Saturday, March 21, 2009

The clear and present danger

Siba MohantyFirst Published : 22 Mar 2009 11:37:00 PM ISTLast Updated : 21 Mar 2009 10:02:26 PM IST

In the southern tip of Orissa’s Malkangiri district, part of the Dandakaranya region, villagers are caught in a frenzy of excitement. A band of masked men in fatigues left a bunch of posters on March 14. “Leaders of Biju Janata Dal, Bharatiya Janata Party or Congress must refrain from campaigning or pay with their lives”, it says in bold, red letters.

As the general election draws closer, the CPI (Maoist) is back in business, issuing warnings even to village and panchayat heads to stay clear of political activity in one of Orissa’s worst Naxalite-hit districts.

By the state government’s own admission, 16 of the 30 districts have been deeply infiltrated by Naxalites, and their base is growing. In the last one year, the state registered a significant rise in Naxalite activities,

including some of the most ghastly attacks on security forces in recent history. Their ability to strike lethally and at will, and their intention to scuttle the democratic process poses a serious challenge to the government. But it is not clear how far their threats will affect the turnout.

In 2004, assembly elections went off fairly peacefully despite Naxalite threats. Turnout in the Malkangiri assembly segment was over 66 per cent, in keeping with the state average. Chitrakonda, another Naxalite stronghold, recorded 60 per cent polling. Coming to think of it, of the seven blocks of Malkangiri district, the Naxalites run parallel administrations in at least six. Analysts believe the Naxal hostility during elections is a deliberate tactic. They do it to instill fear among the population and administration, and ensure that their writ runs, whatever the outcome. They neither have political ambitions nor do they support any group, thus don’t want to sway the electorate one way or the other. They only have to make their presence felt, and hence the noise. But this does affect the campaign, as the threat of ambush is real. In the last few years, it has greatly restricted the movement of political leaders in these areas. Political parties are aware of it and tread a cautious line.

Some leaders are pretty sanguine about the threat. Malkangiri MLA Nimai Sarkar, who escaped a bid on his convoy a couple of years ago, says he has no problem moving around freely. “The Left extremists enjoy the sympathy of the tribals, but so do I,” he asserts.

This time, though, the CPI (Maoist) seems to be in a fix over the changing political equation. As part of its ideological pledge to fight communal forces, it openly sided with the minorities and launched a war against saffron outfits in Kandhamal, leading to the murder of Swami Lakshamananda Saraswati.

The subsequent communal riots gave the Naxalites an opportunity to train their guns on the BJD-BJP alliance, holding them responsible for the mess. But the scenario has changed radically after the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD broke with the BJP. With the ruling party now reclaiming its ‘secular’ tag, the red radicals are at a loss over what to do next.

The threat exists, nonetheless. So the state police are leaving nothing to chance. “We are aware that they will resort to disruptive activities and we are ready to counter it,” says a senior police officer.

The state will vote in two phases (April 16 and 23) and the first round comprises the northern and southern districts covering large parts of the red stronghold. The CPI (Maoist) has gone on record asking voters to boycott the polls in southern districts.

Last year, just across the border in the neighbouring Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, the red radicals mounted one of the fiercest campaigns against the election process, targeting Congressman Mahendra Karma who had conceived Salwa Judum, the controversial anti-Naxal camps. The result: the Raman Singh-led BJP Government, which had taken on the Left extremists by mobilising the anti-Naxalite army, registered a thumping victory in the Assembly elections.

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