Taking on Maoists

Print edition : November 06, 2009
Taking on Maoists

DURING A COMBING operation against the Maoists in the forest near Lalgarh in Paschim Medinipur district of West Bengal, on June 20.-A. ROY CHOWDHURY

THE longstanding tussle between the Indian security establishment and the Left extremist Communist Party of India (Maoist) is all set to enter a crucial and perhaps decisive phase in the next few months. This is the unmistakable message one gets from the developments over the past two months in New Delhi and different parts of central and eastern India.

Central to these developments and the projections that have emanated from them is the new strategy (and initiatives related to it) advanced by the Union Home Ministry and the Maoists own plans to impart a concerted thrust to their activities and spread to new areas.

Historically, the battle with the Maoists has raged since 1967 when the first Maoist rebellion erupted. The battle intensified over the last five years following the formation of the CPI (Maoist), in 2004, through the merger of two prominent naxalite groups, the Peoples War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC).

Over the past two months the government has pressed new battalions of security forces into anti-Maoist combat operations and many of them have been deployed. There have also been discussions about involving the Army and even the Air Force in the operations.

The CPI (Maoist), on its part, has intensified its attacks in different parts of the country. They include Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, which are the organisations strongholds, the Gadchiroli region in Maharashtra, where it is apparently recapturing lost space, and parts of West Bengal, where it has made forays in the past two years.

Officials in the Home Ministry coordinating the new combat initiative say the government has ventured into this with some spectacular successes. The reference, obviously, is to the arrest of Kobad Ghandy and Amitabh Bagchi, senior politburo members of the CPI (Maoist). According to security agencies, Ghandy was arrested in New Delhi on September 21 and Bagchi in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, on August 24.

The Maoists responded to these captures through a series of attacks across central and eastern India. Perhaps the most daring among these was the killing of 18 members of a police party in an ambush in Gadchiroli district on October 8, five days before polling in the State Assembly elections. The brutal beheading of abducted Jharkhand Police Inspector Francis Induwar two days earlier also captured widespread attention.

While these incidents evoked strong condemnation from several quarters, many senior Maoist activists who interacted with Frontline said the purpose of the attacks was to prove that the strike power of the Maoists remained undiminished despite the capture of some leaders. All these forays have asserted that the party is moving forward in fulfilling the organisational tasks laid out by the politburo in its historic circular of June 12, said CPI (Maoist) politburo member Koteswar Rao alias Kishenji to Frontline over telephone (see interview).

The June 12 intra-party circular titled Post Election Situation Our Tasks etched out a number of immediate and long-term tasks for the cadre. Kishenjis contention was that the Gadchiroli attack and the Ranchi killing showed that the party was on course to fulfilling these tasks.

According to Union Home Secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai, the arrests of Ghandy and Bagchi signify remarkable improvement in terms of intelligence gathering vis-a-vis Maoist operations. The series of inter-State meetings the Union Home Ministry organised over the past two years at different levels of political and administrative authority resulted in better coordination among the security forces in different States and that contributed to improved intelligence gathering, Pillai told Frontline.

AT A MAOIST training camp in the forest area of Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh.-AKHILESH KUMAR

The new Home ministry initiative is also broadly based on the confabulations that took place over the past two years under the auspices of the Ministry and involved Chief Ministers, State Home Ministers and senior officials in government and the police departments.

The discussions essentially centred on the rising Maoist influence across the country. According to informal estimates that came up in these discussions, the CPI (Maoist) has more than 20,000 armed cadre, apart from lakhs of supporters. The number of armed cadre is supposed to have doubled in the past five years. Home Ministry officials say this is an unprecedented number for an insurgency and point out that the militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir had only 3,000 armed cadre even at the peak of the militancy. The estimates also highlighted that Maoist activity had spread to 231 of the 626 districts in the country, or 37 per cent of the districts.

According to a number of Home Ministry officials involved in the anti-Maoist operations both at the Centre and in States like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, the theoretical framework of the new initiative is one that has been repeated for many years and involves aggressive thrusts by the security forces, followed by the implementation of pointed development schemes for the overall socio-economic development of the local population in these areas. Where it differs from earlier plans is in the detailing and the drawing up of specific action programmes.

