Friday, October 16, 2009

India takes off against 'Red Taliban'

BANGALORE - India's Maoists have signaled they are not intimidated by the government's tough new attempt to tackle them. In a series of attacks on government infrastructure and police personnel over the past week, they have indicated that they intend to push on with their violent campaign against the Indian state.

The Maoists went on a rampage early this week in the northern states of Bihar and Jharkhand, setting ablaze a railway office after taking eight officials hostage, blowing up railway tracks, digging up roads and destroying telecom towers. They also set alight buses and trucks, blew up a school and blockaded highways.

The violence was part of their aim to impose a two-day shutdown in the two states to protest the federal government's campaign to put them down by force.

And in Maharashtra, which went to the polls to elect a new assembly on Tuesday, Maoists disrupted voting in Gadchiroli district. Earlier they abducted and beheaded a Jharkhand police inspector and followed that up with an ambush that left 17 policemen dead in the dense forests of Gadchiroli.

Hours after the ambush at Gadchiroli, the federal cabinet gave its nod to a plan for a coordinated offensive against Maoists in an arc extending from Andhra Pradesh through the states of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa.

Some 75,000 federal paramilitary forces along with personnel drawn from the state police will carry out the offensive against the Maoists. Six districts in the worst hit states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Maharashtra will be the focus of the operations initially. The offensive is likely to be launched in November, according to Home Ministry officials.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly described the threat posed by the Maoists as India's "greatest internal security threat". The Maoists wield influence in 20 of India's 28 states. "Over 2,000 police station areas in 223 districts in these states are partially or substantially affected by the [Maoist] menace," Home Minister P Chidambaram declared recently. In June this year, the main Maoist party in the country, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI-M) was declared a terrorist group.

While the government has ruled out deployment of the Indian army in operations against the Maoists, it is likely that elite special forces will be deployed here. More importantly, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is likely to find itself drawn into a new role.

IAF choppers are currently used to drop security personnel and to evacuate the injured. They are used in surveillance and search and rescue operations. But soon they could be engaged in fighting, albeit only in "self-defense".

Ruling out "Rambo-style offensives against the Maoists", Air Chief Marshal P V Naik said that he has requested the government grant the IAF permission to fire "in self-defense" if its choppers or crew operating in Maoist areas come under attack. It does seem that the request will be granted.

The request for opening retaliatory fire on the Maoists comes in the wake of the Maoists firing at an Mi-8 helicopter in November last year in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region killing an IAF sergeant and an Mi-17 chopper coming under fire in April in Gadchiroli.

If the IAF is permitted to fire at Maoists even if only in "self-defense", it will mark a significant change in India's counter-insurgency strategy.

India has used significant military force to quell insurgencies. But it has refrained from using aerial bombing or heavy artillery in fighting insurgencies, with the aerial bombing of Mizo rebel camps in the late 1960s to combat the Mizo insurgency being the only exception.

That is now poised to change.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) will provide the IAF and the ground forces with technical support. According to a report in Indian Express, ISRO's radar-imaging satellite (RISAT-2), which the space agency launched in April this year, will "provide images even in the thick jungles, enabling them to carry out surgical strikes on the ground".

While some have welcomed the action plan as long overdue, others are pointing to the dangers ahead. Aerial operations, even defensive ones, will result in civilian deaths. "When ground forces are unable to distinguish between rebels and civilians, it is unlikely that IAF personnel high in the skies, even with the aid of satellite images, will be able to do so," points out a retired officer of the Greyhounds, an elite anti-Maoist police force in Andhra Pradesh.

"The Maoists will carry out attacks to provoke the IAF into engaging in increasingly heavy firing," he warned. Not only will the air operations take the bloodletting in India's "Red Corridor" to a new level, but also "the use of conventional war tactics against the guerrillas does not work", he told Asia Times Online. "It will only deepen civilian anger with the Indian state and increase support for the Maoists."

India has no one to blame but itself for the rise and growth of the Maoists. Unlike violence by groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, both tagged with the terrorist label and whose attacks the government can attribute to Pakistan's support, the roots of the Maoists lie squarely in India, in the failure of the Indian state to address extreme poverty in vast stretches of rural India.

Maoist violence is no doubt brutal. It has laid bare the callousness of the Indian state, its failure to deliver good governance and to respond to the plight of the poorest and most marginalized sections of its population.

Analysts are cautioning the government against excessive focus on military methods to deal with a problem that is primarily political.

Recently, Chidambaram said he wanted Maoist-controlled areas to be liberated before any development programs could be launched there. There is concern that this "crackdown first, development later" is wrongly sequenced given the fact that it is the absence of development that has resulted in the emergence and growth of Maoism in the first place. "Development efforts should be an important part of the strategy to defeat them [Maoists]," points out an editorial in Deccan Herald. "To think that they can follow the campaign is to put the cart before the horse."

Mahendra Kumavat, a retired director-general of the Border Security Force who had over a decade's experience in fighting Maoists in the Andhra-Orissa-Chhattisgarh, area says that "the government is going to lose more hearts and minds to the Maoists if it forges ahead with a strike policy that brings nothing but bloodshed and disruption to people in the affected zones". It is "going to multiply our problems, not solve them", he warned.

As India prepares to unleash a war against its own citizens, a campaign is underway to discredit the Maoists. And what better way than to draw parallels with the Taliban? Media reports have described the beheading of the Jharkhand cop as a "Taliban-style killing", while the Maoists were referred to as the "Red Taliban".

Interestingly, this is not the first time that Maoists have decapitated their victims. Ajay Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management argues "it was common for Naxalites [as Maoists are often called in India] of various hues to 'shorten' a man by a foot, 'from the top'. Over the past years, after the formation of the CPI (Maoist), there have been several such incidents [of beheading]."

None of these beheadings were described as "Taliban-style beheadings". It is only after the government decided to take on the Maoists head-on that such analogies have emerged in the media.

Home Ministry officials seem excessively optimistic about the new offensive. "We hope that within 30 days of security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there," Home Secretary G K Pillai said last week.

Many in India do not think so.

The Maoists might melt away when confronted by the might of the Indian state but they will return to strike back. The Maoists in an earlier avatar were brutally crushed by the Indian state in the early 1960s. They regrouped in subsequent years.

They have indicated that they intend to inflict heavy losses. Describing themselves as "respectable citizens and patriots", they have appealed to the IAF to "not strike at sons and daughters of the soil".

Should the IAF do so, they would "teach the center [the federal government] a lesson that no other revolutionary force has taught them".

"Be prepared for a befitting retribution," the Maoists have warned.

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