INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

Decentralised Insurgency and ‘Rogue’ Elements

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It seems increasingly likely that Naxalites were involved in the recent train derailment. The most plausible explanation is that ‘rogue’ elements loosely ties to the CPI(Maoist) were responsible. The party central committee, recognising the public relations disaster caused by the murder of over a hundred civilians has promised to crack down:

The Maoists have denied responsibility for the incident and blamed the sabotage on the ruling Marxists.

But now they have indicated that they would punish leaders of the local militia if they were found to be behind the attack.

“Anybody, even if they are found close to us, will be punished if their involvement is proved beyond doubt,” Comrade Akaash said.

Kudos to Shlok over at Naxalite Rage for predicting this possibility far sooner than I did. His post can be found here.

To me this is extremely plausible as one of the strengths of the Maoist movement has been decentralised structure. This has enabled flexibility in tactics and resilience against state repression. On the other hand, decentralisation has its drawbacks to an insurgency as this attack has demonstrated.

Written by Michael

June 3, 2010 at 3:08 pm

When all you have is a hammer…

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everything looks like a nail. Earlier this week, India’s home ministry threatened to prosecute intellectuals and civil society groups who help ‘spread’ the Naxalites ideology. This rather draconian threat has been heavily criticised  domestically and internationally. According to Human Rights Watch:

“The Indian government should think twice before trying to silence political discussion and demanding endorsement of its views on Maoist groups,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The recent views expressed by the Indian government against so-called sympathizers could be understood as carte blanche by local authorities to harass and arrest critics of Indian government policy.”

In order to help prevent the ‘spread’ of Maoist ideology, the home ministry has threatened to prosecute so-called violators under the 1967 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. It is not at all clear what would entail ‘spreading’ Maoist ideology. The term is so nebulous and meaningless that it could apply to individuals and groups who provide no material support (or are not even sympathetic to) the Maoists, but are critical of the government’s actions.

The Director General of Police in Chhattisgarh has been considering whether to lay charges against Arundhati Roy for her piece in Outlook India.  If history is any guide, it is very unlikely that Roy will be prosecuted for her work. Rather, the threat is better read as a green-light to security agencies operating in the Red Corridor to go after local journalists and NGOs.

The 2005 Chhattisgarh Special Security Act is a draconian law that has made it virtually illegal to meet with or write about the Maoists in that state. To date it has never been used against a foreign or Delhi-based individual. In fact, I was in Chhattisgarh in 2008 doing some research. In spite of having clearly violated provisions in the law, I was actively assisted by local politicians and security personnel. The law has been used to ban small NGOs and detain local journalists and activists such as Binyak Sen. The goal of the act is to provide a chilling effect on the local population as a means of allowing the government to behave with minimum scrutiny and accountability. This latest threat by the home ministry has the same purpose.

It is true that there is a segment of the urban intelligentsia that has been guilty of romanticising the Naxalite rebel. This is inevitable in a vibrant democracy. The irony is that there is a very real nexus between the Maoists elements of the political and business classes in the Red Corridor. This nexus is the result of shared material and political interests between the various groups. Threatening journalists and writers will do nothing to address the region’s real problems.

A Moment of Respite

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After my previous post on the major Naxalite attack, interest in my blog grew significantly. I’d like to thank all of my new readers.

In the past few weeks, however, traffic has returned to less manic levels. Of course this is not because of anything I wrote, but rather a product of the audaciousness of the Maoist attack. Since then eastern India has been relatively quiet. The rebels have engaged in a few isolated attacks on the railways and the government has killed a few Maoist ‘sympathizers’. After the hysteria, it seems that the status quo has returned- low level violence against people and property.

But has it? The Dantewada attack may have been a game changer. The Maoists demonstrated that they have the capability to engage in dramatic strikes that can garner the attention of the national and global media. Was it a tactical victory? Likely not. But, it was a strategic victory in the information war and a show of strength that can only boost the appeal of the Maoist forces. Conversely, it couldn’t have been good for morale amongst the paramilitary police. The government, on the other hand, learned that simply pouring troops into the so-called ”Red Corridor’ is not enough. Without sufficient intelligence the CRPF personnel are little more than targets.

