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Why Militant Maoists Are Attacking Mobile Phone Towers in India

Photo courtesy of Kadir Aksoy

Photo courtesy of Kadir Aksoy, used with permission

Early in the morning on September 19, radical Maoists allegedly set fire to three telephone towers and a bus in rural Bihar, India, continuing a trend of targeting mobile towers. From 2008 to 2013, 245 similar attacks were recorded.

Daily newspaper The Telegraph India reports that 20 to 25 Naxalites, as the far-left Maoist guerrillas are also called, raided Goda and Vitiya village in Bihar. They allegedly fired shots close to a local market in response to the fact that shops had stayed open despite a 24-hour strike the day before. The strike (or bandh) was initiated after an altercation on September 13 in which three Naxalites were killed. 

The Naxalite or Maoist insurgency, which leaves hundreds of civilians dead each year, is a complex issue dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Naxalite movement began in the town of Naxalbari, West Bengal, in which farmers rose up against oppressive land owners. According to an analysis in newspaper DNA India, “While the Naxalite movement thrives on the original spirit of Naxalbari; the Maoist struggle is an outcome of the 1967 uprising.”

In the last 15 years, the Maoists have advocated for a mass revolution by the people. This has mainly focused on farmers, tribals and indigenous people (adivasis). The aim of the Maoists is to “seize political power through Protracted People’s War (PPW) – armed insurrection,” as V. Balasubramaniyan describes in an article for Canadian geopolitical consultancy GeoPolitical Monitor

According to a Human Rights Watch report, Maoists said they are defending the rights of the poor and marginalized:
 

They [Maoists] call for a revolution, demanding a radical restructuring of the social, political, and economic order. The Maoists believe the only way marginalized communities can win respect for their rights is to overthrow the existing structure by violent attacks on the state.

The burning of mobile phone towers has been a continuous tactic for Maoists since 2008. They have targeted phone towers on several occasions and in the last four years, Maoists have “blown up” over 200 mobile towers in nine states, according to D. M. Mitra, a former official in the Ministry of Home Affairs and an expert on Indian left-wing extremism. Mitra writes that Maoists alleged that security forces were able to track the location of Maoists with mobile phones.

In an article for Global ECCO (a network for alumni of the U.S. Defense Department's Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, which funds anti-terrorism training for military officers from other countries) called “The Relevance of Technology in the fight against India’s Maoist Insurgency,” he discusses Maoists use of mobile phones (or lack thereof) in their operational areas. He writes:

They may even kill people they find using mobile phones, on the suspicion that they are police informers. 

In 2013, India introduced the Central Monitoring System (CMS), which is meant to allow authorities to access phone calls and communication for the purpose of national security. The CMS offers the government a way to “lawfully” intercept calls, texts and emails; it is considered to be one way the government has responded to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, during which armed attackers left more than 150 people dead.

Also last year, in a report compiled by the Indian Social Institute, a centre for socio-economic development and human rights, the government states the goal of building mobile towers in “remote and inaccessible Maoist strongholds,” with the aim to bring mobile connections to 987 villages of Jharkhand, with a total of 2,200 mobile towers by the end of the 2013.

According the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA):

Maoists recognize the threat that an efficient – or even minimally working – cellular network constitutes to their own security and survival, and have systematically attacked isolated mobile towers wherever possible. 

Responses and commentary within social media have been sparse, but the “Naxal Movement in India” does have a community page on Facebook and Twitter responses have included:

Other responses have referenced the violence in response to International Day of Peace on September 21. Writer and disarmament activist Binalakshmi Nepram wrote:

In response to the most recent torching of mobile phone towers in Bihar, police raids are being conducted with patrols in place to find the people responsible. 

An earlier version of this post incorrectly featured a photo of a Nepali Maoist.

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