The crumbling of the Left Front edifice in the recently concluded West Bengal elections has been interpreted as a watershed in Indian politics. However, whether the new beginning under the aegis of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) proves to be a game changer as far as West Bengal’s experience with left-wing extremism (LWE) is concerned remains a crucial question.
West Bengal, till the very end of Left rule, epitomised several flaws that mar actions of individual states against the Maoists. The Left Front government led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) resisted the directive of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to proscribe the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), opting in favour of a political struggle against the extremists. It is a different matter that the political struggle largely centred around unleashing the harmad bahini (armed cadres of the CPI-M) on the tribal sympathisers of the Maoists in the Lalgarh area where the Maoists have usurped a popular anti-government agitation since 2008. The action of the state government led to the killing of a large number of CPI-M supporters in Maoist hands. The private army of the CPI-M, effective enough to enlist support for the party among the unwilling civilian population, proved to be almost an unworthy opponent of the better armed and trained Maoist cadres. Moreover, such state sanctioned raids pushed more and more terrorised tribals into the Maoist fold.
This led to the beginning of the second phase of the Left Front government’s anti-Maoist policy when it attempted to make the counter-Maoist operations a centrally-owned as well as centrally-led initiative. However, the MHA made it obligatory on West Bengal to contribute companies of the state police equalling the number of para-military force companies deployed in the state. Even then, the West Bengal police remained almost a non-performing segment in the ‘joint force’ that participated in the counter-Maoist operations. The lack of state police’s ability and cooperation has consumed 44 companies of central para-military forces in a limited geographical expanse of only six police station areas for nearly two years, without much success on the ground.
The below par state of policing in West Bengal was underlined in the massacre of 24 Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) personnel on 15 February 2010 at Silda. Armed Maoists swooped on unsuspecting and vastly unprepared police personnel and decamped with 40 firearms, without a single casualty among their cadres. Later a senior EFR officer lambasted the state government for “misusing and ill-treating” the force. West Bengal, which reported barely 26 civilian and security force deaths in 2008 saw violence leaping manifold. Whereas in 2009, 158 civilian and SF deaths were reported, in 2010 figures reached 256, making the state second only to Chhattisgarh in terms of Maoist violence. The number of violence incidents jumped tenfold, from a rather manageable 35 in 2008 to 350 in 2010. Incidentally, whereas Maoist violence is reported from nine districts of Chhattisgarh, it is limited to only three in West Bengal, making the geographical area to fatalities ratio far worse in the latter.
The inclination to treat Maoist extremism with kid gloves has been the bane of several Indian states. Poll facing politicians have tended to carry forward their electoral gimmicks of seeking to end the Maoist problem by initiating talks with the extremists, to the policy-making institutions, only to discover that the problem is way beyond boardroom negotiations. Both the late Raja Shekhar Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh and Shibu Soren in Jharkhand learnt the hard way that the extremists, with an objective of capturing state power, will never be amenable for a peaceful resolution, especially when riding waves of operational success.
Mamata Banerjee, widely accused to have hobnobbed with the Maoists by her Left Front opponents, too wants to solve the problem through talks. Even though the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has given Mamata a clean chit by pointing to the lack of evidence of any nexus between the TMC and Maoists, the latter’s position on the CPI-M inarguably enforced the TMC’s acceptability in the Maoist affected Junglemahal area. The CPI-Maoist not only decided to de-enforce its call for boycott of the elections, but urged the people to oust the CPI-M from power. The fact that vote from the tribal areas was crucial for the TMC’s victory has been acknowledged by Mamata Banerjee in her post-election media interviews. “People in the Maoist belts voted for us to restore democracy in their areas”, she has said.
The problem for Mamata Banerjee starts with the issues which catapulted her to power. The agitations in Nandigram and Singur where the Left Front government used brute force of its armed cadres and state police to ensure compliance of the land losing people, was effectively used by Mamata to secure support. Even the Lalgarh movement started with the tribal opposition to land transfer for a private steel project. These very issues have also been used as rallying points by the Maoists to expand their support base. Mamata Banerjee will have to deliver on the development and industrialisation front, without large-scale displacement. Governance must reach the tribals without the corollary elements of exploitation. And each time she embarks on these missions of affirmative action, she will have to ensure that the writ of the state and not that of the Maoists extends deep into the psyche of the aggrieved population.
When dealing with the Maoists, it cannot be business as usual for the TMC. A change in anti-Maoist policy will be in the offing. It may come either in the form of de-intensifying the security force operations or by way of initiating a process of negotiations with the outfit. Irrespective of the course of action chosen, the new policy is laced with dangers of making the Maoist direct beneficiaries. It will also mark the beginning of yet another phase of Centre-State dichotomy over dealing with the ‘most serious internal security challenge’ to the country. Given the demands of coalition politics, the MHA’s insistence on carrying out police action and development activities simultaneously in the Maoist affected areas will probably see a new interpretation in West Bengal.
For some time, Mamata Banerjee might succeed in reducing the scale of Maoist violence in the state. However, that will be at the cost of turning West Bengal into a safe haven for the CPI-Maoist, with larger implications on the security of the neighbouring states – Orissa and Jharkhand. And by the time reality strikes and the Chief Minister realises her folly of pursuing a policy of peaceful co-existence with the extremists, it might be wee bit too late for dealing with the problem.
Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray, a former Deputy Director in the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi and a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution. This article first appeared at CLAWS and is reprinted with permission. The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.