Whose WAR?

Published: November 3, 2009 - 13:52 Updated: July 27, 2015 - 16:43

The Maoist problem needs to be handled with a combination of armed operation followed immediately by large scale development work in the ravaged areas. Corruption needs to be weeded out with an iron hand

Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi

Abuj Marh does not figure on any map. Yet, this obscure 6,000 sq km forest is the cynosure of eyes in India's security establishment. It is located at the tri-junction of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh - stretching from Chintalnar in Andhra to Gadchiroli in Maharashtra amid the Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh.

It's here in Abuj Marh that the CPI-Maoists have their strategic base and headquarters. An arms factory of the Maoists is situated here. Besides looting armouries and smuggling, they manufacture weapons improvised to fit ammunition stolen from army consignments and armouries. During the joint operation at Lalgarh in West Bengal, there is documented evidence of an improvised rocket launcher confiscated from the  Maoists.

At least for the last five years, Abuj Marh has remained out-of-bounds for the Indian State. No government agency, state or central, has had any existence here. It's the same story in other so-called liberated zones in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Bihar. The Maoists run a parallel administration and kangaroo courts to deliver instant justice. Punishment meted out is very often death. They extort money from government contractors, health workers and even school teachers.

All development schemes and government offices earmarked for these areas have remained on paper. Construction of roads was impeded. The ultras also mined the roads. It's been a virtual surrender of the Indian State to the guerrillas.

Maoists, however, used this opportunity to organise themselves into a formidable force with a structured military command. Their central military command is headquartered in Chhattisgarh. It has four regional commands - eastern, northern, south western and central. The eastern regional command has around 17 platoons of Maoist guerrillas and the central command has around 40 platoons equipped with sophisticated weapons.

All this did not happen overnight. The Maoists worked for years to raise an army of 10,000-20,000 trained cadres. Their training and discipline is as rigorous as that of a regular army. According to intelligence sources, involvement of former army men in training Maoist cadres cannot be ruled out.

Were central and state governments unaware? Unlikely. Did India's premier intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau, have no clue? Not possible.

The truth is: the political establishment had turned a blind eye to the red surge. They failed to understand the magnitude of the problem. For Delhi, these fringe areas where Maoists flourished were too remote to merit enough attention.

After letting the problem fester for years, the Centre has woken up to the gravity of the threat posed by the Maoists waging a "people's war". Even as the Red Corridor expanded insidiously, the Centre's response remained inert.

According to the Union home ministry, 721 civilians and security force personnel died in Naxalite violence in 2008 and 696 in 2007. The number has steadily increased in the last five years. But the Centre was content with leaving it to the respective states to deal with the blazing fire in their backyard.

While a unified command strengthened the Maoists, the states were severely hamstrung by a fractured response. The Red Corridor has in its thrall contiguous areas of 13 states. Maoists strike in one state and cross over to the next to hide. Due to the problem of jurisdiction and coordination between adjoining states, the states suffered a setback.

Even after so many deaths due to violence, jail breaks and armoury loots by the Maoists, not much has been done to improve the condition and strength of the police. Most of the police modernisation schemes are still on paper. Senior police officers in various states echo similar grievances. "The war against Maoists is mostly restricted to high-decibel sound bites in the media. The preparedness at the ground level is dismal," conceded a senior IPS officer of Chhattisgarh.

Police stations in Maoist-affected areas still suffer from a shortage of men and officers. Be it Orissa, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jharkhand or Bihar, the picture is the same almost everywhere. An average police station here has one sub-inspector, one assistant sub-inspector, one head constable and six constables. Most policemen are not trained to fight counter-insurgency operations. Besides lack of training, state police forces suffer from inefficiency and incompetence to counter the guerrillas. Rampant corruption has led to their alienation from the people.  So, they seek protection in these areas rather than provide security to the people. Maoist attacks increase in lethality due to their surprise element. With such a force, it is clear why the states could not check the Maoist onslaught.

Posting in areas afflicted by the red scourge is considered a punishment posting. The rank and file of the police including IPS officers pull all stops to avoid getting posted in any of these areas. Strings are pulled through political channels and senior bureaucrats to change posting orders. This is true even in central paramilitary forces (CPFs) like the CRPF and BSF. There is a growing trend among men and officers to go on leave or seek safer transfer options away from troubled areas. They are even ready to serve tenures in unimportant posts perceived as "sideline postings".  The morale and motivation levels of the police including CPFs fighting the Maoists are low. Maoist cadres score high even on this count.

For long, the naxal management division of the home ministry was out of sync with the Maoist reality. It had officers with no experience of serving in Maoist-affected areas. After P Chidambaram took over, there was a shift in priorities. Naxal management grew in importance with infusion of strategists from the army and the police. It is only now that a strategy to fight the Maoists has been formulated.

The first concerted effort against the Maoists was seen in June this year at Lalgarh - a coordinated joint operation by central and state forces. In November, the first phase of an offensive will be launched simultaneously across states. The primary target is Abuj Marh. The army and air force have had to shed their initial reluctance and join in the counter-insurgency operation.

