Friday, July 31, 2009

Lalgarh: Somnolent State in Retreat

Can a modern functioning state afford to lose sovereignty over its territory to a dubious band of rebels and political activists with indications of tacit support by a party in government at the Centre? The answer in Lalgarh West Bengal in India is Yes. Lalgarh represents the singular tragedy of the Indian state where somnolence is supplemented by wooly liberalism as media personalities and NGOs from Kolkata streamed to the area when the state finally decided to act and launched a police operation to evict the Naxals who had established a strong hold. Surprisingly as per media reports, even as the operation commenced two central ministers were rushed by a Party chief to the conflict zone.

While these very liberals and their ilk came out in the open in Mumbai when their liberty and freedom was at stake in December 2008, after the 26/11 terror attack, there has been no such sympathy for the helpless peasants in Lalgarh, underfed, under clothed and at the mercy of the Maoists and the security forces alike.

The abject lack of professionalism of the police was also evident on television screens as lathi wielding constable assaulted half clad peasants in a brutal display of state power, while at the end of the day they were left to purchase food from local shops as the police hierarchy had not provisioned meals during operations.

The Maoists, in typical guerrilla tactics melted in the jungles in the face of overwhelming numbers but with 500 youth from the area who are not traceable they have already created space in another three districts in West Bengal where their writ is likely to remain dominant in the next few years. Naxalism could thus prove to be the Union Home Minister’s nemesis in the days ahead.
The Centre and the State governments started to speak in one voice by the middle of June as the crisis in Lalgarh was highlighted in the media. Before start of the operation however there was confusion over applicability of the UAPA, again a dilemma in the classic mould created by terrorist groups.

Thus finally the three-pronged offensive to flush out Maoists from Lalgarh region was launched on 19 June even as Maoist rebels dug roads and burnt a bridge to stall them. "The operation is on in full steam. It is on track. The forces are moving. There has not been much resistance today," West Midnapore District Magistrate N.S. Nigam told IANS. The security forces advanced on three axes, one towards the Jhitka jungle, considered a Maoist den with other prongs from Sarenga in Bankura and a third team from Jhargram in West Midnapore. The operations were conducted at a deliberate pace to avoid casualties and keeping in view the terrain configuration.

Steadily advancing, the security forces on 27 June “captured” the key Maoist stronghold of Ramgarh. Further consolidating their position they stormed Katapahari, the hub of the agitation on 30 June. With the fall of Kantapahari, the 25km road connecting Lalgarh to Goaltore was opened. The Maoist bases were neutralized and police decided to resume bus services in the area.

The Maoists after attempting to resist the security forces decided on the classic strategy of withdrawal in the face of overwhelming force and resistance. This contributed to the success of the security forces. This also led the Centre to warn Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Chhattisgarh that a large number of Maoists, many of them armed, have fled Lalgarh to sneak into the neighboring states.

These cadres had to get away as they could be easily identified by the police standing out as sore thumbs, but the local youth remained under cover. Thus police estimate that around “400 to 500” tribal youths trained by the Maoists are on the loose in Lalgarh. “About 400 to 500 local youths were trained by the Maoist guerrillas in the Jhitka and Kadashole-Mohultala forests,” a senior police officer said. “Those from outside can easily be identified as they speak a different language and cannot prove that they belong here. But the task becomes so much more difficult when it comes to local youths who have been trained.”

While the government forces have been able to reestablish control over the Lalgarh area primarily due to determined use of force, lack of development and alternatives provided by the Maoists through formation of the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA) needs to be taken note off. This area is adjoining the Jharkhand border where the Maoists are in large numbers and would therefore provide them access as there has been limited development and government is going for large sized industrial schemes which have marginalized the small farmers and laborers. There is also a governance vacuum which was exploited by the Maoists. However they obviously lacked support of the people this time around, but if the government does not ensure delivery of services to the people, there is likely to be a backlash.

The Maoist pattern is now clear as they are penetrating those areas with limited or no governance with ease. The aim is to exploit people grievances for their own political agenda. This is done by establishing a small group of supporters through political mobilization who set up an organization as the PCPA in West Bengal or Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS) in Orissa. These groups provide the front for Maoist activities gaining them a foot hold in the local population. This also facilitates spreading of the rebellion to other areas gradually. On the other hand their old tactics as taxation have been causing substantial hardship to the people who are not able to express their grievance due to fear of retribution. In any case it would be premature to expect their presence in West Bengal or in Koraput in Orissa to be marginalized.

What however needs to be questioned also is the state's abdication of responsibility for governance in Lalgarh? In that respect the State is also culpable towards these acts of the Maoists. More over police action has been so shoddy if television screens are to be believed where pulling out innocent villagers from the houses and beating them up is hardly the way to tackle militancy. Time for cohesion in security governance in India and it is not too late.

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