November 29, 2011

West Bengal: Re-inventing Folly

By Fakir Mohan Pradhan
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
July 4, 2011

Parties in Opposition seeking election have repeatedly, in the past, entered into usually covert deals with insurgent groups in various theatres of conflict in India, and events in West Bengal appear to have followed this opportunistic line. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) which has come to power with a huge majority in the elections of April-May 2011, had engaged in a strident and disruptive campaign, sustained over more than two years, in close coordination with the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) and its various front organizations, prominently including the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA). With the installation of Mamata Bannerjee’s TMC in Writer’s Building, it is now evidently payoff time for the Maoists.

In her first Press Conference as Chief Minister on May 21, 2011, when asked about withdrawal of Central Para Military Forces (CPMFs) from the Jungle Mahal area of the State, Banerjee replied, “We will first cross check things. But I must tell you that we will never backtrack from our commitment.’’ In the run-up to the Assembly polls, Mamata had been vociferously demanding withdrawal of CPMFs deployed in anti-Maoist operations in Jungle Mahal (the Maoist-affected area comprising West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia). Indeed, she had flatly denied the presence of the Maoists in the area, claiming, “there are no Maoists in Jungle Mahal, there are only Marxists who are ‘Marxists in the day and Maoists at night.’” Her Lalgarh rally on August 9, 2010, had visibly demonstrated the TMC’s proximity to the PCPA and the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist).

After the TMC’s landslide victory, things have started to unfold in a predictable way as far as anti-Maoist operations are concerned. There has been an evident ‘slow down’’ of the Security Forces’ (SFs) offensive against Maoists in the State since the election results were declared on May 13, 2011. On condition of anonymity, an unnamed senior officer of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) disclosed that intelligence inputs provided by the State Police had petered out after the change of Government and that, "for the past month, there has not been any major raid against Maoists as the local Police did not accompany the Central Force for one reason or the other." Every platoon of CPMFs is required to be accompanied by at least eight local Police personnel to familiarize them with the areas.

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has also expressed concern that the joint forces' operation in West Bengal has “slowed down”, and that CPMFs in Jungle Mahal have been "sitting idle" since Bannerjee’s installation as CM. "Right now the Central Forces are going on patrols for area familiarization," another unnamed official stated. Thirty-five companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), six companies of Nagaland Police and 51 companies of the State Police have been deployed in the Jungle Mahal region.  Sources indicate that top Police officers in Bengal fear that if they initiate operations against the Maoists, it could anger Mamata Banerjee. Kolkata Police's Special Task Force (STF) is also said to have been asked to go slow against Maoists and take prior approval before going for any action.

The fatalities data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal give a clear demonstration of the trends.

Fatalities in Left-wing Extremist Violence in West Bengal: 2009-2011
Years           Civilian           SF personnel  Maoist insurgents      Total
2009             134                           15                 9                             158
2010              328                          36              61                             425
2011*               33                            1                 4                             38
* Data till July 3, 2011 Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal

Monthly Fatalities in Left-wing Extremist Violence in West Bengal in 2011
                  Civilian     SFs      Insurgents      Total
January          18          0              1                    19
February         7            0            0                     7
March             2             1             3                     6
April                4             0            0                     4
May                 1             0            0                     1
June                 1             0            0                    1
July*                 0            0            0                   0
Total               33             1           4                   38
* Data till July 3, 2011 Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal

There has been just one fatality in the State since Banerjee took over, and total fatalities this year are down to 38, as against the two years of violent mobilization preceding, which saw 425 killed in 2010 and 158 in 2009.

Though the Government has not given any formal order to the SFs regarding anti-Maoist operation, the Police leadership is taking its cue from certain obvious decisions. West Midnapore District had two Superintendent of Police (SP) ranked officers, but the new Government has reduced this to just one SP rank officer. Similarly, since June 2009, to intensify the anti-Maoist operation and for a better coordination with CPMFs, a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) ranked officer was assigned to head each Maoist-hit Police Station of the District. Over the past weeks the DSPs, who were on deputation, were called back to their original postings. Anti-Maoist operations have, on all practical accounts, been entirely suspended.

Significantly, though the SFs were facing an uphill task before the polls, the CPMFs had achieved some success, including the killing of Sasadhara Mahato, the prime accused of Salboni landmine attack, on March 10, 2011. The domination of Maoists in the Jungle Mahal area had diminished. One SF source explained, “Earlier there used to be a looming danger of being ambushed. Now we are trying to engage with the villagers and build trust…” Another officer stated, “While a part of it (Jungle Mahal) was cleared by our security forces, the rest had been cleared with the help of the CPI-M [Communist Party of India-Marxist] supporters.”

