Saturday, March 17, 2007

Govt gropes in dark as Naxalite menace rages on


Shortly after the killing of Jharkhand MP Sunil Mahato by Naxalites on March 4, Union home minister Shivraj Patil admitted to lack of coordination between the Centre and extremism-hit states in counter-operations. But what he did not touch upon is that it is exactly this operational synergy that is the strong point of CPI(Maoist) cadres.

This perfect coordination among the Left-wing extremists, now spread over 182 districts across 16 states, has been touched upon by the intelligence agencies in their recent reports. The Naxalites, whose armoury is replete with weapons looted from the police, are now putting them to good use by organising their guerrilla fighters, by now ace marksmen in the stolen SLRs and INSAS rifles, into six “companies” (nearly 600 cadres).

Not only this, the military precision with which the Naxalite guerrillas operate is best demonstrated by the fact that these 6 companies are scattered across different locations in Abujmarh forests and come together only shortly before a major attack is to be launched.

It is therefore little surprise that the Chattisgarh armed police and SPOs housed in a police outpost in Rani Bodli village of Bijapur were caught unawares when nearly 400 Naxalites, armed with grenades, guns and even gensets to light the surroundings, descended in the early hours of Thursday.

The time of attack was carefully chosen: barring the sentry and personnel deployed for night vigil, the policemen and SPOs were fast asleep in their barracks. Also, the purpose was to inflict maximum casualty on SPOs, armed civilians drafted by the police to counter Naxals, so as to discourage popular uprisings like Salwa Judum.

Naxalites rained bullets and lobbed grenades, killing 55 of the 70 policemen lodged in the outpost. Though the Chattisgarh police claimed to have engaged the Naxalites and liquidated 10-12 of them, most of the attackers were able to retreat into the jungles, that too after blocking their trail with landmines.

Military precision, indeed! Cut to our response. As if the heavy police casualty was not bad enough, it is now learnt that the SOS messages sent to the neighbouring CRPF outposts were of little help as reinforcements arrived much after the Naxalite attackers had retreated. This is hardly surprising as the forces often have to travel on foot, not only because of the dense forest undergrowth but also for fear of landmines.

A helicopter was sent in, but only to evacuate the injured. Mr Patil, while making a statement on the attack in Parliament on Friday, declared the UAVs had been made available to the state government, but what he did not say is that these UAVs were out of use for the last 15-20 days owing to some technical glitches.

In any case, the data collected by UAVs is not being followed up with immediate operations. Naxals, who had their anti-UAV measures like hiding under thicker foliage and keeping their camps mobile, in place even before the Centre inducted them, are going strong given that the UAVs are not supplemented with adequate security manpower or force multipliers like helicopters to airdrop para-military troops for expeditious action on Naxal hideouts mapped by the UAVs.

Nandigram erupts again

The Nandigram SEZ site in CPM-ruled West Bengal became the symbol of anti-reform violence in India last week with the death of 14 people and injuries to over 63 in police firing there. While unofficial figures put the toll at much higher, the killing of a large number of women and children and the images of police brutality against villagers, ostensibly farmers, evoked horror.

West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, “expressed a sense of cold horror” at the incident, Parliament was rocked by the deaths and the CPM, one of the biggest votaries of “pro-poor” rhetoric in politics, got sharply criticised by friends and foes alike.

Political opponents of the CPM claimed that the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee administration had unleashed terror on farmers protesting against the acquisition of their land by the state for the SEZ project.

The CPM claimed Nandigram had become a lawless area with the state administration being kept out of region and said it was high time police was allowed to restore peace in the area. To justify the violence against villagers, the party also claimed ‘armed outsiders’ and Naxalities had attacked the police which forced them to retaliate.

This explanation, however, did not convince even the party’s own allies in West Bengal. With pressure mounting on the government, Mr Bhattacharjee put all SEZ projects on hold in the state. At the Centre, the incident led to call for a re-evaluation of SEZs norms and land acquisition procedures.

All in all Nandigram became a precedent for all that could go wrong with reform initiatives in rural India. The incident could very well redefine the way governments approach land acquisition for SEZs and other developmental projects.

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