Wednesday, June 02, 2010

India: Are Maoists now targeting civilians, whose cause they supposedly espouse at the point of a gun?

By Sujoy Dhar - IPS
Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Security Experts Fear Maoists Targeting Civilians

KOLKATA, India, June 2, 2010 (IPS) - As India mourns for the victims of one of its worst rail accidents that occurred on Friday in eastern state West Bengal, the political class is divided on whether the Maoist rebels were behind the incident that left 148 civilians dead.

The accident – coming barely two weeks after the Maoists blew up a bus at Dantewada in central India’s Chhattisgarh, killing several common people along with troopers recruited from among villagers – has triggered a debate on whether the Maoists are now choosing soft targets like civilians, whose cause they supposedly espouses at the point of gun.

Security analysts fear that the Maoists are finally targeting the civilians.

According to New Delhi-based defence and strategic analyst C. Uday Bhaskar, the May 28 incident clearly marks the beginning of deliberate and audacious terrorism by the perpetrators and will need to be dealt with accordingly.

"The fact that they are now resorting to brazen terrorism and killing innocent civilians alters the nature of the challenge to the Indian state," says Bhaskar.

"A quick survey of related incidents this year indicates that the Friday attack is the ninth major strike by the Maoist rebels since February this year and the fourth attack on trains and related railway assets in this month alone," Bhaskar says.

"The situation can worsen if the government’s response is as usual. The authorities must react strongly with a well-thought out strategy," he warns.

"If the investigation establishes that the Maoists were responsible for the criminal act, it proves once again that they have become indifferent to the impact of their actions on the general public," writes B. Raman, director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai in his column.

According to India’s home minister P Chidambaram, the Maoists "don’t discriminate between security forces and civilians".

"They simply kill and then find reasons," he said in a recent interview, taking a dig at the civil society activists who often sympathise with the movement that originated from abject rural poverty and extreme oppression in India’s tribal regions by the mainstream governments at both the state and central levels.

The accident also laid bare the security lapses of the Indian authorities that have termed the Maoists India’s biggest internal threat.

The West Bengal police have blamed the Maoists for the train crash, though Mamata Banerjee, India’s Railway Minister and a firebrand opposition leader from communist-ruled West Bengal, indicated that the derailment of Jnaneshwari Express bound for Mumbai from Kolkata was a political conspiracy.

India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram, however, said Monday that the Maoists were suspected to have triggered the rail tragedy on Friday. "The needle of suspicion points to the Communist Party of India-Maoist [CPI- Maoist] or its front organisation," he said.

However, the People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA), a Maoist- backed organisation on whom the sabotage has been blamed, said it was not behind the incident.

Instead, accusing West Bengal’s ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) of hatching the conspiracy, PCPA spokesperson Asit Mahato told TV channels over telephone: "We are in no way behind this. We condemn the killing of innocent people."

PCPA was earlier blamed for hijacking India’s swankiest and fastest passenger train Rajdhani Express in the same region in October last year.

Indian Railway, which has a total route length of 63,327 kilometres and a track length of 111,600 km, transports nearly 20 million passengers every day, making it vulnerable to attacks by the homegrown Maoist rebels as well as Islamist terrorists.

While the Maoists, who espouse the annihilation of the Indian state, periodically launch attacks on security forces, the civilians are often casualties of their violence as India fights a debilitating war with the rebels, believed to be hovering around 22,000 and living mostly in the forests.

The Maoist movement began in the late 1960s in a northern town of West Bengal state called Naxalbari, from which the word ‘Naxalites’ or ‘Naxals’ , as the rebels are also known, is derived. It subsided in the early 1970s only to resurface as a more violent force that now operates under the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Analysts say the government response should not be casual anymore.

"The immediate tactical response to the Friday train derailment is to improve the professionalism of the RPF (the Railway Protection Force) and use available technology for early warning and detection of acts of railway sabotage.

"If airline and airport security has received the kind of attention it now does, then the train passenger should not be treated as a poor cousin," says Bhaskar.

According to Ajit Kumar Singh, a research fellow with New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, almost all steps to upgrade the security apparatus of the railway are in preliminary stages of implementation.

"Given the sheer length of the railways and the movement of passengers and goods across the country, the available numbers of railway protection personnel are a fraction of what is actually needed.

Singh adds that an estimated 90,883 posts are currently vacant, of which an estimated 40 percent are safety-related posts, including those of gangmen, who inspect and maintain railway tracks.

"Given the rampaging expansion of Maoist activities and disruptive capabilities, it is clear that India’s security establishment will not be able to establish dominance and a sufficient preventive capability on the sprawling railways network against the Maoists for some time to come," he concludes.

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