September 21, 2020
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Does Fire Burn?

Political duplicity, opportunism and sheer stupidity have contributed as much to the growth and consolidation of the Maoist movement in India, as have the strategic coherence, persistence and tactical ingenuity of the rebels themselves.

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Does Fire Burn?
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Such delusional ignorance of the clear facts of history, of the long trajectory of Maoist operations across the country, and of Maoist ideology, strategy and tactics, can only bring disaster to the West Bengal. (Mamata) Banerjee may believe that she is starting out anew, but her fantasies of 'developing' her way out of the Maoist challenge have a long and sorry chain of precedents. Several State Governments in the past have, moreover, entered into similar deals with the devil, and it is the SFs and the people who have had to pay the price in blood, for political opportunism and folly.

"Reinventing Folly", SAIR, July 4, 2011

Political duplicity, opportunism and sheer stupidity have contributed as much to the growth and consolidation of the Maoist movement in India, as have the strategic coherence, persistence and tactical ingenuity of the rebels themselves. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal has run through the same farcical course that numberless parties in other states have adopted in the past, refusing to learn from the experience of others, and insisting, instead, on testing the flames anew.

A clear accommodation had been reached between the TMC and the Communist Party of India - Maoist (CPI-Maoist) leadership in the extended run-up to the Assembly Elections of April-May 2011. Rejecting overwhelming evidence to the contrary, TMC chief Mamata Banerjee, in her desperation to unseat her rival Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M), repeatedly claimed, through her election campaign, that "there are no Maoists in Jungal Mahal [Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore]", and that the entire trouble in this disturbed region was caused by the then-ruling CPI-M, whose cadres were "Marxists in the day and Maoists at night."

Today, ironically, just months into her tenure as Chief Minister, she has not only sighted Maoists in the Jungal Mahal area, but has found them allegedly moving around her residence in the state capital, Kolkata, with the intention of killing her. The olive branch that she offered to the Maoists on assuming power, has predictably found no takers. The 'talks' she proposed have collapsed before they could even commence. The Maoists are back to their usual task of liquidating their 'class enemies', now unsurprisingly including TMC cadres. The suspension of anti-Maoist operations by the Security Forces (SFs) under an undeclared 'cease-fire' is now just waiting to be 'officially' declared as withdrawn.

In the evening of September 25, 2011, Maoist cadres killed Jharkhand Janamukti Morcha president Rabindranath Bose alias Babu Bose at Dohijuri in the Jhargram area of West Bengal. Bose was a known anti-Maoist leader and had, of late, been getting closer to the TMC. Bose's murder had been preceded by another two prominent killings, those of local TMC leader Lalmohan Mahato, who had organised resistance squads against Maoists, and TMC party worker Rabindranath Mishra, on September 20 and August 24 respectively - by the Maoists in the same area. Earlier, the Maoists had killed three civilians since Banerjee assumed power. Though the earlier killings did not receive due attention from the Chief Minister, the subsequent murder of party supporters prodded her to come out of her world of make-believe.

After the killing of Bose, Banerjee's outburst against the Maoists, on September 25, 2011, was sharp. She described them as "the mafia of Jungal Mahal", and warned such "mindless killings" would not be tolerated, and that "the police will not wear bangles and watch; they will do their jobs... I have told the Police, 'You don't have to wait for my instructions to establish law and order in Jungal Mahal'." She claimed, further, "A few days back, some Maoists were seen around my house. They threatened to kill me. They have also threatened to kill Mukul [Mukul Roy, TMC General Secretary] and my party leader Srikanta Mahato. A few days back they held a rally in Jungal Mahal where a Maoist leader said all Trinamool leaders are their targets." In frustration, she took a dig at "some people" associated with Jadavpur University, Calcutta University and Presidency University, who occasionally hold hunger strikes at College Square and visit Jungal Mahal to voice their support for the Maoists. Significantly, in the pre-poll phase, the TNC had made common cause with some of these very activists in its campaigns against the then-ruling CPI-Marxist.

Her abrupt condemnation of the Maoists can only confirm the opportunistic and delusional character of her claims that she could secure a negotiated peace with those taking up arms in Jungal Mahal, and find a 'developmental' solution to the problem of Naxalism (Left-Wing Extremism). After hobnobbing with the Maoists over an extended period before and during the polls, she unofficially brought SF operations against them to a halt immediately after assuming power and made an offer of formal negotiations to 'resolve' issues. On July 7, 2011, the state government declared "it has always been ready for talks for the sake of a peaceful solution to Jungal Mahal's problems", and Banerjee authorised a team of six human rights activists to talk with the Maoists. The team, led by human rights activist Sujato Bhadra and journalist Debashish Bhattacharya, has Kalyan Rudra, a river scientist, Ashokendu Sengupta, Head of the Department of Physics in the Kolkata-based Bidhan Nagar College, Chhoton Das, general secretary of the Bandi Mukti Committee, and poet Prasun Bhowmik, as its other members. She did not set any preconditions for talks, but mentioned that Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) would remain until Jungal Mahal was free of arms and peace was restored.

