Monday, April 24, 2006

Asia's other Maoist threat (April 24, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta
JASHPURNAGAR, INDIA--For two hot summer months, observant police in this tiny, remote town in the north of the country spotted a trickle of young boys from neighboring states disappearing into the surrounding forest. In almost every case, they reemerged a few months later, clutching a wad of banknotes, amounting to a fortune in local terms.
These youngsters--police estimate at least 250 passed through the area last May and June--were the latest recruits to a Maoist rebel movement that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently branded the biggest threat to India’s internal security. “There can be no political compromise with terror,” he told an April 14 meeting convened to discuss the crisis, after a string of audacious attacks by the insurgents in several states.
But the prime minister’s rhetoric is undercut by his government’s actions. Namely, Mr. Singh and his Congress Party have a track record of trying to cut covert deals with the Maoists. The sops allowed the rebels time to rearm and regroup, contributing to the recent upsurge in violence.
The sheer numbers give cause to worry. According to the Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Studies, 247 people--including 83 insurgents--have died in Maoist-inspired violence in the first quarter of this year. That includes a March 13 hijacking of a train in the northern state of Jharkhand and a March 24 jail break, when Maoists freed one of their top leaders from jail in the state of Orissa. That followed yet another audacious jail break last November, when 500 armed Maoists stormed a prison in the state of Bihar, freeing top rebel leaders and murdering political opponents incarcerated there.
Left-wing extremism is nothing new in South Asia. The Indian state of West Bengal endured a Maoist insurgency from 1967 to 1972. Sri Lanka experienced similar insurrections in 1971 and 1988. In all these cases, the governments declared war and used counter-insurgency strategies that included arresting all rebel leaders and actively recruiting agents to turn in their former comrades.
But in India, the threat has been approached with a softer touch--and is now bordering on a severe uprising. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs estimates that there are now nearly 9,300 hard-core Maoist cadres, well-armed and trained in how to use explosives, active in 165 districts in 14 of the country’s states. To put this into perspective, that spans an area where 17% of India’s population lives. The Maoists, once romantically portrayed by their sympathizers as well-intentioned Robin Hoods, motivated by local poverty and oppressive landlords, are finally being recognized as a serious threat to the Indian state. With neighboring Nepal gripped by an insurgency that has seen Maoists rebels create “liberated zones” of parallel administrations covering last swathes of the mountainous kingdom, the fear is that their Indian counterparts are seeking to follow suit. That could, in the worst case scenario, create a “red corridor” running from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean.
Hence the belated alarm bells in New Delhi. But Mr. Singh’s administration is paying a price for its own short-sightedness. When the Congress Party-led government came to power in May 2004, it tried to enlist the Maoists for political purposes, rather than tackle the insurgency head-on. The government cynically calculated that Maoists the held the balance of power in nearly 10% of parliamentary constituencies--not because they enjoy popular support, but because they are powerful enough to intimidate the voters in those areas.
Naively, policy makers believed they could use the Maoists to undermine the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which controls five of the seven states in which the insurgents are strongest. The Home Minister in New Delhi repeatedly turned down requests from BJP-controlled states for firm military action against the rebels. For instance, a request from the BJP-controlled state of Chhatisgarh for airborne operations against the insurgents was rejected on the ground that the Maoists were “our boys” who deserved to be sweet-talked, rather than outgunned. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress regional government even negotiated a 10-month ceasefire with the Maoists.
Not surprisingly, the Maoists took advantage of these mixed signals and dithering in New Delhi to regroup and rearm. In September 2004, they united their various splinter groups under the umbrella body of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). In Andhra Pradesh alone, they raised an estimated 500-600 million rupees ($11-13 million) during the 10-month ceasefire, from June 2004 to April 2005. The local police estimated the Maoists recruited 300-500 additional guerrillas during this period. Official complicity in allowing the rebels to regroup was graphically demonstrated in February 2005, when the regional government ordered Andhra Pradesh police to call off an anti-insurgency operation, allowing a top Maoist leader called Ramakrishna to escape. When the militants finished refinancing their cause, they simply declared the ceasefire over, blaming alleged police killings of their supporters.
It’s good that the Singh administration finally seems to have woken up to the threat. The first priority should be to give India’s states the tools they have long been demanding to tackle the insurgency. That means funds to modernize their police forces, buy helicopters to send rapid deployment forces into otherwise inaccessible areas, and the resources to establish elaborate intelligence networks.
Even more importantly, Mr. Singh needs to build on his recent remarks to a special meeting of chief ministers from all Indian states. In that meeting, he vowed to “wipe out” the Maoist threat, calling for more effective policing as part of an aggressive new strategy to tackle the violence.
Encouragingly, some states have already taken a tough stance. In West Bengal, the state’s Communist-led government advocates using the same, warlike counter insurgency tactics that worked in the 1980s. (At a recent election rally, the Communist chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeva Bhattacharya, warned the Maoists that the state police would “finish them off.”) The BJP has shown it is not soft on terrorists either, with a controversial program of resettling villagers in guarded camps in the remote Bastar region, so depriving local Maoists of sustenance and support.
Nepal’s experience demonstrates that any half-hearted and inept handling of the Maoist threat can prove counter-productive. In India, the stakes are even higher. Quietly but systematically, the Maoists are targeting India’s claim to be the latest global economic success story. Domestic industries, particularly the mining sector, are already being hard hit by the taxes the Maoists impose in the areas they control. Although only one foreign investor has been targeted so far--the destruction of a Coca Cola bottling plant in Andhra Pradesh in 2001--the Maoist leadership has been ominously warning multinationals to stay away.
“Give us five years,” one Maoist leader recently predicted, “We will make sure you spend sleepless nights.”
Mr. Dasgupta is a Delhi-based columnist and former managing editor of India Today.

(Published in Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2006)

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