India besieged: Rebels want to be Robin Hood
They arrest motorcycle thieves, treat patients, investigate rapes and murders, punish students cheating in examinations, pressure traders to give farmers better prices and help build roads. These are anti-India militants, not government officials.
Even as they fight gunbattles with the security forces, send grenades and bullets in the mail to threaten people and extort hundreds of crores of rupees, militants in many parts of India are doing what officials should have done.
Officials acknowledge that the trend is a reflection of the deep-rooted failure of the civil administration, police and justice system in these areas, where insurgent groups are taking advantage of the vacuum to spread their influence.
"People are going to the Underground to resolve disputes — in most parts of the state," said Yumnam Joykumar, Manipur’s director general of police. "Underground elements can give you instant justice, whether correct or not," Joykumar told the Hindustan Times. "We have to change the judicial system to make it more effective so that people have more trust in it."
Hundreds of kilometres to the west in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, Sal forests dominate the lush green expanse and villagers collect and sell its leaves, which are used to make pattals (leaf plate).
But traders were fleecing villagers for years, giving them only Rs 23 per 1,000 leaves. The government had not revised the rates, apparently due to powerful traders’ lobbies.
This year, Naxalites put up posters that traders would henceforth pay Rs 75 per 1,000 leaves. Compliance was immediate.
"So now, no contractor is paying less than the new prices. People are thrilled. Earlier, if they got Rs. 100 a day, they now get 300 a day," said a government official, declining to be named.
Last month in Manipur, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested James Kuki, a man who had allegedly abducted and killed Lungnila, the eight-year-old daughter of the then education minister in 2003.
Mass protests had followed the killing, and police were unable to find the man after the body was found in a gunny bag. But the NSCN (I-M), the main Naga insurgent group, swiftly found the suspect, as in many such cases. The rebels "arrested" him, conducted an inquiry and then released him on "parole". Later, the CBI arrested him in Guwahati.
In Andhra Pradesh, Naxals maintain records of the land distributed by them to the landless poor in Telangana, coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions.
"At times, there are disputes between the government records and those of the Naxalites, but the district officials do not persist, as they hardly visit villages, and therefore they know that their information might not be correct," said Vijay Naidu, a village headman in Mehboobnagar district.
"After independence, police is seen as an occupant force in the villages which serves the interests of business class and corrupt political class. The Naxalites are seen as saviours of the poor villagers and that is the reason for their increasing support," said Maoist ideologue GN Saibaba.
Official reject that claim. "The Naxalites are now resorting to cheap gimmicks and falsehoods to keep their cadres in high spirits, who are now thoroughly demoralised by the intense combing operations," said Chhattisgarh’s Director General of Police, SK Paswan.
Most rebel groups have structures that try to portray a parallel administration — with finance and education ministers or secretaries, armed and political wings, and representatives down to the town and village levels.
Last month, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) named the alleged abductor of a valley student to release the boy and surrender within five days. Or else, it said, him, his family and his friends would be given “befitting punishment.” The boy, J Rengwin Lamkang, was released within two days.
The Meitei militant group Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) shot students in their legs to deter them from cheating in examinations. The Revolutionary People’s Front last month arrested a gang of vehicle thieves. In January, the UNLF, the power Imphal valley-based group, recovered Rs 47 lakh from government engineers that they had allegedly taken as bribes.
"In 99.9 per cent of cases, they are bang on," said a senior security official. "In the first instance, they are shot in the leg. The second time, they are killed."
"Any case — rape, murder, goes to the Underground, either directly or indirectly," said Naga youth activist Tuithing Zingkhai. "Here the police department is of no use."