Maoist ambush in Bastar: To curb Naxal threat, lessons must be taken from Bengal experience
West Bengal's Operation Barga holds lessons for centre's answer to Bastar attack; it wasn't only brute force that broke the back of the Naxal movement
Twenty-three members of security personnel were killed and 33 injured in a Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district on 3 April. The ambush followed an offensive jointly launched by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Chhattisgarh Police. This piece does not aim to conduct a post-mortem examination to determine how this happened.
Soon after the news of the ambush became public, a senior journalist and commentator wrote, inter alia, that one of the weaknesses in the response of the Indian State to Maoist violence was the bleeding-heart liberal tendency to look at the deeper causes behind the phenomenon of Maoist insurgency.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah said on 4 April in the wake of the attack that the fight against Naxals would continue ‘with strength, perseverance and intensity, and we will take it to the end’. Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel said much the same thing after a high-powered review meeting in Delhi.
At the same time, however, Shah also said: ‘The Centre and state will jointly fight Maoists and make all efforts to speed up development in the tribal area.’
Clearly, there has to be two prongs in the campaign against the Maoists: security operations aimed at pinning the Maoists down and flushing them out; and, a real push for development combined with a political engagement with the insurgents. The latter is important given that reports on Monday said tip-offs from villagers about troop movements could have led to quick mobilisation of Maoist cadres in their ‘core’ areas. In other words, as long as the Maoists continue to enjoy the support of tribal people in the zones they dominate, they will continue to have a significant advantage.
Take the case of West Bengal, from where the Naxal movement originated in the late 1960s, in both its forms: An agrarian mass movement; and an urban guerilla movement drawing in people, especially students, from the middle and lower middle classes. In the 1970s, a savage programme of repression was launched, especially against the urban wing of the movement, first when Bengal was under President’s Rule, then, after 1972, under the Congress government headed by Siddhartha Shankar Ray.
But it wasn’t force that ultimately broke the back of the Naxal movement in the state. What did was Operation Barga, the scheme implemented by the Left Front government when it came to power in 1977, under which sharecroppers, mainly, were given land deeds, making them independent peasants, albeit with small parcels of land. Since the 1980s, Bengal was barely touched by the Naxal movement for a quarter of a century or so, while it flourished in pockets of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The state now has powerful legislative tools to redress the grievances of tribal people in the shape of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (aka Forest Rights Act), and Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which it could use wisely to bring tribal people and other forest-dwelling communities into the mainstream of development and, at least, minimize the rapacity of the exploitation that swirls around the mining and forest-related industries. At the same time, a political process involving the people at the losing end and the Maoists is indispensable.
This does not mean that security operations should stop. They have to continue, but with caveats. Security personnel must target only Maoist cadres rather than drawing into their net innocent tribal or other people who are in many instances caught in the crossfire anyway.
Atrocities committed by the security forces will alienate the people further and make them sympathetic to the Maoists, who in turn are not unknown to committing atrocities of their own, which alienate the people for whom they supposedly fight.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh had in 2009 called the Naxals the greatest internal threat to the country’s security. Since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, over 5,000 Naxal-related incidents of violence have occurred, which means that neither the Centre nor affected states can afford to be complacent.
Coordinated operations in affected areas must be matched by greater vigilance in respect of gathering intelligence and fine-tuning field tactics in hostile environments (especially heavily forested tracts), in which the Maoists are at home, but with which the forces are unfamiliar.
We can end by reiterating the Bengal experience. After a quarter of a decade, Maoists became a force in the tribal-dominated Junglemahals, mainly in the districts of Jhargram and West Midnapore, but to a lesser extent in Purulia and Bankura as well. The Left Front government had struggled to deal with it. But the Trinamool Congress managed to quell the mobilisation with a judicious combination of development initiatives and stringent operations after coming to power in 2011.
That is doubtless the way to go.
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