Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An ill-prepared Bengal stares at Maoists

Anhad JainFirst Published : 17 Feb 2010 12:38:00 AM ISTLast Updated : 17 Feb 2010 04:46:06 AM IST

When last month Union home minister P Chidambaram wrote a letter to West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee regarding the seriousness of Maoist challenge and the deteriorating situation in the state many in the Writers Building in Kolkata were fuming. Bhattacharjee himself chose to publicly rebuke Chidambaram. But with the brutal massacre of about two dozen police personnel in West Midnapur on Monday it will be difficult for him to answer questions.

There are issues of ill-preparedness of police and deployment of forces without fortified structures. But most important is the question as to why is the state, which most effectively controlled naxalite movement in 1970’s, almost shivering in front of the same challenge. The Monday attack has been the biggest on security forces in the state. But those who understand the war and its tactics can safely and unfortunately say that this is not the last one.

In fact, an analysis of the ground situation makes it clear that in coming years naxalite violence is going to be a major problem. With a clear policy and initiation of their capacity building process other affected states like Maharashtra, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand may be able to contain the problem in a few years. But having missed many trains West Bengal might have to suffer for a longer period, with or without a Left front government in Kolkata.

In last few months naxalites and their armed sympathisers have killed about 100 people in Lalgarh area of West Bengal. Nowhere in the country have such a large number of civilians been killed in naxal violence in recent times. They have been murdered one after another in separate incidents.

The state has not effectively responded to such serious and continuous violence in spite of the fact that most victims belong to the ruling alliance. The CPI(M) is a cadre-based party which gives a lot of importance to its workers. In fact, unlike parties like Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party or Samajwadi Party where the top or at the best middle leadership reap the benefits, in the CPI(M) the workers also share the booty. The Left in West Bengal is also known for its uninhibited use of muscle power. One should be surprised as to how the Left is not responding to killing of its cadre. Why there are no orders to police to swing into action?

The answer is very simple, yet disturbing. The West Bengal police do not have the capacity to take on the Maoist challenge. Capacity building in the police establishment has never been a priority of the state. The most successful state in fighting the naxalites is Andhra Pradesh. The Grey Hound commandoes of Andhra Pradesh have mastered and beaten them in their own art of jungle warfare. While addressing the conference of chief ministers on the issue even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had advised other states to follow the Andhra pattern. Today Chhattisgarh and Orissa have raised commando forces on the pattern of the Grey Hounds. They have created their own commando training schools at Kanker and Chandaka respectively. West Bengal chose to ignore the advice.

When Midnapur and Lalgarh are bleeding West Bengal police have no component in its force that can face the challenge. The government is relying on the CRPF. But the CRPF has always played the role of a supporting force. It can only deliver where the lead role is taken by the state police, especially in intelligence collection and planning of operations. Bhattacharjee has been honest and candid in confessing that the state police are not able to track Maoist leaders in spite of the fact that they are talking to senior officers in state secretariat over phone. Compare this to Andhra Pradesh where out of fear the Maoists have prohibited use of mobile phones for their cadre and leaders.

However, the problem with the Bengal police is not entirely about resources. The morale of the force is so low that converting it into a fighting force is going to be a very difficult task. For about three decades the police have been made to feel subservient to the party cadre. The senior officers have been made to bend and juniors have been publicly ill-treated. It will be too much to expect that the force which has been systematically made spineless will stand up straight in front of Maoist challenge.

West Bengal has other peculiarities also. The entire ruling class, across party lines, in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh are against naxalites. In Bengal there are differences within the Left front on the issue of dealing with the naxalites. When the Maoist leaders from Andhra and Chhattisgarh were openly mobilising people in Lalgarh no one bothered in Kolkata. There are reports that for many years Kishenji was staying in Kolkata but police were never allowed to target him.

When all the affected states banned naxalites and their frontal organisations, West Bengal refused to do the same. Only after the Centre imposed a blanket ban did the state reluctantly accept it. Naxalites have always used border areas of affected states as safe sanctuaries. In case of pressure from one state they could cross over to other states. Having realised this most of naxal-affected states have allowed their neighbouring state police forces for a hot pursuit in case of encounters. Thus forces from Andhra Pradesh have been conducting successful anti-naxalite operations in the bordering areas of Orissa and Chhattisgarh and vice-versa. West Bengal is an exception.

Both the ruling and opposition parties in West Bengal are not clear in their approach towards the problem. The Trinamool Congress has been accused of hobnobbing with the naxals. That may not be entirely true but it would be unrealistic to think that a change of government will essentially solve the problem. In the case of the Left front losing power in the state, there is a possibility that the cadre may end up in joining naxal ranks. In any case, to follow Mao is easier for the people who have learnt about Marx and Lenin for 30 long years.

The forthcoming election has also put the Left in a Catch-22 situation. If it decides to hit hard against the naxalites collateral damage to civilians will hamper its election prospects. If it does not act swiftly the situation will worsen and hamper its chances of winning. In any case, even if the government decides to act, it is already late. Any preparation or capacity building has a necessary gestation period. The state cannot afford this delay. The Bhattacharjee government, only last month, decided to raise its own commando force. They would like to forget the fact that Andhra Pradesh raised its force in 1989 — two decades ago.

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