in no a sense, justified. It is not a question of being pro- or anti-Maoist. It is a question of understanding all possible aspects of the Maoist phenomenon and all possible means of dealing with it and its threat. Rammohan, who was appointed to enquire into the security aspect of the Dantewada tragedy, has in a recent statement welcomed the role of civil rights activists in understanding and dealing with the Maoist movement

Let us also explore the possibility of accommo-dating Maoists as a radical party in democratic India. After all, India is the first country in the world where a Communist Party opted for the parliamentary method and came to power through elections in Kerala. In any case, the door should be kept open for the attempt to accommodate the CPI (Maoist) besides the CPI, CPM and CPI (M-L) as another Communist Party, taking all precautions that it does not threaten the basis of Indian democracy.

Balraj Puri is the Director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Jammu.

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