West Bengal Assessment 2010
With more than a month to go before the end of this year, fatalities in Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) related incidents in West Bengal had already increased five-fold over the previous year, with 125 fatalities in 2009 (as on November 24), against just 24 in 2008. Significantly, the State has the dubious distinction of recording the highest civilian fatalities (105) among all the LWE affected States in 2009, though on total fatalities, it ranked third, after Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The single biggest factor behind the upsurge in fatalities is the systematic escalation of violence by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), particularly in and around Lalgarh.
Maoist Insurgency-related fatalities in West Bengal, 2005-2009
*Data till November 24, 2009
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
Fatalities in Left-Wing Extremism - 2009
* Data till November 24, 2009
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
Note: Compiled from news reports and are provisional.
Throughout 2009, Lalgarh in the West Midnapore District has remained the principal locus of Maoist violence in West Bengal. The sequence began with a failed bid on the life of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on November 2, 2008 when the Maoists triggered a landmine explosion at Salboni targeting his cavalcade. Subsequent arrests made by the Police and alleged ‘atrocities’ committed by them were strongly protested by the tribals of the area. The Maoists stoked the flames and surreptitiously hijacked the protests through a hastily constituted front, the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA). The Police was subsequently blocked out of villages in the area and Maoists intensified their campaign of selective killings – mostly of cadres and supporters of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), even as the State Government pursued a policy of vacillation and, indeed, capitulation. Eventually, however, things came to a head and a reluctant State Government, under mounting pressure to act from the Centre, initiated and operation, jointly executed by State Police and Central Paramilitary Force (CPMF) personnel, to flush out the Maoists. The Lalgarh operation began amid an intense media glare on June 18, 2009.
As the SFs flooded into Lalgarh, the Maoists simply melted away and the significant deployment of troops yielded no enduring gains. On August 6, 2009, a frustrated State administration admitted that the SF operations in Lalgarh had ‘failed’. Nevertheless, the operations continued, even as the Maoists, after a brief hiatus, resumed their targeted killings of CPI-M workers and activists. In their extended list of targets, they also included members and supporters of the Gana Pratirodh Committee [People's Resistance Committee, GPC], an anti-Maoist group backed by the CPI-M. So far, at least eight members of the GPC have been killed.
The SFs did, however, secure a major success on September 26, 2009, when they arrested the PCPA convener, Chhatradhar Mahato. The media friendly leader was arrested by Police personnel posing as journalists, who met him at a hideout for an interview. He has subsequently been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). His arrest was, however, followed by more protests by the PCPA and an escalation of violence by the Maoists.
In a significant development a month after Mahato’s arrest, the PCPA transformed itself into an armed organization called the Sidhu Kanu Gana Militia. The announcement came with the claim that PCPA members had looted 10 firearms in a raid on a CPI-M armed rally in Goaltore. The PCPA spokesperson, Asit Mahato, who replaced Chhatradhar Mahato, declared that the ‘tribal forum’ would "no longer continue democratic processes of rallies and agitations… We have formed the People’s Militia Force. After facing continuous torture by the joint forces and the administration in Jangalmahal, PCPA has decided to pick up arms to combat the Forces." The Police, however, rubbished the PCPA’s claims. The Director-General of Police Bhupinder Singh stated, "The Maoists and the PCPA are the same entity and the Police have been saying so from the very beginning. It is only that they are publicly flaunting their military status." Asit Mahato threatened that the militia would soon hit State and central offices and Government agencies.
On October 27, armed cadres of the PCPA and CPI-Maoist laid siege to the Bhubaneswar-New Delhi Rajdhani Express train at Banstala Railway Station, eight kilometers from Jhargram town in the West Midnapore District. At around 2:30 pm (IST), the Maoists held the train driver hostage and encircled the train for about five hours at Banstala. Some passengers were also injured in brick-batting. The driver and his assistant – initially taken to a building near the station – were later released. The SFs who were rushing to the site for rescue operations were ambushed by the Maoists, triggering an encounter in which two PCPA activists were killed and a Policeman was injured. After the gunfight, the PCPA activists and Maoists holding the train abandoned their positions. The SFs reached the spot later and the train resumed its journey an hour after their arrival. The PCPA activists had orchestrated the incident to demand the release of Chhatradhar Mahato.
