West Bengal: Maoists on the Mat
By Fakir Mohan Pradhan
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
In 2010, when Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) had formed a covert alliance with the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) in the run-up to the State Assembly elections to unseat the then ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-Marxist) Government, Maoist violence in West Bengal had peaked. With 425 Maoist-linked fatalities, the State secured the dubious distinction of recording the highest insurgency-linked killings in the country in that year. Fatalities had mounted continuously since 2008, when Banerjee’s mischievous alliance with the Maoists commenced, before which West Bengal was, at worst, a State only marginally afflicted with Left Wing Extremist (LWE) violence. Fatalities dropped precipitously after Banerjee was sworn in as Chief Minister, after the TMC swept the elections, and a collusive arrangement with the Maoists was put in place, resulting in the suspension of operations against the rebels by the State Police.
Unsurprisingly, the arrangement did not last, as the Maoists quickly began to target TMC cadres in their areas of dominance, and Banerjee was forced to order the resumption of operations against the Maoists after a succession of high profile killings of TMC leaders. The Security Forces (SFs) delivered a body blow against the Maoists, with the killing of Maoist politburo member Mallojula Koteswara Rao aka Kishanji, on November 24, 2011. As the SFs followed through with a number of other successes, including key arrests and surrenders, Maoist violence in West Bengal ground to a near complete halt, with just four fatalities recorded in the partial data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), through 2012 (till December 16), including two civilians and two Maoist cadres. 53 persons (41 civilians, two SF personnel and 10 Maoists) were killed in the State in 2011. The State has not recorded any major incident (involving three or more fatalities) in 2012, as against three such incidents in 2011.
Fatalities in Left-wing Extremist Violence in West Bengal: 2005-2012
*Data till December 16, 2012; Source: SATP
All fatalities in Maoist-related violence in 2012 have been reported from West Midnapore District. Among the civilians killed was Girish Sahis (42), a supporter of ruling TMC, whose bullet-riddled body was found on September 28, beside the road near his village of Kismat Jambera in the Jhargram area, amidst handwritten Maoist posters demanding the withdrawal of the Joint Security Forces from Jungal Mahal. The second civilian was also a TMC supporter from Jhargram, and was killed by suspected Maoists on January 29, 2012. Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data, however, claims that, up to November 30, 2012, West Bengal recorded no civilian or SF fatalities, while one Maoist was killed. Significantly, other patterns of Maoist violence, such as explosions, arson and abductions, have also dropped to insignificance.
The reason behind the low level of Maoist violence in West Bengal is not far to seek. Kishanji’s killing was not just the neutralization of a top Maoist leader who had directly supervised the rise of the movement in Lalgarh, and its eventual spread across adjoining areas in Jungal Mahal; it was the killing of the ecosystem that kept him afloat. The pre-election hobnobbing with TMC helped intelligence penetrate Kishanji’s network, including his personal security cover. In July 2012, eight months after Kishanji’s killing, Police admitted that it was Suchitra's squad – who Kishanji trusted blindly – that played a key role in trapping him. Significantly, while Suchitra Mahato surrendered on March 9, 2012, along with her newlywed husband, another seven of her squad members surrendered on March 23. Suchitra Mahato was the wife of slain Maoist leader Shasadhar Mahato, one of the prime accused of the Salboni blast. All together, at least 19 Maoists have surrendered in 2012.
This intelligence breakthrough was backed by another crucial development that helps resolve the jigsaw of the sudden Maoist collapse in West Bengal. By March 2012, cadres of the Maoist-backed People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) had started joining the ruling TMC, ostensibly to seek protection against arrest, as most of them had criminal cases pending against them. Three prominent PCPA leaders from West Midnapore — Manoj Mahato, Shyamal Mahato and Loso Hembram — were among those who joined the ruling party with several hundred followers. An unnamed TMC leader conceded, “A vast area covering more than 1,600 villages had been a free-zone for the PCPA since 2008-end as no mainstream political party could carry out activities there. We won seven seats in Jungal Mahal because Maoists did not call for a poll boycott and the PCPA campaigned for us. So the PCPA’s strength can be useful for us to strengthen our base in Jungal Mahal before the rural elections.” Further, TMC sources argued that PCPA workers joining TMC would also help in building an “intelligence network” to track Maoist movements in the area, as they knew the faces of the Maoist leaders active in the area. Not surprisingly, the CPI-Marxist sees the process as a confirmation of the “nexus between the party (TMC) and the Maoists”.
On her part, Chief Minister Banerjee has made at least three visits to the Jungal Mahal area, which had been neglected by the earlier Chief Ministers. She has announced several welfare schemes and carried out a special recruitment drive for tribal youth in the area for posts of 10,700 Junior Police Constables and National Voluntary Force (NVF). So huge was the response to the recruitment drive that many relatives of Maoist cadres filled out the application forms, despite a specific Maoist diktat prohibiting this. There is a further proposal to recruit another 5,000 to the NVF / Homeguards in a second phase. On December 12, 2012, the Chief Minister announced in Kolkata, that the State would deploy “village police” in every village of the Maoist-affected Jungal Mahal region.
