INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

Posts Tagged ‘Analysis

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.

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.

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.

Telangana as Farce

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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.

Written by Michael

January 1, 2010 at 5:39 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

Countering the Counter-Insurgency

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If, as I argued in my last post, Operation Green Hunt needs to be a holistic counter-insurgency campaign- stories like this don’t help:

In the remote rural expanse that could soon be gobbled up by a Rs 19,500 crore steel plant, there is the clang of an iron-cast protest.“We will not give our land to Tata,” says 60-year-old Sankar Das, the frail dhoti-clad Hindu priest, even as he pokes round in the cloth bag when a passing journalist stops by at a meeting of village elders. Das promptly produces a letter written by residents of his Bedanji village to the district administrator of Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, home to some of the world’s richest iron ore.

Tata Steel, India’s largest private sector steelmaker, plans to invest Rs 19,500 crores in a steel plant across 5,000 acres that will create 5.5 million tones of steel per year. Ten villages have to be emptied out.

“The Kakatiya kings brought and settled us here from Warangal 22 generations ago to worship the goddess and supervise sacrifices on Dussehra,” says the letter handwritten by Bedanji residents in Hindi. “We shall not move.”

It would be almost funny if it weren’t so sad. What this does is a) fuel the grievances of the Adivasi whose support is both crucial to the Maoists and the government and, b) provides the Maoists with a new source of revenue. The Maoists operate a vast illicit taxation network which relies on the exploitation of tribal lands by industry and mining companies.

So, in effect, the government, by authorising this project is providing the Maoists with both a revenue stream and a support base which they can use in their war against the state. Umm… yeah. Good thinking.

Written by Michael

November 16, 2009 at 5:34 pm