NEW DELHI, May 31 (Reuters) – At least 145 people were killed in Friday’s sabotage by Maoist rebels on a passenger train in eastern India. It was one of the worst death tolls since the Maoists began their violent campaign against the Indian government.
Here are some questions and answers about the rebels. WHO ARE THE MAOISTS?
They started an armed struggle with a peasant revolt in Naxalbari village in West Bengal state in 1967. The government estimates 6,000-8,000 hardcore fighters trained with modern weapons such as rocket propelled grenades and automatic rifles. There may be tens of thousands more who operate in militias. They operate in more than 200 of the country’s 630 districts, according to the Institute for Conflict Management (IFCM), a New Delhi think-tank.
ARE THEY GETTING STRONGER?
Yes. In 2001, they had a presence in an estimated 56 districts. The merger of two main communist groups in 2004 added to their ability to coordinate. Their attacks have become bigger, including raids with hundreds of fighters and militia members.
There were two other incidents in the last month that testified to their strength – the killing of 76 police in an ambush and an attack on a bus that killed 35 people.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the Maoists India’s gravest internal security threat. 2009 was the worst ever year for casualties at more than 1,000 deaths.
Land conflicts with large companies and poverty have boosted their appeal in their eastern and southern strongholds, home to many deprived tribal communities. There is almost no government presence — such as schools and hospitals — in many areas.
WHAT DOES THE TRAIN ATTACK SIGNAL?
Strategically, not much. The high toll may have been an accident rather than a move to target civilians. There have been dozens of cases of Maoists sabotaging railway lines that usually end with disruption to train services rather than deaths. In this case, the derailed carriages hit a goods train. The Maoists appear to have rowed back from the attack, reportedly saying it was the result of a rogue group.
WHAT HAS THE GOVERMENT DONE TO BATTLE THE INSURGENTS?
The government has sent federal police since late last year in an offensive across six states – Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and West Bengal. But the IFCM estimates only an extra 28,000 federal police patrol an area of around 1.9 million square kms (733,600 sq mile) with a population of more than 400 million.
WILL THE MILITARY BE SENT IN?
The train attack added to pressure for military involvement. But there is opposition in the ruling left-of-centre Congress party, which has generally seen the problem as one of poverty.
Many experts say the military does not hold a magic wand. It could provoke more violence and catch more civilians in the crossfire.
The army has also a mixed record at dealing with insurgencies. In India’s northeast states there have been thousands of soldiers, but little sign of ending violence. Army operations have often hit rebels but alienated locals.
Some Congress allies, who face state elections, may not back a move to involve the military for fear of upsetting voters.
What is more likely is that the military may help train the police in counter-insurgency techniques.
HOW MUCH OF A SECURITY THREAT ARE THE MAOISTS?
There are still major obstacles to the rebellion. It is still concentrated in poor rural areas and they have little impact on India’s cities – which now account for nearly half of the 1.2 billion plus population. In many other areas, they can only operate at night, and outside major towns and villages.
The IFCM says there are constant, ongoing insurgent attacks in under 3 percent of police station areas across India.
ARE THEY ARE A THREAT TO THE ECONOMY?
In the context of India’s $1 trillion-plus output, not yet. For most people doing business in India, red tape and lack of infrastructure are far greater obstacles.
Impact has been limited to large producers in rebel stronghold regions. Work on a $7-billion steel plant by India’s third largest steel producer, JSW Steel Ltd (JSTL.BO), has been delayed.
Frequent rebel strikes have hit production and shipment at firms such as India’s largest miner of iron ore, NMDC Ltd’s (NMDC.BO) and state-run National Aluminium Co Ltd (NALU.BO).
WHAT IS THE OUTLOOK FOR INDIA’S SECURITY?
Some analysts see a “tipping point”, with increased rebel attacks sparking a panicky government response, with either police or the army being sent in with little planning.
There are signs this “tipping point” is still far away. While the rebellion remains effectively in poor rural areas, that government response may continue to be weak.
But attacks on cities could tip those scales. This happened in one of the world’s biggest Maoist rebellions in Peru in the 1980s, when a growing insurgency among Andean villagers was largely ignored until car bombs hit the capital Lima.
There is hope for India’s government. In Andhra Pradesh state, a coordinated police campaign hit the Maoists hard and forced them to retreat to neighbouring states. (Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Miral Fahmy)