INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

Archive for the ‘West Bengal’ Category

Overlapping Connections and Complex Ties

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One of the most interesting elements of the Maoist insurgency is the complex relationships between the various actors. This is not an insurgency that can easily be understood as a battle between an armed anti-state group fighting the government. Naxalism makes for strange bedfellows. One of the strangest is the link between the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(Maoist). While there have long been rumours of an alliance, the latest evidence is particularly damning:

Causing serious embarrassment to the Trinamool Congress leadership, party MP Kabir Suman has written an autobiography and dedicated it to top Maoist leader Kishenji among others.

The book, titled ‘Nishaner Naam Tapasi Malik’, has an eye-witness account of a meeting held in the office of the Trinamool Congress between party supremo Mamata Banerjee and Maoist leaders Raja Sarkhel and Prasun Chhattapadhyay, who are currently in jail under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

While Kabir Suman is no longer a member of Trinamool, there have  been no suggestions (as far as I know) that these revelations are false. Mamata Banerjee is not only the leader of the party, she is also a minister in the central government. In effect, a senior member of a government engaged in a large counter-insurgency operation is a tactical ally of the insurgents. Her party, a member of the governing coalition, also has ongoing operational linkages with the Maoists. Bizarre.

And this isn’t all. One of the most intense theatres of conflict is in West Bengal where the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) government is engaged in an increasingly ferocious and indiscriminate turf war with the Maoists. The Forward Bloc, one of the CPI(M)’s governing coalition partners is also sympathetic towards the Maoists:

Forward Bloc is known to be a “silent sympathiser” of the Maoists as it had opposed the joint operations in Lalgarh despite being a partner of the Left Front. It also criticised the imposition of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on the Maoists in West Bengal.

And in neighbouring Jharkhand, another hotbed of insurgency, the former (and still influential) Chief Minister apparently also believes that the Naxalites are a people’s movement worthy of support. In late December he was asked whether:

deployment of joint forces has been causing problems to tribals, Soren said:

“If the government thinks  force is necessary to restore the law and order, it’s fine with me. But at the same time, it has to be ensured that the force is not used for the benefit of some party.”

His observation comes in the wake of Jharkhand Deputy Chief Minister Hemant Soren’s assertion that he was in favour of the withdrawal of Central forces from Naxal-hit areas because he had information that the forces have been helping the CPM to control the sanitised area.

In effect, the former CM  and the current Deputy CM of Jharkhand have allied themselves with the Trinamool and the Maoists against the CPI(M).

If this is making your head hurt, you’re not the only one. Such Byzantine alliances exist not only been political parties and the rebels. They also exist between business and the Naxalites. The mineral rich areas of the country are partly governed and regulated through a mutually beneficial collaborative relationship between large mineral extracting ‘capitalists’ and the communist rebels. Of course the losers in all of these machinations are the local people.

Oh. But I forgot. It’s Binayak Sen who is guilty of sedition.

Written by Michael

January 12, 2011 at 12:17 am

What’s up with West Bengal?

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I’m considering my locations for fieldwork next summer. West Begal is one of them. Out of all of the fronts of the war, this one is the most confusing, complex and enigmatic. There are a lot of players (some of them in the central government) and a lot of questions. I’ll be writing more about what I think may be happening. In the meantime, I’d love if any of my readers might pitch in with their view. Is it a strictly power related play between political factions? Is it tribal? What is it?

I’d love to hear from you.

Written by Michael

October 14, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Posted in West Bengal

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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

Terrorism?

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Reports are coming in that a train derailment in West Bengal that killed at least 15 people was caused by a Maoist bomb which destroyed the tracks. This seems to be a plausible possibility. The derailment happened in West Midnapore, an area which was briefly ‘liberated’ by the rebels late last year.

If this was in fact the Maoists, it represents a potentially disturbing turn towards terrorist tactics. The question is whether it was a deliberate attempt to derail a civilian passenger train. If it was, the Naxalites are not doing themselves any favours.

UPDATE: The death toll from yesterdays attack is now at 71 and continues to rise. While early reports suggested that the train was derailed as a result of a Maoist bomb, it now seems clear that it was the result of track sabotage.

While the Maoists are brutal, they have largely avoided the use of terrorist tactics. The recent attack against a civilian bus in Chhattisgarh, for example, targeted security forces. The civilians were ‘collateral damage’.

