Bihar: The Expediency of Failure

7 years ago | 16-03-2010 | IBNS

By Fakir Mohan Pradhan/South Asia Intelligence Review:
The killing of 12 persons including three women and one child at Phulwaria village in the Jamui District on February 17, barely a day after Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar talked about giving primacy to development as a counter to the Left Wing Extremism rampant in Bihar, is a grim reminder of the strength of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) and the weakness of the State.

Nearly 150 heavily-armed cadres and supporters of the CPI-Maoist attacked the village late in the night firing indiscriminately and dynamiting houses, gutting nearly 35 huts. While four members of one family were charred to death, others died in the explosions or were shot dead. There had been an intelligence alert of a possible attack on the village. The Phulwaria incident was, in fact, projected as a 'revenge attack' by the Maoists. Earlier, on January 31, the Police had arrested three Maoists from Khaira village in the District. However, the Maoists claimed that in that incident eight Maoists were killed by the Phulwaria villagers with the help of the Police. Unconfirmed rumours claimed that, after the Maoists raped a woman, some villagers killed eight Maoists, though the incident has not been verified. A Maoist spokesperson, 'Avinash', had called media offices in Patna and said the outfit would observe a hartal (shut down) on February 18 and 19 to protest the killing of eight Maoists. In any event, the Phulwaria villagers were openly opposed to the Maoists and had refused to support them. The District Administration took note of these factors and opened a temporary Police post nearby, while urging villagers to remain vigilant. Regrettably, the Maoists attack came as was feared, but the Police could not muster the courage to confront the Maoists. The Police arrived much later, well after the Maoists had left the incident site.

The Police failure in this case is, of course, obvious, but a much deeper malaise afflicts counter-insurgency (CI) operations in Bihar, and its source is the Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, who has repeatedly insisted that the Maoists cannot be countered by force, and that only all-round development and launching of welfare measures can bring the Maoists back to the mainstream. On February 16, 2010, Kumar argued:In anti-Maoist operations some of the ultras would be arrested, a few would be killed and their weapons seized but they can be brought back to the mainstream only when the State launches development schemes and takes the initiative to check corruption. The mindset of people of Bihar needs to be changed and the democratic psyche improved to counter the Maoist threat in the State. While dealing with Maoists, human rights should not be violated.

He, however, did qualify his remarks with the rider, The use of force against recalcitrant persons cannot be ruled out, Police should be equipped with latest weapons to combat the Naxals.

Regrettably, such 'equipment' of the Police Force remains far from the reality of the ground, though there has been some improvement in the security apparatus in the State, which had been rendered entirely dysfunctional under the previous Rabri Devi regime. It is, however, the insidious influence of Kumar's overall thesis that is undermining any possibility of strategic coherence and the will to fight among the State's Forces.

Earlier, on October 13, 2009, Kumar declared, "Naxalism was not only the problem of a particular State, but also of society as a whole." Police action, he said, "formed only a limited part" of society's response to the menace. "Naxalism is a problem that has to be dealt with jointly by the community, the State and Central Governments acting in harmonious coordination... We will saturate the Naxal-prone areas with development." Kumar is evidently an advocate of the old 'root causes' perspective that ignores the rudimentary configurations of both demography and resources to impose an ideal (and entirely impractical) solution, with no meaningful time frame in view. He ignores, equally, the fact that you cannot develop what you do not control.

Kumar denies reality on the basis of the partial success of State schemes such as Aap Ki Sarkar Aap Ke Dwar (Your Government at Your Doorstep) programme that has brought him political benefits. He claims, however, that his Government has successfully 'contained' the Naxalite problem in the State through such programmes, backing his assertions with selective conflict data. Thus, on March 4, he argued, "The State had witnessed 342 incidents of violence and 218 murders in connection with Maoist-related violence in 2004 in the golden era of United Progressive Alliance, with the Manmohan Singh Government at the centre and Lalu-Rabri regime in Bihar... Our Government seized 52,833 kilograms of explosives and over 71,000 detonators from Maoists in 2009 against 17 kilograms of explosives and 7,401 detonators in 2004... If I advocate development and democracy it does not mean that the State machinery and its laws should not work. We have arrested 406 Maoists in 2009 against 107 in 2004. Responding to our endeavour, as many as 17 hardcore Naxalites surrendered in 2009 against only one in 2004.

