- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 4, 2010

LALGARH, India | This dirt-poor village in West Bengal, just a four-hour drive from the pulsating metropolis of Calcutta, bears the scars of soul-crushing poverty and neglect that have allowed well-armed Maoists to establish themselves as agents of change.

A bone-thin villager with wobbly hands, Balai Gharai leads journalists to his straw-and-mud hovel and asks for alms — an existence that belies the fabled economic rise of Asia’s third-largest economy.

“No one ever looked after us or provided any succor. Now I beg to live with my wife and four children,” says Mr. Gharai, who has yet to benefit from the Indian government’s plan to provide food grains to millions of poor.

A younger villager, Sohon Sahu, points to the near droughtlike condition that is consuming Lalgarh without a government-run well or any other relief effort in sight. “We are living in a desert. There is no water,” says Mr. Sahu, whose brother was one of the many youngsters picked up randomly by police during an anti-Maoist operation in the area in June.

Neither the democratically elected communist government that has ruled West Bengal since 1977 nor the center-left federal government has brought the villagers long-promised relief, despite India’s expanding economy.

Lalgarh, with its huge tribal population and vast stretches of dirt tracks, has remained underdeveloped, like thousands of other villages in India. It is in villages like this, where the Indian authorities never set foot, that the Maoists have settled and won sympathies, often at the point of a gun.

Concerned by terrorism and geopolitics at India’s borders with its nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and China, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh nonetheless has identified the Maoists as his nation’s biggest internal threat.

Investors, including global steel giants, are wary of placing money in the areas dominated by Maoists, who are gaining in strength in the rich mining areas of eastern India.

According to a Deutsche Bank AG report in April, “unless the Naxal [Maoists] resistance abates, the high levels of risk associated with doing business in Naxal-infested areas will deter investment and potentially hold back the country’s economic-growth trajectory as it grapples with mineral and energy deficiency.”

The Maoists, who hold sway over vast swaths of forestland and rural pockets in 22 of India’s 28 states, dominate Lalgarh and its surrounding areas. They have created a long Red Corridor, stretching across several states through jungles, over hills and into mineral-rich terrains and remote tribal villages plagued by hunger, police brutality and underdevelopment.

The rebels, said to number about 22,000 by official estimates, live in the forests with the latest weaponry and raise their army of men and women who intermittently attack police officers. The youngsters join them — driven by poverty or radical ideologies.

They have ambushed police posts, killed government supporters, kidnapped officials, hijacked trains, triggered land mines and melted into the deep forests with their cache of weapons.

In April, the Maoists killed 76 security personnel in one of the biggest strikes at Dantewada in Chhattisgarh state of central India. That raid was preceded by the killings of about 25 security personnel at the Silda police camp near Lalgarh in West Bengal.

“We have an avowed target to overthrow the Indian state by 2050. But we can do it much before,” one of its top leaders — Koteswar Rao, who uses the alias Kishenji — boasted in a phone-in TV interview after one of the recent strikes.

The brashness of his statement finds a sympathetic audience in areas like Lalgarh, where fear-stricken police officers have kept themselves locked behind an iron gate at the station.

“The rebels rule the area. We hope we can now at least protect us,” says an official in the Lalgarh police station, where authorities regained control in June after it had been captured and held for months by well-armed rebels.

Abhirup Sarkar, an economist who teaches at Calcutta’s Indian Statistical Institute, says the tribal people are turning to Maoists because of neglect of the ruling regimes.

“In West Bengal, the tribal people have lost their faith in the communist government that hardly carried out any developmental work,” Mr. Sarkar says. “The support base of the ruling communists [has eroded] in the past few years.

“The tribal people inhabit in the mineral- and other natural-resource-rich areas, but they have no property rights. On the other hand, the global demand for resources are displacing them from their own land.

“When there are atrocities of innocent indigenous people by policemen, their only support is often the rebels. It is for more than one reason that Maoists are gaining ground in tribal areas,” Mr. Sarkar says.

Pravin Patel, director of the nongovernmental organization Tribal Welfare Society, says rampant corruption in developmental programs and disdain by government officials and police have driven tribal people to seek shelter with the rebels.

“The Maoists have not made their dens in a day. This is the result of irresponsible, sleeping government, which has suddenly woken up after the eagle eyes of the corporates fell on those mineral-rich lands of tribal people,” Mr. Patel says. “There was virtually no governance in these areas. So Maoists became their friends.”

Mr. Singh, the prime minister, has conceded as much himself.

“We cannot overlook the fact that many of areas in which such extremism flourishes are underdeveloped, and many of the people, mainly poor tribals, who live in these areas have not shared equitably in the fruits of development,” Mr. Singh said last month.


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