India: Brewing Menace In West Bengal – Analysis
By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On April 26, 2022, senior officials of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) have warned the Police about possible Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) activities in West Bengal, along with its neighbouring States of Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha. During a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Eastern Zonal Council that took place at the West Bengal State secretariat of Nabanna under the Shibpur Police Station limits of Howrah District, West Bengal, on April 26, an alert was issued by senior officials of the UMHA that the following 15 days would be extremely crucial for these four States, as there were central intelligence inputs of resurgent Maoist activities in the region.
On April 23, 2022, CPI-Maoist posters resurfaced in Jhargram District, with a threat to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders of the district, declaring, “For a long time, Trinamool has been playing games with people, it is time for Maoists to play games with Trinamool Congress leaders.” There have been reports of Maoists regrouping in the Junglemahal area of Jhargram and West Midnapore in West Bengal.
On April 20, 2022, following specific inputs by a central agency about a possible CPI-Maoist attack within 15 days, State Police were on high alert in the Jungle Mahal area which covers the Bankura, Purulia, Jhargram and West Midnapore Districts. Police stepped-up their vigil and naka (Police check post) checking around the Jungle Mahal area, especially at border points. According to sources, Maoist ‘commander’ Madan Mahato was leading the Maoists’ regrouping exercise in the area. Mahato is accompanied by his wife Java, who leads the women in the group. According to a central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officer, suspicious movement along the Bengal-Jharkhand border has increased significantly over the past few days.
On April 19, 2022, the West Bengal Government had also issued a red alert in the Junglemahal Districts, after intelligence inputs from the Centre pointed warned of the possibility of a Maoist attacks in this region.
On April 8, 2022, a bandh (general shutdown strike) was observed in large parts of the Junglemahal following a call by the CPI-Maoist, prompting the Bengal Government to reassess the situation in Jhargram, West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura. Reports from the Districts suggested that most pockets of Junglemahal wore a deserted look through April 8, indicating that people at large did not want to take chances and preferred staying indoors. The impact was highest in Jhargram, where three blocks, including Jhargram, witnessed a total bandh-like situation, according to a Police source.
An unnamed senior officer stated, “The people of Junglemahal do not want to take chances with the Maoists as there had been instances of the insurgents attacking people defying their diktat… This fear had vanished in the past few years. We need to assess why people chose to play it safe this time and stayed indoors.”
The Maoists had called the strike in the Junglemahal on April 8,2022, to protest the State Government’s move to appoint former Maoists as junior constables or special home guards. The posters that were put up in different parts of the four Districts claimed that their former comrades were ‘criminals’ and also included threats that those not observing the strike would be killed.
However, following the body blow inflicted on the Maoists with the killing of CPI-Maoist ‘Politburo member’ Mallojula Koteswara Rao aka Kishanji in Burishole forest in the West Midnapore District of the Junglemahal area, during an operation on November 24, 2011, Maoist activities had almost come to complete halt in the State, except for the seven fatalities (six in 2012 and one in 2013) thereafter, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). The Last fatality was recorded on August 17, 2013, when a Peoples Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) leader, Hemanta Mahato (20), was beaten to death by angry villagers under the Jhargram Police Station limits of West Medinipur District. PCPA is an erstwhile CPI-Maoist front organisation.
At peak, West Bengal recorded a total of 429 fatalities, including 326 civilians, 36 SF personnel and 61 Left Wing Extremists (LWEs), in 2010. These SF and LWE fatalities in 2010 were the highest in a year, since March 6, 2000. The 2010 peak in fatalities was substantially the result of the Gyaneshwari Express disaster, in which at least 148 persons were killed and more than 145 were injured, when Maoists sabotaged the Howrah-Kurla Gyaneshwari Express, a passenger train, which derailed and was subsequently rammed by a goods train coming from the opposite direction, in the Sardiya area of Jhargram on May 28, 2010. The State has recorded a total of 719 fatalities, including 528 civilians, 80 SF personnel, 98 LWEs and 13 in the ‘not specified’ category, since March 6, 2000.
