India grapples for response as Maoists grow bolder

New Delhi, May 30 : India's struggle to find an effective strategy against an increasingly violent Maoist insurgency has taken on an air of desperation as the rebels ramp up the scale and potency of their operations.

Maoist saboteurs were blamed for Friday's derailing of a high-speed passenger train in West Bengal that collided with an oncoming goods train, killing 138 people.

Coming after a landmine attack earlier this month that killed 35 people, including 24 civilians, it suggested the rebels' strategy has changed from one that in the past had almost exclusively targeted the security forces.

The rising civilian death tolls have intensified public and political scrutiny of India's counter-insurgency policy, which until now has placed the operational onus on individual states rather than the central government.

An offensive launched in November in the worst-affected areas with nearly 60,000 paramilitary and state police was coordinated by New Delhi, but it has produced little in the way of tangible results and Maoist attacks have continued unabated.

After Friday's train wreck, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya made it clear that the states felt it was time for a new approach.

"We have to find ways to counter this menace," he said. "Innocent people are being killed."

Analysts say the government is hamstrung by internal disagreement over how to proceed, with some urging a more aggressive policy and others favouring a long-term strategy that addresses the plight of landless tribespeople and impoverished farmers from whom the Maoists draw support.

"There is a conflict between the so-called hawks who want to crush the rebels and the so-called doves who call for development in Maoist-dominated areas to wean away their support," said Ajai Sahani, a counter-terrorism expert.

Home Minister P Chidambaram is seen as belonging to the former camp, while his ruling Congress party chief, Sonia Gandhi, has stressed the need to combat the "root causes" of the insurgency.

"But the conflict is essentially one of slogans because neither side seems to have any idea how to flesh out their respective plans," said Sahani.

"There is utter incoherence, whether one is talking about development or security. There is no talk or agreement on the content of either approach," he added.

It is not as if India is inexperienced in countering insurgencies.

Rebellions of varying size and intensity have waxed and waned in different parts of the country for decades, including the 20-year Muslim separatist battle in Indian Kashmir that has claimed at least 47,000 lives.

But most have been restricted to a particular state. The Maoists, by contrast, are spread over a vast area and operate out of some of India's most remote and least-developed regions -- making counter-insurgency coordination a severe challenge.

"The Maoists are prevalent in areas where the administration and police are in a state of degradation," said KPS Gill, the former police chief of northern Punjab state who was credited with crushing a violent Sikh militancy in the 1990s.

Gill, who has advised the government in the Maoist-infested central state of Chhattisgarh on security issues, said state administrations lacked the resources to combat the rebels.

"The police simply don't have the will and the numbers they need. You need to better equip the men and train them to take on the Maoists," he said.

Meanwhile, grassroots activists working in areas where the Maoists hold sway say the government is paying the price for years of indifference towards dispossessed, marginalised communities left behind by India's economic boom.

"I am against violence and I think the killing of common people is not going to endear the Maoists to the masses," said Medha Patkar, a tribal rights campaigner.

"Having said that, we want the government to be more responsive to the needs of the people, to hold a dialogue to address the genuine problems the tribals and the poor face.

"We have been waging a non-violent struggle for tribal rights for decades and the government has turned a deaf ear to us. So it's no wonder some people think violence is the only way to make the government listen," Patkar said.