Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Red Star over Bihar

Tribune Spectrum

Ambarish Dutta reports from Patna

THE strike by the Maoists in Jehanabad was not an isolated incident but a well-planned attack with clear objectives. And the Maoists were confident that they could carry it out in the social and political powder keg that is Bihar. The wounded Maoist, Manoj Kanu, who succumbed to his injuries on the night of November 16 at Patna Medical College and Hospital, had reportedly disclosed to the Intelligence during interrogation that before the attack, over 600 newly recruited Maoists were trained in arms in the Gurap jungle, near the Bihar-Jharkhand border, in the presence of Maoists from Andhra Pradesh.

On the night of November 13, a sentry and an inmate of Jehanabad District Jail were shot dead and three others were injured as Naxalites looted 16 rifles and ammunition. Nearly half of the jail’s 650 inmates were missing. They were either ‘rescued’ by the Naxalites or had managed to flee. Dreaded Ajay Kanu, state secretary of the CPI (Maoists), was believed to be among the escapees.

The big picture

The timing and strategy of the jailbreak was not merely to free the top Naxal leaders from the jail. The larger motive of the Naxals was the desire to make their presence felt on the home turf, in the Gaya-Jehanabad belt. Sustained crackdown on them by the security forces in the run-up to the poll had loosened their stranglehold. The district went to the poll in the first phase. The raid was a bid to whip up a fear psychosis, especially among the upper castes. Out of 38 districts in Bihar, over 12 are now Naxal-affected in south, central and north Bihar.

Reportedly as many as 2,500 people, on both sides — the Ranvir Sena and the Maoists — have lost their lives in Bihar during the past 30 years.

In the adjacent Jharkhand, official figures reveal the numbers of victims in Maoists attack in 2003, 2004 and 2005 as 128, 171 and 75, respectively.

Sources in the Intelligence, who submitted their report to the Union Home Ministry long back, admitted the attempt by the CPI (Maoists), after the People’s War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) merged in 2004 after a long fratricidal war, to establish a "red corridor." This, they preferred to call a "liberated zone," stretching from the "Siliguri corridor" of West Bengal to Andhra Pradesh, comprising Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.

A senior Intelligence official disclosed that after the MCC and the PWG joined hands to form the CPI(Maoists), under the influence of Maoists from Nepal in 2004, they had gained by way of firepower, better arms and ammunition and greater trans-border coordination. "The Indian Maoists reportedly have over 4,000 trained cadres now who can operate arms, both crude and sophisticated," the sources said.

Military precision

The official said, "Unlike previous such attacks by the Maoists, the attack on Jehanabad revealed the growing military skills of the Maoists. Like an Army operation, they had simultaneously attacked three targets — the jail, police lines and CRPF outposts — as part of their diversionary tactics, to achieve their primary goal to release their top leader Ajay Kanu".

It may also be wrong to equate the Jehanabad episode to that of the first Naxalite upsurge in West Bengal at Naxalbari in 1967. As Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI(ML)—the party which emerged as the biggest democratic Left force in Bihar after the February Assembly poll—puts it, "While the Naxalite upsurge between the late 1960s and mid-1970s in West Bengal and other parts was more explicit in terms of its political agenda, the Jehanabad and related incidents involving the CPI(Maoists), on the contrary, speak less of a political agenda and more of military bravery."

Perhaps it would not lead to any political solution to the core issue of "land reforms" and related socio-economic developments at the grassroots level with the greater participation of the poor and the downtrodden, including the tribals. "Violence begets violence and leads to more state repression by diverting the focus from the core issue of land reforms which was at the root of backwardness and economic underdevelopment in the Naxalite-affected districts," he observed.

The views expressed by Bhattacharya gained credence when none other than the Union Minister of State for Home and Congress leader, Sriprakash Jaiswal, during his recent visit to Bihar, admitted that "force alone cannot solve the Naxalite problem".

Deploying the National Security Guards (NSG) for the first time in Bihar to combat the Maoists in the wake of the incident, Jaiswal was of the view that all the Naxalite-affected states in the country, including Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, should try to implement the West Bengal model of land reforms executed by the Left Front government there. Jaiswal, while claiming that land reforms by West Bengal could limit the problem of Naxalites to a few pockets there, did not explain why the Naxalite-related problem persisted in the Left-ruled West Bengal despite the implementation of land reforms way back in the late 1970s and the early 1980s after the Left Front came to power in 1977.

