State of War

The brown papers that hardcore capitalists read every day seem to be
giving more coverage to the maoists of late.
This one is from the business standard.The entire supplement
on staurday carried this article on the frontpages.

State of War

Aditi Phadnis / New Delhi June 30, 2007
The last years have seen a dramatic rise in Naxal violence, and this week’s incidents prove that little is being done to contain it.

It was a warm April afternoon. Humidity rose like a blanket from the jungles around Murkinar, a small hamlet in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh. Murkinar has two claims to fame: it has a police post on the side of the road and it is linked by a bus that plies between this hamlet and Bijapur, a nearby town.

As usual, villagers were waiting at the bus stop when the bus trundled to a stop. Suddenly, the bus stop was seething with people, mostly men holding bags. Passengers — Gond tribals with their weekly haul from the forest — were told to disembark and the men boarded the empty bus and ordered the driver to drive on.

At 3:00 in the afternoon, the police post was inhabited by constables trying to catch forty winks, dressed only in lungis and vests. No one paid any attention to the bus – until the men inside began firing at the police station with light machine guns. The Naxalites killed 11 policemen like they would shoot clay pigeons, kicked the bodies aside and loaded all the weapons and ammunition they could find into their bags. Then the bus drove off again and the Naxals melted into the forest.

This was the story narrated to Brig Basant Kumar Ponwar, Inspector General of Police, Chhattisgarh, and a veteran of Army counter-insurgency operations who is currently involved in training policemen to handle guerilla operations.

“One hundred and seventy districts over 13 states are currently under the influence of the Naxals, though in some states the pockets are small and have been contained. Our interrogations and materials obtained from raids indicate that the target of this group is to bring, by 2010, 30-35 per cent of India under their sway. In order to prevent incidents like Murkinar, India has to train at least 10,000-20,000 policemen in counter-insurgency tactics. This is no small task,” he said on the phone from Bastar.

The two-day shock and awe campaign earlier this week by Naxals all over India to protest the “imposition” of special economic zones (SEZs) and the government’s economic policies has had the desired effect.

Naxal actions were calculated to be conspicuous and loud. In West Bengal’s Purulia district, about 50 guerrillas set fire to the station master’s room at Biramdih railway station at around 1:30 am. The attack destroyed the signalling system. Biramdih — on the Jharkhand-West Bengal border — is 285 km from Kolkata. Train services between Bihar and Jharkhand, including the state capitals Patna and Ranchi, were cancelled.

In Chhattisgarh, public transport went off the roads and movement of iron ore from Dantewada district’s Bailadila hills to Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh was halted. Maoists blocked interior pockets of Bastar, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Dantewada and Kanker districts by placing wooden logs on the roads. Primitive tactics? Maybe, but no one dared remove the logs.

It isn’t just the intensity of the Maoist rage with the system (in their most spectacular attack on a police post in Rani Bodli, 55 policemen were killed, but what shocked the people was that some policemen who had obviously surrendered were also killed — axed to death, their decapitated heads placed neatly by the side of their bodies). It is also that they will not be ignored any more.

Over a two day-campaign, in Jharkhand alone, official estimates put the losses at around Rs 150 crore. The railways lost Rs 30 crore due to cancellation of goods and passenger trains and damage to property — in Latehar district they burnt two engines and damaged 12 goods train bogies.

Around 1,500 buses did not ply during these two days, causing a loss of Rs 1.5 crore. Trucks stood idle, leading to a loss of Rs 3 crore. Coal and iron ore production and transport was disrupted, leading to losses of around Rs 60 crore. In Jharkhand, export-import businesses had to shut down for virtually the whole week, leading to losses of Rs 5 crore. With road and rail traffic coming to a complete halt in the state, nothing could be done.

Since the inception of Chhattisgarh in November 2000, 751 civilians have fallen to the fury of the rebels. Two hundred and twenty policemen have died combating the Red Army. Development work worth Rs 200 crore has been left stranded in Bastar because no one wants to work there. Property and other losses add up to Rs 8,000 crore in six years.

Guerilla groups are territorial in their outlook. They need an area — one hesitates to call it a state — of their own. The Tamil aspiration is for Eelam. What do the Indian Maoists want?