Confirming the suspension of operations and the implicit ‘deal’ with the Government, the Maoists have also declared a ‘ceasefire’ in West Bengal in order to give Mamata Banerjee “time to fulfil her promises to Jungle Mahal”, including the withdrawal of Joint Forces. Bikram, a CPI-Maoist ‘State committee’ member, issued a statement on June 4, 2011, declaring: “We want her (Mamata) to fulfil all the promises she had made in last year’s Lalgarh rally. We will not place any fresh demands to the Chief Minister for now… We are even ready for talks with the State Government.” The Maoists have also announced that they would not launch any attacks on the SF’s in the State, for the time being. Without specifying how long they planned to continue with the ‘ceasefire’, the statement, however, qualified that the “soft” stance will not be maintained for an indefinite period.

Maoist sources, however, clarified that they “would not stop killing corrupt CPI-M leaders and cadres” because of the cease-fire. A rebel source thus stated, “The cease-fire does not mean that we will not wipe out the CPM’s corrupt leaders and cadres in our stronghold. Our operation to drive out the CPM from Jungle Mahal will continue. CPM leaders, including Sushanta Ghosh, Dipak Sarkar, Anuj Pandey and Dahareshwar Sen, will have to face punishment. We want Mamata to start criminal cases against them.”

Earlier, on May 18, 2011, the Maoist-backed PCPA had also expressed its willingness to enter into a dialogue process with the Banerjee Government. However, PCPA chief Manoj Mahato was arrested on July 1 on the charge of abduction of Jiten Mahato, a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader, who had been abducted in September 2009.

However, while the Maoists are clearly seeking their pound of flesh from the Government for the support extended to the TMC in the extended run-up to the polls, signs of a souring of relations are already visible. Maoist-backed PCPA cadres are threatening TMC workers, demanding that they quit the party and join PCPA, in a bid to exert pressure on the Mamata Banerjee-led Government to expedite the release of ‘political prisoners’ (Maoist cadres and leaders), and push for withdrawal of Central Forces from Jungle Mahal. Local TMC activists claimed they had been threatened in at least 20 villages of Jhargram, Salboni, Sankrail and Kotwali areas of West Midnapore: “Maoist armed squad leader Badal Mahato travels with his guerrillas at night and holds meetings. He tells villagers about Mamata Banerjee’s promises. He says if the promises are not kept, they will wipe out TMC from Jungle Mahal,” an unnamed TMC activist claimed. A Dherua-based TMC leader disclosed that, on June 2, 2011, a local PCPA leader had visited him at night and asked him to quit TMC and join the PCPA: “He [the local PCPA leader] told me that they had helped us to defeat the CPM. Now that CPM has lost, we will not allow any other political party to function in the area. He also told me that whatever must be done will be done through the PCPA… After the Assembly poll results, local PCPA leaders changed their attitude. They said they fought the CPM because it was the ruling party. Because the situation has changed and TMC shares power both in Bengal and at the Centre, they now say their fight is against us. If you want to live, then quit TMC, one of them told me.” District TMC Chairperson Mrigen Maity conceded: “We have received reports from our workers in Jhargram, Salboni, Sankrail and Kotwali areas that they are being threatened by Maoists and the PCPA. We will soon submit a report to the State TMC leadership.”

These allegations have, however, been denied by PCPA leader Manoj Mahato, who claimed that it was the villagers in Jungle Mahal who were demanding that TMC deliver on its promises: “PCPA leaders are not threatening TMC workers… Now that TMC has been voted to power, it is quite natural that villagers will ask party workers about the promises.”

With the SFs sitting idle, moreover, there is mounting evidence that the Maoists have started regrouping and extending recruitment. CRPF Inspector General T. B. Rao notes, “Top Maoist leaders Akash and Bikash are now moving around in Garbeta." Maoist insiders hinted that they were trying to expand their political activities for further recruitment and to recover the initial setbacks they had suffered during the SF operation in the pre-election phase. There is no immediate intent to intensify ‘military operations’, and the Maoist focus will currently remain on recruitment and reorganization.

Meanwhile, Banerjee claims that, under her regime, the Maoists would be ‘wiped out’ from the State as she would ‘bring development’ to the people: “We will bring development in the State and end Naxalism,” she declared on May 14, 2011. During an interactive session with industrialists aimed to woo investors to Jungle Mahal, on May 18, she added, “There is a law and order problem [in Jungle Mahal] but the people there are good. Do not be scared and try to give it a shot.”

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. Bannerjee 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.