As electorates in Jharkhand start casting their ballot on 25 November, marking the beginning of the five-phase assembly elections spanning almost a month, the threat of left-wing extremism hangs heavy over the poll process. However, while the elections may pass without much violence, addressing the issue of extremism would remain important for the party assuming power.
Statistics reveal an improved security scenario since the last assembly elections. From 208 civilian and security force fatalities in 742 violent incidents recorded in 2009, 152 deaths in 387 incidents took place in 2013. This year, till the first week of November, less than 60 deaths have been reported. Police claim that the Maoists have retreated from the majority of their strongholds, leading to the return of normalcy in several areas.
However, media personnel covering the elections portray a different picture of a lacklustre campaign under a pervading regime of fear. In districts like Latehar, Gumla and Khunti, police personnel bury themselves under barricaded and fortified police stations advising civilians not to venture into the interior areas. The candidates and their supporters, as a result, have indulged in isolated efforts to seek support among the people. Rallies and open canvassing of votes have remained predominantly urban affairs. Prominent journalists from the state like Dayamani Barla have indicated that the results of the polls in several districts of the state are indeed being decided by the power of the gun, wielded by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) and another three dozen splinter criminal groups, some of whom have been courted by the political parties.
Several incidents of recoveries of arms have given further credence to the fact that the CPI-Maoist that has been announcing the boycott of the polls through pamphlets and posters is determined to carry out some acts of violence targetting the security forces and political activists. Over 400 kilograms of local explosives and 1,740 detonators were among the items recovered in Latehar district on 10 November. On 15 November, an improvised explosive device (IED) weighing 40 kilograms was found dug under a road in Khunti district.
On 15 November, a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel was injured in an encounter with the Maoists in Gumla district. The apparent Maoist strategy before the polls has been to use forested areas such as Kumari and Saranda to launch attacks on the security forces and poll officials. These are indications that the reduced violence of the past months, mostly due to the monsoon rains, may not serve as a parameter of state success any longer. The general secretary of CPI-Maoist's Bihar Jharkhand special area committee (BJSAC) Rupesh has indeed warned that the relative silence of the Maoists should not be confused with the disenchantment of the militia. "It could be a part of our strategy that we are not willing to waste our energy, forces and weapons but apt reply would be given to the security forces if they continue with their repression," he said in a media interview published on 15 November. Thus, some attacks can be expected both during the polling process and also in the days following the exercise, when levels of preparedness decline.
However, sporadic acts of violence are not likely to disrupt the polls in a significant manner. The percentage of voters casting their ballot in the past elections indicate both a popular yearning to take part in the democratic exercise and also the ability of the forces to provide a reliable security cover. Latehar, for example, recorded over 55 per cent of voting in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 58 per cent during the 2009 assembly elections. Tribal-dominated Khunti district recorded 61 per cent voter turnout in the Lok Sabha elections, whereas Singhbhum recorded a 63 per cent turnout. Over 40,000 security forces were on duty during the Lok Sabha elections. This time, the election commission has promised to treble the number of forces.
A violence-free election ensured by force saturation can only be the first step towards addressing the problem of left-wing extremism. The newly elected government must evolve a credible policy to address the problem. The manifesto and other political pronouncements of the main political parties, however, portray a gross lack of imagination on how to solve the problem. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) broadly promises in four sentences in its 56-page manifesto that it will "try to combine social as well as developmental solutions for extremism." The JMM's 16-page flaws-marred manifesto did not even mention the issue.
Given the state of left-wing extremism that assumes additional complexity in states like Bihar and Jharkhand owing to the caste dynamics as well as factionalism among outfits, an immediate solution to the extremism problem is unforeseeable. While its own police force has been found wanting, Jharkhand's reputation of under-utilising the central forces has remained a matter of serious concern. The least the young state with 40 per cent of the national mineral wealth can hope for is to take forward steps towards the containment of the threat. The past has been disappointing. The future, one hopes, would be different.