Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lessons from Lalgarh

Neerja Chowdhury

First Published : 30 Jun 2009 12:18:00 AM ISTLast Updated : 30 Jun 2009 01:15:37 AM IST

Lalgarh is no longer just the name of a place in West Bengal where an operation is underway against the Maoists. It has come to signify the inroads the Maoists have made in half the states of the country, with the Lalgarh siege coming as a realisation that the problem could no longer be allowed to fester. It was no small thing for the prime minister to admit publicly that the challenge posed by the Maoists was ‘the single largest threat to the country’. The issue found a prominent place in the president’s address to the joint session of parliament earlier this month.

This is not to say that the government has not been aware of the problem. The Maoists — the CPI(Maoists) was formed in September 2004 through the merger of the People’s War Group and the Maoist Centre of India, subsequently rendering other groups irrelevant — intensified their activities in 2007.

Central intelligence agencies have suspected the Maoists’ links with other militant outfits like the LTTE, ULFA and Pakistan’s ISI. It was for the first time that the Naxals made their presence felt in the recent general elections with widespread violence seen in the first phase of polling.

In the past the government has spoken with different voices, with the home ministry downplaying the threat. Three years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had talked about the presence of Naxalites in 160 districts. But a month later, Shivraj Patil told a different story, saying he had ‘personally’ collected data that they were present only in 50 districts. Again, speaking at the CMs’ conference, the home minister had revealed that only 506 police stations were affected in the country. This drew a sharp rebuttal from the Andhra Pradesh CM, who claimed that 500 police stations were affected in his state alone. A former governor of Chhattisgarh revealed — Chhattisgarh has been a Naxal afflicted state since 1980 — that the number of districts affected were ‘256’.

The real spread of the Maoists activity is still not fully known, though officials in the home ministry now say the Maoists are present in 160 districts and 36 of these are ‘intensively’ controlled. In other words, where the government’s writ does not run, where MPs cannot tour freely, where the district administration’s fiat is not effective and where police stations are not under the state government’s control — as happened in Lalgarh.

There is another cause for concern. The ‘red corridor’ in India goes right up to the Nepal border and the Maoists in Kathmandu are now out of power, and they have openly charged India for being behind their ouster. While Prachanda was in the saddle, he kept India in good humour. Now it is a different story with the Nepal Maoists openly cosying up to China, which has become quite proactive in India’s neighbourhood.

For Singh and his team, Lalgarh provided an opportunity to signal a no nonsense approach, though Chidambaram had initially urged a diffident Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to use the police force. The Lalgarh siege is a cause and effect story — of deprivation, protest, repression and resistance by the tribals — but once the siege had taken place and people were being killed, and police not allowed to enter the area, an abdication by the state of its responsibility would have had serious consequences.

There are indications now that the government is thinking about mounting a national operation which goes beyond Lalgarh, and may encompass areas in Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

It is well known that the Maoists come into West Bengal from Jharkhand and when the trail gets hot, they slip back into Jharkhand. The government of Orissa — where Naxal activity has been stepped up and policemen were killed there on the eve of P Chidambaram’s visit there recently — has also sought the Centre’s help.

The PM has sent a powerful 20 secretary team led by the cabinet secretary to Jharkhand to speed up the development activity there and it is high time this was done. For Jharkhand has had a model of government in recent years which should not be repeated anywhere else, where a group of half a dozen independents, propped up by Congress and others, were allowed to milk the state to serve the individual ends of senior UPA leaders. It is a tragic story of gross criminal neglect.

Small wonder then that there are 15 districts in this small state that are under Maoists’ control. Go out of Ranchi and the government’s diktat does not run in the district surrounding the capital city.

If the PM is serious about the development in Jharkhand, he will send the present set, including the governor, packing, and send to Ranchi a new team of fresh and dynamic administrators. Buddhadeb has claimed that the absence of development was not the sole factor for the rise of the Maoists. While there may be an element of truth in this, it is a shame that the tribals in his state should live in such pathetic conditions after 32 years of Left rule.

The West Bengal CM’s initial diffidence in handling the Maoists head-on with only the state police force stemmed from his experience in Nandigram and Singur. Action against the ultra Left also pushes the CPI(M) towards the ‘right’. Buddhadeb wanted to rope in the Centre and not give another opportunity to the opposition forces, the Congress and Trinamool Congress among them, to make common cause, with assembly elections in West Bengal not far away.

The Left would have also calculated that after the recent poll defeat, Lalgarh gave them an opportunity to regain their grip over the state. And that, cooperation with the Congress would also make Mamata jittery.

That is why the CPI(M) has been constantly praising the Centre and the Congress for the help they have given it. As for Mamata, she has charged the Left with stage-managing Lalgarh with the view to regaining lost ground. Many apprehend that the decision to act tough against the Maoists — the PM made the point that they were present in the mineral rich belts — is to help big industry and that is why trade organisations are suddenly speaking so much about the Maoist menace.

There is a flip side — and a worrying one — to the operation being considered by the home ministry. There are others in the government who are worried about the consequences of such a move. A military operation through the tribal belt of central India is bound to have its own repercussions, as the commitment of excesses would be implicit in the situation. It may also push the government into taking steps which would increasingly abridge the democratic rights of people, and provoke a reaction.

Clearly, while a law and order approach may be necessary, it is not enough. The situation calls for the creation of a national, all-party approach, and a development plan for the tribal areas that is implemented on an emergency footing.

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