Wednesday, July 08, 2009

India's Rebels without a Cause

By Cyrus G. Robati | July 07, 2009

India's Maoist insurrection, affecting almost a third of the country's 604 districts, has claimed around 450 lives this year -- a modest toll so far.

Yet the events in the impoverished tribal-dominated Lalgarh in West Bengal have produced prominent publicity in India. That is partly because West Bengal, where the Maoist insurrection was born out of the Sino-Soviet split in the communist movement in 1967 in the village of Naxalbari (hence their nickname: Naxalites), has hitherto been resistant to it. This is in turn a result of the strict village-level control exerted by the Communist Party of India-Marxist CPI(M), whose leftist coalition has ruled the state for over three decades.

But the party -- that has hit more than half of India's 29 states and fought for the rights of tribes people and landless farmers, and now is outlawed by the government -- is struggling to sustain its grip, leading to its disastrous showing in the general election last month. Now some fear the Maoists' influence could swiftly spread.

Poor, barren and largely neglected by the government, West Bengal's tribal areas are just the sort of place where Naxalites thrive. The land around Lalgarh can be farmed for only three months of the year, leaving the locals heavily reliant on harvesting firewood, honey and tendu leaves, used for rolling bidis, crude cigarettes. Most are illiterate, and, owing to administrative corruption, incapacity and incompetence see little benefit from welfare schemes earmarked for them.

“There are a lot of lacunas,” admits Manoj Verma, Midnapur's police chief. The Maoists have sought to fill them. Even as its blockade has brought government schemes to a halt, they have tried to launch others, such as irrigation projects, paid for by money extorted from businessmen and officials -- including the formerly bunkered-down police.

As this should suggest, the Maoists numbering over 20,000 could not have overrun the area around Lalgarh if the state government had tried harder to stop them. West Bengal's policing is at best inadequate, with around 80 officers per 100,000 people, compared with over 250 in most developed countries. Yet the main reason for the government's failure is political. In the past two years, the Communists have been badly hurt by two protest movements against their efforts to acquire land for industrial development.

In both cases, local resistance was fanned by their thuggish efforts to quell it and by their main political opponent, the Trinamul Congress party, as well as, to a lesser extent, by the Maoists. A third such debacle loomed after the attempted assassination of the West Bengal Chief Minister since 2000, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who was returning at the time from the ground-breaking ceremony for a $7 billion steel plant in a tribal area near Lalgarh. The government therefore ordered Midnapur's authorities to go easy on the Maoists until after the election.

This has made shifting them from Midnapur harder than it should be. Mr Verma estimates that 300 Naxalites have entered the district and trained a similar number of locals in fighting skills. In three clashes, on June 19 and 20, the advancing police and paramilitaries faced landmine attacks and ambushes by up to 150 guerrillas. But no policeman has been killed. As elsewhere, the Naxalites seem no match for a well-armed force.

Ridding Midnapur of them, however, will be hard. For a start, Mr Verma says the local police will be quadrupled. Plenty of economic development is also promised. But such plans often founder in India. Moreover, despite the renewal of a ban on the Naxalites by India's central government on June 22, many Communist politicians are loath to condemn their fellows on the left. With a state election due by 2011, and vociferous Bengali intellectuals flocking to defend the Maoists, West Bengal's rulers could be tempted into another dangerous appeasement.

Apparently, the only thing that is common between Naxalbari and Lalgarh is that both have predominantly tribal populations who are alienated and have not benefitted from the land reforms of the Marxist government.

“The tribals in Bengal's Junglemahal area [in which Lalgarh falls] have been completely alienated because in the last 30 years, they have got nothing from the Communist coalition government here. The Communist rulers have taken the tribals for granted,” says Ranabir Sammadar, director of the Calcutta Research Group, who has worked on the area.

Maoist leader Kishenji claimed in a an interview that the mass movement in Lalgarh against “oppression of the establishment Left and its police” had given them a major base in West Bengal for the first time since the Naxalite uprising was crushed in the mid-1970s.

“We have 1,100 villages with us in the movement. The resistance they have offered in the face of massive state-led coercion has given us much hope, as did the mass boycott of the parliament polls in the area,” he says. “For the first time since the Naxalite movement, we have struck a place which is the weakest spot of the state and which automatically makes it our stronghold.”

That is why the Maoists, who have already established their influence in at least eastern and central Indian states, were keen to hold on to Lalgarh as their first major guerrilla zone in Bengal.

“It was not a liberated area, as has been wrongly referred by the media. But it was surely emerging as an effective guerrilla zone, where we could undermine if not fully drive away the state,” Mr Kishenji says.

If Lalgarh was secured as a base, the Maoists could then spread their influence elsewhere in Bengal.
“They were already getting some sympathy from a section of the intelligentsia that is disillusioned with the ruling left after police excesses in the land rights movement in Nandigram,” says political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Raychaudhury.

“Besides, they could also penetrate the disgruntled industrial workers unions which were upset with the Left's support for capitalism. Winning over the Bengali middle class through the intelligentsia and the industrial workers are key elements in the new mass line that the Maoists adopted in their last party congress.”

But some feel the Maoists overplayed their cards. They set alarm bells ringing by throwing out the local police and by staging random attacks against ruling left supporters in late May, says analyst Major General KK Gangopadhyay. The state government initiated a huge operation with federal paramilitary forces and state armed police to retake Lalgarh in early June.

“The Maoists did not perhaps expect such a huge security response, such a big operation, against which they have no chance of holding territory,” Mr Gangopadhyay says.

Maybe they were deployed to tackle "mass agitations" by villagers who, police alleged, have been used as "human shields" by the Maoists. But security analysts agree that without the federal paramilitaries, the operation to cleanse Lalgarh of rebels would not have been successful. Mr Kishenji says that by the time Bengal goes to its next state assembly elections in 2011, the Maoists will have expanded their influence in Bengal, even as far as Calcutta. “We will have an armed movement going in Calcutta by 2011, that's for sure,” Mr Kishenji claims.

Control over Calcutta has been a key objective for Indian Maoists since the Swinging Sixties -- so perhaps Lalgarh is the half-way house to Calcutta. CPI-M spokesman Gour Chakraborty says, “They have proved that they are against our fight to uplift the living standard of 95 percent of the population and found banning the only mean to counter the communists.”

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