West Bengal Assessment 2011
Replying to a question in the State Assembly on December 23, 2010, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee claimed,
Earlier, in an interview to a TV Channel in Kolkata on November 13, the Chief Minister asserted, "The Maoist leadership is now divided. They are now cornered."
Ironically, on December 17, cadres of the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) had shot dead seven workers of the All India Forward Block (AIFB, a party belonging to the ruling Left coalition in the State) at Baghbinda village of Jhalda in Purulia District.
In fact, West Bengal has witnessed a dramatic spurt in Maoist-related fatalities in 2010. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data base, 425 persons including 328 civilians, 36 Security Forces (SF) personnel and 61 Maoists, including cadres of the Maoist-backed People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA), were killed in the State in 2010 (till December 26), as against 158 persons, including 134 civilians, 15 SF personnel and nine Maoists killed in the State in 2009. With this, West Bengal has now earned the dubious distinction of recording the highest Maoist-related fatalities in 2010, dislodging Chhattisgarh, which had topped the list since 2006. The intervening years have seen an extraordinary rise in Maoist-related fatalities in West Bengal, from just six in 2005, through 24 in 2008, and up to 158 and 418, respectively, in 2009 and 2010.
Maoist Insurgency-related fatalities in West Bengal, 2005-2010
Significantly, the civilian casualty figure of 328, which includes the fatalities in the Gyaneshwari Express derailment incident (148) of May 28, 2010, is by far the highest among the Maoist affected States for any past year, followed distantly by Chhattisgarh in 2006, with 189 civilian fatalities. In 2010, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, each, recorded 71 civilian fatalities. Civilian fatalities in West Bengal recorded a 145 per cent increase over the elevated base level of 134 for 2009, already the highest among Maoist-affected States, though West Bengal was placed third in total fatalities last year.
The principal cause for this dramatic escalation is the rapid expansion of the Maoists in the State, and their focused infiltration of the tribal movement in Lalgarh, as a result of which they have taken control of wide areas despite mounting pressure from the SFs. The movement in Lalgarh snowballed after a failed assassination attempt targeting the Chief Minister and then Union Minister for Steel Ram Vilas Paswan at nearby Salboni on November 2, 2008, and the clumsy Police responses that followed. Significantly, unlike other States, the expanding Maoist sway is confronted by the organised (and often armed) cadres of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in West Bengal. In order to hold the area under their control, the Maoists have neutralised the CPI-M cadre base and terrorised the masses – tactics that explain the large number of CPI-M cadre and ‘sympathisers’ among the ‘civilian’ fatalities in the State. Indeed, of the 328 civilians killed in 2010, CPI-M leaders and cadre account for as many as 116.
SF fatalities have also risen to 36 in 2010, from 15 in 2009, even as 61 Maoists were killed, as against nine in 2009, reflecting increasing direct confrontation between the SFs and the Maoists.
In terms of spatial distribution, fatalities in Maoist-related incidents have been reported from five Districts: West Midnapore (365), Purulia (33), Bankura (23), Birbhum (2) and Murshidabad (2). By comparison, 2009 recorded Maoist-related fatalities from West Midnapore (135), Purulia (10), Bankura (8), Jalpaigudi (1), Murshidabad (1), and South 24-Pargana (2). The focus of Maoist activities evidently remains in West Midnapore District, though the Maoists have also succeeded in intensifying their activities in Purulia and Bankura Districts.
The State witnessed 14 major incidents (involving three or more casualties) through 2010. The most significant among these included:
February 15, 2010: Over 100 armed CPI-Maoist cadres attacked the paramilitary Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) camp at Silda, just 30 kilometers from Midnapore town, in the West Midnapore District, killing 24 EFR personnel. One civilian who was injured in the cross fire died later. Another seven troopers were also injured.
May 19: Four CRPF personnel and a Deputy Commandant were killed, while another trooper was critically injured, when CPI-Maoist cadres triggered a landmine explosion targeting the car they were travelling in near Lalgarh in West Midnapore District.
May 28, 2010: At least 148 passengers were killed when cadres of the Maoist-backed PCPA sabotaged the railway track between Khemasoli and Sardiha Railway Stations near Jhargram in West Midnapore District, causing the derailment of 13 coaches of the Gyaneshwari Express. Another 145 persons suffered injuries.
June 16: At least 12 CPI-Maoist cadres were killed and several others injured in an encounter between the Maoist and a joint SF contingent at Ranja Forest near Lalgarh in West Midnapore District of West Bengal.
July 26: Six cadres of the CPI-Maoist, including a woman, and a CRPF trooper were killed in an encounter in the dense forests under Goaltore Police Station in West Midnapore District. 12 weapons, including SLRs and INSAS rifles, were also recovered from the site of the encounter.
