29 Jun 2009
India's Maoist Standoff
New Delhi’s decision to ban its Maoist party after a standoff between insurgents and security forces in West Bengal state will not resolve the conflict, borne of administrative apathy and strong-arm tactics, Sudeshna Sarkar writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Sudeshna Sarkar for ISN Security Watch
One week ago, the Indian government banned its Maoist party, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), after a growing confrontation between insurgents and security forces in its West Bengal state.
The move came after the rebels announced they had taken control of Lalgarh, a village some 170 kilometers from the state capital Kolkata, where they led a landmine attack on the convoy of the chief minister of the state and two federal ministers in November.
The Maoist insurgency in India received a boost in 2004 when three underground organizations advocating an armed struggle – the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML), Maoist Communist Center and People’s War Group – merged to form the CPI (Maoist). With the ban, it now joins other proscribed terror organizations like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Hijbul Mujahideen.
The November attack saw the red-faced administration and police begin a stringent operation against the villagers of Lalgarh, most of whom are tribespeople called adivasis.
“At least 11 people have died, and several others have been abducted, during a wave of political violence in Lalgarh in the last seven months,” Amnesty International noted in its appeal to the government to avoid unnecessary violence.
AI alleges that police are arbitrarily detaining members of the adivasis community and using excessive force.
“Allegations that police carried out atrocities against the adivasi community are at the heart of the protests [...]. The police response allegedly included arbitrary detention of seven persons, three of them schoolboys, for several days and excessive use of force on at least 50 persons including eight women. No inquiry was held so far into the alleged violations.”
Since 1977, West Bengal has been continuously ruled by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). Ironically, the Maoists it is now battling are its own offshoot.
In 1967, CPM hardliners broke away to lead a peasant uprising in Naxalbari in northern West Bengal, triggering the first Maoist insurrection, also known as the Naxal movement. Though the then Congress government ruthlessly suppressed it, it continued to smolder in three townships in West Bengal, including West Midnapore, where Lalgarh is located.
After the November attack and police retribution, Lalgarh villagers formed a local committee to oppose police atrocities. However, the protest was commandeered by the Maoists, resulting in a whirlpool of violence between the rebels, CPM cadres, police and the villagers.
Disenchantment breeds contempt
West Bengal’s human rights organizations blame the state government for the Lalgarh confrontation, especially its questionable land deals, prevailing corruption and unleashing of violence when opposed.
“Midnapur, Bankura and Purulia, three districts in West Bengal that have a majority adivasi population, have remained deprived of their rights since British rule in India,” says Kirity Roy, president of Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Manch, a human rights organization in West Bengal that is monitoring the situation in Lalgarh.
“The CPM had been winning elections in Lalgarh since 1997,” Roy told ISN Security Watch. “Even after ruling the state for 32 years, they failed to provide deliverance. The government has not provided them drinking water, education, shelter, healthcare, roads or even food, though these are rights guaranteed by the constitution. They live on leaves, shoots and roots, and there are frequent starvation deaths. After the violence and the ensuing limelight, the government has put up some langarkhanas (soup kitchens) as an eyewash measure without addressing the root causes.”
Even the Communist Party of India (CPI), a CPM government ally, admitted Sunday that the confrontation was due to state negligence. "An element of not undertaking the actual work they should have done, particularly in the areas inhabited by tribal people [did exist]," A B Bardhan, CPI general secretary, said during a television interview. "They neglected it. Yes. I will say so."
Lalgarh is not an isolated flashpoint: The state government has also come under fire for its actions in Singur and Nandigram.
Singur, a village in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, was chosen as the site to build the Tata Nano car factory. But despite the employment opportunities the project promised to generate, the factory had to leave the state after growing opposition from some of the displaced farmers, who were backed by the CPM’s main rival in the state, the Trinamool Congress.
The CPM’s decision to allow an Indonesian tycoon, the Salim Group, to establish a chemical hub in Nandigram, a village in East Midnapore, also met with fierce resistance from the locals and the TC, causing that project to be scrapped. The violence that erupted between the protesters and CPM cadres was condemned statewide after a teenage protester was killed.
Though the ruling party tried to blame the fracas on the TC, that its own land apportion deals were considered dubious by the people was proved by three consequent elections. In village administration elections last year, the CPM lost Singur and Nandigram to TC, followed by a by-election defeat in Nandigram this year, and finally, the stunning general election defeat in April-May, in which it won only nine out of 42 seats in the state.
The same disenchantment with the government is breeding protests in West Bengal’s neighboring states Orissa, Bihar and Jharkhand, where the Maoists are trying to capitalize on the unrest. The other states in which they have become increasingly active are Andhra Pradesh in the south and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in central India.
Soon after the ban, retaliatory attacks began. The next day, Maoists attacked a police team inside the premises of a district court in Bihar, fleeing with the prisoner, an influential member of their politburo. They struck again in Orissa’s Koraput district, where they have a strong presence, attacking a government office, blowing up a railway building, and damaging three mobile phone towers, forcing the federal home minister to postpone his scheduled visit to a mine in the district.
On Sunday, they killed a militia leader in Chhattisgarh for playing a prominent role in the Salwa Judum movement, an anti-Maoist protest that turned into state-armed vigilantism, leading to gross violations of human rights.
Political resolution sought
Gour Chakraborty, spokesman of the CPI (Maoist) in West Bengal, told the media the ban would bolster the party.
“Since inception, the CPI (Maoist) has been an underground party,” Chakraborty said before he was arrested on Tuesday. “It has always carried out its operations clandestinely. Therefore, a prohibition is not going to have any influence on our party’s activities. In fact, it will only infuse into us a new sense of grit to counter the government opposition.”
He also predicted the ban would divide India’s communist parties since “one communist party can never ban another communist party.” Indeed, the prohibition was immediately criticized by the CPM’s own general secretary Prakash Karat, who said it wouldn’t serve any purpose since the Maoists could re-group under other names.
Karat is advocating a political resolution. So are others.
“Lalgarh and [other flashpoints] should be considered as a political problem to be resolved by mutual consent and talks, not at the point of gun,” Roy told ISN Security Watch. “We have the experience of the Gorkhaland movement in the 1980s (when Indians of Nepali origin began demanding a separate state in West Bengal). The state’s strong-arm tactics were defeated and the problem continues.”
How India now tackles its Maoist insurgency will also affect the image it projects of itself as the largest democracy in the world. The confrontation is being watched closely by communist and Maoist parties worldwide.
In neighboring Nepal, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was banned when it started an armed uprising in 1996. However, it returned to mainstream politics after an agreement with the major political parties that was brokered by India in New Delhi.
“The ban [on Indian Maoists] is an internal matter of India,” Dinanath Sharma, spokesman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), told ISN Security Watch. “However, we have always advocated resolving conflicts through negotiations. In a democracy, there is no space for repressive measures like bans.”
Sudeshna Sarkar is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Nepal.
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