Derailing India's Maoist Insurgency

The train derailment that left 148 dead in one of the hotbeds of India’s internal war could well be a classic example of how peaceful resistance can spin easily out of control if handled badly.

The sabotage took place on 28 May in the West Midnapore district of West Bengal, an area the press likes to call “infested” with Maoist rebels. The saboteurs removed about 50 feet of padrol clips, which keep the railway track in place, causing the Gyaneshwari Express passenger train to derail and leaving it in the path of an oncoming goods train which rammed into its side about five minutes later.

The Maoists, who tend to be quite up-front about the attacks they perpetrate, denied any involvement - perhaps unsurprising considering the horrendous loss of civilian life. It is worth considering, however, that the death toll is only marginally less than the 173 killed in the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. Derailing trains is a typical tactic for the Maoists, who were responsible for 58 attacks on infrastructure targets in 2009, according to the Ministry for Railways. In November, two people died when Maoists derailed a train in the state of Jharkhand. The difference with the May 2010 attack was timing: another train coming from a different direction crossed the train's path and compounded the destruction - a catastrophe facilitated by the absence of any emergency warning system.

The Maoist leadership is sticking to its denial, and announced an internal investigation to determine if the attack was the work of rogue elements. Last week, the police appeared to corroborate the story when they put out an arrest warrant for three men from a group called the "People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities" (PCAPA).

The story of the PCAPA began in November 2008 when the Maoists tried to blow up the convoy of West Bengal chief minister Bhuddhadeb Bhattacharya after a visit to the controversial steel plant built by the Jindal Iron and Steel Company in West Midnapore. They used a roadside bomb and missed their target. Police responded by barging into nearby villages, looking for suspects. Reports from the villagers alleged extreme police brutality, including claims that pregnant women were raped and that one was beaten until she lost an eye. Police deny the charges, but the villagers were agitated enough to form the PCAPA.

The whole thing bears worrying comparison to other famous jungle conflicts. “When we go into the jungles," Singh told me, "they just hide their weapons and walk like normal people. It is something like the Vietcong – classic guerrilla tactics. They know where we are, we don’t know where they are. It requires a lot of specific intelligence.”

It organised large, non-violent protests, surrounding police stations in remote areas and forcing them to decamp. Those who attended estimated as many as 30,000 or more people would regularly gather from hundreds of surrounding villages, cutting off roads and staging mass protests. The PCAPA's initial list of demands was simple. Essentially, it wanted the police to stop their attacks. It also wanted the police superintendent to come to the village and do press-ups while holding his ears. The latter demand, a common form of tribal punishment, was not taken seriously by the authorities in Kolkata. Had the authorities taken the request seriously and shown genuine remorse, the PCAPA claims it would have called off further protests.

Instead, the police waited, and then launched a large-scale operation in June 2009 to forcibly reassert their presence in West Midnapore. Activists who worked with the PCAPA in its early negotiations with the state government say its leaders had resisted Maoist attempts to take control of the movement, adamantly sticking to non-violent methods. But the police refused to accept that the PCAPA was ever anything but a front organisation for the Maoists, designed to seize power in the area. It did not help that one of the leaders, Chhatradhar Mahato, had a brother who was a confirmed Maoist.

When I interviewed director-general of police Bhupinder Singh in February of this year, he told me “The PCAPA drummed up support by cooking up stories about atrocities with the obvious backing of the Maoists. All they want is to control these areas. We have been very careful that there are no human rights violations, that they respect women and children and the elderly.”

A year on from the launch of that operation, progress remains uncertain. The police have been able to re-establish bases across the region, but winning the hearts and minds of the people is another matter entirely. The whole thing bears worrying comparison to other famous jungle conflicts. “When we go into the jungles," Singh told me, "they just hide their weapons and walk like normal people. It is something like the Vietcong – classic guerrilla tactics. They know where we are, we don’t know where they are. It requires a lot of specific intelligence.”

In September 2009, Chhatradhar Mahato was arrested by police pretending to be journalists (a tactic not much appreciated by local hacks). On 22 February of this year, another of its leaders, Lalmohan Tudu, was gunned down by police. Activists say he was dragged out of his village home and shot in front of his wife and daughter as revenge for a Maoist attack on a nearby police camp the week before in which 24 officers died. Police claim Tudu was killed in a gunfight that he had initiated. The truth will probably never come out, since the body has never been recovered and the results of the post-mortem remain classified.

The line between peaceful protester and Maoist footsoldier is often blurred. The Maoists feed off the same grievances that motivate peaceful demonstrations: the demand for development, improved governance and an end to human rights violations. But by lumping them together, the police have essentially done the Maoists’ job for them, cutting off outlets for legitimate protest and encouraging impressionable individuals to see violence as their only recourse. This encourages a decentralisation of the insurgency. Recruits are motivated bottom-up by local events rather than manipulated by a distant, central leadership. That lack of focused command and control also yields more chaotic results, such as last month’s horrific train wreck. If it turns out that members of the PCAPA are indeed responsible for the violence, then the group has clearly forfeited any claims to the moral high-ground it may have once held. But part of the blame must also go to the heavy-handed government response, which refused the olive branch when it was still being proffered. 


POSTSCRIPT: Conspiracy

There is one other possibility in this story: that the whole thing was staged by state authorities to undermine the Maoists' and the PCAPA's legitimacy. If that sounds a little far-fetched, that's because it probably is. Nonetheless, there remain some serious questions about the investigation. A key piece of evidence against the PCAPA was the fact that their own propaganda leaflets were found near the crash site - though it seems odd that they would leave a calling card near an attack which they subsequently refused to claim as their own. 

West Bengal opposition leader Mamata Banerjee has suggested there is some sort of political conspiracy afoot, although her garbled public statement on the issue, and media reports about it, offer little clarity. The PCAPA came out on Saturday with a list of its own suspects, all of whom are key figures in the Marxist party that runs West Bengal. Meanwhile, the state government and police are likely exploiting the situation to round up some of their most wanted, regardless of whether or not they were involved.