While Kumar insisted that his Government allowed its actions to do the talking, his Minister of Home Affairs, Brijendra Prasad Yadav, sought to underplay Maoist violence in the State Assembly on March 8, claiming that 160 civilians and 77 Police personnel had been killed in 338 Naxal strikes over the preceding four years. While 57 persons (49 civilians and eight Policemen) were killed in 63 Naxal attacks in 2006, 62 persons (39 civilians and 23 Policemen) were killed in 73 attacks by the insurgents in 2007; 64 (43 civilians and 21 Policemen) in 79 attacks during 2008; and 54 (29 civilians and 25 Police personnel) in 123 attacks in 2009.

He conceded, however, that, out of 40 Districts (including two Police Districts) in the State, 33 Districts were Naxalite-affected. Giving details of the Naxalite affected Districts, the Minister said that, while 20 -- Gaya, Aurangabad, Rohtas, Jamui, Munger, Kaimur, Bhojpur, Nawada, Jehanabad, Arwal, Motihari, Patna, Sitamarhi, Bagaha, Bettiah, Banka, Sheohar, Lakhisarai, Vaishali and Begusaraifall - were under the 'A' category of the Maoist menace; five Districts -- Buxar, Khagaria, Muzaffarpur, Saharsa and Nalanda - fell under the 'B' category; eight Districts - Siwan, Saran, Samastipur, Katihar, Purnia, Bhagalpur, Sheikhpura and Darbhanga - were in the marginally affected 'C' category.

This data does not, however, reconcile with the Union Government and open source data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), which suggests, that, after a sharp decline in 2006, a steadily augmenting trend in Maoist related violence in Bihar has been restored.
A particular cause of concern within this graph of rising violence since 2006 is the increasing incidence of attacks involving the People's Militia, including swarming attacks by large groups, combining both hard core cadres and wider clusters of supporters. The target of such attacks has varied to include 'Police informers', schools, Panchayt (village level local self Government institution) offices, mobile towers and revenge attacks, such as the one at Phulwaria. A depleted, ill-equipped and demoralised Police force has consistently failed to track and check the movement of such large groups, leaving the public entirely vulnerable and in a state of perpetual fear. Unsurprisingly, they turn to the Maoists for whatever 'protection' they may offer.

Crucially, Kumar has been unwilling to join in the Centre's 'coordinated' operations in the worst affected States. The Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa Police supported by of Central Para-Military Forces (CPMFs) have re-launched anti-Naxalite operations on March 7, 2010. With Bihar unwilling to join, and Jharkhand, at best, a reluctant participant, the Maoists will find sufficient safe havens if they are brought under pressure in West Bengal and Orissa.

Nitish Kumar's policy towards the Maoists is best understood in the light of impending Assembly Elections in the State later this year, a fact that he reluctantly concedes: "It is not only the consideration to win elections that has compelled me to oppose tough action." In what must certainly be an embarrassment - though not an electoral disadvantage - CPI-Maoist Politburo member Koteswar Rao alias Kishan thanked Kumar for "not singing in tune with Chidambaram".

Kumar's ambivalence is part of the continuing confusion of the Indian State towards armed non-state actors. This has been an unrelenting cycle of failure: even as some States come together, other regimes invariably opt out, either as a result of short-term considerations of electoral gain, or because of sheer incomprehension. While Kumar has some successes in administration to boast of, and significant gains against the Maoists in his early years as Chief Minister, he stands to undermine his own achievements by choosing political expediency over an informed strategy of response to the Naxalite challenge.

(The writer is an Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management)