The Maoist “state” is called Aboojhmad. Its exact contours remain a mystery. The area stretches over some 10,000-15,000 sq km — the size of Fiji or Cyprus — with inaccessible terrain encompassing the forest belt from Bastar to Adilabad, Khammam and East Godavari districts in Andhra Pradesh and including Chandrapur and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh and Malkangiri in Orissa.

Parts of this region have never been surveyed, not even by Emperor Akbar who conducted the first revenue survey in the mid-15th century. The first surveyor-general of India, Edward Everest, also failed to map the entire topography of Aboojhmad in his survey conducted between 1872 and 1880.

According to intelligence agencies, Aboojhmad houses all major establishments of the Maoists outfits including arms manufacturing units and guerrilla training. It is also a safe haven for the top guns. “The area is heavily mined and it is near-impossible for security agencies to sneak in,” said a senior state police official.

Maoists are also expanding their area of operation. The growing economy of the region has increased the demand for raw materials. Chhattisgarh is the preferred destination for investments in thermal power and steel.

SAIL, Essar, Tata and Jindal are in the race to acquire the biggest coal and iron ore mining blocks. The new tactics in Chhattisgarh appear to be to establish a hold in other mining areas as well. The recent arrest of a top Maoist gun in a diamond-rich belt of Raipur district attests to this. It isn’t just the forest for them, it is also mines and industrial areas.

In the bauxite-rich areas in the region they have registered their presence in Siridih and Mainpat areas of Sarguja district where aluminium majors Hindalco and Vedanta-owned Bharat Aluminium have mining facilities.

Besides opposing industries in Chhattisgarh, rebels have also hit at the state economy. Agriculture is impossible in these circumstances. Nor isthe state receiving dividends in the proportion it had estimated from forest produce. The huge budget for the region lapses unspent every year. About 30 per cent of the Rs 450 crore budget for the Chhattisgarh government’s home department is spent on anti-Maoist operations.

How do the groups operate? Over the last decade, the Maoist movement has undergone a lot of mergers and acquisitions. Smaller groups have merged with bigger ones, cadres have joined rivals and while factional warfare has claimed the lives of many loyal believers, it has also prompted the Maoists to consider how best to synergise their strengths. To be sure, there is still some griping between old rivals.

For instance, the CPI ML (Kanu Sanyal) had this to say about the CPI Maoists’s greatest military victory ever: “CPI (Maoist) action on 15th March at Rani Bodili in Dantewada district fully exposes its anarchist line and calls for severe condemnation. Instead of exposing, challenging and defeating the state terror by mobilising the masses, it is totally counter-productive as it has given further excuse for deploying 8,000 more para-military forces in Bastar district alone to intensify the state terror.”

But by and large there is greater coordination among groups than ever before. At the 9th Congress of CPI (Maoist) held after 36 years somewhere in the forests of Orissa-Jharkhand borders in January-February this year, it decided to protest against SEZs and the setting up of industries by acquiring forest and tribal land.

In Chhattisgarh, the Maoists have already warned Tata and Essar against putting up steel plants in Bastar. The Congress, sources said, decided to extend its protests to Kalinga Nagar, Singur, Nandigram, and Polavaram (Andhra Pradesh). Some other specific projects are also in their sights: this makes the challenge all the more terrifying.

How can the Maoists be defeated — and should they be? A former district magistrate in Chhattisgarh, Shailesh Pathak recounts how he supervised the general elections of 2004 in Bastar.

“We couldn’t get the electronic voting machines into Bastar because of Naxal propaganda that they’d mined the area and anyone going there would be blown up. So we launched our own counter-propaganda — that we had airborne missiles that would be able to detect Naxals from the air. I even did a couple of helicopter sorties to prove that we had a helicopter. That’s how we held the election.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Naxals will grow where there is no development or democracy — the turnout in the general election in Bastar was 15 per cent despite Pathak — but their argument is that the economic boom has bypassed them but it is their resources that has aided it.

Ponwar’s argument is military logic. “You can defeat the Naxalites militarily. What do they have, after all — explosives they have looted from the National Mineral Development Corporation godowns used for mining, some .303 rifles, LMGs and AK 47s looted from police stations? But having once liberated areas militarily, the state must demonstrate its authority. It must establish itself in these areas — because if it doesn’t, the Naxals will just reclaim it.”

