An Internal Guerrilla War Shakes India

While the world tends to focus on terrorism in Kashmir and to a lesser degree strife in the far northeastern states, a bloodier battle is being waged by Maoists in India's mineral-rich states of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Some analysts are calling the threat the biggest India faces.

In the deadliest leftist attack on security yet, rebels on April 19 killed 76 Central Paramilitary Force troops involved in flushing-out operations in the region. The strike took place in the Naxalite-infested state of Chhattisgarh within the thick forests of Dantewada, near a remote village. Reportedly the attack was carried out by as many as 1,000 to 1,500 armed rebels including women, as has been the pattern in the past when large scale damage has been the purpose.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it a ``horrific'' incident. A rattled Home Minister P Chidambaram, who has been spearheading the strong-arm actions against the rebels, said the casualties were "very high" and that something went "drastically wrong" as the security personnel seem to have walked into a trap.

"This shows the savage nature of the CPI (Maoist) and their brutality and the savagery they are capable of,'' Chidambaram said, even as New Delhi has been forced into reassessing its claim that its security forces have managed to rein in the armed rebels in the recent past.

The Naxals, or Naxalites, take their name from the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal where the movement originated after the 1967 fracturing of the Communist Party of India into two wings, the CPI (Marxist) and the CPI (Marxist-Leninist). Originating in West Bengal, the Maoist movement has spread into less-developed areas of rural central and eastern India. Capitalizing on poverty and endemic corruption, the movement has continued to gain strength despite New Delhi's efforts to contain it.

India's valuable coal and mineral industry is centered in several poor states. And, although there are several causes for the violence, the main reasons have been the absence of land reform, the dispossession of the poor from mineral-rich lands, and the persistence of extreme poverty.

Given the reversals the paramilitary forces have suffered, there is little hope that New Delhi will be able to negotiate any kind of truce or surrender from the emboldened cadres, who have published a voluminous and wide-ranging set of demands starting with widespread land reform in rural areas, releasing all political prisoners, lifting the ban on the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and other organizations, waiving all private loans to farmers, scrapping corporate agriculture, withdrawing from "all World Bank projects and schemes supported by imperialists," protecting small- and medium-scale industries from competition by multinationals and reviving cooperatives, scrapping all agreements with the World Bank, MNCs and other countries and many more.

The Maoists feed on the cadres of tribals and dalits (considered to be the lower castes) who have been dispossessed from their lands. They also exploit the alienation that many people feel about indifferent state governments. The eastern and central Indian states possess large tribal concentrations of about 90 million according to the 2001 census.

These states, rich in natural resources, score very low on Human Development Indices worked out by various recognized forums. The HDI of Orissa, the richest mineral-resource state, is abysmal.

It is no surprise then that 40 percent of the top 50 mineral-rich districts in India are today affected by Naxalite and Maoist violence, with repeated attacks on any symbol of authority, both private and public. The report ‘Rich Lands, Poor People' conducted by the Center for Science and Environment reveals that mining in these areas displaced 2.6 million people between 1950 and 1991 and only 25 percent have been resettled.

Another big reason and a more recent wellspring of alienation has been New Delhi's land acquisition policies for setting up industry, infrastructure projects and special economic zones (SEZ). Resettlement is a major problem due to inadequate implementation by Indian authorities. There have been violent protests against land acquisition --- at Nandigram in West Bengal for the Tata Nano project and in Orissa by South Korean steelmaker giant Posco.

Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, who exercises considerable power over the government, has expressed reservations against the diversion of farmland for industrial and non-agricultural use without the farmers being compensated adequately.

The International Monetary Fund also has warned India to take a second look at its special economic zone policy but the Commerce Ministry feels the zones should lead to a Rs500 billion revenue gain for the government every year.

Observers talk of a realistic sustainable framework to be put into place so that growth and development accrue to the tribals and the nation. New Delhi, they say, should take a more political and humane approach towards handling the leftist rebels and focusing more economic and social aspects of a deprived population rather than looking down the barrel of a gun.

Security analysts say India's paramilitary forces are ill-equipped in terms of arms and training to take on the fleet-footed Maoists who, in addition to relying on large-scale attacks, use hit-and-run guerilla tactics.

The analysts point out that the US tactics of "clear, hold and build" being put into practice in Iraq and Afghanistan are unlikely to be effective in guerilla areas as the issues involving Indian Naxalism are deeply-rooted socio-economic problems.

The latest attack, by far the worst, calls into question New Delhi's approach of using sheer force in quelling the rebels. It also raises questions over the credibility of India's military itself, which has been under considerable criticism for its lack of preparedness (See Asia Sentinel 25 March, 2010).

Maoist Attacks

The leftist rebels have been involved in some of the most lethal attacks on security forces in India, much worse than those in terror-infested Kashmir or the states on the far northeastern side where Bangladesh nearly bisects the country - 19 were killed in Jharkhand in April of 2004, 55 in Chhattisgarh in March of 2007, 31 in Orissa in June of 2008, another 16 in Chhattisgarh in July of 2007 and 24 killed in February 2010 in West Bengal.

Although the police and landlords remain the two biggest targets of the Maoists, the communist rebels captured a train with more 250 passengers in a remote part of Jharkhand in 2006. In February of the same year, they attacked a truck convoy in Chhattisgarh, killing 24 people and injuring 32.

In one of the biggest attacks staged in November 2005, more than 1,000 rebels meticulously planned and then executed the release of 350 of their comrades lodged in a jail in Bihar.

A study by the Home Ministry says murders of police personnel by guerrillas jumped 53 percent to 153 in 2006, while 516 civilians were killed, an 11 percent increase on the previous year. Ironically, these are the years when India's growth story began to pick up steam.

In the early 1990s, the number of districts affected by Maoist violence stood at just 15 in four states. It has now risen to 170 districts out of a total of 602 in the country.

At the end of 2009 the military launched Operation Green Hunt, a large-scale coordinated offensive involving paramilitary forces from six states that have been worst affected by Maoist violence.

The defense forces have been used for logistical support even as the government has ruled out their direct involvement in taking on the leftists for now. Preparations are underway, however, to deploy unmanned armed vehicles to map out Maoist strongholds.

India is also seeking advice from American counter-insurgency personnel who have been involved in taking out Taliban and jihadi elements in Northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, it is not an easy road ahead and New Delhi will need to re-calibrate its approach towards an issue that seems to require a more subtle handling than just the use of guns.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com