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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 40, September 25, 2010

Maoist Phenomenon and State Response

Tuesday 28 September 2010, by Amitava Mukherjee

Now, in the wake of the serious development in Bihar, the time has come for everybody to shed all kinds of factionalism and put all heads together to find a genuine solution to the raging controversy over the Maoist problem that has engulfed a large part of India and is exhibiting the potentialities of vivisection of the country. Sadly, schism and incompetence in dealing with the most raging issue of the time has now reached the topmost level of administration with a deep gorge of difference emerging between P. Chidambaram, the Union Home Minister on the one hand, and Mamata Banerjee, the Railway Minister on the other. If the information from the corridors of power is true, then even the Prime Minister, so far remaining a staunch supporter of Chidambaram on the Naxal issue, has developed an approach which is slightly different from that of the Home Minister.

Clearly Chidambaram has contributed more towards confusing matters. At the beginning he was not prepared to listen to any word on the controversial death of Azad, the Naxalite leader who has been widely described as carrying missives for peace talks between the Centre and the Naxalites. But as pressures grew on the government with Mamata Banerjee, the Union Railway Minister, openly expressing doubts about the circumstances leading to Azad’s death, Chidambaram made a volte-face by declaring that Azad had died in Andhra Pradesh and one has to approach the State Government for the information. If the theory of responsibility of the Cabinet form of government is to be honoured, then Chidambaram is standing on a very weak leg. Why is he advising others to approach the Andhra Pradesh Government? Why isn’t he, as the Union Home Minister, seeking reports from the same government as the death of Azad has now assumed a proportion of national importance?
There is no point in denying that the recent phase of the Naxalite movement, distinct from the one in 1970-71, has originated from the abysmal poverty and deprivation of the tribal communities of India who reside mostly in the jungle tracts of the country. An added factor has been the policy of governments, at the Centre as well as in the State, of inviting multinational companies for exploitation of mineral resources that lie beneath the forests while in 1970-71 the Naxalite movement was basically maverick adventurism by some day-dreaming urban youths and middle class Communist leaders who had broken away from the CPM. The movement lacked credibility and acceptance among the masses and as a result it could be suppressed easily.

So far as the handling of the Naxal problem is concerned, there is hardly any difference of approach among the UPA Government led by Manmohan Singh, the BJP, the BJD and the CPM with only Sonia Gandhi and a host of top Congress leaders owing allegiance to her pursuing a different and humane approach. There has been a mushrooming of private armies, enjoying government patronage, in the States ruled by the BJP as well as the CPM. It is obvious that the state is trying to meet violence with violence. But in trying to judge the success or failure of this strategy one has to look at the character and composition of the ongoing Naxalite movement.

Although the mainstream media in India, mostly ignorant of the ultra-Left politics of the country, call the wagers of the present violent movements as Maoists, very little of Mao really exists either in China or in the minds of those who have picked up weapons against the state in India. Don’t think that Mao was really very relevant in 1971 too. That was the time of puerile idealism indulged in by some middle class men who had not really grown up mentally. The clarion call was meant for the youth who joined the Naxalite movement in large numbers in some pockets of the country. But the ideological base was extremely weak and as the government crushed the movement, some of them, otherwise quite brilliant, found permanent sojourns in some seats of capitalism, particularly in Europe and America. During the violent days of 1971, the CPM was the béte noire of the Naxals. But that has not prevented some fire-spewing Naxalites of yesteryears to become ardent supporters of the present Left Front Government in West Bengal.

In the late 1970s the Naxalites got themselves divided into many splinter groups and the present crop of the Maoists waging violent warfare are in fact the result of an amalgamation of the Peoples’ War Group and MCC. There are allegations, denied by the CPM, that they had, at one time, taken support from the PWG in ousting the fledgling Trinamul Congress from areas like Keshpur and Garbeta in West Bengal. Whatever may be the truth, the fact remains that the Maoists could spread their tentacles in West Bengal as a result of the misrule the State has witnessed in the last thirtythree years.

