Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unending Maoist menace

Unending Maoist menace
Fight it with a well-coordinated drive
by Maj-Gen Ashok K. Mehta (retd)

MORE than a decade after the Naxals took to the jungles and continue ravaging Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal, among other states, the government has finally admitted that it does not have a strategy and has underestimated the strength of the Naxals. It is an SOS and a surge to stem the rampage that will follow.

"Dilli Gheri Lebo" is the war cry of the Naxals or the Maoists as they are now called after the merger of Left wing extremist groups in 2004. Last month they momentarily captured Lalgarh police station in West Bengal. Dehyphenated, Lalgarh means Red Citadel. The Maoist aim is to capture Lal Qila — Red Fort — in Delhi, that is political power through armed struggle.

Neither Lalgarh nor Lal Qila can be held by them, yet Maoists, not jihadis, interfered with the parliamentary elections striking at will in their strongholds — in short, expanding the people's war and the feared red corridor. For Maoists, Lalgarh was more a political theatre about discrediting the Left Front government in Kolkata than any intent to establish a liberated zone.

Recovering from the aftershocks of Mumbai, the Centre asked the state government to flush out the Maoists, making Operation Lalgarh the first major Centre-state anti-Naxal offensive. Nearly 5000 men of the state police, the East Frontier Rifles, the CRPF, the BSF, the IRB and the Cobra Force were deployed against 100 to 150 armed Maoists, who used their favoured indirect weapons, mines and IEDs, against which the police has no antidote or SOP. After two weeks of shadow-boxing, the Maoists melted away in thin air.

But Lalgarh has been pushed into the background by the stunning multiple ambushes involving IEDs employed by the Maoists in Chhattisgarh after Andhra Pradesh, the only other state to have done the most to combat Naxalism but with limited success. Coupled with other attacks in Orissa and Jharkhand recently and the revelations that a Delhi businessman has been supplying electronic equipment to Naxals in Jharkhand, notorious for the diversion of counter-Naxal funds, it is obvious that the menace is beyond state capability and is a national problem.

For some years now, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been describing the Maoists as the most serious internal threat facing the country. Home Minister P. Chidambaram informed Parliament recently that "we did not assess the challenge correctly, we underestimated the challenge and LWE (Left-wing extremism) has extended its influence". He also stated that clearing out Maoist-held areas is a precondition to development work. This is for the first time that there is an admission of the lost time and no strategy to reconcile defence and development.

In the last five years, rather than being contained, the Maoists have expanded their sway to 16 states, with six seriously affected ones. The Indian Maoists have ideological links with their counterparts in Nepal though operational connections had been severed after the latter joined multi-party democracy. In June, a truck from Jharkhand laden with explosives destined for Nepal was intercepted by the Bihar police. The Maoists had called an all-India bandh last month to condemn the killing of Prabhakaran in Mullaithivu and Sudhakar Reddy in Warangal, declaring the two as true revolutionaries. They are also known to have links with jihadi groups in Pakistan, notably the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

The Maoists run an all-India unified command, sharing intelligence, pooling resources and coordinating their activities across the Naxal operational grid. Their latest directive commands state units to expand the People's War and learn from the mistakes of the Nepali Maoists and the LTTE. Since government response to the threat posed by them is disjointed and not at the national level, Maoism is spreading despite numerous socio-economic schemes under NREGA and the Backward Areas Development Programme. The delivery mechanism to bring relief to the tribals in inaccessible areas, with ineffective administrative structures, is the biggest failure of the Indian state.

Differing perceptions between the states and the Centre, law and order being a state subject, is yet another problem. State and Central governments belonging to different parties have not achieved the political consensus necessary to confront the Maoists. The piecemeal state-by-state approach of combating Maoists is unlikely to work. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya lamented the non-cooperation by Jharkhand during Lalgarh operations where Lalgarh Maoists escaped.

In Chhattisgarh, it is the fifth year of the Salwa Judum, depicted as people's uprising and a foil to the Maoists. With mixed results, its mentor and senior Congress leader, Mr Mahendra Karma, has refined the strategy from one of direct confrontation to isolating the Maoists with the help of the people. Jharkhand has come up with an attractive surrender and rehabilitation plan with cash incentives for firearms. Orissa, where nearly half of the 30 districts are hit by Maoist depredation, has its own plan. While a template to fix the Maoists is not sought, a common approach will optimise the response mechanism. A collective threat calls for a national strategy.

In the last five years, violence in the seven worst affected states has claimed 3500 lives in 7800 incidents. Till July 1 this year, 460 persons, including 160 security forces, had been killed in Left-wing extremist violence. This marks an 18 per cent increase in violence and 37 per cent rise in police fatalities over last year and reflects how the nation is suffering more casualties from Naxal violence than in J&K. Next month is the meeting of Chief Ministers where Home Minister Chidambaram is to unfold a new counter-Naxal strategy involving Central and state resources.

The Army is monitoring the Maoist map closely as it does not wish to get sucked in. It has attached a Brigadier to the anti-Naxal cell in the Ministry of Home Affairs and is helping in producing the new counter-Naxal concept paper. Army training of anti-Naxal police forces started in 2006 at the CIJW, Wairangte, the Infantry Regimental Centres and 4 Corps Counterinsurgency and Anti-Terrorism School. Fighting a Naxal like a Naxal focuses on skills in countering IEDs, mine warfare, jungle survival and winning hearts and minds of tribals. Other measures being considered include setting up of Army cantonments and training centres in Maoist-dominated areas as well as the use of armed helicopters.

At least 20 CRPF battalions, the lead force for anti-Naxal operations and 20 counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism schools, are to be established shortly in the worst affected states. Sadly, the police units which come for training are unaccompanied by officers and are not a cohesive lot. Without implementing the full scale of police reforms ordered by the Supreme Court and injecting modernisation and motivation, the state and central police will not be optimally operational.

A twin-pronged inclusive development and security strategy, integral to a national plan, and a refurbished delivery mechanism are required to counter the march of the Maoists. It is not as if the Maoists are invincible. Rather the response has been too little, too late. To be successful, operations have to be coordinated with neighbouring states/districts and the Centre. Without a common minimum political consensus and upgrading the Maoist threat beyond the law and order category, the Maoist chant of Delhi Gheri Lebo will come closer to the national Capital.

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