By Praful Bidwai, June 8, 2006, Nav Hind Times
The Chhattisgarh government is about to launch a massive military operation against the Naxalites with more than a dozen Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) battalions under the command of the so-called ‘supercop’ and former Punjab director-general of police, Mr K P S Gill. The operation has been called the ‘ultimate’ blow or ‘knockout’ punch against ‘the Red Menace’ and will reportedly involve the use of helicopters. The CRPF will be assisted by special commandos from Mizoram, who have been trained in counter-insurgency operations by United States troops at Vairangte for more than a decade.
Mr Gill’s strategy, whose blueprint is with the Union home ministry, involves gathering reliable intelligence on the Maoists’ hideouts and movements, and hitting them hard, “In a sudden and well-coordinated attack”. According to a leak to the media, “The thrust of the Gill [strategy] is to launch a swift offensive, giving little time to [the] Maoist guerrillas to regroup and retaliate”. The plan also involves evacuation of a large number of people from the forests of southern Bastar and clearing them of mature trees.
It’s a safe bet that this operation will further brutalise the civilian population without being particularly effective against the Naxalites. The Union and state governments should call off the operation at once.
The operation is a sequel to a ‘people’s campaign’ called Salwa Judum (peace hunt or movement) launched a year ago by the state government, which has all but triggered a civil war in parts of Chhattisgarh. Salwa Judum (SJ) targets the Naxalites for violent attacks. Its members generally comprise the local elite, including wealthy Adivasis, traders and contractors. Formally, SJ is the creation of Congress legislature party chief, Mr Mahendra Karma, politically known as ‘the 60th member of BJP CM, Mr Raman Singh’s cabinet’. In truth, the SJ idea was conceived by the former Bharatiya Janata Party home minister, Mr Brij Mohan Aggarwal.
A group called Independent Citizens’ Initiative (ICI), recently released a fact-finding report on SJ which makes disturbing reading. It shows that SJ is not the ‘people’s spontaneous resistance or uprising’ against the Naxalites as claimed but a government-sponsored and funded organisation which has an armed wing consisting of 3,200 Special Police Officers (SPO).
In essence, says ICI, the Chhattisgarh government has ‘outsourced’ its law-and-order functions to an ‘unaccountable, undisciplined and amorphous group’ not trained to use firearms properly. SJ has been forcing tribals to take up arms against the Naxalites-on pain of being beaten up, illegally fined, or have their homes burnt down. SPOs are meant to work under the authority of the state police, but in Chhattisgarh’s Naxalite-affected districts, the regular police has ceded all power to them.
SJ’s violent operations have turned the tribal belt of Bastar into a virtual war-zone, in which Adivasis are pitted against Adivasis and forced to fight the Maoists to whose retaliation they become vulnerable. Scores of villages have been evacuated. The Adivasis’ social life has been destroyed. Officially, as many as 46,000 people have been compelled to move into so-called relief camps near highways. According to interviews conducted by ICI with local people, officials, journalists and foresters, the number of displaced people is as high as 70,000.
ICI found “evidence of killings, the burning of homes, and attacks on women, including gang-rape.” There are arbitrary arrests and “several people seem to be missing. The press is tightly controlled and intimidated…”
SJ is guilty of recruiting even minors as SPOs-a breach of the Geneva Convention and of several covenants on child rights to which the government is a signatory. Equally disturbingly, an attempt is under way to break up tribal communities into the equivalent of “Strategic Hamlets” which the United States (US) created in the 1960s in Vietnam in its brutal. Just last fortnight, two officials of the US embassy met the Chhattisgarh chief secretary (home), Mr B K S Ray to offer the state assistance in fighting the threat. Although the government has not accepted the offer, it’s clearly following the same militaristic approach that the US favours to deal with insurgents and guerrillas.
Ostensibly, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government advocates a “two-pronged” strategy: deal sternly with Naxalite violence; but simultaneously address the socio-economic sources of discontent underlying it through development programmes. In March, Union Home Minister, Mr Shivraj Patil tabled a status paper on the issue in which he spelt out a 14-point policy based on such a dual approach. In reality, the government has concentrated much of its effort on ‘modernisation’ of state police forces, long-term deployment of paramilitary troops, and use of modern lethal weaponry.
The bulk of the financial assistance of Rs 2,475 crore committed to the 55 worst Naxalite-affected districts is earmarked for police-paramilitary operations.
The government has concentrated only one thing: force. This approach springs from a ‘thanedar mentality’ or that coercion is the most effective way of dealing with social discontent. This approach fails to understand that Naxalite activity has spread to some 160 of India’s 600 districts because of rising agrarian distress, destruction of forests by the timber mafia, uprooting of Adivasis due to predatory mining, irrigation and metallurgical projects, and rapidly growing income and regional disparities. It’s not a coincidence that more than two-thirds of the 55 most severely Naxalite-affected districts lie in the tribal belt. In state after tribal state, the Adivasi economy has been squeezed and marginalised to a point where millions of Adivasis have ceased being an agricultural people.
More generally, Naxalite activity has grown-year after every single year-because of India’s jobless and destructive growth which benefits only a tenth or so of the population. It’s hard to defend the violent justice that many Naxalite groups readily hand out to their enemies. Some have even developed a stake in extortion.
However, the problem this poses cannot be resolved, even mitigated, by coercion, especially the lawless use of force without accountability. That’s precisely what SJ has practised. This cannot but further alienate Chhattisgarh’s Adivasis and throw even the more neutral of them into the Naxalites arms. Social discontent typically takes a violent turn when all peaceful avenues are closed.
Mr Gill is a dogmatic votary of the coercive approach. One of the greatest myths created about him is that he effectively, yet lawfully, crushed the Punjab insurgency. The National Human Rights Commission has just authenticated the judicial finding that almost 2,000 people were cremated without identification in a single year in Punjab. It has ordered compensation to the victims’ relatives. The Centre must radically revise its Naxalite strategy and open a dialogue with Maoist groups.If the Manmohan Singh government can hold round after round of talks with separatists from Jammu and Kashmir and with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, there is no reason why it cannot talk to non-secessionist groups which voice the grievances of the people.