The Maoists executed two daring attacks on the SFs:
November 8: Cadres of the CPI-Maoist killed four troopers of the Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) and looted their arms near a Police camp close to a school in Gidhni Bazaar area under Jamboni Police Station in West Midnapore District. The incident took place at around 5.30pm (IST) after Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and senior Government officials left West Midnapore District for capital Kolkata after a two-day visit. Claiming responsibility for the killing, the CPI-Maoist politburo member Koteshwar Rao alias Kishan dared the West Bengal and Central governments to deploy as much forces as they wanted in the West Midnapore District. "We have killed the four jawans as they tortured innocent school children who had taken out a rally in the area yesterday demanding the educational institutions be vacated by joint security forces and their classes resume at the earliest," Kishan told the media from an undisclosed location. The Police camp in Gidhni Bazaar was closed by the Government after this attack.
October 20: CPI-Maoist cadres raided Sankrail Police Station in the West Midnapore District and shot two Police officers dead and kidnapped the officer-in-charge of the Police Station. They also looted INR 923,000 from a nearby bank. The Maoists, numbering around 50 and including some women, arrived in two groups on motorcycles and headed for the Police Station and the State Bank of India branch. At the Police Station, they opened fire killing an officer, Dibakar Bhattacharya, and abducted Officer-In-Charge Atindranath Dutta and an Assistant Sub-Inspector Swapan Roy. Roy’s body was later found from a swamp some distance away. The Maoists took away all the arms and ammunition at the Police Station, leaving behind posters demanding the release of PCPA leader Chhatradhar Mahato and withdrawal of troops from Lalgarh. Maoist leader Kishan claimed responsibility for the attack. Dutta was later released on October 22 after 14 tribal women and nine men were granted conditional bail by the District Sessions Court in Midnapore.
In retrospect, three distinct phases of the Maoist operation in Lalgarh can be identified. In the first phase, which lasted from November 2008 to the first half of June 2009, the Maoists systematically fueled the anger of the tribals and took over the protest movement, and then selectively targeted the ruling CPI-Marxist cadres. This campaign had peaked by late May – early June, when the Parliament election results confirmed a weakening of the CPI-Marxist party and strengthening of main opposition party Trinamul Congress. The second phase began on June 18 (when SF operations commenced), with the Maoists mainly offering defensive resistance to the SFs, and holding the increasingly frustrated SFs at bay for a month through mass protests and disruptive demonstrations, gradually resuming their campaign of targeted annihilation against the CPI-Marxist cadres and the anti-Maoist Gana Pratirodh Committee. The third phase began with the attack on the Sankrail Police Station, when the Maoists initiated a direct offensive against the SFs.
Lalgarh overshadowed insurgent activities elsewhere in West Bengal, though Maoists systematically consolidated their position in other parts of the State. Documents seized from Maoist hideouts in Lalgarh during SF operations reveal that the Maoists had set up six Zonal Committees (ZCs) in the State by August 2009, and at least another five were to come up in the south Bengal Districts – Nadia, Burdwan, Murshidabad, Hooghly and Birbhum. Representation from West Bengal in the outfit’s Central Committee (CC) and Politburo had also increased, according to information available to the State and Central Police Organizations. Another unit was to be established to extend Maoist activities in Arambag, Khanakul and Goghat (Hooghly) and Chandrokona, Ghatal (West Midnapore). A Maoist leader hailing from Jangipara in Hooghly has been entrusted with the responsibility of looking after this particular committee, Police sources indicated, adding that another Maoist leader from Jangipara had recently been inducted into the CC. Maoists had expanded their base in Burdwan and Birbhum as well, and were considering a proposal to form two separate ZCs in these two Districts. Earlier, leaders belonging to the party’s Simanta Zonal Committee had been looking after activities in these two Districts. Koteswar Rao had confirmed the expansion into most Districts in the southern part of West Bengal over the last three years. He, however, refused to comment on the representation of West Bengal in the CC and Politburo.
Unconfirmed news reports claim that at least 7,000 armed Maoists had spread out across the West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura Districts in West Bengal, and across into the East Singhbhum District in the State of Jharkhand. Reports also suggest the presence of 50 hardcore Maoists from Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army, who were training tribal villagers living in these forests.
There are clear indications of a further effort to escalate the conflict. Koteshwar Rao has, for instance, threatened that an armed movement would be launched in capital Kolkata before the 2011 Legislative Assembly elections.
