The naxalite challenge
Interview: Shivraj Patil
The road from Naxalbari
A.P: Government hits back
Orissa: In a state of fear
Jharkhand: Tightening grip
A `guerilla zone' in Maharashtra
Chhattisgarh: Resisting the rebels
Punjab: Fighting for relevance
Karnataka: From the forest base
West Bengal: `Thunder' is just a memory
Interview: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
Kerala: Embers of a revolution
Tamil Nadu: Rendered inactive
Delusion of peace: by Ajai Sahni
THE NAXALITE CHALLENGE
in New Delhi
|Left extremists have regrouped under the one-year-old Communist Party of India (Maoist) and expanded their area of operation. The state is planning a crackdown, but success may not come easily.|
At the memorial of extremists killed in police encounters, in the Nallamalla forest in Andhra Pradesh.
ON September 19, administrative heads and senior officials of 12 States, including Chief Ministers, Home Secretaries and Directors-General of Police, met in New Delhi under the auspices of the Union Home Ministry and decided to set up inter-State joint task forces to "facilitate coordinated and synergised anti-naxalite operations across State boundaries" and "strengthen intelligence networks" for this mission. Home Minister Shivraj Patil announced that "these forces would be made functional quickly", in the context of the developing situation in various naxalite-affected States.
A number of politicians and security officials who attended the meeting rated the decision as historic, essentially because the "Union Home Ministry had for the first time accepted the need to raise a special joint task force that can operate across State borders to counter the naxalite threat".
Even as the "historic", albeit somewhat contentious, decision was being circulated and officials of the administration and security agencies were working out the details of its implementation, Home Departments of various States received reports about scores of naxalite conventions across large tracts of forest land, stretching from Andhra Pradesh in south India to Orissa and Bihar in the east. The professed objective of the conventions, which took place throughout the last week of September, was to observe the first anniversary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The CPI (Maoist) was formed on September 21, 2004, with the merger of two prominent naxalite outfits, the People's War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC). The meetings, Home Ministry reports pointed out, were not confined to commemorating the formation of the party. They also considered plans to counter the proposed government offensive using the "military unit" of the organisation, the People's Guerilla Army (PGA).
Catching up with a number of PGA cadre who attended the anniversary deep inside the Saranda forests of the Singhbhum region in Jharkhand, Frontline gathered that this was indeed the case. The PGA cadre said the celebrations "marked a resolve to continue with people's war against the Indian state, uphold the gains made so far, especially by protecting guerilla zones, where the party, its police, administration and army controlled day-to-day life, and counter the new aggressions that the state would make".
The pronouncements of the Home Minister and the assertions of the PGA left little doubt that the "climate of accommodation and dialogue" that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had sought to build up was over. In a sense, the new developments marked a significant dilution of the socio-economic-political approach, as opposed to a militaristic approach, promised by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in tackling militancy-related issues.
The earlier intent of the Congress-led UPA manifested itself in the form of discussions between the naxalite leadership and the Andhra Pradesh government in October last year. This had marked a major shift from the approach adopted by several State governments, including the erstwhile Telugu Desam Party (TDP) Ministry in Andhra Pradesh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, which had branded naxalites as mere lumpen outlaws causing harm to local communities and their development. These governments and their political leaderships highlighted how some naxalite leaders had become multi-millionaires through extortion and other criminal activities. The Congress obviously perceived that lumpenisation was not the dominant feature of naxalites, or that this trend was not as widespread as it was made out to be.
The peace process in Andhra Pradesh did seem to make some progress before collapsing over two issues. One was the naxalite position that "the question of carrying arms and conducting armed struggle were non-negotiable". This assertion was in response to the government suggestion that the situation would be more conducive to talks if the naxalites gave up armed struggle. The second was the inability and hesitation of the government to take up land reforms on the scale and in the manner suggested by the naxalites. The extremists had presented details of agricultural lands - including land on the outskirts of the State capital, Hyderabad, allegedly grabbed by industrial houses and influential persons, and demanded that the government distribute the 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) among the landless. The State government rejected this demand.
Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil (centre) with Chief Ministers of various States and Bihar Governor Buta Singh (fourth from right) at the meeting that discussed ways to counter naxalism.