What does this all mean? At the risk of making an excessively decisive prediction, I think that the attack in Chhattisgarh has made the conflict with the Naxalites more of a war. The government learned that it needs to be smarter and that the Maoists are a very real threat. They will be more cautious and measured in the future. This is no longer about a group of violent malcontents running around the peripheral regions of India. It is about the Indian state facing a disciplined, tactically superior force that has demonstrated its ability to gain victories both militarily and informationally. It is a war. And war is not always a good thing.  Especially if you believe, as I do, that the Naxalites are a symptom and not the cause.

Debordered Insurgency? Redux.

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A previous post made the point that one of the advantages that the Maoists have vis-a-vis the state is their capacity to wage a debordered insurgency inside federal India. What is less clear is how debordered the Naxalites are regionally.

There have long been rumours of collaboration between the Nepalese and Indian Maoists. However, since the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) ended their armed struggle and won a democratic election, a rift developed between the two parties.

Now that Nepal again seems to be on the brink and the Maoists are on the outside looking in, rumours of renewed contacts have re-emerged.

Prachanda, the Nepalese Maoist leader, has denied any link:

“During the 10 years that our party went underground and waged the People’s War, Prachanda met representatives from many communist parties in the world,” Shrestha said. “The meetings occurred due to the parties sharing the same interests and ideologies.

“However, after our party signed a peace agreement and returned to mainstream politics in 2006, there has been no link between us and any other underground party.”

If Nepal descends back into a war waged by even a minority of disgruntled Maoist factions, India would face an even more dangerous, debordered insurgency.

Operation ‘Peace Hunt’ and the Dirty War

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Much has been written about the Maoists’ daring strike on the Eastern Frontier Rifles camp in West Bengal. 24 paramilitary police were killed in the raid. The international press has provided extensive coverage. Examples can be found here and here.Not only does this again demonstrate the increasing attention that the global media is paying to the insurgency, but it also reflects the sheer audaciousness of the attack.

It was a calculated attack- a response to Operation Green Hunt. The tactics fell very much into the approach taken by Kishenji, one of the Maoists military leaders (see my previous post). As he stated in the inevitable post-attack press conference:

“We are calling it ‘Peace Hunt,’ ” he said, according to the Hindustan Times. “This is our reply to the anti-Naxalite operation the union government has launched.”

Kishenji once again, made a brilliant rhetorical point. In one action, he demonstrated to the government that it remains the Maoists who determine when and where they will fight. Every action against them will be met with greater response.

Is this, however, only smoke and mirrors?  Undoubtedly, Kishenji is a brilliant PR man who would, in different circumstances, have had a great career in advertising. Is it  possible that the  rebels are terrified of Operation Green Hunt? It’s difficult to tell. Within days of the attack, Kishenji proposed a 72 day ceasefire with the government. While his proposal has descended into the farcical, it remains an open question of what this all means.

Did the attack and the subsequent call for a temporary truce suggest that the Maoists are weak and need time to regroup, much as they did during the abortive negotiations with the Andhra Pradesh government in 2004? Or, rather, is it a cynical strategy in which the Maoists will leverage their military strength in tandem with a push for increased popular support showing themselves as the more reasonable party?

It’s impossible to say, but it seems to me that it might be neither. The Naxalite leadership is tactically diverse and decentralised. It seems that there are now serious divisions between Kishenji, on the one hand, and others  who are pushing for a more conciliatory stance:

While Kishanji — the military strategist responsible for brutal killings in Bengal — insists on a showdown with the state forces, another powerful section of the CPI (Maoist) central committee, led by Gopinathji alias Durga Hembram, wants talks at the earliest.

Internal debate seems to me a more plausible explanation for the schizophrenic lurch between the attack on the Eastern Frontier Rifles and the subsequent offer of a truce. And, if this is the case, a disunited Maoist Central Committee presents numerous opportunities for the government if they are clever enough to use them. Alas, this does not seem to be the case.