Since the last killing of Hemanta Mahato, at least 38 Maoists have been arrested (data till May 1, 2022), and since March 6, 2000, 1,534 LWE elements have been arrested in the State. The most recent arrest was made on March 29, 2022, when a former Jadavpur University student, a suspected CPI-Maoist leader, identified as Joyeeta Das, was arrested from Jagulia village under Barasat I Block – 1 in the Barasat Sadar subdivision of North 24 Parganas District, by the Special Task Force (STF), on charges of waging war against the State. Das, who had been associated with the Nandigram movement as a member of the Matangini Mahila Samity (MMS), a non-profit organisation, was arrested from Jagulia in Barasat after her name allegedly cropped up during the interrogation of two persons suspected to be involved in Maoist activities in Nawada, Murshidabad District, who were arrested on March 24, 2022. An unnamed Police officer disclosed that the two persons, identified as Hasibur Sheikh of Nawada and Pratik Bhowmik of Dhantala in Nadia, both activists of Sangrami Krishak Samity – a pro-Naxalite organization – were arrested in connection with the case. Arms and ammunition were allegedly found on them.
No Maoist has surrendered in the current year, nor during 2021 or in 2020. However, 65 Maoists have surrendered in the State, since March 6, 2000 – 10 in 2003, four in 2009, four in 2010, 12 in 2011, 18 in 2012, two in 2014, one in 2016, and 14 in 2017.
Meanwhile, on March 17, 2022, a landmine placed by the CPI-Maoist was found under the culvert on Pichdhala road in Shalbani in West Midnapore District, which was later safely diffused by the Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad (BDDS). Though no incident of arms or explosives recovery was recorded in 2021, one such incident was recorded in 2020. Since March 6, 2000, at least 168 such incidents have been recorded.
The data suggests that, since the last killing on August 17, 2013, though there has been no Maoist-related fatality, occasional activities continue, indicating a residual Maoist threat.
According to an April 20, 2022, report, the State Government canceled the leave of all Policemen following the Centre’s intelligence. Search operations were carried out for 15 days in a row and strict surveillance maintained. State Director General of Police (DGP) Manoj Malaviya, after visiting the Jungle Mahal area, met officers in Jhargram, Bankura, Purulia and directed them to keep a close watch on outsiders.
On April 17, 2022, DGP Malaviya had met senior Police officers and instructed them to be extremely vigilant, as posters allegedly put up by the Maoists had cropped up in Junglemahal. He directed the officers to find out who was behind these.
An April 17, 2022, report, revealed that two senior leaders of CPI-Maoist had taken shelter in Jungle Mahal and were trying to launch a sudden attack in a bid to demonstrate their presence. As a result, surveillance in specific pockets of the four districts under Jungle Mahal was increased. Anti-mine vehicles were also deployed in various pockets to check roads and paths in and out of different forests.
Interestingly, on June 19, 2021, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) had included Jhargram under the Centre’s ‘Security Related Expenditure (SRE)’ scheme, which funds focused operations against the ultras. The scheme covers 70 LWE-affected Districts in 10 States across the country.
Jhargram, along with Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore Districts of the Jungle Mahal region, share borders with Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, which are among the LWE-affected States in India.
Presently, 24 companies of CRPF are deployed in the Jungle Mahal region for anti-Naxalite operations.
The Maoist influence and impact across the country is, without doubt, diminishing. However, their efforts to stage a comeback are visible in the brewing tensions in areas of their past dominance, including pockets of the Junglemahal region of West Bengal. The near-complete shutdown in the Junglemahal region on April 8, 2022, following the strike-call by the Maoists, led the State Government to revisit the official status of the Maoist organisation in the region. Peace has demonstrably been established in the Junglemahal region, in particular, and in the wider West Bengal State. Its preservation, however, demands continuous and intense vigilance, as the Maoists wait in the wings for any opportunity to stage a revival.
*Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management