The fact that naxalites were continuing with their armed struggle in States other than Andhra Pradesh (they engineered landmine blasts in eastern Uttar Pradesh killing 15 policemen) and the political pressures they placed on the Congress also contributed to the failure of the talks. It was in this context that Chhattisgarh raised the demand for inter-State joint security exercises. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh pointed out at the New Delhi meeting that his government had been stressing the need for a joint task force but the UPA government had consistently ignored the demand saying that the naxalite problem can and should be tackled by the affected States independently.
In spite of their ultimate failure, the talks were apparently motivated by good intentions on both sides. Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and Congress leader Digvijay Singh, whose tenure in power saw a number of naxalite operations, told Frontline in the context of the talks that no government committed to the welfare of the people could afford to ignore the growing influence of extremist political alternatives and their negative impact on mainstream polity. The leadership of the CPI (Maoist), including Ramakrishna, the head of the party delegation at the talks in Andhra Pradesh, had around the same time said that "it is wrong to classify naxalism as a problem, especially in the context of the faith and allegiance that lakhs and lakhs of oppressed and deprived people show towards us and our path" and added that his party was, in fact, more interested than any other party in peaceful solutions to the people's socio-economic problems
At a practical level, the Andhra Pradesh government, through the talks, sought to get some relief from the violence perpetrated by naxalites against the state apparatus, while the CPI (Maoist) made apparent an urge to spread its ideological and organisational influence by aggressively advocating land reforms and getting them implemented in various States, starting with Andhra Pradesh.
It has been a rapid downhill trip after the collapse of the talks at the end of last year. Naxalite attacks on state machinery intensified through many of the affected regions. The CPI (Maoist) also complained that government atrocities had risen in various parts of the country affecting both its activists and its support base, which consist of "unarmed well-wishers". Statements released by the party leadership alleged that 150 activists and supporters were killed by various security forces in the past one year.
Notwithstanding these claims, naxalite attacks have been in greater focus throughout the past 10 months. Armed activists attacked security forces at several places during the Assembly elections in Bihar and Jharkhand in February. The Superintendent of Police of Munger district in Bihar was killed, and 38 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and State Special Forces personnel were killed in April-June in the Dandakaranya forests in Andhra Pradesh. One of the most intense operations during this period took place in Madhuban town in north Bihar, close to the Nepal border. In a synchronised attack, over 150 naxalites hit various instruments of the state - the police station, banks, district offices and the house of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Member of Parliament Sitaram Singh. Closer to the September 19 meet, naxalites gunned down 15 persons in Jharkhand and triggered a landmine blast near Bijapur in Chhattisgarh killing 24 policemen, including 22 from the CRPF.
In the context of these developments, the Centre naturally assessed that naxalites had increased their strike power and influence. According to the Home Ministry's estimation, they have "9,300 hardcore underground cadre and they hold around 6,500 regular weapons besides a large number of unlicensed country-made arms". The naxalite infrastructure includes sophisticated weapons such as Kalshanikov rifles and Claymore landmines, modern wireless equipment and electronic gadgets. It has also been assessed that the naxalites' sphere of influence has spread in the past year and a half from 76 districts across nine States to 118 districts in 12 States.
The security forces involved in anti-naxalite operations are convinced, especially in the background of the Madhuban attack, which apparently involved Maoists from Nepal too, that the CPI (Maoist) is steadily building up a wider network involving associates in neighbouring countries. The Home Ministry is of the view that the wider strategic motive is that of carving out a Compact Revolutionary Zone (CRZ) or what is called a "Red Corridor of armed struggle" spreading from Nepal through Bihar up to the Dandakarnaya region of Andhra Pradesh.
Obviously, these perceptions have contributed in a big way to the Union government giving up its reluctance to have unified inter-State anti-naxalite operations. However, as of now, the modalities of coordinating and carrying out such operations have not been worked out. Naturally, there is some uncertainty about the impact on the ground too.
At the same time, the naxalite leadership is certain that the new plan of the government would not make much difference on the ground situation in the 12 States where the organisation has varying degrees of influence. A middle-level leader of the party, not actively involved in PGA operations, told Frontline that this assessment was based mainly on three factors.
One, the strike power of the party has increased considerably in the past year. Two, the socio-economic problems that have contributed to the steady growth of the party have only accentuated in vast parts of the country, especially in the rural, tribal and forest regions where naxalite influence is the most conspicuous. Three, in the background of the above-mentioned factors, the government's intelligence gathering would not be effective. All this, the leader said, would make the planned operations a non-starter.
Ramakrishna, People's War leader.
