Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Maoists thrive as India's public enemy No. 1

By Elizabeth Roche – 14 hours ago

NEW DELHI (AFP) — In the past five years, Maoist rebels have emerged as the most potent threat to India's internal stability and left the authorities groping for a response to their increasingly audacious attacks.

With an ambush last weekend that killed 30 police, the leftist insurgents demonstrated their ability to strike with apparent impunity and then melt back into their rural hideouts before anyone can react.

Their insurgency, which started as a peasant uprising in 1967, has spread to more than half of India's 29 states and has been identified by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the number one threat to domestic security.

Little is known about the movement's shadowy leadership based in the dense forests of central India's Chhattisgarh state, or its cadre strength which is variously estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000.

As the years have passed, so the rebels have grown more brazen in their operations.

In 2007, they assassinated a federal MP and engineered a mass prison break for 300 of their jailed fighters. Last year witnessed the sinking of a boat carrying elite commandos, while in April this year, they briefly held an entire train with 300 passengers hostage.

"The Maoists have three things on their side -- stealth, speed and surprise. In that sense they have the initiative," said analyst P.V. Ramana from the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

In last weekend's attack in Chhattisgarh's Rajnandgaon district, the rebels shot at a patrol and waited for police reinforcements to arrive before unleashing their main ambush.

Thirty police were killed, including the district superintendent. No casualties were reported on the Maoist side.

Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, a former police chief of Punjab state who spent two years as special adviser to the Chhattisgarh government on the insurgency, said bad strategy was costing the security forces dear.

"It's not as if the Maoists have better intelligence. They simply observe the patterns of patrol and reconnaissance followed by security forces and then attack.

"Planning and strategy have to be dynamic so as not to fall into a pattern. It is the routine that the Maoists exploit as weakness," Gill said.

Credited with crushing a Sikh insurgency in Punjab state in the mid-1990s, the former police chief said the Maoists were benefiting from the lack of a determined response from individual state administrations.

"States can take care of the problem on their own if they want to," Gill said, pointing to southern Andhra Pradesh that was once a hotbed of Maoist activity but has managed a turnaround in recent years.

Compared to 148 deaths due to Maoist violence in Chhattisgarh in the first six months of this year, Andhra Pradesh reported just 10, according to federal home ministry figures.

"If the state administrations decide to take on the Maoists, they can crush the rebellion in six months to a year," Gill said.

Ajai Sahani, executive director of the New Delhi based Institute of Conflict Management, faulted the "irrational" deployment of security personnel for the high casualty rates.

"The numbers of trained policemen and commandos are not enough. And sometimes they are stretched too thin on the ground," he said.

The Maoist influence is greatest in impoverished, remote areas, although analysts say their claims of support among the poor and dispossessed are often based on intimidation.

"Fear and the absence of a state presence in many far flung areas increase the vulnerability of the population," said Sahani.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the growing social disparities thrown up by India's economic growth have been a major factor behind the Maoist expansion.

"In almost a fifth of the country, there is virtually no governance. These are areas inhabited by tribals and the poorest of the poor who have been bypassed by the economic boom," said author and economist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.

"It's a perfect breeding ground for left-wing extremism."

Sahani agreed that the failure to deliver governance, security, health services and overall development had played into the rebels' hands.

"The Maoists are not really strong. It is the state which is weak and has failed to deliver," he said.

"You are talking about 10 percent economic growth, where 77 percent of the Indian population live on less than 20 rupees (50 cents) a day. The Maoists understand the contradiction."

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