Military to take on Maoists in India

Shaikh Azizur Rahman

Paramilitary forces take position during a recent operation against Maoist insurgents. Asiapics
NEW DELHI // Concerned by mounting security force casualties in the battle against Maoist guerrillas, India has announced it will deploy the army and air force to combat the rebels, described by Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, as the “single largest security threat” to India’s national security.

The high-profile cabinet committee on security (CCS), which is headed by the prime minister and comprises representatives from the army, air force, navy, paramilitary forces and intelligence agencies, has approved the anti-Maoist operation, which is to begin next month.

The CCS has also given the go-ahead for the use of helicopter gunships in the “most desperate of situations” and an inter-services committee under the home ministry has already begun charting the road map for next month’s operation, unnamed sources in the ministry told newspapers last week.

They also said it would be the “most widespread” action ever undertaken against an insurgent group in the country, and the home ministry had acknowledged that it could last years.

The air force was last used to fight insurgents in the 1960s in Mizoram, in north-east India, against Mizo separatist rebels.

Maoists, who are also known as Naxalites here, have been active in India since the 1960s and have been countered by state police forces and occasionally central paramilitary forces.

According to Indian intelligence reports, up to 22,000 Maoist rebels are active in half of the country’s 29 states, having carved a “red corridor” from the country’s border with Nepal in the north to Tamil Nadu in the deep south. And they are spreading.

In recent years, the Maoists have dramatically stepped up their attacks. In 2007 they killed 231 members of the security forces followed by 230 in 2008. By the end of last month, Maoist landmine and gun attacks had already taken the official toll to 255 for this year. Last month they killed 36 security personnel in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh in a single ambush.

Activists of the Communist Party of India-Marxist shout slogans against Maoists and the Congress-led UPA government as they condemn the killing of their cadres by alleged rebels in the West Midnapore district in West Bengal. Raveendran / AFP
In the eastern state of West Bengal, the guerrillas have in the past two months killed what they say were 30 police informers and allegedly corrupt workers of the state’s ruling Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M).

Although a 5,000-strong police-paramilitary joint action force patrols the area, an estimated 350 cadres have been regularly killing their targets in villages, in their usual hit-and-run style.

More than 500 CPI-M leaders, who believe themselves to be Maoist targets, have fled West Bengal in recent months, and, according to a story in The Telegraph, a Kolkata newspaper, almost all state police personnel posted in the area hold two to three life insurance policies each, spending up to 20 per cent of their income on the premiums.

Ardhendu Sen, the home secretary of West Bengal, last week admitted to the media that the government had failed to completely check Maoist activities in the state, despite engaging special counterinsurgency personnel in operation.

Referring to Maoist-infested regions as India’s “killing fields”, P Chidambaram, the home minister, said in parliament recently that federal and state governments had underestimated the strength of the guerrillas for several years, which had enabled them to grow.

The prime minister will hold a meeting next week with chief ministers from all the states affected by Maoist activities to discuss the blueprint and possible outcome of the offensive.

The process of preparing the estimated 26,000 ground personnel for the anti-Maoist operation began last week, sources in the home ministry told journalists this week, adding that many specially-trained counterinsurgency forces had been taken from other volatile areas such as Kashmir and some of India’s north-eastern states for deployment in the Maoist-affected areas.

Quoting an unnamed source in the home ministry, The Telegraph reported that the army’s role in the operation would be confined to operational advice and training of personnel while the air force would have a more direct role.

Depending on conditions, such as terrain, in the areas where the operation will take place, helicopter gunships may be used, The Telegraph reported.

Some analysts, however, believe physical force is the wrong approach in dealing with the Maoists and say tackling the issues that led them to take up arms is the only way to resolve the crisis

“Maoist insurgency is a governance-related issue and it cannot be fought militarily,” said D Suba Chandran, the deputy director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.

“Even if they bomb village after village, they cannot finish off the insurgency. Only good governance can address people’s grievances and neutralise this insurgency.”

For their part, the Maoists anticipated the operation months ago and have been making preparations.

In an intra-group statement in June, the Communist Party of India [Maoist], the banned party that controls the Maoist guerrillas, said it believed that its strongholds in different parts of the country could come under intensive attack from the Indian government in the near future, the Times of India reported.

“The experience of the LTTE’s setback in Sri Lanka is very important for us to study and take lessons from. The mistake of the LTTE lay in its failure to adequately study the enemy’s tactics, capabilities, international support and open assistance by imperialist powers, et cetera … [There was] an underestimation of the enemy along with an overestimation of its own forces and capabilities,” the statement said.

“The unfolding state terror and state-sponsored terror under Sonia-Manmohan-Chidambaram will be far more brutal, deadly and savage than under any other regime witnessed so far.” Two weeks ago, the Jharkhand branch of the Maoists issued a statement warning that if Mr Singh, Mr Chidambaram and the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi did not stop “daydreaming to wipe out Naxalites from the country”, they would be eliminated. “They should stop daydreaming or else they will be given the death sentence [by the Maoists],” the statement said. It dared Mr Chidambaram to come to the “land of Jharkhand” and see that the “Naxalites are not clay toys”.