Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management
A historical strategic shift has been engineered by the Maoists and, despite their open declarations of intent and the visible translation of words into deeds, this remains largely unnoticed in the general discourse and, indeed, in large segments of the Indian intelligence and security community. There is a continuing proclivity to view Maoist incidents of violence and disruption as discrete events, demanding no more than specific and localised patterns of Police response.
The 9th Congress of the Maoists, held in the latter half of January and early February 2007, attracted some media comment, but has failed to provoke any sense of particular urgency in India’s establishment at the national or State levels, nor have events thereafter been coherently linked with what is known to have been decided at this convention. The discomforting reality, however, is that the Maoists are, as in the past, deadly serious, and their plans and projections have already been moved into the phase of active implementation. If there was any scope for doubt on this count, it should have been convincingly settled by the two-day Maoist blockade across six of the worst affected States along India’s eastern board on June 26 and 27, 2007. The blockade was organised in protest against the economic policies of the Government. Regrettably, far from being recognized as a small taste of catastrophes to come, the blockade evoked a sense of relief in the security leadership, with the top Police official in Jharkhand declaring, “We were expecting major attacks by Maoist rebels, but their reaction has been rather mild.”
It is useful to review the ‘rather mild’ actions of the Maoists during their blockade. The blockade affected wide areas in Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. While urban concentrations remained relatively free of incident, transport links were disrupted virtually across the States, and one estimate puts the direct costs in damage to Railway properties at INR 400 million. The indirect costs of disruption of services will have been much larger, with the blockade dislocating supply lines from the country’s principal mining areas in Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The Central Coalfields Limited, for instance, dispatched just 17,500 tonnes of coal by rail on June 26, as against the daily average of 67,000 tonnes. Jharkhand alone is believed to have suffered an economic loss to the tune of INR 1.5 billion over the two-day blockade. Major acts of violence during the blockade included:
Maoists blew up railway tracks and partially destroyed a goods train at Latehar in Jharkhand. Some 20 trains travelling through the State were cancelled.
Dozens of trains were held up after Maoists blew up a stretch of railway tracks in the Dantewada region of Chhattisgarh. Transporters were also forced off the roads in the five districts in the Bastar region.
Maoist cadres set fire to six vehicles in the Dumka area of Jharkhand.
Maoists blew up the railway track between Gomia and Dania stations in the Bokaro District of Jharkhand. Trains did not operate on the Coal India Chord (CIC) section touching Dhanbad, affecting the transportation of coal.
Maoists called out the employees of the Coffee Board Research Centre near the port city of Vishakhapatnam, a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) location in Andhra Pradesh, and blew up the Centre. The Maoists also set fire to records of the forest development corporation in the same area.
Maoist cadres stormed a railway station and set fire to the station master’s office and rigged the tracks with explosives in a pre-dawn attack at Biramdih Station in Purulia in West Bengal. The explosive device was, however, subsequently recovered and defused by the Police.
Summarizing these developments, an assessment by the Union Home Ministry on June 28, stated that twenty incidents took place in States affected by Naxalite violence during the two-day economic blockade. Ten incidents pertained to damage to railway property, mainly in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The other incidents related to obstruction of the movement of goods on highways passing through the States. Though the Railways were yet to make a detailed assessment of the losses incurred by it during the blockade, preliminary estimates suggested that this could be about INR One billion.
Given the scale and lethality of some recent Maoist attacks, the violence witnessed during the blockade would certainly seem ‘mild’. The core error of such an assessment, however, is that the Maoist protracted war is simply equated with Maoist violence, and the significance of the widespread disruption of activity across six States in a centrally coordinated programme is not recognized. As Muppala Laxmana Rao @ Ganapathi, the ‘general secretary’ of the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) declared recently, “we use both violent and non-violent forms of struggle.”
The Maoists recognize clearly that they have suffered ‘tactical reverses’ in some States, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, where the counter-insurgency effort spearheaded by the State Police and its elite Greyhounds Force, has squeezed the rebels out of their strongholds, and into neighbouring States. The Maoist leadership has made “an in-depth study of the enemy’s counter-revolutionary tactics, plans and methods” and drawn “lessons from these”. As a result, “the Party is now more equipped to defeat the enemy’s tactics.” Ganapathi explains the essence of this tactical readjustment: “A specialised study of the strength and weaknesses of the Indian state is taken up. As you might be aware, even the mightiest enemy will have the weakest points. We have to correctly identify these weak points and deal effective blows so as to achieve victories.”