August 26: Just before being killed by SFs, Umakanta Mahato, a prime accused in Gyaneshwari Express derailment case, held a 'people's court' at midnight at Kalabani village, near Jhargram in West Midnapore District and ‘sentenced’ three supporters of ruling CPI-M to death after branding them Police informers. The CPI-M sympathizers were executed immediately.
The Maoists were also involved in at least 25 cases of landmine explosions, 18 incidents of arson, and two incidents of abduction (an overwhelming majority of abduction cases go unreported because of fear of the Maoists), and gave bandh (general shut down) calls on at least 29 occasions through 2010. The Maoists also executed seven ‘swarming attacks’ involving significant numbers of their People’s Militia in 2010, as against eight such attacks in 2009.
There were, however, significant SF successes in 2010, including the killing of six Maoists, along with Sidhu Soren, the founding ‘commander-in-chief’ of Sidhu Kanu Gana Militia, in an encounter in Maleta forest in Goaltore area of West Midnapore District on July 26, 2010; the Ranja forest encounter of June 16, 2010, in which at least 12 Maoists were killed; and the Hathilot Forest encounter (near Lakhanpur) of March 25, 2010, where Maoist Politburo member Koteswar Rao alias Kishan was injured. Most significantly, the PCPA founder-president, Lalmohan Tudu, was killed by the SFs on February 22, 2010, along with at least two other PCPA cadres.
These operational successes were compounded by key arrests. Four members of the Maoists’ West Bengal State Committee, including ‘state secretary’ Sudip Chongdar aka Kanchan aka Batas, Anil Ghosh aka Ajoyda, Barun Sur aka Bidyut, and Kalpana Maity, wife of Ashim Mondal aka Akash, were arrested from Kolkata on December 3 and 4, 2010. A day after these arrests, Asim Mondal aka Akash, a senior member of the State Committee, admitted "The arrest is unfortunate and no doubt it is a jolt for our organisation." Earlier, on March 2, 2010, Venkateswar Reddy aka Telugu Dipak, another State Committee member, had been arrested from Sarshuna near Calcutta. Dipak was the suspected mastermind of the February 15, 2010, attack on the EFR camp at Silda. Indeed, an abrupt leadership vacuum among the Maoists in West Bengal seems to have been created, with seven of the 11 State Committee members either behind bar or dead. [The 11 member Committee included: Kanchan, Deepak, Anil Ghosh, Barun Sur, Dwijen Hembram, Sashdhar Mahato, Madhai Patra, Nirmalda, Mansaram Hembram aka Bikash, Asim Mondal aka Akash and Kalpana Maity aka Anu.]
Further, Bapi Mahato, a prime accused in the Gyaneshwari Express derailment case as well as a senior member of the Maoist-backed PCPA was arrested by a joint team of the West Bengal and Jharkhand Police from the Adityapur area of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand on June 20, 2010. According to the SATP database, at least 245 arrests have been made in 2010 in connection with Maoist activities. On June 18, 2010, however, State Chief Secretary Ardhendu Sen claimed that SFs operating in the Jungalmahal area, which includes Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore Districts, had arrested "about 400 to 500 Maoists". Nevertheless, the mastermind behind almost all the Maoist attacks in the region, Koteswar Rao aka Kishanji, CPI-Maoist Politburo member in charge of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa, remains elusive.
Expecting that the pressure mounted by the SFs would induce some Maoists to lay down arms, the State announced its new surrender policy on June 15. The ‘package’ followed Central Government guidelines, with a one-off payment of INR 150,000, vocational training for three months, and INR 2,000 in a monthly stipend for each surrendering cadre. If arms were also surrendered, they would receive, in addition, INR 15,000 for an AK-47 rifle, INR 25,000 for a machine gun, and INR 3,000 for a pistol or revolver. On June 17, West Bengal Director General of Police (DGP) Bhupinder Singh stated, "We have received feelers that a number of people are willing to surrender." By December 26, 2010, however, only five Maoists had surrendered, after the announcement of the ‘package’.
Despite the many SF successes, however, there is little reason for any great optimism. The Chief Minister’s claim that ‘the situation has changed in the past three months’, while not altogether incorrect, nevertheless glosses over the reality of continuing killings in the State, despite the deployment of 92 SF companies in the Jungalmahal area.
Maoist Insurgency-related fatalities in West Bengal, January – December 2010
Source: SATP, *Data till December 26, 2010
[**Note: The unusually high number of May is because of the Gyaneshwari Express derailment incident in which 148 persons were killed]
Again, the Chief Minister’s claim that "some of the blocks are terror free" cannot be accepted without qualification. It is, of course, the case that, on October 18, 2010, at least 12,000 CPI-M cadres marched 12 kilometres from Dharampur and Goaltore to Lalgarh and ‘reclaimed’ the area amid tight security. According to media reports, earlier, an armed rally of CPI-M party cadres, led by its Zonal Committee Secretary Annuj Pandey, who was driven out of his residence in Dharampur in June 2009, ‘reclaimed’ Dharampur and opened the party office located near his residence. However, the role of armed CPI-M cadres in these ‘recoveries’ can hardly be overlooked. Even Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram acknowledged, on September 1, 2010, the existence of armed CPI-M camps in the State. Again on December 21, 2010, Chidambaram wrote to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee asking him to ensure the armed cadres -- including those from the ruling party-supported 'Harmad Vahini' – are "immediately disarmed and demobilised".