In light of the massacre of the 24 paramilitary policemen, the war in West Bengal seems to be taking a turn for the worse. While the war against the Naxalites has never been entirely ‘clean’, it has avoided the institutionalised excesses and state abuses that have happened in Kashmir. That may be beginning to change:

A policeman admitted that post-Shilda, they had unofficial instructions that if they caught a hardcore Maoist deep in a forest or a secluded spot, they should not take the trouble of bringing him back to the camp. “No one wants to talk about it, but the thinking now is not to have any mercy on those who commit such heinous crimes as killing innocent cops,” an officer said.

It seems that this ‘strategy’ has already claimed its first high-profile victim:

The president of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), the Maoist-backed tribal resistance group based in Lalgarh, was killed last night in what police claimed was “retaliatory fire” after guerrillas attacked a CRPF camp here.

If this is, in fact, an unofficial policy in West Bank Bengal (heh), it is madness and completely contrary to the waging of any form of ‘smart’ counterinsurgency. It will cement the unity of the Maoist leadership, eliminate the incentive for the surrender of fighters and inevitably antagonise the local population.

Kishenji must be pleased with the results of Operation Peace Hunt.

UPDATE: There has been some debate about the giving Rao the honorific of ‘ji’. I’m sticking with Kishenji only because it is the convention. The Caluctta Telegraph has been notable in referring to him as Kishen. However, I have neither the reach nor the ambition of the Telegraph and will continue to stick with his most recognisable name.

Debordered Insurgency

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Operation Green Hunt, India’s long-term, coordinated counter-insurgency push continues to face numerous challenges. The country’s federal structure has always made it extremely difficult to wage war against the Naxalites. While the state forces are bordered, the rebels are borderless. Military ‘success’ in one state has often simply meant a Naxalite withdrawal into another state. This has been most evident in the Warangal/Bastar region.

Once the heartland of the Maoists, the Andhra Pradesh government, through a combination of incentives and ‘smart’ force, reasserted state control in the region, virtually eradicating the Maoist presence. This was, however, largely accomplished because of a tactical retreat by the rebels. They simply crossed the border into neighbouring Chhattisgarh and have, in the years since, established the closest thing in Bastar to a ‘liberated zone’ that exists in the country.

One of the promises of Green Hunt was that the central government would spear head a coordinated, joint effort involving all of the states where the Maoists have a presence. In effect, the state would become as debordered as the Maoists, thereby eliminating a serious tactical disadvantage. This has not quite happened. Two states in particular, Jharkhand and Bihar, are proving to be a serious obstacle.

According to the Indian Express, the Jharkhand coalition government, led by the Mukti Morcha (a regional party rooted in the Jharkhand state-hood movement), has:

Opted out of several chief minister-level meetings to discuss the [Maoist] problem. And reports [state] that the government ended patrolling and left the Special Task Force, intended to take on Naxals, cooling its heels in its barracks.

This obstruction is allegedly connected to the Mukti Morcha’s links with the Maoists. The state is a hotbed of Naxalite activity and the ruling party has run a number of former rebels on its ticket. The Maoists are a powerful political force  and there are allegations that the government and the ruling elites have a comfortable and mutually beneficial relationship with the rebels.

Jharkhand illustrates one of the more serious problems faced by the Indian state: elite/Maoist collusion. Prominent business and political leaders have often found it easier to work with the Maoists than against them. By paying ‘taxes’ to the rebels, business receives  a level of security which the state is unable to provide. Politicians are able to tap into constituencies and gain votes from people in Maoist controlled areas and also gain support for oppositional campaigns against the government.

In West Bengal, for example, it has been alleged that the opposition Trinamool Congress has worked closely with the Maoists. Both want to topple the entrenched ruling Left Front government, so the argument goes. If this is true, it again presents a dilemma as the party is part of the ruling coalition in Delhi.

Is Operation Green Hunt doomed to failure? It’s too early to tell. What does seem clear is that as long as India is forced to fight a debordered insurgency with a bordered counter-insurgency, the odds are not good.

Brutal and Media Friendly. The New Face of Naxalism?

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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.