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Declaring victory, Maoists begin retreat

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Gaining ground: Security forces are on the move in Lalgarh on Friday to flush out Maoists.
Gaining ground: Security forces are on the move in Lalgarh on Friday to flush out Maoists.

Praveen Swami

Under-staffed West Bengal police will face serious post-operation challenges

LALGARH: Early on Friday, a big blast shattered the stillness of the forests around Lalgarh. It appeared to be the first sign of a major battle Maoists have long been threatening to launch as the police inch forward into their forest strongholds.

But by evening, Kadasol village was firmly under the control of the security forces. The Maoist cadre had melted into the adjoining forests, abandoning their positions. The landmine blast, it turned out, was set off by a bomb-detection team.

For days, media had been reporting that the counter-Maoist operations in Lalgarh have ground to a halt. The appearance is deceptive. Police have been conducting metre-by-metre sweeps to clear roads and forest paths of dozens of improvised explosive devices.

Judging by the insurgents’ reluctance to engage the advancing forces, the Maoist presence in Lalgarh is now mainly propagandistic: having declared victory, their forces have little interest in fighting.

Less than 250 armed men, police sources say, are now believed to be present in the so-called liberated zone: a thin arc running along the road east of Lalgarh, through Bara Pelia, Kantapahari and on to Ramgarh. Most of them are local sympathisers, with only rudimentary weapons training.

Key insurgent commanders like M. Koteshwar Rao are believed to have long ago retreated to the safety of Jharkhand’s un-policed hills.

At its peak, the Maoist presence was concentrated in just 17 villages and hamlets in four of West Medinipur’s 31 administrative blocks along West Bengal’s border with Jharkhand.

Even this presence was established not by guerrilla war, but under the cover of a political movement. In November, a Maoist-led organisation, the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, initiated an agitation calling for the withdrawal of police pickets from 15 locations. To avert a bloody confrontation, the government agreed and the Maoists took control.

Evicting Maoists from Lalgarh will, more likely than not, prove to be the easy part of the counter-terrorism operation.

The real challenge will be to prevent their regrouping once the special forces are pulled out. Most propagandists often describe West Bengal as a police State. Like other States in India, West Bengal in fact has a police force, which can at best be described as anaemic.

Responsible for the safety of a population, which stood at 80,221,171 in 2001, the State police have a sanctioned strength of 106,340 personnel. That means 92 personnel are in theory available for protecting every 100,000 population, compared to an all-India ratio of 121:100,000.

Figures released by the United Nations Division for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs in March, 2005 show that these levels are amongst the lowest in the world.

Mexico, home to narcotics problem and low- grade insurgency, has 491.8 police personnel for every 100,000 residents; Italy, which faces only an organised crime threat, has 559; even peaceful Belgium has 357.5.

Moreover, the West Bengal police are chronically short-staffed. The State police’s civil police component, responsible for the maintenance of law and order, should have 70,328 personnel at its disposal. It has only 50,381.

The worst deficiencies are at the officer level. The police’s civil component is 35 per cent short of Senior Superintendents of Police, Superintendents of Police, Additional Superintendents of Police and Deputy Superintendents of Police. At the cutting-edge level of Inspectors, Sub-Inspectors and Assistant Sub-Inspectors, the deficiency is even worse: 27 per cent.

Staffing of the armed police, charged with dealing with violent activities like terrorism and communal violence, is also below the sanctioned levels. The State Police should have 36,012 personnel available for duty, but only has 26,290 on its rolls. Like the civil police, the State’s armed police are grossly short of officers: 35 per cent in the SSP-DSP band, and 37 per cent below that.

Factoring in the gap between sanctioned strength and actual strength, the police have just 70 police personnel for every 100,000 residents.

Why has this happened? Policing simply wasn’t a priority and with good reason. Speaking at the City College of New York in 2007, eminent economist Amartya Sen pointed out that Kolkata “has an exceptionally low crime rate — indeed absolutely the lowest crime rate among all the Indian cities.”

Dr. Sen pointed, in particular, to the “the incidence of murder.” “The average incidence of murder in Indian cities,” he noted, was 2.7 per 100,000 people, 2.9 for Delhi.” The rate is 0.3 in Calcutta [Kolkata].” By way of contrast, in 2005, Paris had a homicide rate of 2.3, Dhaka 3.6, Los Angeles 8.8, Johannesburg 21.5 and Rio de Janeiro an astonishing 34.9.

Like other States, though, West Bengal could now be compelled to divert funds from development to securing its residents.

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