Indian Maoists Turn Plunderers

Maoist-linked violence has killed 10,000 people in India over the past two decades. New Delhi calls it the biggest threat to India's internal security, worse than terrorism.

The insurrection has percolated at a relatively low for decades in the poorest of India's central and eastern states. But in recent years, driven by public outrage at government corruption and illegal exploitation of natural resources, it has grown exponentially. Recent events underline that the rebel movement has moved on from being just a reaction against socio-economic exploitation of the poor, to turning plunderers themselves.

Maoist rebels are spread over the northeastern and central eastern states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are the worst impacted. India's valuable coal and mineral industry is focused in these states, which have large tribal concentrations.

Illegal mining has grown into a multi-million dollar scam, often done at night, a consequence of poor governance in the affected states. Official data suggest that 182,000 cases of illegal mining have occurred across 17 states in the last five years. But, far from continuing to seek to protect the environment and the poor, the Naxalites now appear to want a share of this big business pie.

In one sign of the seething anger against the Maoist "exploiters," in August, about 500 residents of a village in Jharkhand, one of the worst affected areas, lynched a Naxalite for seeking extortion money from contractors of construction companies.

"The rebels also extort money from the contractors of firms engaged in the conversion of broad gauge line of the Indian Railways in the Koderma-Hazaribag-Barkakana- Ranchi section of the East Central Railway,'' said a draft prospectus by the state owned Coal India Limited (CIL), which produces more than 80 percent of India's coal output. CIL also warned that "There can be no assurance that illegal mining activities or pilferage of coal from our mines or stockpiles will not increase in the future."

Yet, such incidents as the lynching do not appear likely to change the bigger picture. The insurgents are very well armed and omnipotent in the region. Their weapons are mostly procured by raiding police and paramilitary posts. There are some reports of smuggling of arms from Nepal, Burma and China.

There are also reports of links with other rebel outfits in Assam and the now- defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam in Sri Lanka. Security officials say that LTTE cadres have been involved in training the Naxalite rebels in guerilla attack hit and run and sabotage tactics against armed security forces. Some Maoist leaders are known to espouse the cause of a Pan-Indian front of insurgent groups involving rebels especially from the unstable northeast.

In one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in India earlier this year, Maoist rebels killed 76 members of a central paramilitary force involved in flushing out operations in the region. The strike took place in the thick forests of Dantewada, near the remote village of Chintalnar-Tarmetla in the state of Chhattisgarh.

In October 2009 Maoists killed the son of Jharkhand Vikas Morcha Party chief Babulal Marandi and 19 others. The rebels are known to particularly target symbols of state authority (state and federal paramilitary) seen as exploiters, landlords and the rich. Civilians, including passenger trains have also been attacked.

According to estimates by CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, Maoist activity threatens seven eastern and central states and nearly US$80 billion worth of natural-resource projects.

Security Action

In August-September 2009 New Delhi launched its biggest and most organized offensive (called Operation Green Hunt) to root out the four-decade-old communist rebel insurgency. The ongoing operations have involved more than 100,000 federal paramilitary forces which have even being withdrawn from terror hit states such as Indian Kashmir.

India has roped in defense forces (for non-combat strategic and intelligence inputs, with some operational involvement such as helicopters) and sought inputs from American security officials in order to take on the rebels. Army Special Services have been being readied for strikes if required.

Certainly, given the wide dispersal of the extremists, various security arms, including intelligence units, need to be involved. The main action has been focused in the central and eastern parts of the country, considered to be Naxalite strongholds, with officials saying this is going to be a "battle to the finish."

Federal Home Minister P Chidambaram is pushing all states to quickly implement the ongoing Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System (CCTNS) to increase nationwide coordination in investigation, crime prevention and emergency response.

New Delhi is also seeking inputs from American counter-insurgency personnel who have been involved in taking out Taliban and jehadi elements in North Western Pakistan and Afghanistan that employ similar "hit and run" attack tactics as the Naxals. US assistance is being sought in neutralizing cadres that mingle with local tribal populations or hideouts in deep jungles.

New Delhi has been building on improved strategic ties with America that has now extended beyond the civilian nuclear deal to defense and co-operation in taking on terror. Last September, Chidambaram went on a four-day official visit to America that focused on Indo-US anti-terror cooperation and taking on the Leftist rebels in India, with the result that US involvement in Indian security has deepened, especially following the Mumbai terror strikes in November 2008.

US teams are interacting closely with Indian security agencies to develop intelligence networks and protect soft terror targets such as crowded markets, malls, airports, rail stations and places of worship.

The Future

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spoken about a two-pronged strategy of development and law and order to fight the violence. The areas of Maoist operation score very poorly on human development as the local population has not benefited from rich mining activities that have instead filled state coffers, enriched politicians and the bureaucracy and a few outsider businessmen.

Tribals constitute no more than 8 percent of the country's population but account for 40 percent of the 50-60 million displaced since independence due to land diversion, particularly by state firms for mining. India has a big challenge to overcome.

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

State-wise Left Wing Extremism violence from 2008 to 2009 (Source: Ministry of Home Affairs)

States 2008 2009

Incidents Deaths Incidents Deaths

Andhra 92 46 66 18

Pradesh

Bihar 164 73 232 72

Chhattisgarh 620 242 529 290

Jharkhand 484 207 742 208

Madhya 7 - 1 -

Pradesh

Maharashtra 68 22 154 93

Orissa 103 101 266 67

Uttar Pradesh 4 - 8 2

West Bengal 35 26 255 158

Others 14 4 5 -

Total 1591 721 2258 908