Economist Jean Dreze’s survey in Sarguja district that is under Naxal influence suggests that job-creation is an answer. Organising those who are opposed to Naxals unfortunately only renders them more vulnerable to Naxal attacks. Tribals, used to referring to the forest as their home, are now huddled in camps under RCC sheets to protect them from Naxal reprisal.

One thing is certain: no amount of coordinated police and military action is going to prevent the Naxal movement from growing. “It is not that the military challenge is strong,” says Ponwar, “it is that the response is weak.”

The Red battle for Orissa

One night in June, a group of armed CPI (Maoist) extremists killed a contractor at Tumikoma village and two persons at Ranigolla village in Deogarh district on the western fringe of the state.

The same night, 600 km away in Koraput, in south Orissa, suspected Maoists blasted the engine of a goods train and burnt down a part of the Padua police station. Three days later, two suspected Maoists entered the conference room of the Orissa High Court Bar Association at Cuttack and dropped bundles of leaflets there pertaining to their two-day economic blockade agitation on June 26 and 27.

The three incidents say it all — the Naxal presence which was limited to its southern tip bordering Andhra Pradesh only a few years ago has now infiltrated across the length and breadth of Orissa. It is estimated Naxals/Maoists now have a presence of some sort or other in 17 of Orissa’s 30 districts, but the state government acknowledges their existence in only 11 districts.

The left-wing extremist groups have spread the menace in 11 of 30 districts by indulging in violence in the past seven years, says Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. They had mounted attacks as many as 234 times, killing 103 persons in seven years.

But Patnaik is seeking solace that this is far less compared to the mayhem unleashed in neighbouring states. In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, in the same period, 941 and 930 people were killed; the casualty figure for Andhra Pradesh is 1,867.

According to government records, the tribal dominated Malkanagiri district in the south is the worst-hit, accounting for 43 per cent of the Naxal related incidents.

Rayagada, Sambalpur and Koraput are three other districts where CPI (Maoist) mounted 50, 27 and 20 attacks respectively in the last seven years. Most of the Naxalite attacks were reported from Malkanagiri district. Apart from Malkanagiri, other southern districts infested by the Naxal menace are Rayagada, Gajapati and Koraput.

Win some, lose some

Activists and students who went to Sarguja for a public hearing on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme recently have come back to report major improvements in the distribution of job cards, the extent of employment, the payment of wages and the quality of work undertaken.

This gives reason for hope in the possibility of making NREGP work, says economist and activist Jean Dreze who organised the hearings. Sarguja is one district not in the thick of Naxal influence and where government programmes have been allowed to run their natural course.

The most heartening finding was “a sharp decline in corruption”. This is not to generalise about the state of affairs in Sarguja, for the Dreze-led group reports that the National Food For Work Programme has remained on paper. But on NREGP, says Dreze: “We found that 95 per cent of the wage payments that had been made according to the muster rolls had actually reached the labourers.”

Dreze compares Sarguja with other Naxal hit areas of Chhattisgarh in this context.

“It is interesting to consider the growing contrast between this region of Chhattisgarh and the southern region (Bastar and adjoining districts),” he says.

“In the southern region, misguided attempts to suppress the Naxalite movement through brute force have led to a spiral of violence and turned large areas into a war zone. Development is the casualty. In the northern region, which is comparatively free of violent conflict, there has been a noticeable improvement in the reach and quality of public services such as drinking water, health care, elementary education and the public distribution system.”

Researcher and economist of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, Tapas Sen, currently working on a report on Chhattisgarh, notes a change in the policy of the radical elements in the state.

Earlier government functionaries were not targetted but now are. Hence government programmes are a casualty in Naxal-hit areas. Doctors, for example, are held in a pincer between the government and the Naxals. Often they are forced to serve the Naxals without the knowledge of the police. They are under threat from both sides, he says. So, who wins?

With inputs from R Krishna Das in Raipur, Dilip Satapathy in Bhubaneswar and Sreelatha Menon in New Delhi

Business Standard


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