Union Home Ministry officials pointed out that as part of the new initiative a detailed study of the Maoist-affected areas was done and the most sensitive and difficult areas were mapped. The study identified 11 areas as most sensitive, spread over 40 districts.

According to the Home Ministrys own figures, overall Maoist influence has spread from 56 districts in 2001 to 223 in 2009. It rated approximately 70 of these as worstaffected, and the 40 identified districts in the 11 mapped areas qualify as the worst-affected among these. An additional 70 battalions of security forces have been earmarked for operations in these 11 areas. The 40-odd battalions already deployed in Maoist-affected areas would not be withdrawn even after the induction of the additional forces.

Significantly, operations would be concentrated in one or two of the 11 areas at any given point of time, thus ensuring intense mobilisation in the selected area. All the forces would be under a unified command of the special task force trained at the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in Kanker, Chhattisgarh.

The forces deployed in an area would be followed by a back-up team that focuses on socio-economic development. Specialists in various fields, including socio-economic index researchers, development workers, health professionals, educators and others have also been recruited for the operation. Overall it is a comprehensive operational strategy that would first seek to clear an area of Maoists, occupy it militarily and follow it up with socio-economic development activity. The understanding is that it would take 18 to 24 months in each of the phases to operationalise the strategy and implement it successfully, said a senior Home Ministry official to Frontline.

A number of Maoist observers agree that this is one of the best laid out plans as far as anti-naxal operations are concerned. However, there is little agreement on the vital question whether the country and its security forces have the political and the administrative system to carry out the plan efficiently.

According to Ajit Sahni, one of the countrys foremost security analysts and executive director of the Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, all well-laid-out plans can come a cropper if intense efforts are not made to enhance and improve general policing and remove political intervention in, and political corruption of, the security establishment (see interview).

According to experts, the shortage in terms of police personnel in the country is to the tune of several lakhs and that, too, as per the old proportion of having an inspector and six constables in a police station. As per modern police manuals, a police station requires as many as 20 policemen in a vastly populated country like India.

Sahni and many other security specialists also pointed out that the debate on involving the Army and the Air Force in the operations was an unwanted distraction. Talking to Frontline, Sahni indicated that such discussions are ludicrous and are symptomatic of the deep malaises that afflict the system .

The debate was taken to such levels, and that too by some senior Defence officers themselves, that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself was forced to issue a clarification on the issue. It was the IAF vicechief, Air Marshal P.K. Barbora, who maintained that the force had asked the government to be given the authority to open fire in self-defence if fired upon by the Maoists during operations. Manmohan Singh made it clear that the government was not considering any such plan. Notwithstanding the clarification, the confusion created by the debate remained, including in some segments of the media.

Maoist leaders also believe that the government is planning to involve the Army and the Air Force in the offensive in spite of the Prime Ministers denial. According to a number of senior Maoist activists, they can see the signs of this on the ground, particularly in Chhattisgarh. The senior Air Force officers let out the truth when they raised the issue. Now the effort is to cover up, said a senior Maoist leader from Jharkhand.

Several Left-wing social activists are also of this view. Talking to Frontline, G.N. Saibaba of Delhi university said that though the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister maintained that the military would not be used in the offensive, the military was involved for several months in intelligence gathering and in training the police and paramilitary forces in jungle warfare tactics and in the processes of planning the war. The Army is also involved in constructing vast roads across the jungles for the free movement of vehicles of the security forces. The construction of a major Army base near Raipur also indicates that soon the deployment of soldiers will also happen, he said. Saibaba is of the view that for all practical purposes this is a full-scale war by the government on its own citizens.

As for the Maoists, their leadership asserted that the government initiatives would not detract them from going ahead with their plans as laid out in the June 12 circular. The 14-page note, apparently drafted by Kobad Ghandy, analyses the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in detail and terms it as a sham verdict meant to legitimise neoliberal reforms and state oppression. In the background of this analysis, the document stated that more and more people belonging to the poor and oppressed sections of society would get attracted to Maoist activities and that this needed to be strengthened.

