Time to shed romantic notions about Maoist extremism

Written by: Col R Hariharan
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The Maoist attack on Dhanbad-Patna Intercity Express at Jamui - one of Bihar's seven Maoist-hit districts on May 13 killing three persons, is a rude reminder that the state is yet to win its war against Maoist extremism, despite winning many battles on other fronts.

The attack comes even as the nation is recovering from the gruesome killing of Chhattisgarh Congress President Nand Kumar Patel and his son, as well as the well-known Adivasi leader Mahendra Karma, and 20 others by Maoists near Suguma in Southern Bastar district earlier.

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The two incidents underline the need to shed the romantic notions many of us nurture about Maoist extremism. Ironically the Congress leaders were on a "Parivartan yatra" as a part of their electioneering campaign; but when will the country make a parivartan (change) in the way it combats Maoists?

The Maoists' -whatever be the latest alphabetical acronyms of their faction - fundamental credo is to destroy the democratic state and its machinery through armed violence. Maoists have shown repeatedly that all those who are in the way of achieving this objective - be it the Adivasi they claim to protect, politicians, petty government officials or even the hapless cop on traffic duty - will be ruthlessly eliminated. So, successful cohabitation of democratic governance and Maoists is an oxymoron proposition.

Though national leaders periodically repeat the cliché of Maoist extremism being a national threat, they generally soft pedal the anti-democratic nature of Maoist conflict and adopt reactive strategies. As a result, for long the nation had adopted a soft approach in dealing with Left Wing extremism in contrast to its attitude to separatist insurgencies in Kashmir and northeast.

There are a few reasons for this. Maoist strongholds are generally in backward tribal areas which have low population density, and send fewer elected representatives. As long as Maoist conflicts do not affect urban constituencies where political idiom is commanded by money power and caste equations, politicians choose to ignore them because poor Adivasis are outside the Hindu caste pantheon.

Tribals have long faced social and political exploitation, and economic deprivation. Over a period of time, society has chosen to ignore their plight. Their traditional areas of habitation have been exploited by feudal elements that left the Adivasi population eking out a marginal living.

However, economic liberalisation has drawn powerful national and foreign business entities with rapacious appetite for raw material, particularly mineral deposits and green resources into traditional areas of tribals.

While mega business corporations in collusion with political-bureaucracy nexus prospered with this development, the Adivasis have been left out of the growth story. Moreover, corrupt political and administrative system well entrenched in society has marginalised Adivasis from gaining access to social security outreach of available to the rural poor.

Claiming to be defenders of the oppressed people, particularly the tribals, Maoists have been able to sell their struggle to gain broad based support among human rights and environmental activists and left wing sympathisers. Usually they are more articulate and committed to their beliefs than politicians whose words fail to carry conviction.

Political parties have also been treating Maoist extremism to score brownie points against the ruling party. Of course, the ineptness of execution of operations and knee jerk response of political leadership to Maoist extremism provide opportunities galore for the opposition.

Elected governments at the state and Centre are aware of this situation. However, due to lack of accountability in governance, the state has unwittingly become unofficial patrons of exploiters. As a result their repeated promises to make the system vibrant are suspect. As structural changes continue to be elusive, Maoists have thrived.

During the last decade or so, Maoists have also become part of this network of exploitation by extorting mining entities and their contractors. So Maoists are no more gooey eyed idealists the intellectual class would like to believe.

When P Chidambaram donned the mantle of Union Home Minister in the wake of 26/11 Lashkar terrorist attack in Mumbai, he adopted a systematic approach to strengthen the police and paramilitary forces. The fight against Maoist extremism also benefitted from this approach.

According to the Home Ministry reports total number of districts affected by Maoist extremism fell from 208 in 2009 to 173 in 2012. Some major counter extremists operations were launched in 2009-10 and as many 5,705 extremists were killed, surrendered or arrested.

Does this mean government has succeeded in eradicating Maoist extremism? The figures of casualties and "liberated areas"are deceptive, as in low intensity warfare body count may weaken the extremist but does not end their activity. After suffering heavy losses in 2009-10, Maoists have changed their tactics to avoid contact with paramilitary forces.

Maoists, despite their depleted strength, retain the ability to carry out sensational strikes. Exploiting the operational incompetency and leadership weaknesses of state apparatus, they now carry out attacks like the ones on the Intercity express in Jamui and Congress leaders and functionaries in Chhattisgarh.

There is an underlying national consensus among political parties, and even among most of the civil society organs, that Maoist extremism vitiates the gains of democratic governance. However, deep differences exist on how to go about eliminating them or render them ineffective. There appears to be an element of desperation in the government's approach.

In September 2011, the then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram expressed Centre's readiness for holding unconditional talks with Maoists even if they do not surrender arms or renounce their extremist ideology. It is not clear what will the state and the extremists talk about, if the extremists continue to retain the arms and adhere to their ideological commitment to destroy the state through armed struggle!

In short our national approach to combating Maoist extremism appears confused and vacillating. The country's war against Left Wing extremism appears to be heading for a long haul, unless it can overcome some fundamental weaknesses that have become part of our system:

1. The overall objective should be to remove the Maoists as interlocutors for the oppressed people and sensitise the state administrative machinery to meet the needs of the people.

The state has to own up its responsibility to protect the constitution and provide a secure environment for the people to live in. This involves the removal of Maoists as an extra constitutional entity interfering with governance. To achieve this, the state requires goal clarity, which does not seem to exist now.

2. The state should be able to sustain its presence in the "liberated" area and defend it against recurrence of Maoist extremism. This can come about only when the people see the state as a better option than Maoists and extend their support.

Attempts to carry out such programmes have not made much headway due to lack of political will and commitment. Political rivalry, cronyism and corruption coupled with aberrations in the administrative and police machinery usually vitiate the gains.

3. A well integrated approach between the state and the Centre in combating Maoists continues to remain elusive although their paramilitary and police forces have been working together for nearly a decade now. Law and order is largely the state's responsibility and states are wary of Centre poaching on their pasture under cover of counter extremist operations.

This has been aggravated by schism between states ruled by the opposition and the Centre. At functional level this affects real time information sharing and coordination of operations.

4. Police forces continue to be colonial stereotypes lacking a people-friendly approach. This has affected modernisation of police forces affecting their counter extremist operations. As most of the states have chosen to ignore implementation of police reforms, recommended by successive police commissions, organs of law enforcement continue to wallow in corruption and pandering to political influence.

Palliative measures like employing retired army brigadiers for planning of operations against extremists are unlikely to yield lasting results professional standards of police and paramilitary forces are upgraded without delay.

In short, success in operations against extremists cannot be gauged merely by body counts or size of sanitised areas, though they do indicate success of operations at the field level. The more difficult part of operations is weaning away the people from Maoists' pernicious ideology that undermines the very existence of the state.

To create a congenial environment for this, it becomes imperative to render Maoists ineffective so that they cease to be an instrument of terror. But such security operations should be a means to an end for good governance. To achieve this counter-terror operations have to be planned and executed with greater sensitivity to human rights and environmental protection lest the organs of state merely replace Maoists as the exploiter of people's grievances.

[Col Hariharan is a retired Military Intelligence officer associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-mail: colhari@yahoo.com Blog: www.colhariharan.org]

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