Wednesday, June 24, 2009

India tightens the screw on Maoists

By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - The stakes in the bloody battle raging in the hinterlands of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh and Orissa - India's mineral-rich states - have been raised, with New Delhi this week declaring the Naxalite group, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a terrorist organization.

In these eastern regions, Naxalites, the informal name given to communist groups that were born out of the Sino-Soviet split in the communist movement in India, rule with the gun, with their writ running large in hundreds of villages.

In a statement, Home Minister P Chidambaram said the five-year-old CPI (Maoist) had been responsible for about 180 deaths this



year. "It was always a terror organization and today any ambiguity has been removed."

The CPI (Maoist) is now clubbed with other banned terror groups such as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, with its offices and bank accounts sealed. Its leaders or votaries can be arrested under stricter laws.

In the past India has banned violent Hindu fronts such as the Ranvir Sena and the Bajrang Dal, while there is a continuing debate about taking action against right-wing Hindu political organizations such as the Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

The Maoist ban follows a stand-off between rebels and security forces in West Bengal last week to end a siege in the Lalgarh tribal region, with the latest reports suggesting a humanitarian crisis developing due to trapped villagers.

The Maoist rebels oppose the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) government in Bengal, though reports increasingly point towards a personal vendetta in the villages.

Some reports suggest that there has been a delay in the deployment of federal paramilitary forces to show the left-ruled state government in bad light.

The Maoists called a two-day general strike in five states where they have good support.

Ironically, the left parties that called on the federal government to militarily take on the Maoists in Bengal have criticized the move to label them as terrorists. CPI (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat said the "Maoists must be combated politically and administratively".

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has, however, backed the government.

Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress party has a strong base in Bengal, has criticized the left of sympathizing with the Maoists.

Yet, beyond the opportunistic politics of the past few days, the fact remains that the latest happenings are a continuation of past events and highlight a deep-rooted problem.

Maoist-linked violence has killed 6,000 people in India over two decades and Naxals are well-trained in guerilla warfare tactics and armed with the latest weapons and rocket launchers, procured illegally or snatched from state security personnel.

Links with Nepal and support from China have also been spoken of.

This week, at least 11 Indian police officers were killed in a landmine attack by Maoist rebels in the central state of Chhattisgarh. More recent incidents, with intentions to disrupt India's general elections in April and May, have highlighted the predicament. The attempt was to create fear in the minds of people, keeping them from leaving their homes to vote.

During the first phase of polls in April, in Jharkhand, 200 Maoists hijacked a passenger train which was later released. Luckily, the passengers were not harmed. In Bihar, the Naxalites bombed a district office and shot dead a truck driver after setting eight trucks ablaze.

The Maoists thrive by using cadres of desperate tribals and dalits (considered to be of the lower castes) who have been dispossessed of their land due to activities such as mining and land acquisition. They also exploit alienation due to an indifferent state governments and lack of decentralized growth and employment opportunities.

Police, security forces and landlords remain the biggest targets of the Maoists. A Home Ministry report says murders of police personnel by the guerrillas jumped 53% to 153 in 2006, while 516 civilians were killed, an 11% increase on the previous year.

In 2007, while the number of civilian casualties has gone down, security personnel killed have increased alarmingly to 236.

In the early 1990s, the number of districts affected by Maoist violence stood at just 15 in four states, it has now risen to 170 districts.

The Naxalite movement germinated from a little village called Naxalbari, situated on the broder confluence of India, Nepal and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), in 1967, when the tribals took up arms against landlords. Since then, their threat to internal security has increased with their spread over a large geographical area.

Although there are several causes for Naxalite violence, one main reason is the absence of land reform and persistence of extreme poverty. India's rich coal-mining activity is concentrated in the states which have large tribal concentrations. These provinces, though rich in natural resources, score very low on human development indices.

As a result, 40% of the top 50 mineral-rich districts in India are affected by Naxalite violence, with repeated attacks on any symbol of authority, both private and public, including mining sites. Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh are the worst-affected states.

The Home Ministry estimates that up to 20-25% of India's coal production has been hampered by Maoist violence.

Official sources have told Asia Times Online that there is a nexus between sections of the armed Naxalites and coal mafia that makes operations extremely dangerous. These powerful elements control the coal mines and other mineral activities and are acustomed to making big money and using muscle power.

While energy blocks are granted in auctions by the federal government to domestic and international firms, the state-level plays mean that major contracts, whether for transport, construction, even hiring of personnel (including labor), must be routed via the political-business nexus.

Another reason for the alienation of the population has been New Delhi's land acquisition policies due to the setting up of special economic zones. There have been violent protests against land acquisition, for example, at Nandigram in West Bengal for the Tata Nano project and in Orissa by South Korean Posco.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com.

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