Tuesday, February 5, 2008

India struggles for strategy in war on Maoists


DANTEWADA, India (AFP) — Combining violence with rhetoric that appeals to the hundreds of millions living in poverty, India's Maoist rebels have left the government looking for an effective counter-insurgency strategy.

The dilemma boils down to two options: strike the militants hard in their strongholds or address the abject poverty that has created fertile ground for the Naxals, as the Maoists are known.

India says it is fighting on both fronts against what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the greatest threat to domestic security. But observers say it is making little headway on either.

"The effective force actually engaging Naxals is not more than 1,800 to 2,000," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

The numbers are quickly diluted in the epicentre of the Maoist conflict -- a 40,000-square-kilometre (15,500 square mile) heavily forested region in central Chhattisgarh state.

Police officials in the largely tribal region that includes Dantewada and four other districts, put the figures slightly higher -- but not by much.

According to Dantewada police chief Rahul Sharma, the area can count on about 15,000 paramilitary and state police personnel, although he admitted about half are engaged at any time in fighting a Maoist army of 5,000.

Estimates of the rebel army size nationwide range between 10,000 and 20,000.

Sharma said authorities in Chhattisgarh state have asked for at least 70,000 more police to knock out the guerrillas, but reinforcements are slow to arrive.

"This is their main belt," said Sharma. "If they are beaten here they have nowhere else to go."

Many, however, question whether simply dispatching more troops is the answer.

"If you have to put out a fire you have to remove the fuel first," said Dantewada social worker Himanshu Kumar. "Naxals get their fuel from government policies that are increasing the problems of the poor."

Their pro-poor platform is why Delhi is so worried about the Naxals, even though the 834 people killed in the 13 states that reported Maoist-related violence last year looks small when compared with the toll in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

But while the pool for converts to the Kashmir insurgency is limited, the Maoists could potentially attract millions of poor.

Rural tribal villagers in mineral-rich Chhattisgarh have no more than 35 cents a day to spend, the lowest level of any state in the country, according to official data released in January.

Their bare-bones existence largely involves gathering and selling leaves for Indian "beedi" cigarettes 12 hours a day -- a far cry from the boom being experienced in other parts of the country.

It is also far removed from the millions being made from the iron ore mined and smelted in Chhattisgarh before being sent to Japan.

India has further plans to mine its mineral wealth in the hinterland, with several companies setting up big plants, but analysts say these mega-projects will do little for the poor and may even displace them, leaving them worse off.

Such contradictions of modern India are being played up by the Maoists -- now reported to be spreading operations across the east and even in states around the capital New Delhi.

"We are seeing a process of very systematic extremist mobilisation which will translate into violence over the next five to 10 years," said analyst Sahni.

"You are talking about 10 percent (economic) growth, where 77 percent of the Indian population -- that is 836 million -- is living on less than 20 rupees a day, which is 50 cents," he said.

"The Maoists understand the contradiction."

No comments: