The Challenge Grows

As the government gropes with a solution, Maoists continue to increase their reach

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (August 2011)

The tragic irony of the government of India’s counter-Maoist strategy is that it knows precious little about the enemy, neither the extent of its strength, nor its weaknesses which could be exploited to the State’s advantage. The Maoists, on the other hand, seem to know everything; from the terrain in which they operate to the people they operate among, the deployment of the police and the Paramilitary forces as well as the efficacy of their equipment.

It is an unfair war. What adds to the government of India’s inherent weaknesses are the contradictions in it policies, and the absence of unanimity among the states to address Left-wing extremism, which can now safely be referred to as terrorism after ministry of home affairs put CPI (Maoist) in the schedule of terrorist organisation along with all its formations and front organisation in June 2009 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967.

While in Chhattisgarh, the Maoists are the enemy of the state who need to be annihilated at any cost, in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s government has recently appointed a six-member civil society team headed by journalist and human rights activist Debashish Bhattacharya, who in his youth flirted with Naxalism when it first reared its violent head in West Bengal in the late Sixties-Seventies. Bhattacharya is lucky to be living in West Bengal. In Chhattisgarh, a person of his credentials would have been in the prison. The other members of the team also have similar eyebrow-raising credentials, with some working with an outfit called Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) and Bandi Mukti Committee. The team is going to engage CPI (Maoists) leaders active in the districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia which together comprise Jangal Mahal. Lest Banerjee is accused of politicking, Sitaram Yechury of the CPI (Marxist) has lent his support to the peace initiative. As said earlier, government’s response to Naxalism is marked by ironies, some of which are comic as well.

Despite the high-profile police/CRPF activism for the last three years in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, parts of Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the official figure of the Naxal-affected districts has not changed. On the contrary, the district map of Chhattisgarh shows Maoist influence in hitherto unexplored areas of the state, like the Raipur district. What’s more, in government’s own assessment, the financial corpus of the CPI (Maoist) is now in excess of Rs 1,500 crore, though unofficially the figure has been running into Rs 4,000 to 5,000 crore for several years now. According to Dr Sushil Trivedi, “In my assessment, Maoists collect anything between Rs 500 to 1,200 crore annually from Bastar alone. The all-India figures will obviously be substantially higher.” Various security analysts have been putting the conservative figure at Rs 2,000 crore extorted/stolen from the government alone.

And here comes the comic part. In Chhattisgarh, everybody, from industrialists to government officials, transporters and even politicians pay security money to the Maoists. The government calls it extortion, but the Maoists call it tax. In their reckoning, they are running parallel administration after all. One Raipur-based journalist, who was invited by the Maoists to visit Abujmad a few years ago, says, “It is wrong to say that Maoists operate like brigands. In certain areas, they do run parallel administration. They have build ponds to develop fishery, they run basic health care facilities and they have been teaching better farming techniques to the farmers. I don’t know if this is what they do everywhere, but in the areas that they took me around, this is what I saw.” Interestingly, though the tribal people traditionally do not grow or eat fruits, according to him, Maoists have introduced fruits trees in the Abujmad area. “At least, I was served freshly plucked fruits,” he says. Needless to say, no government functionary has ever ventured in these areas, which even without the Maoists enjoyed a quasi-independent status.

Apparently, Maoists do not stop all developmental work. They stop what they can do themselves because they do not want the government to get all the credit. But they do allow government officials to carry out what they are unable to do or what they can also take advantage off. The much-touted Public Distribution System (PDS) of the Chhattisgarh government is a case in point. The government says that it has been able to reach grains in the remotest areas of Bastar. It has been able to do so because the Maoists allow them to, after collecting their share of the grains, of course.

According to a Raipur-based observer of the Maoists’ trends, “Naxal influence has been consistently increasing for the last few years. They have now made deep inroads in virgin territories like Gariaband. They are working towards their goal of encircling the urban centres. To my mind, they are in a position to attack district centres if they wish to. Sure, they will have to take heavy casualties, but can you imagine the psychological advantage this will give them. Unfortunately, our security forces are still stuck in the red corridor (from Nepal to Karnataka) mindset. What do Naxals need a red corridor for? They dream of overthrowing the government, so they are creating several pockets of influence in different parts of the country and the State remains oblivious to it.”

In the last couple of years, Indian intelligence agencies have also come across sporadic evidence of two Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba operatives attending central committee meeting of Maoists in Orissa. In addition to this, there have also been talks of CPI(Maoists) collaborating with LTTE for training and procurement of weapons. Some kind of association with the insurgents in the Northeast also cannot be ruled out. It is only a matter of time, when India’s overactive neighbours find a way of reaching across to the Maoists.

The government judges its success against the Maoists by showcasing the number of Maoists killed or arrested as against the police and security personnel. However, the graph, tracing the period from 2005 to June 2011, issued by the Chhattisgarh police reflects a protracted struggle for supremacy instead of clear success. For instance, while 113 Maoists were killed in 2009, 79 were killed in 2010 and till June this year 28 have been killed. In the same period, 101 police/Paramilitary personnel were killed in 2009, 152 were killed in 2010 and 37 have died this year so far. In the 2005-2011-period, the civilian deaths peaked in 2006 with the figure of 311. Since then the figure has declined consistently with only 45 deaths so far in 2011. Salva Judum started in late 2004 and reached its most violent pinnacle by 2006 when the civil society activists got in the fray forcing the government to stop the recruitment rallies by the Judum activists. For all the government claims, the civilian casualty figures are a clear reflection of the violence unleashed by the creation of Salva Judum.

However, these figures do not convey the real extent of the Maoist menace. The grand vision of the Maoists is to bring about an armed revolution in India and seizing power in Delhi. To work towards that vision they must gradually increase their influence-base in the entire country. This can only be done quietly without attracting too much attention. Engaging the police or the CRPF in pitched battles cannot be part of their strategy. They only fight to protect their existing turf, which is why the severest violence happens in what they consider their centre of gravity, the Dandakaranya forest area, comprising Bastar, Dantewada, Bijapur and parts of Kanker district. They seldom seek the police/Paramilitary for direct confrontation, because they know that they will be bested by the state forces. It won’t be far-fetched to imagine that they are at the moment in capacity-building mode. Given this, how will killing a few Maoists every year end the threat that they pose to the nation? Moreover, judging the extent of Maoist reach by the number or density of the incidents is not correct. There could be a lot of cells all over the country which are silent for the moment, because they probably realise that theirs would be a long war.

Trivedi says that the government focuses too much on the police action and development. “In my opinion, the first step has to be governance, followed by security action and after that development. Unless, people see governance, they will not have confidence in the State. And without having the people on its side, the security operations will not succeed.” Given rampant corruption and vested interests at all levels of government, talking of governance is easier said than done. But the fact remains that the overwhelming focus on killing or neutralising Maoist has only limited utility. This war will have to be fought at the ideological and psychological level, where the government’s outreach to the people has to go beyond the khaki; and no crude propaganda either which only exposes government’s juvenility.

No matter how much the State fools itself and the people by saying that Maoists do not enjoy any support among the tribal and the dispossessed people of India, the ugly truth is that if indeed they did not have the support how they could survive this long. The only reasonable approach to take on this menace would be to erode this support base. Governance and justice are only the smallest steps in this direction. The bigger step would be to make the people stake-holders in their own development. Sure, forests and minerals are national wealth, but the people are the bigger wealth. And investing in these people, along with initiating talks with the Maoists (see next story), ought to be a worthy national goal.


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