The UPA Government is speaking of countering the Maoist menace through socio-economic development. But it is yet to spell out what it really means. Clearly it is packed with politicians who always miss the wood for the tree. The Maoist upsurge in West Bengal started with massive agitations in all parts of the State over anomalies and corruptions in the public distribution system where many ration dealers were ultimately found to be CPM sympathisers or supporters. Interestingly no worthwhile agitation had taken place in the Purulia district where the Maoists had established themselves long before their presence in the West Midnapore district that includes Lalgarh. Was it because of the awe the Maoists had instilled in the minds of the ration dealers?

HERE lies the main impediment to the solution of the Maoist problem. The CPM now admits, albeit indirectly, that corruption at all levels has cut the soil from beneath its feet. It is true so far as the situation in the Jungle Mahal is concerned. Consider the rage with which the poor people of the area vandalised the house of Anuj Pandey, a local CPM leader. Pandey has said that he is innocent, that the corruption charges brought against him are all false. But then why did the villagers vent their anger on his house? The CPM leaders have proffered reasons. But none of these satisfactorily explains the scene which was shown by almost all national TV channels.

The picture in Lalgarh and the surrounding tribal inhabited areas is no different from the ones found in other parts of India. An overwhelming number of the Scheduled Tribes form the principal component of that 33 per cent of people who live under threats of famine or food scarcity. Ninety per cent of the tribals are landless. Several forest protection Acts have taken away the traditional tribal rights to use forest products which were partially restored by an Act of 2006. But the concerned State governments have all along shown so much apathy to give effect to the Act that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to convene a meeting to iron out the problem. Only Naveen Patnaik, the Chief Minister of Orissa, had attended the meeting. A notable absentee was Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal.

His absence in the meeting explains the mindset of his government. There is no need to go into statistical details to show the Left Front’s abysmal failure to ameliorate the conditions of the poor tribals. Almost the whole of India now knows about it. In the last two years there has been a sea-change in the social ambience of the Jungle Mahal in West Bengal. The first major Maoist attack took place when they tried to blow up the convoy of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Rajesh Singh, the then SP of West Midnapore, made a fatal mistake. In order to please the CPM leaders: he let loose tortures on the poor adivasis. The culprits could not be arrested but sympathy for the Maoists spread like wildfire among the hapless tribals.

It is better for the CPM to accept that its base among the Scheduled Castes and the tribals has now gone for ever. This is the reason why Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was afraid to visit Lalgarh after the area became a tinderbox. Murders of CPM supporters at the hands of the Maoists became almost a routine affair. Till the arrival of the Central paramilitary forces there was no sign of CPM flags in the vast areas of West Midnapore. In this sense Mamata Banerjee has set an example by kickstarting mainstream political activities when she addressed a massive gathering at Lalgarh on August 9, 2010.

Sensible people, except those having political motives, would agree that the CPM should have welcomed Mamata’s initiative. Her meeting was, in fact, a challenge to the Maoists—a tremendous show of guts when the state power represented by the West Bengal Government had fled from the scene with its trembling legs. Since long the State Government is almost non-existent in these areas and the CPM did what it should not have done after this political defeat—casting aspersions on opponents. On the eve of the CPI split in 1964 those people who had later formed the CPM had publicly castigated a senior CPI leader as a police agent. The truth was, however, just the opposite. The man was clean, much cleaner than many of those lambasting him. In 1972 also the CPM was certain to taste a bitter defeat at the hands of the Congress in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s massive success in 1971. Credible estimates pointed to only 40-50 constituencies where Congress workers had resorted to strong-arm tactics. The CPM lost badly in the Assembly election but tried to project Siddhartha Shankar Ray as the one who had organised rigging in the entire State. This was far from the truth.

This time also CPM has not been able to come out of its limitations. It has been crying hoarse, and without any effect on the electorate, that Mamata is working in collaboration with the Maoists. Even rebuttal from P. Chidambaram, the Union Home Minister, with whom it maintains friendly relationship apart from Pranab Mukherjee, has not deterred the Marxists from continuing to commit the faux pas. That the State as well as the central leadership of the CPM have completely lost touch with the common people is proved by their assertion that Mamata’s Lalgarh meeting was attended by the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) members and sympathisers. This organisation is often described by the CPM as a front body of the Maoists. Even if the allegation is true, full credit should go to Mamata Banerjee as she was able to draw the Maoist sympathisers into mainstream constitutional politics.

