India plans all-out attack on Maoists
NEW DELHI - India is preparing to launch its largest and purportedly best-organized offensive ever against the four-decades-old Naxalite (communist rebel) insurgency that affects hundreds of millions of people across vast swathes of the country.
There are plans to involve more than 100,000 federal paramilitary forces in the campaign, with the troops even being withdrawn from violence-wracked state of Indian-administered Kashmir. India plans to involve its own defense forces and has sought input from American security officials on how to best root out the leftist rebels.
In the past few weeks, New Delhi has held a series of meetings with state governments to organize a coordinated attack on the Maoists. Given the wide dispersal area of the extremists, various security arms, including intelligence units, will need to be involved.
According to local media reports, the offensive is set start this week.
An official assessment this year claimed that the Naxalites were "bent on violence and mayhem against the state and the people" and called for the government to "squarely meet" the threat.
In June, New Delhi labeled the Naxalite group, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), or CPI (M), a terrorist organization, putting it in the same league as other banned outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba group - credited with the Mumbai attack in November - and the now-decimated Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The Home Ministry under P Chidambaram - a minister known for his hardline approach against rebels - is leading the charge against the Maoists concentrated in the northeastern and central eastern states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.
India's valuable coal industry is focused in these states, which have large tribal concentrations. The provinces are rich in natural resources, but score very poorly on human development charts.
Initially, the action will be focused on alleged Naxalite strongholds in central and eastern areas. Still, officials say this is going to be a "battle to the finish".
Sources say that officially the action against the Naxalites will be led by central paramilitary forces alongside local police, with the army and air force called upon should the situation turn difficult.
India's army will initially provide logistic and intelligence support, and light artillery or air raids with attack helicopters could be used to root out the rebels. Special forces are already being readied for surgical strikes against Naxalites if required, though no regular army units are likely to be employed immediately in flush-out operations.
Chidambaram is pushing all states to quickly implement the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System, a plan to link the nation's 16,000 police stations in the country under a single network, to increase nationwide coordination in investigation, crime prevention and emergency response.
New Delhi is also seeking advice from American counter-insurgency personnel who have been involved in taking out Taliban and jihadi elements in Northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Chidambaram paid a four-day official visit to America that focused on India-US anti-terror cooperation, assistance in technology, assessment of the security situation in South Asia and studying counter-terrorism institutions and structures.
New Delhi and Washington have been building on improved strategic ties that have now extended beyond a civilian nuclear deal in 2006 to defense and cooperation in taking on terror. American involvement in Indian security has deepened in the past few months, especially following the Mumbai terror strikes, with the two countries sharing intelligence and investigations.
Crack US teams are working closely with Indian security agencies in plans to develop intelligence networks as well as protect soft terror targets such as crowded markets, malls, airports, rail stations and places of worship.
American assistance is also being sought in targeting Naxal cadres who mingle with local tribal populations or have remote hideouts in deep jungle.
It has been said for some time that that the heavily armed leftist rebels, their weapons procured via smuggling or by attacking Indian security personnel, are the gravest threat to India's internal security.
It has become impossible to develop areas controlled by the extremists. In the absence of authority, infrastructure-related development such as building of roads, schools, hospitals, and telecommunications networks has suffered.
This absence of economic growth among the tribal populations has been a major reason why the Naxalite movement has been able to establish itself among the populations of the mineral-rich regions of Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar.
Chidambaram recently said, "The Naxals, besides targeting the police force, police informers and inimical forces are laying greater emphasis on targeting infrastructure like roads, bridges."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has recently spoken about a two-pronged strategy using development in hand with law and order to fight Naxal violence.
Long battle ahead
There has been some success with the arrest last month of two top Maoists leaders - Amit Bagchi in Ranchi and Khobad Ghandy in Delhi. The total number of politburo members in custody has now risen to at least 10.
Last week, security forces also captured elusive tribal leader Chhatradhar Mahato in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal.
Ghandy, 58, belongs to the top echelon of the CPI (M), and is a well-educated ideologue. Described as an "unlikely rebel", Ghandy originates from an affluent Parsi family. He has studied at the prestigious Doon School and St Xavier's College in Mumbai, and trained as an accountant in England.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Ghandy was among the young idealistic urban elite influenced by tenets of a classless society and he renounced his high life to join the radical leftists.
However, unlike most of his kind who abandoned the "cause' in the face of hardships like disease, hunger or police crackdowns, Ghandy has stayed on and been instrumental in binding Naxalite factions such as CPI (M) and the People's War Group.
The Maoists, however, have not taken the latest arrests lying down. On Saturday, Naxal gunmen shot dead the son of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Chhattisgarh member of parliament P Baliram Kashyap. Chhattisgarh state is ruled by a BJP-led government.
According to official estimates, Naxalite violence has affected 2,000 police stations spread over 223 districts across 20 states in India. In the early 1990s, the number of districts affected by Maoist violence stood at just 15 in four states.
The CPI (M) is known to be looking to form alliances with secessionists groups - especially northeast insurgents in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram - in a bid to expand its influence and gain a pan-India presence.
Today, 40% of the top 50 mineral-rich districts in India are affected by Naxalite violence, with repeated attacks on any symbol of authority, both private and public, including mining sites. Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are the worst-affected states.
The Home Ministry estimates that up to 20-25% of India's coal production has been hampered by Maoist violence. Coal is India's primary energy source.
By August 2009, more than 1,405 Naxal-related violent incidents had been reported in which 580 persons were killed. In 2008, there were 1,591 incidents and 721 killings. Maoist-linked violence has killed 6,000 people in India over the past two decades.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist and WSN editor India. He can be reached at [email protected]