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How to neutralise the Maoist challenge

May 07, 2012 14:30 IST
The key to fighting Maoists lies in isolating them in urban areas and containing them in forested areas, says Sonali Ranade

The Maoists abducted another collector after killing his two bodyguards at Sukna, in Chhattisgarh. The State caved in to the Maoist demands and the officer is back home to a hero's welcome. The narrative brands the officer as some sort of a hero who was trying to do "development" among the poor villagers. It leaves the Maoists unexplained, much as if they were aliens from Mars. And it gives not a hoot for the two slain policemen. 

Worse, a dozen or so Maoists, arrested after much loss of blood and treasure, will now be released from prison, to continue their grizzly mayhem among the local population. These revenge killings will largely go unreported, undocumented and unlamented, because the victims will be hapless villagers and tribals. 

Our narrative, orchestrated by an insensitive and indifferent media, totally ignores the fresh impetus to the cycle of violence triggered by the State's caving into Maoist demands. Why is this cycle, now well established, allowed to perpetuate?  More importantly, where will it end?

To understand the state of play, one needs to deconstruct the popular narrative and get a lot more specific about the players involved in the Maoist phenomenon. 

First, who are the Maoists? 

It is best to understand Maoists as educated, sophisticated politicians who are convinced that the only way out of poverty for rural people is a violent peasants' revolution. These people, who form the core of the Maoist leadership, are basically urbanites educated in colleges. Almost none of them is a local or tribal. If they have chosen to focus their work on the poor in forested areas, the reasons are strategic and tactical. The State's hold on far-flung villages in forested areas has traditionally been weak or non-existent. The Maoists, therefore, choose such areas to band together grass-root support with minimal interference from the State. 

It is not as if the villagers turn to Maoists. It is more Maoist evangelism, some actual development work, participation in agitation for local grievances and selective coercion of dissenters that create the initial support for Maoists. Once the State's minimal presence is pushed out, the Maoists turn "government", providing varying degrees of government services that includes land distribution, courts, schools etc. They levy regular taxes on the population and live off them.

As distinct from the Maoists, you have the broad mass of local population comprising urban people in small towns at one end, farmers and their families in villages, and tribals in far-flung villages of the forested areas. This "target population" of the Maoists are not a homogeneous group nor do they have much in common in terms of economic or class interests. Most of them have no ideological preferences and are content to live out normal lives like normal people. They accept Maoists in place of the State if, and only if, they have no option. It is not as if they love the State, which is often as corrupt, insensitive and as predatory as the Maoists. 

However, that said, people prefer to live within the law, are aware of areas beyond those controlled by the Maoists, and aspire to move out as soon as economic circumstances permit. Most households that can afford it send kids out for schooling to nearby towns. So, by and large, opinion-makers and others do not want to fall foul of the law. There are a few areas that are completely dominated by Maoists. Most others have a sort of dual control where Maoists extort some money but leave the population alone in other ways. Hence, the incentive for people to violate the law or step outside it is minimal. 

In most such areas a casual visitor would hardly notice any Maoist presence in day-to-day life. Violence happens but it is usually in the nature of clashes between Maoists and police or other terrorist type of incidents.

There is little to be gained by listing a litany of "root causes" that lead to the spread of Maoism. For all practical purposes, two factors stand out. One, because of forested areas, and lack of communication, whether by road or telephony, the State is simply absent from the core of the Maoist-dominated areas. Nothing of the State exists. Virtually no roads, no TV or telephony, no schools, no courts, no local administration exists. Maoists provide all such services. 

Any State that existed before the Maoist takeover here was no more than a couple of cops and patwaris who walked to the villages once a month to update paper work. No more effort than a sound beating or two was required to push them out.  Once they were so manhandled, the State never returned. The district administration had a litany of excuses not to do anything for years. Benign neglect did the rest. The State's vacation of the core to Maoists was more or less without a fight. It is hard to see how the State can return to such areas without an elaborate bandobast for providing armed local presence on a sustained basis.

Second, and this applies to areas in dual control as well, Maoists target family members of State officials as much as the officials themselves but the State has never bothered to provide security to families of any but the top officials. Hence down the line, officials are most reluctant to confront the Maoists. In small towns and villages, gathering intelligence is rarely a problem. The Maoists are known. Most so-called secrets in official files are an open book. The same is true of Maoists. So if the local administration wishes to, it can clean out a small town of all Maoists in a matter of days through routine police action. It doesn't do so because Maoists are local, have a long memory, and indulge in revenge killings against family members. 

A robust programme of personal protection for officials and family members in special, well-guarded townships [not local] would resolve the problem of Maoist terrorism in most semi-urban areas under dual control by police action alone. Instead, the present policy calls for inducting central and other non-local police forces into the area to avoid using locals who are vulnerable to Maoists counter-strikes. Thus sidelined, local intelligence and expertise dry up. The whole situation has been messed up badly and needs rethinking ab initio.

Politicians of all hues cut deals with Maoists. At the ground level, there is little to distinguish a regular politician from his Maoist cousin by function, methods or the goons around him or her. Instead they line up along a continuum. Maoism is often no different from regular politics settled through guns and votes rather than just votes. Local officials, who are well aware of the nexus and deals behind closed doors, would be foolhardy to move against known Maoists under unofficial patronage. 

So it suits everybody involved to plead helplessness, exaggerate the problems, and call for central forces to deal with Maoists in forested areas. Such exaggeration helps bring windfall by way of grants of money from the Centre for special development work, and whole patronage networks come into being to feed off this stream of money with little going to actual development.  Soon it is a vicious circle where the money intended as cure for extremism actually feeds the monster.

The key to fighting Maoists lies in isolating them in urban areas and containing them in forested areas. In urban areas, straightforward police action would suffice if the politicians cutting across party lines came together to confront the Maoists. The only other thing necessary would be personal protection to families of officials down the line till all the key Maoist fighters have been eliminated. This is not as difficult as it appears because the Maoists don't really fight; like all other politicians they are in this game for money. They remain as long as the money is easy to come by. Fighting is not their aim.

In forested areas, Maoists have fairly well-trained bands of fighters and are not easily isolated from the villagers they have captured into their system of support. Government has, therefore, concentrated on locating bands of fighters and attacking them with armed force. This is messy business but it leaves the Maoist support bases intact and permits fresh recruitment. Instead, it would be better for the forces to liberate and hold areas in small, convenient, parcels -- say a group of villages in a tehsil. Before an operation, the government can set up temporary refugee camps; notify villagers to get out of the villages into refugee camps, and clear the area of Maoists. 

Most of them would run away, which is fine. The villagers can then be let back into their homes after security checks and the liberated area properly garrisoned to prevent Maoists from returning. Development work, such as roads and schools, should then commence immediately in such liberated areas. The focus on areas would allow progress to be measured, and progressively Maoists could be cornered into ever shrinking space. This clear and bold strategy is far superior to hunting bands of roving Maoist fighters in forests and terrorising the villagers to offer support by way of intelligence and logistics but leaving them vulnerable to Maoist counter-strikes.

Our strategy to fight Maoists needs to put affected villagers and tribals at the centre. These are people to be rescued from Maoists; they are not Maoists, even if a few support them out of ignorance or sheer domination. Till our strategy gets more focused, and lays more emphasis on careful isolation of Maoists from politicians and the associated patronage networks that feed them, we will be wasting resources chasing ghost fighters in dense forests at considerable loss of blood and treasure.

Sonali Ranade is a trader in international markets

Sonali Ranade