Recent years have seen the evolution of two major tactical innovations by the Maoists. The first of these was the introduction of swarming attacks, the first of which occurred in Koraput in Orissa, where the District headquarters was overrun by up to a thousand People’s War Group (PWG) cadres on February 6, 2004. This was clearly a pattern borrowed from a model that had secured extraordinary successes in Nepal, and has since recurred with increasing frequency. Thus, while year 2004, the year of the introduction of this tactic in India, saw just one such attack, 2005 witnessed three, 2006, nine, and, by the end of June 2007, there had already been at least 12 such attacks. Indeed, in his interview released by the CPI-Maoist on April 24, 2007, Ganapathi boasted, “hundreds of people, and at times even more than a thousand, are involved in the attacks against the enemy as you can see from the recent counter-offensive operations, as in Rani Bodili, Riga, CISF camp in Khasmahal in Bokaro District, and so on in the past one month itself.” The most recent of such attacks occurred on June 30, 2007, with simultaneous attacks at the Rajpur Police Station and Baghaila Police Outpost in Bihar’s Rohtas District, in which thirteen persons, including six policemen, were killed.
The second tactical shift, once again inspired, at least in part by a successful Nepalese model, is the coordinated blockade. Strikes and blockades have long been part of the Maoist tactical handbook, but they have tended to be geographically localised and focused on narrow issues and grievances. The coordinated blockade across six ‘heartland’ States – those worst afflicted by Maoist activities – and on broad issues of economic policies, including the SEZs, the “unhindered ruthless exploitation and control by imperialists and the comprador big business houses” and the “loot by rapacious hawks like Tatas, Ruias, Essars, Mittals, Jindals and imperialist MNCs” represents a dramatic transformation.
What is intended here is a systematic widening of the areas of conflict and the Maoist recruitment base, but within a strictly calibrated framework – hence the limited violence during the blockade, and the restriction of the blockade to just six States. Significantly, official sources now confirm Maoist activity, at various levels and intensities, in 182 Districts across 16 States (and this is an underestimate; official sources in several States beyond these 16 have already confirmed at least some Maoist activity within their territories). Responding to earlier estimates of 165 Districts affected by Maoist activity, Ganapathi had declared, “as far as our influence goes, I should say it is even more than that.”
The reason for the self-imposed limits on both violence and geographical spread of the blockade are strategic and are based on a recognition of the unique infirmities of the Indian state and its capacities for response. The numbers of swarming attacks are also deliberated limited as a matter of choice, and do not reflect actual Maoist capacities, which would be significantly greater. The objective of these various operations is to widen the mass base, to ‘blood’ cadres, and to augmented morale, without carrying the violence and disruption beyond the threshold that would provoke massive and coordinated state response. It is assumed – correctly – that as long as these incidents and episodes remain sporadic and apparently unconnected, the state and its agencies will be tempted to lapse into habitual somnolence soon after each provocation, leaving progressively augmented operational spaces open for the Maoists. There is an underlying recognition, here, that violence beyond a certain level could provoke powerful and coordinated responses which the current Maoist capacities may be insufficient to resist. Recognizing the “tough situation” faced by the Party and its cadres in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, Ganapathi notes, “There is an immediate need to transform a vast area into the war zone so that there is enough room for manoeuvrability for our guerrilla forces.” This transformation is the objective of coordinated blockades and the increasing frequency of swarming attacks.
The Maoists are now also increasingly cognizant of the potential for urban mobilisation well beyond their traditional target demographic. Ganapathi notes, “Middle class is terribly affected by such issues as price-rise, insecurity, corruption, unemployment for their children, high cost of education and health-care, threats from real estate mafia, etc. Keeping these in mind, our Party has drawn up plans to mobilise the middle class into struggles on such issues.” This third strand will soon be drawn into the web of Maoist activities and strategies, and there is increasing evidence of exponentially rising front organisation activity in a number of urban concentrations.
As in the past, the Maoist perspective is rooted in the context and philosophy of the protracted war. Thus, Ganapathi imposes a timeframe of decades on his war plans:
The next ten to twenty years will witness massive political and social upheavals… in several States against the onslaught of imperialism, anti-people policies of the Indian ruling classes such as carving out neo-colonial enclaves called SEZs, massive displacement of the poor in both urban and rural areas, against draconian laws, state repression, unemployment, corruption, inflation, neglect of social welfare and so on. Militant confrontation between the people and the state will become a general feature throughout the country…
The Maoist consolidation has already secured unprecedented sway and, “After a long time in the history of the revolutionary communist movement in India since the 1970s, a single directing centre has come into existence… today the revolutionary movement has become further strengthened, has spread to large tracts of the backward countryside, has well-knit Party structures, Army and vast mass base.”
The Indian state is yet to recognize the coherence of specific initiatives and actions within the broad framework of the Maoist campaigns and strategy across the country, and unless the unity of purpose and of the underlying rationale is recognized and confronted with an equal, indeed, greater, coherence and lucidity, the creeping malignancy of Maoist subversion will continue to extend itself.