Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Enduring Shock

The Enduring Shock
The government figures show that fatalities in Maoist violence in Bihar have declined over the past three years, but the continuing 'surprise strikes' -- obviously after prolonged and meticulous preparation -- remain an alarming trend. ......
Bibhu Prasad Routray

In an attack that vaguely resembled the Jehanabad jailbreak operation of November 2005, on March 31, 2007, hundreds [estimates vary between 200 to 500] of suspected cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) led simultaneous attacks on a police station, a block office and a branch of the Central Bank of India at Riga in Bihar's Sitamarhi district bordering Nepal, 300 kilometres from capital Patna. An hour-long exchange of fire between the Maoists and the Bihar Military Police (BMP) and Special Auxiliary Police (SAP) personnel left one SAP personnel dead and half a dozen people including the bank manager injured. The Maoists attempted to blow up the Manihari road over-bridge, using 'milk-can bombs', in a bid to disrupt the transport link between the target of the attack and the district headquarters at Sitamarhi. Only after a SAP platoon stationed at Manihari reacted and was subsequently reinforced by personnel of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB, a border guarding force under the administrative control of the union home ministry) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), did the Maoists call off the operation and flee.

While security forces can rightly claim to have successfully repulsed the attack, what remains alarming is the continued element of surprise that such attacks bring, particularly in view of the prolonged and meticulous preparation that precedes such incidents. Revelations made by arrested Maoist leader Shivchandra Paswan, one of the senior leaders who participated in the attack, and who was arrested on April 2 from Barahi village under the Riga police station, threw light on such preparatory efforts. Paswan revealed that arms used during the attack were smuggled into Riga days before the operation, on vegetable-laden carts. The 'area commanders' of the outfit coordinated the attack by keeping each other involved using Chinese-made Motorola walkie-talkie sets. The Police, obviously, had little clue, as Sitamarhi district Superintendent of Police M.R. Nayak who rushed to Riga after the attack, conceded: "'I had no intelligence inputs regarding the attack. There was no warning of any threat of Maoist attack."

While primary investigations have established that most of the Maoist leaders and cadres involved in the attack had come from the Nepal side of the border [Riga is barely 15 kilometres from the India-Nepal border], statements emerging from Police sources after the attack underline the problem that continues to affect the performance of the security set up in most of the country's Maoist affected states: available knowledge failing to be translated into preventive action.

Bihar Police intelligence reports indicate that the Maoists have traditionally exploited the porous Indo-Nepal border for their activities. The dense Balmiki Nagar forests on the banks of Susta river, which divides India and Nepal, have remained a safe haven for the Maoists. Areas such as West Champaran's Bagaha along the India-Nepal border are emerging as prime recruitment grounds for the Maoists, and a Bihar Police document notes specifically that "Tharu (name of a tribe) boys and girls of Bagaha in West Champaran district have been recruited."

While it is not easy to guard the 1,747 kilometre long India-Nepal international border, 725 kilometres of which runs along Bihar, even the large movements that would have taken place before and after the Riga attack appear to have escaped the attention of the enforcement and border security agencies. Similarly, little appears to have been deciphered from events such as the meeting that was organised by the Nepali Maoists, two days before the Riga attack, in the adjacent Gaur Bazaar in the Rautahat district across in Nepal on March 29.

The porosity of the border has become a permanent and convenient alibi to explain away Police helplessness.

Complacence is, however, certainly part of the problem. Fatalities in Maoist violence in Bihar have declined over the past three years. According to the union ministry of home affairs (MHA), left-wing extremism related fatalities declined from 171 in 2004 to 96 in 2005, and further to 45 in 2006. Maoist related incidents also dipped from 183 in 2005 to 107 in 2006. A total 257 Maoists were arrested in 2006. According to the Institute for Conflict Management database, only nine fatalities have been reported till April 4, 2007. This has been hailed as a notable 'improvement' in the situation both by the union government as well as the government of Bihar.

While this data is heartening, it fails to provide a complete picture of the situation on the ground. According to a March 2007 document of the Bihar Police, 30 of the 38 districts in the state have been affected by Maoist activities. Nine of these districts -- Patna, Gaya, Aurangabad, Jehanabad, Arwal, Kaimur, Rohtas, Nawada and Jamui -- are designated as 'hyper-sensitive'. A further nine districts, including Bhojpur, Muzzafarpur, Sitamarhi, Motihari, Darbhanga, Saharsa, Banka, Bagaha and Sheohar, fall into the 'sensitive' category. The remaining 12 districts are categorised as 'less sensitive'. Evidently, Maoist activities -- if not Maoist violence -- is endemic across much of the state's territory.

