December 05, 2020
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West Bengal

Polls Under A Maoist Shadow

'Give us five years, we will make sure you spend sleepless nights… Our mass base in Murshidabad, Malda, Burdwan and Nadia is ready. After five years, we will launch our strikes.'

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Polls Under A Maoist Shadow

Give us five years, we will make sure you spend sleepless nights… Our mass base in Murshidabad, Malda, Burdwan and Nadia is ready. After five years, we will launch our strikes.

‘Comrade Dhruba’, Communist Party of India-Maoist

In what is a clear indication of the gravity of the problem of left-wing extremism in West Bengal, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee announced on March 31, 2006, that he would begin his electoral campaign from the "so-called Maoist Districts." West Bengal is to witness elections in five phases for the 294 Legislative Assembly seats. Polling will be held on April 17, 22, 27, May 3 and 8.

The Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) is already active in three of the state’s districts, Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura, of which the first two border the state of Jharkhand. The Maoists, according to official sources, are also currently targeting the Nadia, Bardhaman and Birbhum Districts in their efforts to regain foothold in the state that originally sparked off the red revolution in India.

The 'Naxalites' take their name from the tiny hamlet of Naxalbari in the Darjeeling district where an insurrection commenced in March 1967, to rapidly spread across the state and wreak havoc for almost six years, till it was neutralised in 1973, and eventually wiped out under the Emergency of 1975. Thereafter, West Bengal remained largely free of Left Wing extremism, except for the odd incident of violence and dispersed efforts for subversion.

On January 2, the Chief Minister had particularly identified the Binpur, Bandawan, Ranibandh and Belpahari areas as being affected by the Maoist menace, adding, "(The) Naxalite movement is a major problem in south Bengal (but) we will succeed in suppressing the Naxalites as we could in the seventies." Responding to the Maoist presence in Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore, the Chief Minister reportedly asked the Indian Institute of Technology - Kharagpur to prepare a comprehensive development plan for the area. However, there also appears to be a slight hint of desperation here, as, or instance, in the the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) politburo member Biman Bose’s statement in Purulia District on January 10, 2006, when he asked his cadres to take up arms in retaliation to Maoist attacks and ensure that raiding rivals do not ‘go back alive’.

In the months preceding the elections West Bengal and particularly the Purulia, Bankura and Midnapore Districts (polling on April 17), have already witnessed significant violence by the Maoists, with the most prominent incidents including:

March 9, 2006: Two CPI-M members were killed by the Maoists in the Dangardihi area of Midnapore district. Another person was injured in the attack.

March 5, 2006: Suspected Maoists herded out nine CPI-M activists to a field in the Midnapore District and shot dead the group leader, Kartik Sinha, while releasing the others.

March 4, 2006: One policeman was killed and another injured in a Maoist attack on National Highway 34 at Chakulia in North Dinajpur.

February 26, 2006: Cadres of the CPI-Maoist detonated a landmine blowing up a police vehicle that killed four persons, including two police personnel, at Hatidoba in the Midnapore District. Six persons were injured in the incident.

February 13, 2006: CPI-Maoist cadres loot Rupees 160,000 from the United Bank of India's branch at Sarenga in the Bankura district. A police team pursued the Maoists into a forest and following an encounter one Maoist was arrested along with some arms and ammunition.

December 31, 2005: Approximately 100 Maoists stormed the residence of 55-year-old Rabindranath Kar, CPI-M leader from Bhamragarh in the Purulia district, and killed him and his wife after snatching the weapons of his security escorts.

A total of 19 CPI-M activists and 20 security force personnel have been killed by the Maoists over the last two years. Unsurprisingly, the Maoists are opposed to the elections and have issued a edict to boycott the polls, with the warning: ‘If you defy the diktat, you die’. The Maoists have called for a poll boycott in the three affected districts purportedly as a mark of protest against ‘lack of development and police highhandedness’. Their posters ask the people to refrain from voting as the "pseudo Marxist government has not done anything for you except begging for votes... rather they have prepared the blueprint of police brutalities."

The impact is already visible. Since January 1, 2006, eight persons – six CPI-M and two Jharkhand Party activists – have been killed and the police apprehend more violence. ‘Somen’, the CPI-Maoist ‘state secretary’, declared on April 5, 2006, "It hardly matters which party gains out of this – CPM or Jharkhand Party. This is part of our campaign strategy and we will enforce this call in our base areas in West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia." Responding to a query on who are the targets, he unambiguously stated: "The political leaders, who have been hand-in-glove with the administration to unleash repression."