This confidence is indeed a reflection of the current balance of power dominated by naxalites. But the history of this Left extremist movement since 1967 has shown that an element of cocksureness has repeatedly brought stinging reverses. In the early 1970s, the movement seemed to be reaching the peak of its influence with the creation of vast guerilla zones from West Bengal to Bihar to Uttar Pradesh to Andhra Pradesh. But the might of the state machinery was able to disrupt all these within a couple of years.
The PWG and the MCC did of course rebuild the movement, but the fact remains that the naxalites are facing opposition even from the common people in States such as Chhattisgarh and Bihar. The opposition has stemmed both from disagreement with their aggressive ideological positions and from the revulsion caused by the lumpenisation of some of the cadre. Given this background, the confidence about retaining the guerilla zones and support bases may not be entirely realistic. As some naxalite activists have pointed out, the task of retaining people's support is a daunting one in all guerilla activities.
The larger view of the UPA government on the issue of extremism also emphasises the need to strengthen people's support to mainstream polity through effective socio-economic interventions. The September 19 meeting, which had representatives of State governments run by political parties of divergent views, too had pointed out that a lasting solution to Left extremist politics cannot be achieved without addressing the socio-economic factors that contribute to its rise and growth. Some of the measures identified by the Home Ministry in this context include, "strengthening of administrative machinery to make it more responsive, transparent and sensitive to facilitate effective redressal of public grievances", "development of an improved delivery mechanism aimed at accelerated integrated development" and "enhancing employment opportunities in naxalite-affected districts", especially to the local and indigenous population. Specifically, the government has mooted plans to raise a special tribal battalion with 1,200 members from the naxalite-affected areas.
But proclamations such as this have not, by themselves, generated any great hope about a turnaround. Prakash Singh, former Director-General of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the author of the book The Naxalite Movement in India, says, on the strength of his close observation of the movement as well as the initiatives to counter it, that successive governments have talked about this multi-pronged approach - combining security offensives with socio-political initiatives - since the 1970s without any concrete result on the ground. "Unless the governments and their leaders show the commitment to effect land reforms, weed out corruption and provide a semblance of fair and just governance in the interests of the poor, naxalite ideology will continue to grow," he told Frontline.
According to a former Home Ministry official associated with anti-naxalite operations in the 1970s and 1980s, the only State government that steadfastly advanced socio-economic initiatives to counter Left extremism was the Left Front government in West Bengal, the State where naxalism originated. "That government, right from its first stint in office, consistently used the administrative and legal machinery to protect the rights of the tiller as opposed to the (absentee) landlord, and thus brought about far-reaching changes in the rural socio-economic set-up," he said. The results, he added, were there for all to see, in the form of the near-total collapse of naxalism in the State and the repeated return of the Left Front to power through the past two decades.
The appeal of the CPI (Maoist) evidently lies in the foibles of mainstream politics. Campaign material circulated by its activists in various parts of the country lampoons the mainstream as follows: "Maoists demand humanity for the poverty-stricken masses, not the dirty politicking of the mainstream. Maoists demand decent life for all, not just for the elite and their hangers-on that thrive on the mainstream. The vultures of the system demand that the Maoists give up not merely their guns, but their self-respect, humanity, sense of justice and the struggles for a decent existence. They want the Maoists to join the gutter mainstream." The conditions that exist in vast parts of rural India impart a special appeal to this kind of language.
In theoretical terms, naxalites justify their actions as the political programme to overthrow the Indian state, comprising the big landlord-comprador, bureaucratic, bourgeoisie classes and the imperialism that backs them, through armed struggle and establish a people's democratic state under the leadership of the proletariat. It states that the principal and immediate task of the present stage of the revolution is to arouse and organise people for agrarian revolutionary guerilla war in the countryside - specially in the remote countryside - and to build the people's army and a rural base through guerilla warfare.
There are indications that the immediate manifestation of this theoretical projection would be in the form of struggles and strikes against the corporatisation of agricultural land. The specific demand for redistribution of land in Andhra Pradesh during the talks last year had this dimension. Jharkhand, where the National Democratic Alliance government is busy signing memorandums of understanding with industrial houses such as the Mittals, the Jindals and the Tatas for mining and related activities, could well become the next major naxalite target.
There is a view in a section of observers that the current multi-pronged initiative against naxalites is linked to the efforts to "ensure safe passage" to liberalisation and globalisation policies in large parts of rural India. If that is the case, the battle between naxalites and the state apparatus will acquire more intense proportions in the days to come.