The Maoist threat

Media commentators are calling Lok Sabha 2009 the most violent election ever. Bombings of police officers and paramilitary personnel, claiming dozens of lives; attacks on poll staff and party workers; the hijacking of a train in Jharkhand — is India’s democracy at risk of being undermined by the growing Maoist insurgency in its heartland? The answer is no, there is no need to panic. Actually, insurgents succeeded in targeting the election process in merely 71 of the 76,000 polling stations identified as vulnerable to attack during Phase I, a minuscule 0.09 per cent. Their success was, moreover, the result not of the Maoists’ enhanced capabilities but of poor security management. In November 2008, 300 companies of central police forces were committed to securing the elections to the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly. For the Lok Sabha elections, only 160 companies were made available. In Jharkhand, 96 companies were provided against an estimated requirement of 220. What is more, multiple clusters of Maoist-hit constituencies went to the polls on the same day, a decision which did not allow for the saturation of troubled areas by the available forces.

What the violence ought to do is provoke some introspection on India’s responses to the Maoist insurgency. Last year, 638 people — 210 of them civilians and 214 police personnel — died in Maoist violence. In 2007, the death toll was similar in pattern: 650 fatalities, 240 of civilians, and 218 of police personnel. Maoist violence now claims more lives than the fighting in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite growing concern, there has been little on-ground action to enhance security. Bihar has just 57 police personnel for every 100,000 residents — less than half the national average, and only a fifth of the globally accepted figure for normal, peace-time policing. Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand, for their part, have well below the national average of 44.4 police personnel per 100 square kilometres of territory. Few of even the limited numbers of personnel available have proper counter-insurgency training and equipment. Sadly, there is little reason to believe things are going to get better. In a recent performance audit conducted in 16 States, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found that funds made available by the central government for police modernisation between 2000 and 2004 had been seriously underutilised. Orissa, for example, spent just a third of the planned outlay. In Jharkhand, the CAG found that up to 60 per cent of the funds spent had been improperly utilised. For example, part of the police modernisation fund was used to purchase new vehicles for the Chief Minister’s fleet. Unless the States get serious about enhancing their counter-insurgency capabilities, the violence we have seen could well grow to a point where it could undermine the foundations of our democracy.

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