Page last updated at 00:28 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 01:28 UK

Rising ambitions of India's Maoists

Tribespeople of Lalgarh
The Communist government has neglected tribals in Lalgarh, say analysts

Maoist rebels controlled a tribal area in India's West Bengal state for nearly eight months before a government offensive forced them out last month. The BBC's Subir Bhaumik in Calcutta explains why the rebels seized control of Lalgarh and what they plan to do now.

Why did India's Maoist rebels end up taking over a tribal-dominated area barely 250km from the eastern Indian city of Calcutta?

The Communist state government lost control of Lalgarh in West Midnapore district last November. It took all of eight months and paramilitary troops to drive out the rebels from the area late last month.

Lalgarh, an embattled forest enclave on the borders of the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Jharkhand, has been described as "the second Naxalbari" by Maoist leaders.

This indicates how important it was for them to take control of this tribal-dominated area.

Naxalbari, the site of India's Maoist-inspired uprising in 1967, is now a sleepy village in West Bengal bordering Nepal. It is inhabited by smugglers or struggling tea garden workers.


The only thing that is common between Naxalbari and Lalgarh is that both have predominantly tribal populations who are alienated and have not benefitted from the land reforms of the Marxist government.

"The tribals in Bengal's Junglemahal area (in which Lalgarh falls) have been completely alienated because in the last 30 years, they have got nothing from the Communist coalition government here. The Communist rulers have taken the tribals for granted," says Ranabir Sammadar, director of the Calcutta Research Group, who has worked on the area.

A Maoist leader talking to the media in Lalgarh
The rebels took over the Lalgarh area last November

Maoist leader Kishenji claimed in a BBC interview that the mass movement in Lalgarh against "oppression of the establishment Left and its police" has given them a major base in West Bengal for the first time since the Naxalite uprising was crushed in the mid-1970s.

"We have 1,100 villages with us in the movement. The resistance they have offered in the face of massive state-led coercion has given us much hope, as did the mass boycott of the parliament polls in the area," he said.

"For the first time since the Naxalite movement, we have struck a place which is the weakest spot of the state and which automatically makes it our stronghold."

'Guerilla zone'

That is why the Maoists - who have already established their influence in eastern and central India - were keen to hold on to Lalgarh as their "first major guerrilla zone" in Bengal.

Security forces patrol Lalgarh
Federal security troops had to be brought in to wrest control of Lalgarh

"It was not a liberated area, as has been wrongly referred by the media. But it was surely emerging as an effective guerrilla zone, where we could undermine if not fully drive away the state," says Kishenji.

If Lalgarh was secured as a base, the Maoists could then spread their influence elsewhere in Bengal.

"They were already getting some sympathy from a section of the intelligentsia that is disillusioned with the ruling left after police excesses in the land rights movement in Nandigram," says political analyst Sabyasachi Basu Raychaudhury.

"Besides, they could also penetrate the disgruntled industrial workers unions which were upset with the Left's support for capitalism.

"Winning over the Bengali middle class through the intelligentsia and the industrial workers are key elements in the new mass line that the Maoists adopted in their last party congress."

But some feel the Maoists overplayed their cards.

They set alarm bells ringing by throwing out the local police and by staging random attacks against ruling left supporters in late May, says analyst Maj Gen KK Gangopadhyay.

The state government initiated a huge operation with federal paramilitary forces and state armed police to retake Lalgarh in early June.

'Human shields'

"The Maoists did not perhaps expect such a huge security response, such a big operation, against which they have no chance of holding territory," Mr Gangopadhyay said.

Maoist rebels in Lagarh
The rebels plan want to move forward

The BBC's Amitabh Bhattasali has been with the security forces from the beginning of the operation to retake Lalgarh.

"The state police is clearly not yet ready for counter-insurgency, they can just about manage riot control," says Mr Bhattasali.

"It was a strange sight to see so many policemen and policewomen enter the Lalgarh jungles with lathis (batons) and shields."

Maybe they were deployed to tackle "mass agitations" by villagers who, police alleged, have been used as "human shields" by the Maoists.

But security analysts agree that without the federal paramilitaries , the operation to cleanse Lalgarh of rebels would not have been successful.

Kishenji says that by the time Bengal goes to its next state assembly elections in 2011, the Maoists will have expanded their influence in Bengal, even as far as Calcutta.

"We will have an armed movement going in Calcutta by 2011, that's for sure," said Kishenji.

Control over Calcutta has been a key objective for Indian Maoists since the beginning of the movement in the 1960s - so perhaps Lalgarh is the half-way house to Calcutta.

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