Way back in 1986, the then Congress Chief Minister Bindeshwari Dube had crushed an otherwise peaceful congregation of villagers at Arwal in Bihar when the SP, C.R. Kaswan, opened fire on unarmed villagers and killed 20 persons who had gathered at a local library.

The meeting was convened by "party unity," a faction of the Naxalites, and the firing on villagers who had gathered in the library was still being viewed as a turning point in the land reforms-related agitation in Bihar. This massacre is compared to that of "Jallianwala Bagh."

It has taken almost 20 years, since the 1986 "Arawal massacre," for the Congress to realise that "use of force" cannot be the ultimate solution to the Naxalite problem in the country. Unless people at the grassroots gain by extensive land reforms and related developments work.

Caste equations

The sheer magnitude of the attack has thrown up challenges for the security forces as well as prised open old schisms of caste. There is an attempt to generalise the incidents of clashes involving the Naxalites and the Ranvir Sena along caste lines.

It is true that the Ranvir Sena was formed in 1994 as a private army of the upper castes to protect their land against Maoists’ "attempts to capture the same in the name of the Dalits." There have been massacres like killing of 59 Dalits at Lakhimpur Bathe in 1997, 21 at Bathanitola in 1996, 23 at Shankarbigha in 1999, 12 at Narayanpur in 1999, 33 at Mianpur in 2000.

In retaliation, 33 persons of the upper castes were killed by the MCCin 1999, in Senari. The fast land reforms movement in Bihar was initiated by Sahajanand Saraswari, who represented the upper castes, under the then Kisan Sabha of the CPI between the 1950s and 60s.

Why could not the Kisan Sabha, after spearheading the first leg of land reforms movement in the 1970s, lead the same movement for the "ultimate land reforms" which bring real socio-economic empowerment to the Dalits and OBCs? This, perhaps, speaks volumes for the stagnation of the CPI in Bihar after the 1970s, and the emergence of the CPI(ML) as the biggest democratic Left force in Bihar after the the February Assembly poll.

Regional forces

An economics graduate from Pune and a law student, Vivek Verma, who was born and brought up in Patna, says, "It is true that the emergence of Lalu Prasad, Ramvilas Paswan or Mayawati can always be viewed as the emergence of Dalits and OBCs as greater stake-holders in the power-sharing process. But to what extent has their emergence given the Dalits, OBCs and tribals at the grassroots the benefits of socio-economic development?"

The victims of the Mianpur massacre by the Ranvir Sena in Bihar in 2000 were Yadavs, despite the fact that the RJD was in power in the state. Retired advocate of the Patna High Court, Jagdish Prasad, said that the report of the Ashish Das Committee, formed in 1998 to inquire into the massacre of 59 Dalits in Lakhimpur Bathe in 1997, was yet to see the light of day.

Could the killing of the maximum number of Dalits and the OBCs during the RJD rule, preceded by the formation of the Ranvir Sena, be viewed as a retaliation by the upper castes against the emergence of Lalu Prasad? The failure of the RJD and other forces, who claim to be catering to the causes of the Dalits and the OBCs, to protect the victims of the Ranvir Sena under their banner, directly or indirectly, helped the Maoists to capitalise on it. North Bihar shares the longest border with Nepal (643 km), and through rivers (Gandak, Koshi) and roads, the Maoists from Nepal could always have a link with the Maoists in central and south Bihar districts that are well linked to Maoists-affected Hazaribagh and Giridh in Jharkhand. They are,in turn, connected to Puruluia in West Bengal, which is linked to Midnapore, the gateway of West Bengal to Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The danger to the internal security of the country posed by the Maoists is underlined by the first-ever deployment of the NSG after the Jehanabad episode.

Intelligence agencies are aware that the "Siliguri corridor" in West Bengal can be accessed from Nepal and Bangladesh, and geo-politically, too, the same corridor provides the only "rail and road link" with the North-East.

Last year, the Assam Government cautioned the Centre against the reported attempt by the ISI to forge a link between the ULFA,the KLO of West Bengal and the Maoists, with the help of Jehadi groups operating from the Bangladesh soil.

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