In August 2010, the State Government advertised a call for recruitment to 4,767 Police Constables, essentially to fill existing vacancies. The State has a dismal Police Population ratio of 89 per 100,000, way below the national average of 128, as on December 31, 2008 (National Crime Records Bureau Data). There is little possibility of raising the size of the State Police Force to an acceptable level to secure operational efficiency against the Maoists in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, the State Government has sent a proposal to the Union Government to declare another three Districts – Birbhum, Murshidabad and Nadia – Maoist-affected, and the matter is under consideration by the Centre. West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura were already in the list of Maoist-affected Districts. According to reports submitted by the State Police to the State Home Department, eight Police Stations in Nadia, six Police Stations in Birbhum and three Police Stations in Murshidabad have seen increased Maoist activity. The report further disclosed that the Maoists had formed a ‘regional committee’ in Nadia and an ‘area committee’ in Jalangi. The leader of the ‘area committee’ has been identified as Prasanta Das alias Raja, a resident of Kotwal. Das is reported to be the key person in the area, and is involved in strengthening the cadre’s base in Murshidabad and Nadia Districts, and in spreading Maoist influence in the colleges of these Districts. The Maoists had initiated activities by forming a front organisation called Mazdoor Krishak Sangram Samity (Workers and Peasants’ Struggle Committee).
Further, the interrogation of Sudip Chongdar aka Kanchan and other arrested State Committee members revealed that the Maoists were planning to build an urban backup force, with Kolkata as its centre. Recovered documents disclosed that the Maoists had more than 200 primary members in and around the city, and hundreds of sympathisers. Students and labourers from the unorganised sector were the main recruitment pools, and the Maoists were working to set up a viable urban network for shelter and logistics support. The investigating officers revealed that the Maoists had a four-member ‘city committee’, which was in charge of the urban organisation. Police had also recovered several important CDs related to the urban warfare plan of the Maoist ‘Red Brigade’.
A consignment of the hi-tech communication devices recovered after Kanchan’s arrest was found to have been procured for Chhattisgarh. Investigating officers disclosed that the Maoists were trying to develop radio-controlled improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and had already unsuccessfully tested some such IEDs in Jharkhand. Two senior Central Committee members were in charge of the technical cell, and an officer stated, further, "They are also getting help from some city-based students."
Disturbingly, media reports indicate that the Maoists have been recruiting a large number of teenagers, mainly from the Jungalmahal area. In West Midnapore alone, the Maoists are estimated to have trained about 500 teenagers in the first half of 2010. On May 11, 2010, West Midnapore SP Manoj Verma had disclosed, "The boys are offered a monthly amount of INR 2,500." In the June 16 incident in the Ranja Forest, Police records indicate that six of the 12 dead were about 15 or 16 years old.
The Political dynamics of the election-bound State are also making things difficult for the success of anti-Maoist operations. The bitter rivalry between the ruling Left coalition and the main opposition party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), has polarized constituencies and provoked significant violence, including credible claims of linkages between the TMC and the Maoists in several protest movements of the recent past. On August 7, 2010, the CPI-M claimed that 250 of its activists had been killed by "TMC-Maoist gangs". On December 3, 2010, on the other hand, the TMC alleged that 150 people, including TMC supporters, had been killed ‘miscreants backed by the CPI-M’ since the last Lok Sabha election. Meanwhile, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs reported that 96 TMC and 65 CPI-M cadres had been killed till December 15. In its bid to dislodge the ruling coalition from power, the TMC has sought to secure the support of the Maoists, and has repeatedly been demanding the withdrawal of joint SFs from Jungalmahal. The TMC had come out openly in support of the Maoist-backed PCPA and had also organised a joint rally with the PCPA in Lalgarh. On December 20, 2010, the TMC took the dead body of Sanatan Hembram, a PCPA supporter who was allegedly killed by CPI-M cadres in the Lalgarh area, in a procession in Kolkata. The TMC claimed that Hembram was its party cadre, though Police claimed he was initially a Jharkhand Party member who later joined the PCPA and was associated with the Sidhu Kanu Gana Militia.
Within West Bengal’s fractious politics, with the principal political parties consolidating their own armed cadres, and the Maoists playing a significant role in shaping the electoral scenario, there is grave risk that the limited gains of the recent past will be washed away in a rising tide of bloodshed.