Archive for January 2010
One of the most underreported developments in Naxalism in 2009 has been the emergence of a new leadership cadre that is guiding the CPI (Maoist) in an entirely new tactical direction. Less conservative and reclusive than has historically been the case, the new West Bengal-based group has chosen to undertake bold (and brutal) actions calculated to garner media attention. This has included the beheading of a captured police inspector in October and a dramatic train hijack during India’s election campaign. This was preceded by the capture of Lalgarh in West Bengal, a move seemingly calculated to demonstrate to India and the world that the Maoists were a force to be reckoned with.
All of this suggests a dramatic re-orientation in Naxalite tactics. Historically, the Maoists have been a tactically conservative force. Rather than court media attention, they preferred to work quietly, expanding their reach and power methodically and patiently. Their leadership has been notoriously recalcitrant and media shy. What has changed? Significant numbers of party leaders, most notably Kobad Gandhi, were arrested in 2009 as the Indian government has improved its counter-insurgency intel apparatus. As a result, a new crop of people with different tactical ideas has emerged. This new face of Maoism has been best personified in Kishenji, the Andhra born, West Bengal-based rebel.
Kishenji is a new kind of Naxalite leader. He has actively courted media attention- holding numerous press conferences and maintaining regular correspondence with prominent journalists. He has demonstrated a flair for the theatrical:
Kishenji had a seven-minute telephone conversation with West Bengal Principal Secretary (Environment) Madan Lal Meena complaining about polluting mines earlier this week, the Chief Minister was forced to accept the state intelligence machinery’s failure to locate the Maoist leader, who is on the run.
It remains to be seen how effective this tactic will be. While Kishenji has succeeded in garnering interest in the Maoist movement (and perhaps gained the support of segments of the urban population), much of the Naxalite’s strength stems precisely from their patient expansion. By refusing to draw attention to themselves, the government of India has felt little public pressure to respond, creating a space for he gradual expansion of Maoist territory. A new strategy centred around engagement with the press and audacious assaults against the state carries a great deal of risk.
Time Magazine has declared India’s Maoist insurgency to be the 3rd most under-reported story of 2009. I’m surprised that they even noticed. While media coverage internationally and domestically has been sparse, this has started to slowly change. For too long, the Naxalites could be ignored by the urban-based Indian elite as a problem which affected only small segments of the largely invisible rural poor. While events such as the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 threatened the safety and security of the countries chattering classes, what happened in the dusty forests of rural Chhattisgarh could easily be ignored. This has started to change. Perhaps, 2010 will bring increased coverage not only to the insurgency, but also to the scandalous conditions in which India’s rural poor exist. One can only hope.
Since my last post on the ongoing battle for an independent Telangana the story has taken a turn for the absurd. In early December, the central government unilaterally (and suddenly) declared their support for the creation of a new state to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, leading to anger and sporadic violence. Opponents of the decision were particularly concerned with the status of Andhra’s capital, the wealthy technology hub Hyderabad situated deep inside Telangana. After the resignations of a number of Congress politicians in protest at the decision, the central government backtracked and announced that Telangana would only come into being after a process of talks involving all of the local political parties. Again, this lead to violence and resignations, only this time by disappointed Telangana activists. The talks are scheduled to begin on 5 January.
The central government’s handling of the issue has been inept and farcical. First, by rushing through a unilateral decision on the creation of a new state, the government alienated much of the population of Andhra. Then, by backtracking on their decision, they effectively alienated and angered all of those who had supported the initial decision. It’s a mess. Furthermore, the decisions of the government have greatly strengthened the hand of the Maoists. As this (excessively pessimistic) piece in Pragati states:
Telangana is not only being formed with the support of the Naxalites, but will be encompassing the districts that are their stronghold. The security situation is bound to worsen further.
Not only is the creation of Telangana a potential boon for the Maoists, the muddled process that has so far marked its birth is tailor-made for strengthening their position. The Maoists have strongly supported calls for an independent Telangana. The central government’s moves have created a volatile situation in the state marked by a high degree of political mobilisation. By supporting the pro-Telangana forces, the Maoists have positioned themselves as an armed and disciplined force which can help a popular movement struggle against the central government’s duplicity. They have, for example, already called for a general strike for the 2 January.
If the Maoists play their hand well, they will be in position to gain a tremendous goodwill and popular support by acting as a force which is willing to fight for the sentiments and aspirations of the local population. They will be in an even stronger position to capture the newly independent state once it is created. Delhi could not have created conditions more beneficial for the Naxalites had it been closely collaborating with the Maoist leadership.