Significantly, electoral campaigning has been on a low key in many villages in Purulia as a result of the Maoist threat, as candidates for the April 17 polls in the District drew up their campaign itinerary carefully avoiding the CPI-Maoist strongholds. Some leaders of the ruling CPI-M in the two other ‘base’ districts – Bankura and Midnapore – have reportedly refused Police escort, apprehending that the Maoists could target them more easily if they took Police assistance.

The fear also extends to the police, and senior police officials in the three Districts have received over 250 applications for transfer to ‘safer’ areas, fearing Maoist attacks. There are also reports of Maoists from Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand infiltrating into West Bengal to disrupt the elections. The role of cadres from Andhra Pradesh was underlined by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who has been insisting on de-linking the old and new Maoist movement in the State, describing the present genre of Maoists as "exports from Andhra and Jharkhand."

According to the state’s Inspector General of Police (Law and Order) Raj Kanojia, the Police have identified 13 ‘sensitive’ police stations in the three Districts. Special security arrangements were ordered for Belpahari, Salboni and Bagmundi Police Stations in West Midnapore; Bandwan, Jhalda, Jajpur and Manbazar Police Stations in Purulia; and Salimpur, Sarenga and Simlipal Police Stations in Bankura. About 90 percent of the booths in the three Maoist-affected districts were said to be ‘sensitive’. While some 300 companies of paramilitary forces were deployed in the whole of West Bengal during the 2001 Assembly elections, this time around nearly 600 companies of paramilitary forces would be deployed in 7,479 polling stations across these three Districts alone.

Maoists have been making inroads into the tribal hinterland of south Bengal since the late 1990s. According to the Maoist blueprint, these arid and backward tracts, covered with hills and forests, are to be targeted vigorously to eventually become ‘liberated zones’, a strategy that the outfit is following in similar terrain in other Maoist-affected States. To this end, the CPI-Maoist has consistently sought to highlight the plight of tribals, a majority of whom are below the poverty line and without access to basic amenities. The Census 2001 indicated that basic amenities such as safe drinking water, sanitation and electricity are yet to reach most tribal homes in West Bengal. Scheduled Tribes constitute 6.37 per cent of the State’s total population and the tribal concentration in the Southern Districts is the largest in Purulia — 18.98 per cent, followed by Bankura, 10.43 per cent, and Midnapore, 8.4 per cent. Similarly, electricity has reached only 19.03 per cent of tribal homes as against 37.45 per cent of the total State population. In all three districts, 93-96 per cent of tribal families are dependent on kerosene for light. These districts are relatively backward with 4.47 per cent of the people in Purulia still fetching drinking water from rivers and canals. Many villages in the forests are still inaccessible, with health centres located far off.

That these districts are crucial for the Maoists is also visible in the fact that they are using the corridor of Bandwan, Ranibandh in Bankura district and Belpahari in the Midnapore district to facilitate operations between Jharkhand and West Bengal. Further, Nepalese Maoists use the Bihar-Nepal border to enter West Bengal to secure a safe haven. The Maoists have also augmented their weaponry to further their goal of reclaiming their lost stronghold in the State. A 2006-study carried out by A.K. Maliwal, Chief Security Officer to the Chief Minister, indicates that the Maoists, who earlier used lower-end command wire-based explosive devices, are of late using sophisticated bombs, including vehicle-borne and remote-controlled improvised explosive devices, to substantially increase their impact. The study also notes a shift from home-made to factory-produced explosives and the use of target-activated bombs, as well as a resort to triggering parallel and simultaneous explosions. Meanwhile, the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau has cautioned the government about changes in the Maoists’ modus operandi, with a shift from conventional ambushes and landmines, and an increasing potential of tactics such as hijacking, which could prove more useful at a time of heightened security. The report also noted that the Maoists may also attempt to blow up radio and telephone towers.

West Bengal has been ruled by the mainstream Left Front since 1977, and has been largely successful in combating Left Wing extremism through a judicious mixture of political and security measures. But with the dangerous expansion of Maoist influence and activities in the neighbouring states, the future for West Bengal is becoming increasingly uncertain as well.

Nihar Nayak is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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