Apr 24, 2009
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE – Indian Maoists hijacked a train with 800 passengers in the eastern state of Jharkhand on Wednesday morning.Although the crisis was defused within five hours, when the Maoists released the train and its passengers, the incident has sparked grave concern throughout the security establishment.
The ease with which the Maoists were able to stage an operation of this magnitude – and at a time when security has been tightened for general elections – has laid bare yet again that it is the Maoists’ writ, not that of the government that runs through this part of the country.
The train was on its way from Barkakana in Jharkhand to Mugalsarai in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh when it was hijacked near Hehegarha railway station in Latehar district. Around 200 Maoists are said to have carried out the operation. A railway station in Palamu was bombed as well.
In March 2006, a train was hijacked in the same district. Passengers were set free after 12 hours. The Indian Railways have been targeted repeatedly by the Maoists. Besides holding-up trains, they have blasted railway tracks, burned railway stations, looted weapons from railway police and abducted personnel.
No passengers were hurt in Wednesday’s hijacking and hostage drama. The operation, which took place on the eve of the second part of India’s month-long five-phase general election, was aimed at scaring voters into staying away from polling booths.
Maoists have called for a boycott of the polls in the states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Bihar. In a bid to disrupt polling during the first phase of voting last week, they detonated landmines, raided polling booths and torched electronic voting machines. Around 20 people were killed and scores injured on polling day alone.
Analysts have sought to downplay the impact of the Maoist’s poll violence. Bibhu Prasad Routray, research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management has written that “Maoist violence on April 16 affected a meager 0.09% (71) of the 76,000 polling stations that were identified as vulnerable in the first phase.” He argues that Maoists suffered damage in the violence they sought to inflict on the security forces in the run-up to voting.
While the Maoists have carried out spectacular attacks and did disrupt polls to some extent, they were not fully successful in effecting a boycott. Voter turnout in the constituencies worst hit by Maoist violence was a respectable 50%.
Maoist influence runs through a stretch of territory referred to as the “Red Corridor”. This extends from the Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh through Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand up to Bihar. Areas in western Orissa and eastern Uttar Pradesh are also under Maoist influence. And they have some presence in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as well.
The area where the Maoists operate has grown dramatically in recent years. In the early 1990s the number of districts affected by varying degrees of Maoist violence stood at just 15 in four states. This rose to 55 districts in nine states by the end of 2003 and to 156 districts in 13 states in 2004. Maoists are believed to be operating now in around 200 districts (of a total of 602 districts in the country) in 17 states.
Government officials point out that these statistics and the name Red Corridor have conjured up images of Maoists being in control of a large swathe of land and posing a threat to the Indian state. An official in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region told Asia Times Online that while the Maoists do control “some area” in Dantewada district and are able to carry out big attacks in several states, in most areas of the Red Corridor they operate as a hit-and-run force.
“They do not threaten the government, either at the state or the federal level and they are nowhere near sparking off a general uprising,” he said, drawing attention to the diminishing public support for the Maoists and increasing resistance to their diktats.
Human-rights activists argue that while the Maoist threat might “not have Delhi on its knees, it is a fact that the problem has laid bare India’s failure to deliver good governance, to respond to the plight of the poorest and most marginalized sections of its population”.
Unlike jihadi violence that comes from across the border in Pakistan, Maoist violence has its roots firmly in India. Indeed, the Maoist problem has left India red-faced.
Districts that fall in the Red Corridor are rich in minerals like iron ore and bauxite. But the people living there, who are largely Adivasi or tribal are desperately poor. Exploited by forest officials, contractors, mining companies and middlemen and neglected by the state, villagers in the Red Corridor are among the worst off in the country.
And it is to liberate them from their oppressors and the Indian state that the Maoists claim to be waging their armed struggle.
It is true the Maoists have improved life for the Adivasis by forcing local officials to dig wells or pay better wages to the villagers. But over time, the liberators have turned oppressors themselves. Villagers who don’t obey the Maoists have been killed and Maoist violence stands in the way of development projects.
The scale of Maoist operations has grown dramatically over the years. In November 2005, more than 1,000 Maoists stormed a jail in Jehanabad in Bihar and freed about 350 of their jailed comrades. Armories and camps of the police and paramilitary forces have been raided. A week ago, they signaled capacity to stand and fight the security forces. Around 200 Maoists stormed a state-owned bauxite mining company in the eastern state of Orissa, taking around 100 employees hostage. They battled for more than nine hours with members of India’s Special Operations Group and its Central Industrial Security Force before they finally retreated.
Analysts have drawn attention to increasing Maoist attacks on infrastructure. P Ramana, research fellow at the Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, has pointed out that 62 telecommunication towers were damaged by the Maoists in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Orissa in from 2005 to 2008, with 43 of these occurring in 2008. These attacks are aimed at disrupting “communication amongst the security forces, as well as between ‘police informants’ – who have been provided cellular telephones – and the security forces, in order that operations against the rebels get impaired,” he writes.
The Maoists have also been blowing up power lines and service towers. In May 2007, they blew up three 132 KVA high-tension towers in the Bastar region, plunging six districts into darkness for a week and disrupting normal power distribution for a fortnight. “Functioning of hospitals, communication systems and rail traffic, besides iron ore mines was badly affected,” Ramana points out. In June of last year, two 220 KVA towers were blasted depriving 15,000 villages of electricity.
Maoists have displayed their military capability through their high-profile attacks on railways and other infrastructure. They have been able to inflict losses running into millions of dollars on the state they are seeking to overthrow.
But simultaneously they are inflicting heavy losses on the people they claim they are going to liberate. They have worsened the daily lives of some of India’s most exploited people.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.