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Friday, February 26, 2010


- Maoism is one of the five major challenges facing the country

Soon after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was banned. This was in part because Gandhi's murderer, Nathuram Godse, had once been a member of the RSS; and in part because RSS leaders played a crucial role in the polarization of Hindu-Muslim relations that led to that tragic event. For over a year, the head of the RSS, M.S. Golwalkar, languished in jail. Finally, in July 1949, the organization was unbanned and the leader freed after it agreed to adhere to the Indian Constitution and eschew the use of violence.

This history is not entirely irrelevant to the policies the government of India may consider in its dealings with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). That party is at present banned; because it promotes armed struggle and refuses to recognize the Indian Constitution. As a consequence, the forests of central and eastern India have witnessed intense conflict between the Indian State and Maoist rebels. Shocking crimes have been committed by both sides, with the main victims being the tribals and poor peasants caught in the middle.

Now, the Maoist proposal of a 72-day ceasefire offers the (admittedly slender) hope of a temporary respite. The Maoists have demanded that their party be unbanned and their leaders under arrest released. It is hard to see how these conditions can be met unless the party lays down arms and accepts the Constitution. Since this is unlikely, the government may consider another precedent, which comes from its dealings with Naga insurgents. This keeps the question of the Constitution in abeyance, while promising safe passage to the leaders who are at large (in this case, in exile), allowing them to travel for talks with the Indian State.

In the short-term, the government of India might invoke the Naga model and follow the offer of a ceasefire by speaking to the Maoists. In the medium-term, it must look to the RSS model, whereby a group that once refused to recognize the Indian Constitution comes round to working within it. While in private some RSS leaders may still dream of a Hindu rashtra, in public they have accepted the legitimacy of the Indian State. In the same fashion, the Maoists must be persuaded, over a period of time, to give up their fantasy of a communist dictatorship, and work within the plural, multi-party, democratic process mandated by the Constitution of India.

In dealing with the Maoist problem, the government needs to focus on the here and now; on tomorrow; and on the years to come. For the rise of Maoism in recent decades is based on the deep discontent of our tribal communities. They were ignored in the colonial period, and have been oppressed in the decades since Independence. The national movement, under Gandhi's direction, worked hard to make Dalits, Muslims and women part of the mainstream. These efforts were not wholly successful. But the tribals were left out of the purview of the freedom struggle altogether. Since 1947, meanwhile, they have fared even worse than Dalits and Muslims in terms of access to education, healthcare and dignified employment. They have also suffered disproportionately from displacement, having to abandon their homes and lands for development projects that ultimately benefit Indians who are not themselves tribals.

The Maoists have taken advantage of this long historical experience of marginalization and exploitation. But they have been equally helped by the recent policies of state governments. Until about 10 years ago, there were virtually no Maoists in Orissa; but then that state chose to hand over tribal lands wholesale to mining companies. When the tribals protested, they were branded as 'Naxalites'; a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the fact of their displacement opened up a space for the Maoists to move into. The insurgents now have a considerable presence across several districts of highland Orissa.

In West Bengal, the growth of Naxalism has been helped by the politicization of the district administration. Superintendents of police and district magistrates are expected to consolidate the control of the ruling party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), rather than concern themselves with rural development or law and order. To make matters worse, the bhadralok culture of Bengali communism condescends to the tribals who have never been represented in the party's leadership, and, unlike Hindu or Muslim peasants, have never been the focus of targeted welfare schemes. In Jharkhand, meanwhile, local members of the legislative assembly and ministers have got themselves into the habit of regularly bribing the Maoists, thus emboldening them further.

The errors and crimes of other state governments pale into insignificance when compared to the misdemeanours of the Chhattisgarh government. In 2005, the state decided to arm a vigilante group called Salwa Judum to take on the Maoists. In a bizarre and deeply destructive example of bipartisanship, the Salwa Judum was jointly promoted by the Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister, Raman Singh, and the Congress leader of the Opposition, Mahendra Karma. Given open licence by the administration, the vigilantes embarked on looting, killing, burning, and raping villages and villagers they deemed to be sympathetic to the Naxalites.

As a consequence of this intensification of the conflict, almost 100,000 people were rendered homeless in Dantewada district alone. Between them, Raman Singh of the BJP and Mahendra Karma of the Congress have thus been responsible for displacing more people than the dams on the Narmada river. Far from controlling Naxalism, their policies have actually played into the hands of the adversary. In a recent interview, the Maoist spokesman, Azad, claimed that "thanks to Salwa Judum, our war has achieved in four years what it would have otherwise achieved in two decades".