The talks ran into expected roadblocks before they could commence. A Review Committee, constituted to decide on the release of 'political prisoners' in order to create a 'congenial atmosphere', was able to free just four prisoners in three months of existence. Though Banerjee had agreed to release 52 political prisoners, including two Maoists whose release was objected to by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), nothing progressed. The interlocutors, led by Sujato Bhadra, found it difficult even to gain access to the Maoist leadership, with whom talks were to be initiated, though they made several rounds into Jungal Mahal. Without elaborating, Bhadra disclosed that the Maoists he met had raised "some issues" which needed to be discussed before talks could start. Meanwhile, Maoist violence resumed after a brief interregnum.

The first sure sign of breakdown came on August 11, 2011, when the Maoists ambushed a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) patrol party and injured three troopers in the Lakshmanpur Forest in West Midnapore District. Even earlier, the Maoists had repeatedly threatened local TMC Members of Legislative Assembly, including Churamoni Mahato and Srikanta Mahato, and had attacked the state's western region development minister, Sukumar Hansda. TMC workers were threatened not to attend party meetings and not to fly the party flag, and were increasingly subjected to extortion demands. The situation deteriorated to the point that Hansda lamented he could not move "freely" in the area under his care because of "threats from the Maoists".

In a counter-productive and potentially disastrous response, the TMC has begun to imitate its predecessors and arch rivals in power, the Marxists, raising its own armed squads, the 'Bhairav Vahini', in the Jamboni and Belpahari areas in West Midnapore. The TMC has also set up the Janajagaran Manch (Mass Awareness Forum, an anti-Maoist platform) in the Jungal Mahal area, provoking almost immediate retaliation. On August 24, the Maoists called for a 24-hour bandh in the area, alleging that the Janajagaran Manch was functioning as a government agency and had been engaged in thwarting the 'democratic rights of tribals'.

Bannerjee has also announced a slew of programmes, schemes and infrastructure development projects to 'cure' Jangal Mahal of Maoist violence through 'development'. Once again, predictably, the efficacy of these initiatives remains doubtful, as contractors have failed to come forward to take up projects in the area, for the fear of the Maoists. In one case, for instance, just one contractor came forward to submit tender papers for the construction of a hostel and additional class rooms in a school in the Jungal Mahal area, forcing the authorities to cancel the bidding process. The State Government's attempts to recruit 10, 000 tribals to the National Volunteer Force (NVF), Police and Home Guards are also under a cloud, as the Maoists have repeatedly threatened villagers not to join Government Forces. On the other hand, the Maoists have initiated on a 'civic action programme' in the Jungal Mahal area, running makeshift dispensaries and schools to challenge the state's hegemony. Interestingly, the enhanced surrender package for Maoists in the State, announced by Banerjee on August 15, 2011, is still to find even a single taker.

Banerjee has now made it clear that 'talks and killings' cannot go together. The Maoists have retorted by declaring that the SF presence and operations in Jungal Mahal cannot be reconciled with any negotiation process. In their September 30, 2011, 'open letter' to Banerjee, the Maoists further demanded the liquidation of 'private gangs like Janjagaran Mancha and Bhairav Bahini' to create a 'congenial atmosphere' for the initiation of any talks.

It appears that Banerjee has finally begun to read the writing on the wall. On September 25, 2011, she declared, "We gave them a respite of three to four months while a peace process was on so they could return to the mainstream. Now I think I have made a mistake. I don't want to repeat the mistake."

Interestingly, even as one political leader learns the lesson the hard-way, others persist in folly. On September 21, 2011, union home minister P. Chidambaram made a fresh offer to the Maoists, saying that the union government was ready to talk to them if they simply suspend violence, a significant climbdown from his earlier position, that Maoists must abjure violence before talks could be initiated.

Over the decades, the Maoists have remained faithful to Mao Tse Tung's dictum:

Revolutions rarely compromise; compromises are made only to further strategic design. Negotiation, then, is undertaken for the dual purpose of gaining time to buttress a position (military, political, social, economic) and to wear down, frustrate, and harass the opponent. Few, if any, essential concessions are to be expected from the revolutionary side, whose aim is only to create conditions that will preserve the unity of the strategic line and guarantee the development of a victorious situation.

The Maoist strategy has always been out in the open. But Indian politicians and what passes for the 'strategic community' in the country, have obdurately sought to ignore reality, preferring the path of comforting delusion or unprincipled opportunism, and, alternately, of fitful and directionless repression, continuously creating spaces in which rebellion and disorder have flourished. West Bengal, under Banerjee's leadership, appears set firmly on the path of this recurrent folly.


Fakir Mohan Pradhan is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy: the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


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