The penetration of the ruling TMC in Jungal Mahal has helped intelligence gathering, and facilitated a succession of arrests, including several of high profile leaders, including Arnab Dam alias Bikram, a Maoist State Committee member and secretary of the Bihar-Jharkhand- Odisha Border Regional Committee (BJOBRC), who was arrested at the Biramdih Railway Station in Purulia District late in the night of July 16. An AK-47 rifle, some rounds of ammunition and some Maoist literature were recovered from him. Bikram’s arrest was touted as the biggest achievement of the Joint SFs after Kishanji’s elimination, as he was one of the most important leaders in charge of operations in West Bengal since Kishanji’s death.
Another significant success was the arrest of Sadanala Ramakrishna aka RK aka Techie Anna, a member of the Maoist Central Technical Committee, in Kolkata on February 29. His arrest was part of simultaneous raids in Kolkata and Mumbai, leading to the arrest of nine Maoists (five in Kolkata and four in Mumbai). The arrests blew the lid off an ambitious Maoist arms manufacturing project.
A succession of arrests, including some in Guwahati (Assam), New Delhi, Kolkata and Siliguri in West Bengal, and the Ganjam District in Odisha, between February and August 2012, of cadres of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), an insurgent formation operating in the Northeastern State of Manipur, which has formalized linkages with the CPI-Maoist, and Maoist facilitators, helped unravel the PLA-Maoist network, including its manifestations in West Bengal.
Another key arrest was that of Abhishek Mukherjee, secretary of the Maoists’ Kolkata City Committee on September 11, 2012. Abhishek was thought to have been killed in the Hathilot forest encounter on March 25, 2010, where Kishanji was believed to have been seriously injured. Indeed, the Maoists had put up his name and photograph on their “martyrs list” in an information bulletin, in an effort to mislead the Police.
Other significant arrests in 2012 included Tota Hembram, a top Maoist squad leader; Ranjan Tudu, a trusted Kishanji aide; Mohan Vishwakarma (60), a senior member of the Technical Research and Arms Manufacturing (TRAM) unit. According to SATP data, a total of at least 40 Maoist arrests have been made in West Bengal through 2012.
Despite these reverses, Maoist efforts to regain lost ground continue. On the evening of November 24, 2012, some 50 CPI-Maoist sympathisers gathered at a community hall in Kolkata to observe the first death anniversary of Kishanji. Sources indicate that “a similar programme was held in Jungal Mahal, where several (Maoist) leaders participated.”
Media reports indicate that the Maoists have taken disciplinary action against former Bengal State Committee chief, Akash, and the Bengal State Committee has been dissolved. A State Organising Committee has been formed, which is working under BJOBRC. There have been periodic reports of Maoists trying to regroup, especially in the Jhargram area, which borders Jharkhand.
Further, while a large number of members of the Maoist-backed Jana Jagaran Mancha defected to the TMC after it came to power, a residual group started regrouping under the identity of the Rashtriya Janadhikar Suraksha Party (RJSP) during the latter half of 2011. The TMC Member of Parliament (MP) from Tamluk, Subhendu Adhikari, described the RJSP as a front of some banned outfit: "Some of the banned outfits are trying to strike back. It is they who have floated a panel under the garb of human rights organizations. We are keeping a keen watch on them and won't spare them if they engage in anti-national and subversive activities."
Maoist sympathisers have also reportedly set up a new formation, the Janaganer Samabay (Peoples’ Co-operative) to regain public sympathy in pockets of the Jungal Mahal area, after Kishanji's death. The Peoples Co-operative has already held several meetings in the area, and are said to be urging people to fight the ruling TMC by sending village youth to the adjoining Jharkhand state for arms training. Intelligence reports also indicate that the Maoists are trying to spread their influence across the industrial zone, specifically in collieries, in the Asansol-Durgapur area in West Bengal.
There are also troubling suggestions that some CPI-Maoist front organizations in West Bengal have developed a nexus with elements of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which has close links with Pakistan’s covert intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). These elements have held several meetings jointly in four Districts of West Bengal, (Murshidabad, West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura), staged protests against alleged violation of human rights, and have been instigating people against the Government. This information was shared by the State Director General of Police (DGP) with the MHA during the DGP-level meet on October 18, 2012. However, the MHA on December 5, 2012, informed Rajya Sabha that “no concrete inputs are available to indicate that Naxals have forged direct ties with the Pakistani Intelligence Agency ISI.”
Meanwhile, following a Kolkata High Court order allowing the status of political prisoners to PCPA leader Chhatradhar Mahato and six Maoists booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the MHA had written to the State Government on October 8, 2012, asking the latter to amend the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992. The MHA told the State Government to move the Supreme Court and amend the Act, as the August 8, 2012, High Court order had “pan-India implications” and would provide grist to the CPI-Maoist propaganda machinery. The State Government is learnt to have agreed to amend the West Bengal Correctional Services Act, 1992.
The wildfire growth of the Maoists in West Bengal in 2009-10 was a function of unprincipled electoral politics and of cynical collusion by a mainstream political formation, the TMC. With the end of these collusive arrangements between the TMC and the Maoists, the latter have, inevitably, lost ground in the State. Their efforts to restore some influence, nevertheless, continue, and will have to be countered by sustained operational pressure on the part of the intelligence and SF apparatus.