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Red vs Khaki

The outcome in Lalgarh, once the police and Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) moved in, demonstrates a single fact beyond dispute: Lalgarh was never "taken" by the Maoists; it was abandoned by the state.

There is much to learn here — not just for West Bengal, but for every administration confronted with the Maoist threat. It is not Maoist strength that is prevailing; it is the state’s endemic infirmity that is yielding. Governments simply abdicate their fundamental responsibilities at the first signs of disorder and violence. Few see the crisis in Lalgarh for what it really was: an opportunistic intervention by the Maoists exploiting extraordinary administrative ineptitude and a protracted failure by the state government and its agencies to respond to what was essentially a local flare-up. Crucially, for all the talk of "liberated zones", the Maoists quickly faded away on the first signs of determined police and paramilitary action — something that could have been secured at the very outset, had the state’s Marxist leaders not been in a blue funk in Kolkata, crushed by electoral humiliation and haunted by nightmares of Nandigram and Singur.

Another notable aspect of the Lalgarh confrontation is how quickly it dovetailed into the wider Maoist campaign across the imagined "red corridor", with a strike call and acts of sporadic violence across the five worst-affected states. This, and not the creation of any "liberated zone", accurately reflects Maoist objective. Lalgarh has helped dramatically to take the processes of radical political mobilisation a step forward. The violent confrontation with, and selective targeting of, Marxist cadres, and the clashes with a demoralised police force, would have helped to break down psychological barriers. Scenes of triumphal Maoist "successes" — the ritual destruction of Marxist offices to tribal drumbeats, the macabre display of corpses of murdered party workers, interviews with Maoist leaders broadcast across the country on live TV — will have telescoped processes of political mobilisation across wide regions beyond Lalgarh at a scale that would have taken years to otherwise secure. For the Maoists, these gains will prove more enduring unlike their brief "occupation" of Lalgarh.

For the state, however, the "recovery" of Lalgarh will provide scant and fleeting comfort. Once Central forces are withdrawn, the area will, once again, be vulnerable to the Maoists’ disruptive dominance. On the other hand, if the area continues to be saturated by Central forces, that would in itself aid future mobilisation — even as such forces would become targets for attritional attacks. In any event, even if Lalgarh is effectively secured in perpetuity, the rest of West Bengal, and areas of Maoist consolidation elsewhere — will provide recurrent opportunities for "people’s war" theatrics.

Once again, conditions in West Bengal are symptomatic of wider susceptibilities. West Bengal has a sanctioned police strength of 92 police personnel per 100,000 population. The Indian average is 125, half or less of force ratios maintained in most Western countries for peacetime policing — in far more ordered societies. Worse, vast gaps have emerged in the forces even against these numbers — in West Bengal, the civil police has a deficit of 28 per cent, and the armed police of 17 per cent. Appallingly, the leadership gap in the armed police, at the ranks between senior superintendent and deputy superintendent, stands at 35 per cent, and at the ranks between inspector and assistant sub-inspector, at 37 per cent, against sanctioned posts. The force has no specialised training for counter-insurgency (a first batch of a hundred personnel is now to be sent to Kanker for a brief course at the Jungle Warfare and Counter-insurgency School there); it is poorly equipped; and it has little or no technical backup or specialised equipment. Central allocations for police augmentation and modernisation have remained substantially unspent despite widening vulnerabilities.

West Bengal is far from the exception here, as average police-population ratios for the country, and the 26/11 debacle in India’s purportedly "best-policed state", clearly exemplify. Nevertheless, governments continue to bury their heads in the soft mush of denial. A slogan, it has been remarked, can stop thinking for a decade; in India, the stupefying impact of slogans appears to last much longer.

This is all the more astonishing since examples of extraordinary and demonstrable successes against insurgency are available within the Indian experience itself. Punjab was certainly one of these; Andhra Pradesh, over the past four years, is another. The CPM has one dramatic example to draw on in its core states: in Tripura, one of the most virulent insurgencies in the country has been decisively defeated. Party leaders would do well to take a quick flight to Agartala and sit at Manik Sarkar’s feet to learn how an insurgency is actually to be fought and overcome.

(Published in Indian Express, New Delhi, July 13, 2009)





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