In all these states, the tribal people have suffered in good part because they are a vulnerable minority. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were formed to protect the adivasi interest; yet the tribals in both states constitute only around 30 per cent of the population. In Orissa, the proportion is just over 20 per cent; in Gujarat and Rajasthan, under 15 per cent; in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and West Bengal, less than 10 per cent. Everywhere, the tribals are outnumbered and outvoted by the non-tribal majority. The political disadvantage is compounded by a social and economic one — everywhere, the non-tribals have more land, wealth, status, and influence. The levers of political power, of economic power, of the courts, and of the media, all lie outside the grasp of the tribal population. In all the states of the Union, and regardless of which party is in power, the policies of the government are overwhelmingly biased against the tribals.

The rise of Maoism is one of perhaps five major challenges facing the country (the others, in my view, are the continuing violence in Kashmir, Manipur and other border states, the corruption of our political class and of the State more generally, the growing inequality between the rich and the poor; and the rapid pace of environmental degradation). To tame and contain this challenge requires clear thinking and hard work. To begin with, one must put a stop to the cycle of violence and counter-violence, and facilitate talks between the State and the rebels. Next, one must work patiently to wean the Maoists away from the cult of the gun, thus to reconcile them with the rule of law and multi-party democracy. Finally, one must seriously attempt to renew public institutions and to frame better policies, so that tribals can come, at last, to enjoy the fruits of equal citizenship.

Like those other challenges, Maoism can only be overcome if our political parties work together rather than in rivalrous opposition. It is crucial that parties and leaders not be contained by the logic of the electoral cycle; rather, they should take a view that is at once short-term, medium-term, and long-term. Such visionary and selfless thinking may perhaps be too much to ask of the present generation of Indian politicians.

Governor to go where Buddha did not
- Narayanan trip aims to boost EFR morale

Calcutta, Feb. 25: Bengal governor M.K. Narayanan will visit the Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) headquarters in West Midnapore's Salua tomorrow, 11 days after Maoists attacked the Shilda camp and killed 24 policemen.

The governor's trip comes at a time chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has not made such a visit despite EFR policemen insisting on his presence at the headquarters a day after the rebel attack.

"The governor will be visiting Salua tomorrow morning in a bid to boost the sagging morale of the EFR policemen there after the Maoists killed 24 of them in Shilda. He will start off from Raj Bhavan at 7am and will go by road. At Salua, he will talk to the EFR authorities at their headquarters to understand their problems and may suggest safeguard measures. After the Shilda attack, the EFR jawans had demanded the chief minister's presence at Salua but he could not make it. It's good that the governor is going there," an official at Writers' Buildings said.

The chief minister, who did not attend Writers' Buildings because of fever on February 15 — the day of the Maoist strike on the Shilda camp — had sent a team of five ministers to Salua to attend a gun salute to the slain policemen.

"During the gun salute, EFR men and their families shouted slogans against the state government and demonstrated in front of the ministers. They kept complaining that the state government had failed to provide security to them. They blocked the vehicles of the ministers and demanded that the chief minister should come. However, that didn't happen,'' said an aide to agriculture marketing minister Mortaja Hossain who had been to Salua to attend the gun salute.

Asked about the possibility of similar demonstrations by the EFR policemen when the governor visits Salua tomorrow, state home secretary Ardhendu Sen said: "Governor is governor. The people out there know what to do when a governor visits a place. They may be peeved about some issue. But we should not do anything that embarrasses the governor. We hope nothing of that kind will happen.''

The armed police director-general, Partha Bhattacharjee, and the armed police inspector-general, Vivek Sahay. will accompany the governor to Salua.

Asked whether Narayanan had expressed his desire to the state government that he wanted to visit Salua, Sen said: "I can't say anything about this."

According to sources in the state government, Narayanan was keen on going to Salua a day after the Shilda attack but was told by the administration that the "tense'' situation there was not conducive to a visit.

"The government told the governor that the situation in Salua was tense and EFR jawans were in a frenzy. He was also briefed on the resentment expressed by them in the presence of the ministers. The government urged the governor to pay a visit after such resentment dies down a bit,'' a source said.

