Last Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed a press conference in Delhi to mark the completion of one year of his second United Progressive Alliance government. Among the questions put to the PM was one on Maoism. Had the government underestimated the threat? "I have always been saying that Naxalism is the biggest security challenge. So it is not correct to say that we have underestimated the magnitude of the problem," Singh replied.
Four days later, 110 people died in a train crash in West Bengal. Although the Union Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee later changed her stance saying that there was was 'a political conspiracy' behind the disaster, she and Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacherjee had both described the crash as a Maoist attack.
The biggest internal security challenge had struck again. The latest incident followed the killings of 44 people in a blast in Chhattisgarh on May 17 and the massacre of 75 CRPF and one state police man on April 6.
After those incidents, a concerned Home Minister P Chidambaram had lamented his own 'limited mandate' to deal with the issue, and pointed out that the primary task of dealing with the Maoist threat lay with the states. However, the states — and the Centre — lack the capacity to deal with the threat, says analyst and Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management Ajai Sahni. Nor is there unanimity even within the government and the ruling Congress party on how to deal with the situation, he points out. "There is no strategy," he says.
The existing strategy was summarised in a Ministry of Home Affairs status paper as far back as 2006. It had nine points. Primary among these were a resolve to "deal sternly with Maoists indulging in violence" and "address the problem simultaneously on political, security and development fronts in a holistic manner".
Maoist violence has increased since then. The Maoists are now better armed than ever before. Arvind Rao, former Inspector General of Intelligence for the Andhra Pradesh Police, says, "In the past 3 years there has been a loss of at least 1,000 weapons including self loading rifles." Andhra is cited as the only success story in any government's fight against Maoism so far, but that success may have been only temporary. "They are powerful now," says Rao.
A significant chunk of the Maoist leadership comes from the state. They had fanned out across the country when things got 'hot' for them in Andhra. Their involvement is suspected in major attacks including the one on the CRPF men in Dantewada. Sources say four of the Andhra alumni played a major part in planning that attack. The Andhra 'success' may have contributed to the growth of Maoism all the way from Chhattisgarh to West Bengal.
This growth is unlikely to be curbed anytime soon. The Union Home Ministry, according to the report of a parliamentary panel tabled last month, has admitted that the total strength of the security forces was "not even one tenth of what should be there". Moreover, the Maoists are fighting on their own ground. They have been in control of the territories now being contested for more than a decade. They know the terrain, have local support, and retain the initiative for attack.
Development, the second prong of the strategy, is even harder than the first.
This is a point the Maoists themselves have noted. Their spokesman Cherkuri Rajkumar aka Azad has said in the past that "the exploiting classes have absolute control over more than 90 per cent of the country's geographical area. If at all they wish to reach out to the masses with their so called reforms, who is preventing them from doing so?"
There has been only one real success story against Maoism aka Naxalism in India so far. This was in 1967, against the original Naxal movement in Bengal. An expert group set up by the Planning Commission had this to say:
"Shri Hare Krishna Konar of the CPI-M was the Revenue minister. He cited Mao Zedong's fish in water' theory. Fish were the militants and the disgruntled peasantry constituted the water. So long as there was dissatisfaction among the peasantry, militants could operate freely. Hence, the policy proposed by him to the government was to wean away the angry peasantry from militancy by a massive programme of vesting of ceiling-surplus land of the big zamindars and landowners... By and large by 1973 the Naxalite movement disappeared in West Bengal."
The thing is, this time around, there's more water, and more fish. As Union Home Secretary GK Pillai has said, there is a long, bloody war ahead.
With inputs from Aloke Tikku in Delhi and Praveen Donthi in Hyderabad.