EVENTS in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Orissa have raised very disturbing questions about the future of India. What is really meant by the word development? Does the nation agree with its character or definition as understood by Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram or Montek Singh Alhuwalia? If not, then each of them and others of their ilk owe an explanation to the nation about the path the country has been forced to follow whose direct result is the allround present-day unrest.

Unfortunately we are now witnessing madness on all hands. On the one hand are the Maoists who do not recognise the Indian Constitution and the Indian state. This should not be acceptable to anybody. But the hard facts remain that they are now in control of 78 districts in 16 States. Doesn’t one find a similarity with the situation in Nepal sometime back although the situations in the two countries are different? The Maoists are prepared to kill and they are killing at will. On the other hand the state is also responding in the same vein. The example of Salwa Judum (a private army) comes to mind. It enjoys patronage from the State Government of Chhattisgarh as well as two steel companies. More than 650 tribal inhabited villages, having huge mineral reserves underneath, have been razed to the ground. What will happen to these national resources? Whether the present-day trouble-torn India will be able to find a suitable solution to the Maoist problem and concomitant social unrest will depend to a large extent on the answer to the above question.

Counter-violence will not be able to solve the problem. Chidambaram speaks of addressing the socio-economic issues but never states what he really means. Manmohan Singh is similarly vague and openly takes the side of ‘development’ when the vexed question of ‘development at the cost of environment’ comes up. Strangely there has been a convergence of approach of the BJP and CPM. Both the parties, the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and the CPM in West Bengal, have not spoken against the use of private armies to counter Maoist influence.

After a long silence Chidambaram has come out with his admission that in West Bengal’s Jungle Mahal camps exist which harbour armed cadres. As reported in the press, M.K. Narayanan, the West Bengal Governor, has reportedly sent reports to the Union Home Ministry alleging therein that armed cadres are taking part in operations against the Maoists. Why did Chidambaram take such a long time to disclose that such camps really exist while he was receiving intelligence inputs in this regard for quite sometime? Has he given any instruction to the paramilitary forces to take actions against such armed cadres? The situation in West Midnapore now resembles that of Nandigram. Armed cadres backed by the Central paramilitary forces are trying to take over many areas and motivated quarters are trying to project it as rebellion of the common people against the Maoists. A media stooge in Delhi is trying to dish out such concocted stories under the banner of a news feature agency. It is to be realised that the approaches of both the Maoists as well as the CPM-led West Bengal Government are wrong. There has to be reconciliation within the ambit of the Indian Constitution and state structure.

And here the death of Azad assumes significance. There could not have been any objection if Azad was tried under the Indian penal law as he had quite a good number of criminal cases pending against his name. However, likewise important was the fact that he was veering round to the path of peaceful negotiations. That a pall of mystery surrounds his death becomes evident from the media exposures. A judicial inquiry is perhaps the best way to reach the truth as a serious question related to the rule of law is involved here. The CPM should have supported Mamata’s assertions at the Lalgarh rally. Instead it has made a mess of the whole thing.

According to Union Home Ministry estimates, the Maoists do not get arms supply from outside the country. That leaves only one possibility. Their armoury is made up of purchases from internal markets and looted weapons from the security forces. This points to another dangerous possibility. The money for purchase of weapons comes mainly from the contractors and private traders who are engaged by the governments for carrying out various welfare and infrastructural schemes. So mere senseless pumping of money for developmental work in the affected areas will serve the opposite purpose. The Maoists’ coffers will only be replenished.

Finally, a word of caution for all those who rightly advocate negotiations with the Maoists. Sometime back in a television interview Kishenji, the top Maoist leader, had said that his party’s ultimate goal is to carve out small independent states based on sub-nationalities like an independent Bengal for the Bengalis, independent homelands for the Oriyas, Telugus, Punjabis and so on. In a word, it means vivisection of India.
Have the sympathisers or opponents of the Maoists found time to look at this angle so far?

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