The insurgents are a force to reckon with in the historically neglected, tribal dominated southwestern districts of West Bengal
With the setting of the sun, the campaigning for the Assembly elections goes "underground" in the Belpahari area of Paschim [West] Medinipur district - one of the three districts in southwestern West Bengal affected by the Maoist insurgency.
Gun-toting jawans of the Border Security Force [BSF] patrol the dusty pathways that branch off the State highway and thread their way through thick forests to the largely tribal-dominated villages. But their presence does little to ease the insecurity of the campaigners or the locals. Life retreats indoors by sundown; even when the sun is up, apprehension and wariness lurk in the shadows.
The region, which stretches across the districts of Paschim Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura, shares its western border with Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa and has emerged as a hotbed of insurgency over the past few years particularly since the merger of the Maoist Communist Centre with the Peoples' War and the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) last year. At the commencement of the Assembly session not too long ago, Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi warned of such groups "trying to create a compact revolutionary zone to be used as a corridor from Andhra Pradesh to Nepal".
The activities of the militants, or Naxalites as they are better known, are a matter of growing concern to the State Government. More than 50 political leaders and workers, 35 of them belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and security personnel have been killed in Maoist violence since the last Assembly elections. It is a matter of concern to the Election Commission too, which is paying "special" attention to the security environment in this part of West Bengal.
The 45 Assembly constituencies that fall under these three districts go to the polls on April 17 in the first of the five phase-elections in the State. The stridency of the Maoist call for a boycott of the elections in the three districts has waned over the past week as evinced by reports of clandestine distribution of pamphlets by leaders of the militant outfits speaking of the need for "restraint" to avoid a bloody fall-out following a massive build-up of Central paramilitary forces in the region for the elections. But the echoes can still be heard.
Nearly 600 companies of Central paramilitary forces are expected to be deployed and advance aerial surveillance conducted to ensure peaceful elections in the Maoist-affected areas. Whether such measures will have the desired effect one will have to wait and see. The big question is whether the presence of the Maoists will deter voters from going to the booths in fear of reprisals once the security forces are withdrawn.
There is also a lingering apathy towards elections among the voters. It stems from decades of developmental neglect, acute poverty and deprivation which make the region one of the most backward in the State - a factor that has ensured the three districts in the region a place in the Centre's "Backward Districts Initiative".
Despite the State Government's recent drive to implement social development programmes one of its professed ways of combating the Maoist influence in the region "much of the benefits have yet to reach the targeted groups", according to a team of anthropologists belonging to the Vidyasagar University in Medinipur commissioned by the local authorities to study the efficacy of the inputs provided under the Rashtriya Samovikas Yojna Scheme in Paschim Medinipur district.
"The approach of the implementing agencies is essentially target-fulfillment; what is lacking is an effective system of checks and monitoring once the projects are implemented. Moreover, the weaker sections among the tribals like the Lodhas do not get to enjoy the development inputs earmarked for them; very often these inputs are usurped by the Santhals and Mahatos who are the more dominant and historically assertive groups among them", Abhijit Guha, leader of the team says. Such discrimination within the tribal community, compounded by the fact that the region has been on the wrong end of the uneven development schemes executed across the State, have fuelled social discontent precipitating political unrest.
Insurgent groups have been exploiting the situation, drawing the economically deprived into their fold with the promise of providing them an alternative political platform. Even Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has cautioned that it would be naïve to assume that the problem is simply a matter of law and order.
The outcome of the elections is unlikely to upset the existing balance of power in this part of the State, where the CPI(M) is dominant. But the threat to its regional hegemony may come not from parties like the Congress and the Trinamool Congress; it could well come from the Maoists with their militant political agenda, observers believe.
The Maoists' attempts to reorganise both underground and in the open can only be thwarted by speedy and effective development; and the beneficiaries of the development schemes are those they are intended to benefit. Until that happens, the Maoists will be a force to reckon with.