When lawlessness and brutality challenges the very existence of a democracy, the State must use force to quell the violence perpetrated by anarchists. But, that is not a comprehensive solution.

Will an armed operation root out the Maoist problem? After all, the Maoist onslaught gained in momentum feeding on the long-standing grievances of people ignored by the State. Corruption at various levels of the government fomented anger among the masses. The Red Corridor ate into areas inhabited by people untouched by progress. They lack basic amenities - water, electricity or roads. Much of this area is infertile land. Giant strides made in agriculture did not bear fruit here. Villagers either die of starvation or boil weeds and roast red ants to subsist.

Yet, they voted year after year to elect their representatives to the government. But, their voices remained unheard. It was as if they had been blacked out by the State and left to fend for themselves or die. It is among this marginal and deprived lot that the Maoists found their sympathisers and cadres.

Initially, it began with providing refuge when armed Maoist cadres came knocking. "They offered us one kg rice and pulses in exchange for shelter at night. It was impossible to refuse because for days my family did not have a grain of rice. Also, they were armed," a villager had told this correspondent. He lives in a pristine village on the edge of West Bengal in West Midnapore district adjacent to Jharkhand.
While staying with villagers, the Maoists heard their grievances. Unlike politicians of mainstream parties, they did not make empty promises. They delivered on their assurances and won the confidence of villagers albeit at gunpoint.

According to a Planning Commission report on development challenges in extremist affected areas released in 2008, "The intensity of unrest resulting in extremist methods and efforts to resolve issues through violent means as a challenge to State authority is in response to the gathering of unresolved social and economic issues for long durations".

Slowly, the Maoists recruited cadres from these villages. "They asked me to let my daughter join them. In exchange, they promised to look after my family. If I refused, my entire family was threatened to be wiped out," a villager from Jharkhand had told this correspondent.

For young people with no hope for subsistence, recruitment offer by the Maoists is tempting. It gives meaning to their lives. The Maoist ideology inspire hope where there is none. Training in guerrilla warfare instills in them a sense of purpose. The guns invest the youth with confidence, dignity and a sense of power. It's a heady feeling difficult to resist.

Since its inception, the CPI-Maoists are "defining the official understanding of the extremist phenomenon at the level of the state as well as the Union government. This has appeared in the public perception as a simplistic law-and-order face-off between the official coercive machinery and this more radical extremist political formation", the report said.

The Maoist problem needs to be handled with a multilayered strategy. A combination of armed operation by the State must be followed immediately by large scale development work in the ravaged areas. Corruption must be weeded out with an iron hand.

The radical extremists and their front organisations have a strong public relation and propaganda machinery that has been at work for years earning legitimacy and endorsement by the educated upper middle class and intellectuals for even the brutal bloodletting by the Maoists. It also offered them a cloak of romanticism. For killings and terror unleashed by Maoists, reputed intellectuals and rights activists trotted out a counter-argument pointing to the failures and corruption of the State.

For instance, intellectuals and activists are not heard condemning the merciless killings of innocent women and children by Maoists. But they are rabidly critical about the State which has finally woken up and is going ahead with an armed response to the Maoist brutalities and anarchy.

An open letter to the prime minister, issued by Kolkata-based rights group Sanhati and signed by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar and Noam Chomsky, read, "The geographical terrain, where the government's military offensive is planned to be carried out, is very rich in natural resources like minerals, forest wealth and water, and has been the target of large scale appropriation by several corporations. The desperate resistance of the local indigenous people against their displacement and dispossession has in many cases prevented the government-backed corporations from making inroads into these areas. We fear that the government's offensive is also an attempt to crush such popular resistances in order to facilitate the entry and operation of these corporations and to pave the way for unbridled exploitation of the natural resources and the people of these regions."

In response, Delhi University professor, Nirmalangshu Mukherji, wrote in an open letter to Chomsky, "The organisation (CPI-Maoist) has no presence whatsoever in the vast agrarian and industrial terrains of the rest of the country. It has no trade union, no peasant organisation worth its name, no penetration in the dalit, youth, and women's movements. But it seems to have captured the imagination of sections of elite, urban, and 'radical' intelligentsia in Calcutta and Delhi who have impressive connections with some Indian intellectuals settled in universities abroad, as the statement you endorsed highlights (earlier, this intellectual support used to come from Bombay and Hyderabad). The phenomenon is historically familiar."

Now, the State needs to have a transparent mechanism to communicate its intentions to solve the Maoist problem. Just an armed offensive is not the solution. It must go all out to inform the public and the intelligentsia about the ground reality, the truth about Maoists and their politics of violence cloaked in ideology. The challenge before the government is to win the confidence of the people it had neglected all along and include them in dialogue and development process. Unless progress is ushered in, the root cause of emergence of the Maoists will remain.

The Maoist problem needs to be handled with a combination of armed operation followed immediately by large scale development work in the ravaged areas. Corruption needs to be weeded out with an iron hand Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi

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