INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

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2010 Roundup

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I’ve learned from experience that at this period in my life I should not make promises to my readers which I can’t keep. My posts in the past six months have been extremely erratic. My academic and professional life doesn’t currently give me the time to consistently post with the same intensity as I could in the first years of Naxalwar. No more promises of ending a hiatus. I will only say that I hope to post when I have something to say and the time  to say it.

One of the reasons for the paucity of postings has certainly not been a lack of things to write about. 2010 was the bloodiest year in the history of the Maoist insurgency. 1,169 people died last year according to the government. While civilians continue to make up a disproportionate number of fatalities, the security forces have also not done very well. According to the Indian Express:

The Naxalite groups also enjoyed the upper hand vis-a-vis the security forces in terms of the number of people lost in the battle. The security forces lost 285 personnel, as compared to 317 in 2009 while the casualties on the Naxalites’ side was only 171, again significantly less than 219 in the previous year.

In spite of Green Hunt and the insertion of 60,000 CRPF personnel into the Maoist affected states (roughly evenly split between combat and support staff), the government has not been capable of establishing anything even remotely approaching tactical or strategic dominance.

It seems that 2011 will be more of the same: an unthinking counter-insurgency strategy rooted in the belief that poring greater and greater numbers of poorly trained and motivated paramilitary police forces into central and eastern India will somehow eliminate the ‘Naxal Menace’. It won’t. Nor will the funding of development programmes that are often little more than thinly veiled schemes to further enrich local notables and those forces responsible for the alienation of the adivasi from their land. What is required is political bravery- negotiation without condition. Only when the shooting stops can the government start thinking of the way in which it can begin to fundamentally transform its historically mal-governed hinterland.

Unfortunately, what we are getting is more of what was just announced:

Battling rising Maoist militancy, the Chhattisgarh governmenthas decided to add another 2,400 special police officers (SPOs) to be drawn from local youths to combat the guerrillas.

This will nearly double the number of SPOs in Bastar. More cannon fodder for the CRPF and more intra-tribal violence. Depressing.

Bread and Circuses (at least today)

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It’s hard not to be cynical about the Indian government’s strategy when one reads rubbish like this:

The police and paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) force set up a medical camp and distributed gifts to local tribals in the Maoist-affected Chandrapur village in Orissa’s Rayagada District.

Apparently they even organized a magic show! Wow. So shiny. I’m still not clear how any of these ad hoc, one off (and largely irrelevant) acts of charity by the Indian government constitute any sort of counterinsurgency strategy that  could assist the adivasi people become autonomous and empowered communities in India able to  exercise their democratic citizenship.

I have no doubt that the local commander in charge of this initiative has the best of intentions. But, once the clowns go home and the food runs out, the systematic exploitation and marginalisation of India’s eastern tribal populations will continue. There is no rabbit in the hat.

EDIT: And to preempt some criticisms of my admittedly snarky post, yeah, I have no doubt the kids dug the magic show. Hell, I loved magic shows when I was a boy and I was hardly lacking in toys and other childhood distractions. And, no doubt the medical care will make a real difference in some people’s lives. I have no intention of minimising this. The fact is, however, this is not part of some ‘relief’ mission- it is an ad hoc initiative being conducted under a counterinsurgency strategy. It is short term and misses the point.

Written by Michael

October 14, 2010 at 6:05 pm

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

The Plot Thickens….

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The more I think about it, the more I believe that the Naxalites were not responsible for the recent train derailment. It contradicts their modus operandi. They do not do terrorism. And they have denied responsibility. Even when they fuck up, they admit responsibility. For example, the destruction of a bus in Chhattisgarh which killed scores of civilians was caused by the CPI(Maoist). They admitted responsibility and apologised. They’re hardly angels, but this is not they way they operate. They’re far more tactically clever than this.

The railway minister is now claiming it was a ‘conspiracy’. Yes, Mamata has an agenda as the head of the Trinamool Congress. And her hands are hardly clean. But, something about this doesn’t smell right. Feel free to tell me I’m an idiot.

Written by Michael

May 29, 2010 at 6:24 pm

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.

Soutik Biswas on the Maoists

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I haven’t had many substantive posts recently. It’s the end of term and I’m swamped. I’m also working on some pieces on the Naxalites for a few publications. I’ll put up the links once they’re online.

The BBC has a really, really, really (!) good piece on the Maoists by the always solid Soutik Biswas. I have a few minor quibbles with what he has to say (in particular his link with the Maoists of the past and the Maoists of the present… they’re an entirely new rebel group that has re-constituted itself since the 1980s), but this observation is spot on:

As the toll rises, the conflict provokes a sharply polarised debate.

