Friday, February 25, 2011

Maoists Make India Kneel Again

Rebels trade a captured district officer for concessions and the release of jailed leaders

Repeated strikes by leftist rebels, described as India’s biggest internal security challenge, continue to shake the country and pose an increasing challenge for the government in New Delhi.

An unprecedented 1,169 people died last year, the most in any year since the armed rebellion began nearly four and a half decades back, far more than terror and insurgency-related deaths across the country, troubled state Jammu & Kashmir and the north east.

Nearly 15,000 people, including police, rebels and civilians, have been killed in the violence so far. Earlier this month India's home minister P Chidambaram said that the security forces action against the Maoist was presently in "stalemate" in north and east India despite the a big 2010 offensive, codenamed Operation Green Hunt.

In the latest incident, the Maoist insurgents kidnapped a popular young officer belonging to the elite Indian Administrative Service, the country’s top bureaucracy, in the eastern state of Orissa in mid-February. The rebels abducted the 30-year-old R Vineel Krishna, the district collector and administrative head of Malkangiri, prompting the Orissa government to suspend a continuing security offensive against the insurgents. The Maoists demanded that several hundred imprisoned rebels and a few particular leaders be released in exchange for Krishna’s freedom and life.

Such hostage situations involving policemen or civilians by the Maoists can go either way. Krishna’s life did hang in the balance, even though in the absence of a clear-cut hostage policy, the Indian state has a record of capitulating to hijackers/terrorists/insurgents in the past.

Ironically Krishna and an accompanying junior engineer were abducted when the two were inspecting the success of an off grid rural electrification effort in a remote area. One of the main reasons that the leftist rebels have taken root in vast swathes of the country, especially the mineral rich eastern belt, is the lack of development and economic mobility of local tribal residents. Krishna, a graduate from India’s top engineering Indian Institute of Technology, is known to be an efficient administrator and popular with the local population that poured onto the streets to demand his release.

In Malkangiri, educational institutions, shops and offices shut down to demand release of the abducted officer. Some reports suggested that locals familiar with the territory planned to rescue Krishna. A show of support spread over the Orissa state and neighboring Andhra Pradesh, adding considerable pressure for Krishna’s release.

The Maoists freed Krishna on Feb. 24after the Orissa government conceded to most of their demands, including release of several jailed comrades. Over the last couple of days there have been contrary local media reports about Krishna’s freedom.

Chosen mediators for the Naxals and senior representatives of the Orissa government were involved in "talks" to evolve a "consensus." In an effort to buy peace the Orissa government said it would not oppose the bail plea of a Maoist leader in the near future and will release a few others.

In his first statements after his release Krishna said that he was "treated well" by his abductors who engaged him in debates about "tribal development."

The latest hostage crisis is another reminder that despite massive security offensives, Maoist violence in India shows no sign of abating. The year 2010 was the worst in terms of human casualties, according to official figures. What is even more worrying is a steep rise in civilians killed.

The Maoists believe in armed struggle to overthrow the state and bring about socio-economic change, especially in the northeastern and central eastern states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.

India's valuable coal and mineral industry is focused in these states, which have large tribal concentrations. The areas score very poorly on human development as the local population has not benefited from rich mining activities that have instead filled state coffers, politicians, the bureaucracy and a few "outsider" businessmen.

A link has thus been established between the Maoist insurgency and rapacious mining in forested areas and the exploitation of the local inhabitants. Tribals constitute more than 8 percent of the country’s population but account for 40 percent of the 50-60 million internally displaced since India’s independence in 1947 due to land diversion, particularly by state firms such as Coal India Limited for mining.

Today, most 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.

Over time, the Maoists rebels have become increasingly very well armed, with weapons mostly obtain acquired by raiding police and paramilitary posts although there are some instances of smuggling of arms from Nepal, Burma and China.

Maoist cadres have developed links with other rebel outfits such as the ULFA in Assam and the now defunct LTTE in Sri Lanka. Security officials say that LTTE cadres have trained the Naxal rebels in guerrilla-attack hit and run tactics against armed security forces. Some Maoist leaders are known to have adopted the cause of a Pan-Indian front of insurgent groups especially from the unstable northeast India.

One consequence of the coexistence of poor governance and Naxal rebels is the proliferation of illegal mining, whicht has grown into a multi-million scam under the cover of darkness and night bulbs to escape authority.

Ironically, many of the heavily armed Naxals who took to violence to protect natural resources have turned plunderers hand in glove with the illegal miners. The rebels now demand protection money.

As matters stand the situation is deteriorating and the malaise getting worse and deep seated. It is not a happy scenario for India unless, more hard-working and honest officers like Krishna come along.
By Siddharth Srivastava New Delhi-based journalist.

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