Archive for April 2009
I haven’t had a chance to update in the past day as I’ve been busy with some other work. Please check back tomorrow as I’ll have updates on Nepal and the Phase III of the Indian election.
Sudeep Chakravati is a Goa-based journalist who travelled across India speaking with Maoist fighters, poor villagers, sympathetic urban business men, and police and government officials. His account of the journey is a rich portrait of a movement which is clever and sophisticated and a government which often seems lethargic and outmaneuvered.
Written in an easy, narrative/journalistic style, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country is an engaging and informative read. It’s the single best book on Naxalism that I know of. Buy it.
In West Bengal the Maoists have been riding the wave of rural discontent against land acquisition for some time. Now they are also mobilising tribal communities.
Following a series of assassinations of cadres affiliated with West Bengal’s governing communist party, Friday saw a large anti-government mobilisation in Kolkata. According to the Times of India, the demonstration was composed of groups affiliated with the Maoists.
India is rife with disaffected, oppressed and angry groups. By exploiting numerous local issues, the Maoist octopus threatens to bring together the millions of small fires into a blazing inferno that could consume India. Hyperbole? Maybe.
At at meeting today, the senior Indian envoy to Nepal communicated Delhi’s opposition to any dismissal of the General Katawal, the chief of the Nepalese army. The ambassador clarified the country’s policy shortly after consultations with senior government officials in India.
Katawal is set to retire in a few months and is likely to be replaced by a general more flexible on the integration of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Why are both parties forcing a crisis now?
Prachanda is being squeezed by militants within his party who feel that there revolutionary dreams are being shattered. Two breakaway factions merged in February to form a party calling for the resumption of the ‘People’s War’. If this wasn’t bad enough for a leader desperate to demonstrate that the Maoists are as capable of governing as they are at waging a guerrilla war, a:
section of Maoist lawmakers are threatening to pull out of the coalition if beleaguered Nepal Army chief Gen Rookmangud Katawal is not dismissed
It doesn’t look good for either Prachanda or Nepal. If he persists in trying to sack Katawal, he could be facing an army revolt. If he buckles to Indian pressure, his party and elements of the PLA would turn against him. Either way, it’s a return to violence and civil war for Nepal.
Surely India doesn’t want this.
Found an article from 2007 in the Hindustan Times which does a good job of comprehensively and succinctly summarising the history of the Naxalites.
As tension between the Nepalese army and the Maoist led government deepens, India is increasing its mediation efforts. The Indian ambassador in Nepal flew to Delhi for consultations with senior government officials. He is scheduled to return to Kathmandu today.
In a further sign of the deepening seriousness of the standoff, the Indian ambassador, along with his Chinese, American and British counterparts phoned the Nepalese PM expressing their concern.
There is a ridiculously biased article in the Times of India on the latest developments in the crisis:
Though the Maoists have been at it for some time, refusing to abide by the rules of democracy which they invoked to justify their bid for power, what brought matters to boil was Prachanda’s proposal to sack General Rukmangad Katawal after he resisted the move to induct former Maoist guerrillas in the army.
Unfortunately for the Times, the case is far more complicated. Yes, there is a dispute over the sacking of General Katwal and the integration of the army and guerillas, but the issue is equally about confidence and mutual trust. Both sides have failed to completely abide by the terms of the 2006 peace agreement (see full text). The guerrilas have not disarmed as per their commitments, nor has the military absorbed and integrated any Maoist cadres into their ranks.
Both Prachanda and Katwal have not lived up to their commitments. Is the 2006 agreement dead? It depends on what happens in the next few weeks.
The single biggest barrier to building a post-conflict society in Nepal is a failure to engage in meaningful confidence and trust building exercises. The Maoists do not trust the army, who they fought but didn’t defeat militarily, and the army does not trust the Maoists, who they also fought but didn’t defeat.
The army as an institution is terrified that rather than absorbing the guerrillas, they will be absorbed by them. One side is confined to its cantonments and the other side is confined to its barracks. There have been no joint exercises or gradual integration between either of the two commands.
Assuming that neither side want a resumption of war (and this is certainly not clear), the mechanisms of the peace agreement need to be revisited. A gradual and phased integration of both groups must be designed in such a way that would slowly increase personal and institutional links between the two. Additionally, both Prachanda and the army must make an unequivocal commitment to Nepalese democracy.
All of this will require international, and particularly India, involvement. India must not seek to undermine the government. This would be disastrous for Nepal and disastrous for India. A resumption of war would effectively see Nepal as a failed state with no government and a large and angry Maoist army tempted to look across the border and deepen their ties with the Naxalites.
Update: Of course its also far more complex than trust. Trust assumes good faith on both sides and it isn’t at all clear how much of this exists. Are the army and conservative elements willing to countenance democracy, especially one led by Maoists? Are the Maoists dishonestly consolidating their power until they are ready to take over the state and establish a dictorship? Nepal is a nototiously complicated country rife with intrigues and heavily polarised population. None of the negates the importance of confidence building measures.
Are the Naxalites increasing their presence and power in their historic homeland and targetting the newly vulnerable CPI(M)? The answer seems to be yes. The conflict against land acquisitions by local organisations, NGOs and the Trinamool Congress has provided a space for violent action that has been exploited by the Maoists. The once iron hold that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has held in the state is looking increasingly shaky. Saumitra Mohan in 2007:
If recent patterns of Naxal violence and activism in West Bengal are any indication, the Maoists’ new strategy seems to be moving into new territories and taking up emotive issues like forcible displacement due to industrial and infrastructure development projects. Reports of alleged involvement of the Naxals in the Nandigram disturbances and the recent ‘ration riots’ across West Bengal indicates their changing tactics.