On the one side are the city-bred romantic revolutionaries. One perceptive analyst calls them a “Maoist-aligned intelligentsia vicariously playing out their revolutionary fantasies through the lives of the adivasis [tribespeople], while the people dying in battle are almost all adivasis”. They protest against the government’s plans to smoke out the rebels.

On the other, are supporters of strong state action who believe the security forces should annihilate the rebels and wrest back areas under their control. Collateral damage, they believe, is par for the course.

So India’s Maoist rebels, in the words of another commentator, are either “romanticised, eulogised [or] demonised”. It depends on which side you are on.

I couldn’t say it better. The debate lacks nuance. The Maoists are neither evil terrorists nor are they freedom fighters worthy of support. The only benefit of the Maoist insurgency is derivative. They have forced India’s elites to confront the marginalisation and miserable social conditions of much of its population. If a counter-insurgency strategy emerges that provides even a modicum of the services and political empowerment that citizens in a democratic state are entitled too, then some good has come out of the insurgency. I’m skeptical. But, I like to be proven wrong.

Written by Michael

March 17, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Fighting the Octopus

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(Source: The Hindu)

I’ve long argued that one of the strengths of the Naxalites has been their ability to associate themselves with the myriad struggles against injustice occurring across India. This has made them a decentralised, networked rebel movement. Failure in one part of the country does not necessarily translate into failure elsewhere.

Recently, I took flak for implying that the movement for a separate Telangana state would objectively benefit the Naxalites. At the risk of again inserting myself into an impassioned debate, there have been (unproven) claims that the Maoists have infiltrated the student protests at Osmania University.

While the claim may be little more than political propaganda by the Andhra government, I find it difficult to believe that there would be no Maoist involvement in the unrest. It is an area with an historically strong Naxalite base and the agitation has been blessed by the rebel leadership.

Infiltration would also fit into the Maoist playbook. Furthermore, I would go so far as saying that it would be tactically foolish for them to not get involved. I welcome any dissenting opinion.

Finally, there have long been rumours of a Maoist presence in the country’s large urban centres. This claim seems to have been lent some credence by Kobad Ghandy, the now imprisoned Maoist leader. Under interrogation, he has stated that the rebels have cadre in Delhi and a network of sympathisers among students and trade unionists in the city. How accurate this information is remains unclear.

I’ve spent far too much time blogging in the past few days and need to get back to my other work. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, so I had a lot of ground to cover.

Written by Michael

February 24, 2010 at 4:49 pm

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.

Are the Naxalites Winning?

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The Indian government just released the official figures for combat deaths across all of the country’s insurgencies. I haven’t yet been able to track down the official report (if there is one), but, from what’s being reported in the media, it doesn’t look good for the government:

In Naxal affected States, the number of the number of Civilians and Security Forces personnel killed upto Oct.31, 2009 was 742 while it was 721 in 2008. However, the number of Naxalites killed during the same time is 170 (till Oct.31, 2009), which stood at 199 in 2008.

An approximate 4:1 ratio is not an indication of anything approximating victory. India The Indian government should be worried.

Written by Michael

December 9, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Telangana- The New Chhattisgarh?

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The central government has given into the demand for a separate Telangana state. Telangana, currently part of Andhra Pradesh state, has had an active independence movement since the late 1960s. Considering India’s proclivity for linguistic and cultural separation, the decision is not at all unexpected.

Far be it for me to disparage the aspirations of the people of the region,but I do think it’s important to note that Telangana is the traditional Naxalite heartland of Andhra, if not of the entire country. Their grip has weakened in recent years largely because of the state government’s effective deployment of the Greyhound para-police coupled with a policy of generous rehabilitation for surrendered rebels. Will this now change? I think that there is a very real risk of the new state becoming as insurgent affected as Chhattisgarh (which itself was created recently from a part of Madhya Pradesh). There are parallels. The new Telangana, like Chhattisgarh, will have fewer resources at its disposal than does Andhra. They will also need time to set-up an effective system of governance- time which they will not have in the Naxalite’s surge. Finally, what of the Greyhounds and the broader (and largely successful) Andhra counter-insurgency programme. Are we witnessing the beginning of India’s newest failed state?

UPDATE:

An interesting piece on how the Andhra police claimed the Maoists had infiltrated the recent protests for Telangana independence at Osmania University in Hyderabad. While the police may just be making this claim for political expediency, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true.

Written by Michael

December 9, 2009 at 7:03 pm