There is a strange idea circulating in India that while the Naxalites may have once been honourable and idealistically guided rebels, they have now became a nihilistic criminal gang. I’ve recently been reading documents and newspaper reports from the early days of the Naxalite movement in West Bengal during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The level of brutality inherent in their ‘strategy of annihilation’ as well as the thuggishness and terrorism of their lumpen street fighters in Calcutta suggests that this story is nothing more than a convenient myth.

The state was partially able to crush the early Maoist movement because their brutality had alienated the vast majority of the population. Today’s Naxalites have learned their lessons from the past. That is why actions such as this are surprising.

UPDATE 2: The CPI(Maoist) has denied involvement in the train derailment. I tend to believe them. The death toll has now surpassed 100.

UPDATE 3: The Indian Express is reporting that the People’s Committee Against Police Attrocities has claimed responsibility. If this is true, it raises questions of how autonomous the PCPA is from the CPI(Maoist). The links between the two groups have been taken as a given- are they nothing more than a front for the Naxalites? This is unclear.

Written by Michael

May 27, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Upping the Ante

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As Operation Green Hunt continues, the Maoists continue to strike with relative impunity while sustaining minimal casualties.

Earlier this week the Naxalites blew up a commercial bus travelling in Dantewara, killing around 50 people. Traveling aboard the civilian carrier were around 20 so-called Special Police Officers (SPOs). These are local tribals empowered as temporary constables to combat the Maoists. While they are valued for their local knowledge, they have also been criticised for child soldiers, inadequate training and their use as little more than cannon fodder by the CRPF.

While the Maoists have engendered a great deal of )understandable) outrage from their killing of dozens of non-combatants, the use of civilian transport by paramilitary forces engaged in a counterinsurgency is negligent at best and criminal at worst. More to the point, it is indicative of the lax discipline and poor tactical planning on the part of the government.

A little over a day later the Maoists, this time in West Bengal, carried out another landmine attack that killed 4 CRPF personnel. Today, in Bihar (a state only moderately affected by the insurgency) derailed a train transporting fuel and then proceeded to torch the carriages.

The relentless attacks by the Maoists and myriad failures by state forces has revealed not only problem inherent in Green Hunt, but also the serious divisions in the government over how best to deal with the insurgency.

The government is undertaking a review of its policies with Chidambaram pushing for a greater mandate. He is echoing the demand made by some state ministers for the deployment of the IAF.  From the Indian Express:

Chidambaram said he would ask the Cabinet Committee on Security for a “larger mandate” — an apparent reference to approval of air support for ground operations — for the Home Ministry in dealing with Naxalites. “The security forces, the Chief Ministers want it (air support). The Chief Ministers of (West) Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa have all asked for air support,” Chidambaram said, speaking on the day Naxalites blew up a bus in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, killing at least 35 people, mostly civilians.

While the Home Minister has claimed that the IAF would be used for transportation and surveillance, rather than aerial bombardment, it is not at all clear why the currently deployed helicopters from the BSF’s air wing are inadequate for the task.

Use of the air force would engage the Indian armed forces in a battle which they are neither trained nor structured for. The armed forces have been prepared and equipped for conventional warfare between neighbouring states, not for precision attacks within their own borders. It is not at all surprising that the leadership of the IAF is opposed to such involvement.

Up until now, Green Hunt is a failure. It is premised on an uncertain blend of massive manpower and the funneling of development assistance to the affected states. The government’s response has been incompetent and inconsistent. The Maoists, on the other hand, have used the opportunities created by the presence of so many additional security forces to lethal effect.

Operation Green Hunt Updates

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Things have been relatively quiet since the April attack which killed 76 paramilitary members. Both sides were likely taking stock of the situation. Things are once again heating up. Here are a few of the latest developments:

Security forces have ambushed a party of Maoists in Orissa. While it is difficult to verify body counts (as the Naxalites remove their dead), the government is claiming to have killed at least a dozen rebels and suffered no casualties. The interesting thing is that the Greyhound forces, Andhra Pradesh’s much lauded anti-Naxalite force, has been involved. This suggests a level of cross-border collaboration which has been largely absent in the past.

The Maoists inflicted their first significant casualties since early April. An IED on one Chhattisgarh’s busiest highways killed 8 paramilitaries riding in an armoured vehicle. Apparently the explosive device had been planted months earlier once again demonstrating the discipline and patience of the rebels.

Continuing the field dominance approach of Operation Green Hunt, Delhi has promised to send even more paramilitary units to West Bengal this month. If anyone has current numbers on deployment in the Red Corridor, I’d be grateful if you could send them on to me.

Finally, the Maoists have threatened to kill Congress Party members in Jharkhand. Notably, neither BJP nor JMM politicians have been targeted.

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.