INDIA'S FORGOTTEN WAR – blogging naxalism.

Posts Tagged ‘Violence

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.

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Written by Michael

May 27, 2010 at 9:48 pm

The Fire Last Time

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There’s an interesting article by Megha Baree on the Forbes website. She is the daughter of a Calcutta-based businessman who had to flee the city because of Naxalite violence during the late 1960s.  It was a particular brutal time:

Every day he and his colleagues would meet at a different spot in the city and be escorted by the police, in a convoy, to the factory. One day a colleague who usually traveled with Avinash in his car, fed up with it all, called a taxi to go home early. The cab had barely exited the 10-acre factory compound when it was attacked, and he was knifed to death. “He had six children,” Avinash remembers. “I had to tell his wife. She never forgave me.” While they were at the funeral two men on motorcycles drove by and threw crude bombs filled with nails at them.

The Naxalites of 1968 were a very different breed than the Naxalites of the 21st century. It was a movement made up largely of students, intellectuals and the working class. In the heady days of 1968 the rebels thought, with the support of China, they could quickly overthrow the state through insurrection and the ‘annihlation of class enemies’. They were wrong. Their brutality engendered a backlash and a viscious state response that virtually decimated the party.

The survivors learned their lesson. Rather than dramatic urban action, they would slowly cultivate support and control in isolated rural areas. It is a much smarter strategy.

(Photo: Charu Mazumdar, the founder of the original Naxlite group, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninst) )

Written by Michael

May 9, 2010 at 2:47 pm

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

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.

Shifting Media Attention

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This is entirely anecdotal and non-scientific, but, I’ve heard a number of people note that the India media payed more attention to the Maoist attack against the police in West Bengal than it did to the near simultaneous Pune German Bakery bombings. This is an interesting development. I’ve been arguing for a long time that the media has payed far more attention to so-called ‘Muslim’ terrorism than it has to Naxalite violence simply because the former affects the country’s elite. Maoist and police violence against the rural poor could be safely ignored. Have we reached a tipping point where urban India now feels threatened by the Maoists? Or am I reading too much into this.

Written by Michael

February 23, 2010 at 6:29 pm

The Forgotten War

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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.

Written by Michael

January 1, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Pre-Emptive International Concern

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An interesting little piece of news today. The European Commission’s Humanitarian Office, which funds relief efforts in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, has cautioned the Indian government against undertaking an anti-Maoist offensive that would jeopardise its work:

“It can become too dangerous, because of ongoing fighting, for our partners to access and reach out to the villages,” Maria Joao Ralha, ECHO’s desk officer for India, told AlertNet by phone from Brussels. “It can also limit access as parties involved in the conflict may become too nervous and may not want humanitarians working there so villagers would not be able to receive the healthcare that our partners are providing them.”

Aside from the increased international dimension which this story demonstrates, it’s important to note that, according to the piece, over 100,000 civilians have been displaced by the conflict. The very real suffering that the so-called ‘Naxal-problem’ has caused for some of India’s most marginalised populations is far in excess of what might be inferred by merely tracking total annual deaths. It’s important to think about. I’ve been to Bastar and visited illegal re-settlement villages in the forests. And the suffering I saw was horrendous. The government needs to be cautious.