Reports also indicate that the Maoists may be eyeing the sea-route to smuggle in arms. Intelligence agencies have reasons to believe that senior Maoist leader Narayan had been camping on the outskirts of Haldia, operating with the help of mainstream political parties. Police said Narayan has been active in the coastal belt of East Midnapore since 2007 and had played a crucial role in the Nandigram incidents, spearheaded by the Trinamool Congress. He camped in Sonachura and his team members are said to have trained more than 200 youth, who had been roped in with the help of the Bhumi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee [Committee against Land Evictions] activists. Since then, he has been strengthening the outfit in different coastal villages of East Midnapore and South 24-Paraganas. Several mass organizations, believed to be Maoist fronts, have increased their presence and activities in this part of the State over the past years.
Intelligence agencies suspect that the Maoists are looking for a new corridor to connect coastal West Bengal to neighbouring areas in the State of Orissa. The sea route is important for two reasons. First, security agencies believe, the Maoists are providing shelter to a large group of LTTE cadres who are suspected to have sneaked into India after their defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army. Despite the losses it has suffered, the LTTE still has a huge quantity of sophisticated arms in its arsenal, and is making efforts to smuggle these out of Sri Lanka before they are seized by the Forces there. Second, the sea route is the best option for the smuggling of arms. As the Maoists have lost ground in coastal Andhra Pradesh, the Bengal coast has gained in attraction. A safe sea route in the area would be helpful in smuggling arms through Bangladesh. The marshlands of Sunderbans are an ideal safe haven for such activities, as they offer a multiplicity of escape routes.
Amidst all of this, the West Bengal Government remains reluctant to accept the realities of the Maoist presence across the State, insisting that only four Districts – West Midnapore, East Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura – are ‘affected’. Central agencies, however, list 17 of the State’s 18 Districts as affected, in varying proportions, by Maoist activities.
Nevertheless, when the Union Government banned the CPI-Maoist under the UAPA on June 22, 2009, as the Lalgarh crisis peaked, the State Government did declare that, as the UAPA was applicable to the whole of India, it would also be implemented in West Bengal. However, even after prodding from the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, the State Government has not banned the CPI-Maoist under the more appropriate Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1908.
The West Bengal Government also appears to be changing its line on the Lalgarh operations. Having declared them an initial failure, the State Government has now convinced the Centre to deploy an additional six companies of CPMFs, to beef up the 17 companies of CPMFs, mostly the Border Security Force Personnel and the Central Reserve Police Force, already deployed in the area.
Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee visited Midnapore on November 2 and 8, to review the situation in the district, and announced that the projected operations led by CPMFs would not go forward in West Bengal, and that the State’s own security apparatus would be improved to deal with the crisis: "The situation in Lalgarh and its adjacent areas, where there was easy access for Maoists, the law and order situation has improved to a considerable degree. But keeping in view the recent attacks we have decided to strengthen the force and increase the security system in the area further… After reviewing the situation of Jhargram sub-division we have decided to increase the strength of the Police in the Police Stations, enhance the security system like building of boundary walls and keeping sandbags and provide more weapons including sophisticated arms to combat the Maoist and the PCPA people who are creating disturbance in the area." When asked why, despite the concentration of joint Forces in the area there had been several killings by the Maoist, the Chief Minister was sanguine: "Think about the situation one year back," he argued, "Police was not able to enter the area and the entire region was in possession of the Maoists and the PCPA… It is true that that we don’t have control over the whole area, but our Forces have been successful in gaining control over the strategic points and major roads and villages of the area." The Chief Minister ruled out any talks with the Maoists as long as they did not abjure violence.
Years of neglect by West Bengal’s Marxist Government have eroded any possibility of an early solution to the crisis created by the Maoist incursion. Fire fighting measures have, at best, yielded uncertain gains. Worse, the political situation currently prevailing is far from conducive to the initiation of sustained and effective operations against the Maoists. While the ruling Marxists have accused the TC, the main opposition party, of hobnobbing with the Maoists, the TC, on its part, has declared that there are "no Maoists in West Bengal" and that the "Maoists and Marxists are two sides of the same coin". With a polarized and exceptionally irresponsible politics at play in the State, and all attention focused on the Assembly Elections of 2011, opportunities for further Maoist consolidation can only expand, even as the possibilities of any early resolution of the conflict recede further.