Line snaps, then life

Purulia, Feb. 25: Minutes before he was shot by Maoists early today, inspector Rabi Lochan Mitra had spoken to wife Sudipta.

Sudipta, 45, said this was the first time her husband had called so late at night and that, too, during an encounter. "Generally my husband called around midnight. I was a little surprised as he called around 1.50am today. He told me police were in an encounter with Maoists. 'We have killed two of them. They also shot at us'.

"Suddenly, he started shouting dekho dekho, mejobabu eka hoyey galo … dekho dekho kothai galo (See the second officer has become isolated …. look for him). Then the line got disconnected. I began to worry. I called him back repeatedly but I couldn't get through," said Sudipta, breaking down.

Alarmed, Sudipta then called Mitra's colleagues and Sarenga police station in neighbouring Bankura, of which he was the in-charge, but without success. "Around 2.30am, a call came, saying my husband was busy with an encounter. I couldn't sleep," said Sudipta, sitting in their two-storey house in Purulia town.

She learnt of her husband's death from a news channel around 6am.

Officer killed in Maoist trap
(From left) Rabi Lochan Mitra, the inspector's widow at their home in Purulia and Mitra's son Ranabir after appearing for his Madhyamik exams. Pictures by Mita Roy

Sarenga (Bankura), Feb. 25: Ten minutes after the guns had fallen silent and the Maoists had stopped firing from the Kusumbani forest, Rabi Lochan Mitra, the inspector in-charge of Sarenga police station, turned back with his men and had barely walked half a kilometre in the dead of night when firing started from a half-constructed market.

Mitra had walked into a Maoist trap.

After a 20-minute gun-battle, Mitra took a bullet in his chest and a few minutes later, he lay dead. Police later said that had Mitra been wearing the bullet-proof jacket kept in the station, he would have been alive now.

According to the police, the Maoist attack in Sarenga, a town on the border of Bankura and West Midnapore, began a little past midnight, when a group of 20 rebels came in a minibus and walked in a single file to the house of a local CPM leader, Tarashankar Patra, near the Gobindapur market.

Seeing some of the lights on in the house, the Maoists, who had entered from the back, shot at the bulbs and plunged the house into darkness. Then they started shouting for Patra to come out of the house, all the while calling him a "CPM harmad". When no one responded, they kicked open the door and pulled Patra out.

The Maoists tied his hands and feet and made him squat on the steps leading to the backdoor. As he struggled and screamed, the Maoists shot him in his left leg.

Patra's wife Mita had by then quietly called up the Sarenga police station and by 1am, 40 personnel of the special trained company (Straco) of the police, led by Mitra, arrived at Patra's house.

The police personnel, who had taken up defences behind the boundary wall, shone two powerful searchlights at the house. With the backdoor lit up, they saw Patra sitting crouched on the doorstep with a Maoist holding a revolver to his head. One of the policemen shot the Maoist in the chest. As he fell to the ground, the other Maoists retaliated. The exchange of fire went on for about half an hour, after which the Maoists took to their heels.

The Maoists then broke up into two groups and while one went towards the Kusumbani forest, the other headed to the Gobindapur market.

In the confusion and the darkness, the police did not notice the group bound for the market. Instead, they followed the group of Maoists who went into the forest that began almost from the back of Patra's house.

Misled into thinking that all the Maoists had gone into the forest, the police engaged them till the rebels' guns fell silent. The police then fell into the Maoist trap while returning to the market.

"Just like the Straco men, the Maoists also appeared to be armed with Insas and AK-47 rifles," said DIG, Midnapore range, Piyush Pandey. Both Mitra and Patra were rushed to hospital. Mitra was declared dead, while Patra is recovering.

At Writers' Buildings, director-general of police Bhupinder Singh said: "The police station was equipped with both night-vision equipment as well as bullet-proof jackets. The police should always use them. We are recommending his name for gallantry award."

In the Sarenga encounter, while one Maoist was shot dead, another who suffered bullet injuries is admitted to hospital. He will be arrested soon, police said.

Shilda arrests

Three persons have been arrested from near the Jharkhand border and Kharagpur in connection with the Shilda camp attack. Police said Suklal Soren was a Maoist action squad member who took part in the attack while Ashis Mahato and Manas Mahato had helped the rebels buy two vehicles used during the strike. A Bolero and a pick-up van were used to ferry the Maoists.


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