The Indian home ministry never tires of finding newer classifications to present a much diminished perception of the intensity and spread of the Communist Party of India-Maoist, better known as Naxalites.
Based on information provided by his officials, Home Minister Shivraj Patil told the Rajya Sabha March 19 that "a mere 14,000 villages out of a total of 650,000 villages are Maoist-affected, which accounts for just two percent of the total number of villages in the country".
It is intriguing why mention was not made of the number of towns that are Maoist affected, and their percentage. The omission was perhaps made because no violent activities were reported from towns and cities. Nevertheless, it is by now well known that the rebels use towns and cities for rest, recreation and recuperation as well as for logistics support.
It is an altogether different issue that the Maoists have a certain 'urban presence', and have devised an action plan to build a strong and vibrant 'urban movement'. In 2007 alone, three top-ranking leaders of the all-powerful Central Committee and the Central Military Commission (CMC) were caught in towns/cities: Malla Raji Reddy in Kerala, Sridhar Krishnan Srinivasan alias Vishnu in Mumbai and Misir Besra alias Bhaskar alias Sunirmal in Jharkhand.
Barely three weeks ago, the West Bengal State Committee secretary of the rebels, Somen alias Sumanand alias Suman, was arrested in Kolkatta. It is believed that Somen heads the five-member Urban Sub Committee set up by the Central Committee in January 2007 to review the Urban Perspective Plan -- which is some kind of blueprint to spearhead the urban movement.
The home ministry, it appears, is of the view that as long as statistics present a 'rosy picture', it does not really matter if the Maoists run an elaborate logistics network stretching across towns and villages in various states. Thus, one should turn a blind eye to the unearthing of an arms-making-cum-R&D unit of the Maoists in Bhopal Jan 10, 2007.
On Jan 12, 2007, another arms-making unit was busted in Rourkela, Orissa. Raids in Andhra Pradesh in September 2006 led to the unearthing of an elaborate pan-India network -- involved in manufacturing empty rocket shells and knocked-down kits of rocket launchers -- which originated in the Ambattur industrial estate, a suburb of Chennai.
For long, the home ministry has maintained and disseminated statistics about the number of affected districts. At the time the Congress took power in 2004, the common perception was that 53 districts in nine states were Maoist-affected. The previous government was revealing just the number of highly affected districts. The figure 53 corresponded to this.
Breaking from practice, in early 2005 the government informed parliament that 126 districts in 12 States were Naxalite-affected; of these 76 districts in nine states were said to be "badly (highly) affected". The 126 districts included "highly affected", "moderately affected", "marginally affected" and "targeted districts". Thus, suddenly, the expanse of the Maoist presence seemed huge. This created a flutter. Ever since, the home ministry has made tireless efforts to retrieve lost ground, to present a diminished view of rebel-presence.
As part of its efforts to address the issue, the home ministry has an initiative known as "Public Perception Management". Its objective is to create antipathy among the people towards the Maoists by highlighting their misdeeds, mistakes and macabre violence. Instead, this exercise has degenerated into 'managing the people's perception' of the Maoist problem through a clever concealing of facts and playing with numbers.
Thus, in 2006, in the annual report of the home ministry and in the "Status Paper on the Naxal Problem", the ministry introduced this "new" classification of the number of police stations where Maoists were active. It contended that a mere 509 police stations of the total 8,695 police stations in 12 states had reported Maoist violence. This would account for 5.85 percent of the total.
Two points need to be noted. One, the home ministry statistics relate to the number of police stations from which Maoist violence was reported, not the number in which Maoist presence has been noticed. Two, if one were to consider the 509 stations as a percentage of the total number of police stations in the country -- 12,476, then the figure will be different -- and lower. In its annual report for 2006-07, the ministry noted: "Of the total 12,476 police stations, Naxal violence has been reported during 2006 from 395 police stations..." This would give the impression that only four percent of the stations are problematic.
Patil also said in his reply on March 19 that 300 police stations in the country were Maoist affected - this comes to 2.14 percent of the stations nationwide.
By merely changing the denominator from total number of police stations in affected states to the total number of police stations across the country, the percentage figure just dips!
As it were, in their latest endeavour to assure us that we are safe and secure, home ministry officials seem to have prompted Patil to say March 19 that "the Naxalite problem is confined to only two percent of the country's 650,000 villages". It was added that the number of Naxal violence related incidents at 700 accounts for a mere 1.1 percent of the total extremist-related incidents.
(P.V. Ramana is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is author of "The Naxal Challenge - Causes, Linkages and Policy Options" and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)