Under a specific subheading, immediate tasks, the circular states as follows:

In order to defeat the new offensive by the enemy and to protect the gains of our peoples war it is very essential to rouse the masses throughout the country to stand up in support of the struggles in Dandakaranya, Bihar-Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka and other places and build a broad-based countrywide mass movement against the fascist offensive by reactionary rulers with active assistance and guidance for imperialists. To defend our guerilla bases in Dandakaranya and Bihar-Jharkhand and to advance the armed struggle in guerrilla zones we have to carry out the following immediate tasks: prepare the people, the party and the PLGA [Peoples Liberation Guerilla Army] politically to confront the brutal enemy onslaught; educate the people regarding the scale and intensity of the enemy offensive, its cruel nature and the need for enormous sacrifices on the part of the party, PLGA and the masses; take initiative unite with other struggling organisations and forces to forge strong united fronts in various parts of the country and prepare them to undertake similar operations; enhance the initiative and involvement of the mass in fighting and defeating the superior enemy forces. The manner in which we had defeated the Salwa Judum should be projected as role model to be emulated elsewhere.

The document further stated: [P]repare and mobilise the entire party, Peoples Liberation Guerilla Army and the people for carrying out tactical counter-offensives and various forms of armed resistance and inflict severe losses to the enemy forces; attacks should be organised with meticulous planning against the states khaki-and-olive-clad terrorist forces, SPOs, police informants and other counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the people; these attacks should be carried out in close coordination with, and in support of the armed resistance of the masses; these should be linked to the seizure of political power establishment of base areas.

It also pointed out that any mistake on our part will be utilised by the enemy to isolate us, rally a section of the masses and also justify his attacks on us by pointing [to] our mistakes, magnifying them and branding us as anti-people and terrorists; hence we should take extra precautions not to cause damage to peoples property or cause inconvenience to people by our actions, and to apologise for our mistakes promptly assuring the people that such mistakes will not be repeated in the future.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh along with Director, Intelligence Bureau, B. M. Mathur, and Home Minister P. Chidambaram during the All India Conference of Directors General/ Inspectors General of Police in New Delhi on September 15. The Prime Minister has clarified that the government is not considering using the Air Force in its combat operations against the Maoists.-R.V. MOORTHY

According to Maoist activists in Jharkhand, the areas specifically earmarked for advancing the party are North Bengal, the plains of Bihar, central districts of Orissa, east Chhattisgarh and regions in Maharashtra and Haryana that are coming under a fresh wave of industrialisation through special economic zones (SEZs). Retailers affected by multinational retail companies, people displaced or affected by SEZs and unorganized workers are special targets for recruitment in Maharashtra and Haryana. The CPI (Maoist) has also devised its own detailed plans though its emphasis on building a broad-based movement has suffered on account of brutal assaults such as the beheading of Inspector Francis Induwar in Jharkhand.

Still, Maoist cadre point out that, by and large, their activities havereceived greater acceptance among the poorest of the poor. A case in point highlighted by a senior Maoist activist of Jharkhand was the story of over two dozen tribal hamlets in the Kanker district in south Chhattisgarh, where they physically prevented the State government from setting up police stations. People of the area apparently said the village as a whole, and particularly their women, would be safer without a police force establishing the rule of law in the area.

While this is the case in a rural centre where the party is deeply entrenched, activists point to the gains made in a semi-urban centre such as Yamuna Nagar in Harayana. The town, which has a number of sugar mills, wood industries and wine mills has seen a spurt of Maoist activity in recent months. So much so, as many as 30 naxalites have been arrested since April 2009 and a large cache of ammunition and volumes of propaganda material were seized.

Talking to Frontline over telephone about the partys growth plans, CPI (Maoist) politburo member Koteswar Rao said the original aim of the party at the time of the 2004 merger was to fill the ideological vacuum in terms of Leftist, people-oriented politics. We are steadily reaching there, especially because all mainstream parties have given up on core issues of the

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