Before the March 31 Riga attack, moreover, the Maoists were involved in several incidents, including at least three major attacks, in the state. On January 22, one police personnel was killed and at least two people were injured when CPI-Maoist cadres attacked the police picket at Erahi in the Buxar district. The Maoists reportedly decamped with 10 rifles. On February 27, CPI-Maoist cadres attacked a BMP camp at Khaira village in the Lakhisarai district and killed four Police personnel, besides wounding another three. The extremists decamped with one carbine, three self-loading rifles and ammunition. On the same day, Maoists blasted the railway track near the eastern cabin of Dhanauri station on Kiul-Jamalpur section of the Eastern Railway in the Lakhisarai district. They also uprooted the track at Urain station in a stretch of about 10 metres.

There is further evidence of Maoist dominance over the 'recovered' Bihar: the Riverine areas of Purnia, Katihar, Sitamarhi and Saharsa remain safe havens for the CPI-Maoist. Maoist recruitment and training centres are known to operate in the southern Bihar districts of Jamui, Gaya and Kaimur. Three schools at Amba in the Aurangabad district have closed down since February 2007 after the Maoists threatened to blow them up unless school authorities paid a 'levy'. Since then, classes are being conducted in open fields by irregular teachers, as the permanent teachers have fled out of fear. In the Gaya district, Maoists have set up 'People's Courts' to try those charged with robbery and rape. The accused are hung up-side-down from trees and beaten till they 'confess' to their crimes.

Following the Riga attack, the state government contended that the attack was a consequence of the March 2007 diversion of 10 CRPF companies from the northern Bihar districts to the election-bound state of Uttar Pradesh by the Union government. Since 2006, Bihar has had 23 companies of the CRPF at its disposal, out of a total of 30 in the state, for dedicated counter-Maoist operations. However, the need to provide Uttar Pradesh with 700 companies of Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) led to the unilateral move, a decision which was reportedly resisted by the state Chief Secretary and Home Secretary.

While Bihar initially appears to have been a victim of New Delhi's myopic policies, the reality is somewhat more complex.

First, while the MHA had asked the Bihar government to temporarily relieve 10 of the 30 companies of CPMFs deployed in the state, the decision of the locations from where this force was to be withdrawn was left to the discretion of the state government's and its assessment of available intelligence. Secondly and crucially, the persistent dependence on the Centre is increasingly unsustainable. The MHA, for instance, contends that the state government has raised only two of the three sanctioned India Reserve Battalions (IRBs), thus continuing its dependence on Central Forces. Bihar's state Police Force, moreover, is one of the worst in the country, with the lowest police to population ratio (at 56 per 100,000 population, against a national average of 122 per 100,000), and the neglect of the state's security administration has been both protracted and abysmal.

The reality in Bihar, as in most of the 16 Maoist-afflicted states in the country -- with the dramatic exception of Andhra Pradesh -- is that the enforcement and intelligence agencies are yet to come to grips with the character, nuances and scale of the Maoist threat, and have been repeatedly overwhelmed by 'surprise' attacks. The sheer capacities required to contain the Maoist threat are lacking, and the understanding of Maoist strategies, both of mobilisation and of protracted war, are severely deficient. The approach within the security set-up of most affected states remains defensive, leaving the initiative almost entirely in Maoist hands, while the enforcement agencies continue to function within the context of a 'routine law-and-order' context that is entirely incapable of identifying and monitoring indices of the gradual Maoist mobilisation and consolidation that precedes the orchestration of violence.

The killing of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) Member of Parliament, Sunil Mahato on March 4 in Jharkhand, the attack on the Rani Bodli Police camp in Chhattisgarh on March 15, the April 6-attack on the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) camp and a Police station at Bermo in Jharkhand and the Riga attack in Bihar represent the beginning of a new phase of high-profile Maoist strikes, especially in regions where large mining, irrigation or industrial projects are ongoing or planned -- a fact that is strongly corroborated in the Maoist literature. An eight-page 'annual report' of the 'Central Military Commission' of the CPI-Maoist (October 2005 -- September 2006), seized by security forces in March 2007, lists several upcoming projects in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh as targets for such attacks. The list includes proposed bauxite mines operated by the Jindal group near Visakhapatnam; the Polvaram irrigation project in Andhra Pradesh; projects of the Tata, Essar and Jindal groups in Chhattisgarh; the Rajghara-Raoghat-Jagdalpur Railway line; the Posco and Tata steel plants in Orissa; power plants of the Reliance group; and the ongoing Narmada projects in Madhya Pradesh.

On April 4, Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar came up with the routine responses that inevitably follow each Maoist strike. He asked his top bureaucrats and police officers to strengthen the defence mechanism by speedy restoration and strengthening of basic infrastructure in Left Wing extremism-affected areas. Given the track record of the state government, it is, however, difficult to imagine that the Riga episode will bring about any radical transformation in the way the state has battled left-wing extremism thus far.

Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


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