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Indian government feels Maoist heat

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By Pratap Chakravarty

NEW DELHI – Outrage over the latest in a series of deadly attacks by Maoist rebels will ramp up pressure on India’s government, already facing calls to deploy the military against the rebels, analysts say.

An Indian man carries an injured child to a military helicopter

Federal authorities had been severely criticised for their handling of the insurgency even before Friday’s disaster when a high-speed train packed with sleeping passengers was derailed on a remote stretch of track in West Bengal.

More than 90 bodies have been pulled from the wreckage, amid fears that as many as 70 more could still be trapped in the mangled carriages.

Stepped-up attacks in recent months had forced a review of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy, with Home Minister P. Chidambaram saying he would seek a firmer mandate for dealing with the rebel threat.

Until now, the government has resisted pressure to bring the army into the equation, insisting that paramilitary and state police forces were capable of flushing the Maoists out of their jungle bases.

“A cornerstone of India’s democracy has been not to use its military against its own people,” said Mallika Joseph, a Maoist expert from the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.

“But there is a growing clamour to get the military involved and the government is going to feel the pressure to pursue a more aggressive option,” Joseph said.

“That means all ongoing social development initiatives could be put on the back burner,” she added.

Decades of official neglect of tribespeople and farmers in some of India’s most impoverished regions has been credited with swelling the ranks of the Maoists.

Their insurgency, which started as a peasant movement in 1967, has spread to 20 of 29 Indian states, especially the so-called “Red Corridor” covering Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

India’s Congress party-led government budgeted 661 billion rupees (14.6 billion dollars) for rural development in the current financial year, which officials hoped might help erode grass-roots support for the Maoists.

At the same time it launched a centrally coordinated offensive against the rebels in November using nearly 60,000 paramilitary and regular police.

“A political solution to the problem has to wait until the military force of the Maoists is crushed,” said Basant Ponwar, director of India’s elite Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College.

“And for this, we need to arm our security forces with new skills and equipment,” Ponwar told AFP from his headquarters in the central state of Chhattisgarh, where Maoists massacred 76 policemen last month.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been a fierce critic of the government’s record against the Maoists, said a mindset shift was needed.

“This brazen attack shows the enormity of the problem and it is time we take it as a national problem, a national challenge,” BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

But many observers say bringing the substantial might of the Indian military to bear on the rebels would be a step too far down a path riddled with possible dangers.

Excessive force would run the risk of sizeable civilian casualties in deeply forested areas where the dividing line between rebel fighters and innocent villagers is not always clear.

“The army could be roped in in an advisory role but there will be no military boots on the ground,” said Wilson John from the Observer Research group think-tank.

“The military may extend support in terms of more training, logistics and other such support, but that’s all,” he added.

Military chiefs have made it clear that they are opposed to involving the armed forces in any direct combat operations.

“The military — the army, navy and air force — are trained for lethal operations, maximum lethality,” air force chief P.V. Naik said recently.

“The weapons we have are meant for the enemy across the border,” he said. “For the present moment, we must leave (the Maoists) to the paramilitary forces because they are trained to undertake these operations.”

Outraged press reaction to Friday’s train wreck was aimed both at the rebels and the government.

“Does the centre lack stomach for an all-out war against the Maoists,” the Times of India asked Saturday.