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Mamata's Moaist muddle
The more things change, the more they remain the same. This adage applies, very chillingly, to what is known as 'Jangalmahal', the Maoist badlands of Bengal. The change in government in the state had brightened prospects for peace in the Maoist-affected West Midnapore district and parts of adjoining Purulia and Bankura districts, more so since Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, had demanded unconditional talks with the Maoists and withdrawal of central forces from Jangalmahal when her party, Trinamool Congress, was in the opposition in Bengal. After she came to power, Banerjee did suspend operations by the 'joint forces' (central paramilitary and state police forces) and initiate the process of talks by appointing interlocutors to establish contact with the Maoists. But she went back on her electoral promise of pulling out the central paramilitary forces from Jangalmahal and releasing all incarcerated Maoists from state prisons, apparently on the advice of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and preferred the path of caution.
The 'peace', howsoever uneasy, that settled on Jangalmahal was shattered by the killing of a Trinamool activist in a village in that area in end-August. The red rebels followed this up with two more killings last month, one of another Trinamool activist and another of a Jharkhand Janjagaran Manch, which the Maoists feel poses a threat to them. "But even before these killings, the Maoists had been threatening and intimidating our party workers and supporters. The Maoists wanted to maintain their stranglehold over Jangalmahal and felt threatened by our democratic and peaceful activities there, " says senior Trinamool leader and Union Minister of State for Shipping, Mukul Roy. Since the central paramilitary forces - 31 companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and five of the India Reserve Battalion (IRB) - had been asked by the new dispensation in the state to patrol only the main roads and generally stay confined to their camps, the Maoists took advantage of the situation to regroup. "We were receiving intelligence inputs that the Maoists were using the suspension of operations to strengthen themselves. Maoists from Orissa and Jharkhand were having a free run of Jangalmahal. The situation had turned alarming, " says a top police officer who did not wish to be named. It came as no surprise, then, that the 'joint forces' were asked to resume operations against the Maoists, though in a limited manner. Over the past few days, the security forces have resumed 'area domination' exercises and even rounded up a few persons suspected of helping the Maoists.
The re-launch of operations, albeit limited, has alarmed the Maoists since the post-monsoon season stretching up to early spring puts them at a disadvantage inside the jungles. "At this time of the year, the trees in the forests the Maoists hide in start shedding leaves and thus the forests no longer offer them the sort of cover they'd prefer. So they prefer to offer the olive branch during this time, " the police officer said. And true to form, the rebels came up with a month-long ceasefire offer earlier this week.
The Maoists have demanded that the security forces desist from even patrolling the roads during the one-month period that they've promised to utilise to prepare for talks with the state government. At a meeting held with her close aides after the Maoists' offer, Banerjee is learnt to have decided to wait a few more days before reacting to the offer. "We'll collect intelligence from the ground on what the Maoists' plans are, " says Roy. But it may not be easy for the state government to confine the forces in their camps for a month, with the MHA wanting the state to either utilise the forces properly or agree to their relocation to other states. "The MHA has already pulled out the CRPF's specially trained Cobra (acronym for Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) from Jangalmahal after full-scale operations against the Maoists were suspended by the new government. If the MHA pulls out the remaining forces on the ground, the security grid in Jangalmahal will get severely dented and the Maoists will gain an immediate advantage, " says the top cop. The Maoists appear to have factored this in: that is why they chose to demand that the central paramilitary forces stay put in their camps during the truce period.
This is where Banerjee's dilemma deepens: rejecting the Maoists' demand for keeping the central forces confined to their barracks would make her appear intransigent in the eyes of the people, but conceding the demand would risk a pullout of these forces and she can ill afford that. Banerjee is also wary of Maoist moves to disrupt and hijack her development agenda for Jangalmahal - she has already announced some development projects and is expected to announce a few more schemes when she visits the region later next week. The Maoists are bent on blunting this development offensive;they've been creating obstacles in the rollout of these projects and want to dictate the terms so that they can claim credit for it. That's why the Chief Minister or her government has not reacted to the Maoists' peace offering right away, preferring instead to wait a bit more for a better reading of the ground realities. And, as she has discovered, it is one thing to make populist demands while out of government, but quite another to carry them out when in power.
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