Attack on train part of Maoist campaign to wrest control over large parts of India

RAHUL BEDI in New Delhi

MAOIST REBELS attacked and derailed a passenger train in eastern Jharkhand state last week, killing one person and injuring at least 30.

The rebels, who say they are inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, bombed the track shortly before the train passed through the sparsely populated area on Thursday night.

Eight of the train’s coaches toppled over, killing one woman instantly, deputy inspector general of police Sindhu Hembram said. Five of the 30 injured passengers were in a critical condition, he added.

The rebels claim to be fighting for the rights of India’s poor and dispossessed and for the establishment of Communist rule.

They have been waging an armed struggle for almost four decades, demanding land and jobs for farm labourers, traditional tribal people and the poor. They have a notable presence in some 223 of India’s 603 administrative districts across 20 of its 29 provinces.

Over the past two decades their activities have claimed more than 6,000 lives, including those of hundreds of security-force personnel killed by improvised explosives and in ambushes.

Human rights groups say Maoist violence claimed more lives in 2008 than the virulent insurgency in India’s disputed northern Kashmir province and in the restive northeastern states bordering Burma and Bangladesh.

According to the Indian Human Rights Report 2009 by the Asian Centre for Human Rights, the number of civilians killed in Maoist-affected areas between 2005 and 2008 was 1,965, compared with 1,195 in Kashmir and 1,666 in the northeast.

India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly declared that the Maoists who run parallel administrations in their areas of influence are the “biggest national security challenge” facing India since independence 62 years ago.

In June 2009 India’s federal administration formally labelled the Maoists a terrorist group, hoping this would empower the security forces to counter their proliferating control over central and eastern India, and portions of the west of the country.

The federal interior ministry is mobilising about 75,000 specially trained and equipped security-force personnel against the Maoists, but has run into administrative difficulties in implementing their deployment.

The Maoists, numbering about 20,000 active cadres with tens of thousands of “overground” supporters and sympathisers, claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor and underprivileged in a largely corrupt system.

Officials, however, accuse them of being little more than criminal gangs using intimidation and extortion to collect money and to control impoverished villagers.

The Maoists operate in regions where there is abject poverty, widespread unemployment, ineffective policing and corrupt governance.

In the Maoist-affected districts, many state institutions have ceased to exist or, at best, have a token presence. The areas are often also rife with caste conflicts and populated by traditional tribes.

Maoist cadres fill the power vacuum by running parallel administrations and carrying out activities such as collecting taxes, running schools, setting educational curriculums and settling disputes in kangaroo courts.

Sources in the federal intelligence bureau claim that the rebels are expanding their influence over rural India by means of coercion and indoctrination, and by encircling – but never attacking – cities.

In many provinces the Maoists have successfully launched “moral re-armament” programmes designed to engender social progress and raise the “calibre” of locals. For example, in some areas they have banned narcotics and have encouraged widows to remarry, which is socially progressive in the conservative milieu found in more traditional areas.

The Indian government’s response, meanwhile, has involved a poorly applied and often harsh use of force, as well as the abuse of anti-terrorism legislation.

The resulting cycle of human rights abuses has, in turn, exacerbated local resentment and heightened social tensions, often driving victims into the Maoist ranks.