A fascinating and neglected aspect of Naxal tactics and strategy is the ‘movements’ ability to garner support and power by tapping into highly localised social and economic conflicts. Whether the issues are caste in Bihar, tribal oppression in Chhattisgarh or linguistic separatism in Andhra, the Maoists are there, taking up the banners of the angry and marginalised.
This issue-based mobilisation is reflective of the highly decentralised nature of the Maoist insurgency as well as its functional flexibility and pragmatism. Is it even meaningful to talk about ‘the Maoist insurgency’ when it really is more a collection of localised insurgencies with all with a high degree of autonomy? The myth of the totalitarian, ideologically rigid Naxalite threat is precisely that- a myth.
This, in large parts, explains why the Maoists have been able to survive for four decades while on numerous occasions they seemed to face extinction. This is why they are growing. If one arm of the octopus is chopped off, another somewhere else takes its place.
West Bengal is a case in-point. The birthplace of Naxalism (and the home of Naxalbari, a village from where the Maoists got there name), West Bengal was engulfed in a virtual civil war during the late 1960s and early 1970s. After a brutal police campaign, the Naxalite cadres and leaders were either killed, imprisoned, or abandoned the movement.
The election of the CPI(M) government in 1979, its vigorous policies of land-reform and iron grip on the West Bengal countryside meant that there was an absence of issues around which to mobilise. The movement faded in the state and shifted to places like Bihar and Jharkhand.
This is beginning to change precisely because there is growing disenchantment in the rural areas with the Communist government in Calcutta. The land expropriation issue has created a space for the return of revolutionary Maoism in its birthplace. If West Bengal does again become a stronghold of the Naxalites, it would be an ideal case study for what not to do to contain insurgency in India. It would also provide a valuable glimpse in the soial, economic, and political conditions which the Naxalites can exploit to their advantage.
Apparently not, according to preliminary polling data from Jharkhand.
Voter turnout was higher in the regions considered Maoist strongholds, whereas some places with little rebel presence recorded lower polling percentage.
Initial figures show that polling percentage in the eight Lok Sabha seats varied between 42 and 58 percent as people braved Maoist violence as well as the mercury soaring to 42-46 degree Celsius in various parts.
I haven’t found anything which supports these numbers, but it does seem that there was minimal disruption by the Naxalites. There were a few scattered attacks on Wednesday and another yesterday, but overall Phase II was more tranquil than I had expected. The killer heatwave gripping much of the country undoubtedly did more to dampen voter enthusiasm than any other factor.
Update: According to the Hindu, overall turnout for Phase II was 55%. Higher than in 2004.
No updates for the next day or two. I’m taking a break after a marathon session.
I started India’s Forgotten War earlier this week as my first foray into blogging (about four years two late!). I’m happy with the results so far. Considering how much of a minority interest Naxalism is, it’s amazing how many hits I’ve had. I hope you come by often to see the blog develop and grow. Thanks everyone!
UPDATE: Polling in Bihar “peaceful“.
UPDATE: Various skirmishes in polling areas. The Times of India reports that there have been numerous gunbattles between Maoists and the police and bomb attacks on election officials in Jhrakhand. Also some reports of violence in Orissa and Andhra.
UPDATE: A Naxalite landmine has been defused by police. The mine was buried under an electoral boycott banner at a polling station in Madhya Pradesh.
UPDATE: The chart disaggregates rural/urban turnout in major states during the last election. Unfortunately, most of the heavily Naxal affected states aren’t included. I’m curious to see what impact, if any, their call for an electoral boycott has had on rural voters. A decline in the percentages would underscore the insurgents strength. If voting turnout isn’t significantly affected, it would suggest that the the string of high profile attacks amount to little more than a bit of good media PR.
|Turnout: Urban versus rural constituencies in 2004|
|Major State||Turnout in urban
|Turnout in rural
|Turnout in entire
|Year of Lok Sabha
|Turnout in Urban
|Turnout in Rural
Update: The BBC has a great interactive map of the election. What’s interesting is that half of Andhra Pradesh is voting today. Until a few years ago the state was the heart of Naxalite activity in the country. I haven’t heard of a single attack anywhere in the state since the beginning of the election. The hub of the so-called ‘red corrider’ has shifted to Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Elements of the Andhra government’s approach to counter-insurgency (raising and effectively training the anti-Naxalite Greyhound police force coupled with strong financial incentives for fighters wishing to quite the movement) sh0uld be emulated. I was in Warangal district (Andhra Pradesh) in 2008 and met with the district police commander. She had nothing but contempt for the Salwa Judum and Chhattisgarh’s ‘civilian’ militias.
Update: First reports of Maoist disruptions. Ongoing gun battle after a CRPF camp was attacked in West Singhbum, Jharkhand. Train station bombed in Palamau, also in Jharkhand.
Polls in phase 2 of the Indian election opened 30 minutes ago.
I found a UPI story on yesterday’s train hijacking claiming that the Naxalites were, “protest[ing] over some former Maoists participating in India’s general elections”.
Interesting. I interpreted the highjacking as a show of strength. Maybe it wasn’t. Also wondering who or what faction has jumped into legal politics. UPDATE: Could it be the 3000 ex-Maoists who joined the Prajarajyam Party (PP) in February? The hijack took place in Jhrkhand and the PP is based in Andhra. Maybe not?