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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII No 27, June 26, 2010

Dealing with the Maoist Challenge

Sunday 27 June 2010, by P R Dubhashi


The Dantewada massacre of 75 jawans of the CRPF ambushed by the Maoists followed in the next week by the blowing up of a bus carrying civilians in which some jawans of the CRPF were also travelling taking a heavy toll of 50 lives has forced agonising reappraisal of the strategy adopted so far by the Union Home Ministry in dealing with the Maoist challenge. A senior member of the Congress and the former Chief Minister of MP, Digvijay Singh, openly criticised the Home Minister for his wrong- headed approach of dealing with Maoists by the use of armed forces rather than through programmes of development. P. Chidambaram, the Home Minister, himself admitted that a major blunder was committed by the senior officers of the CRPF in conducting the operation. The precautions expressly mentioned in the standard operational procedure were ignored leading to the jawans being exposed to the Maoist ambush. Obviously the authorities had not reckoned with and underestimated the superior intelligence, weapons, guerilla tactics and capacity to carry out operations with pinpointed accuracy of the Maoists. A retired head of the CRPF, E.N. Rammohan, was appointed to investigate what happened and give a quick report which he did. But what was notable was that apart from pointing out the mistakes made in carrying out the operations, he emphasised the importance of development and good governance which were lacking in the tribal areas.

Chidambaram, who became a target of attack, open and insidious, by his own party people, let alone the unremitting criticisms of intellectuals and human rights activists, was put on the defensive. Apart from tendering an apology to the nation, he went ahead and submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister which the latter declined to accept. In a TV Interview, Chidambaram spoke of his ‘limited mandate’ to explain away the failure to effectively deal with the Maoists who had extended their sway to some 250 districts in the forest areas extending from West Bengal and Orissa to Jharkhand to Chhattisgarh to Andhra Pradesh and to Maharashtra. When this gave cause to the Oppo-sition BJP to attack the UPA Government for tying the hands of Chidambaram in dealing with the Maoists, Chidambaram tried to wriggle out by saying that by “limited mandate” he meant the inevitable limitations of the Central Government since law and order is, according to the constitutional provisions, a State subject. This was like singing the favourite tune of the previous incumbent of the Home Ministry, Shivraj Patil, in the then Union Government who had been constantly shirking its responsi-bility in dealing with the large scale violence let loose by the Maoists by harping on the constitu-tional position. This came as a disappointment after his apparently proactive role. Chidambaram too was falling back to the same position as that of his predecessor.

A State Subject or Responsibility of Union Government?

As recently pointed out by the doyen among security analysts, K. Subrahmanyam (Dealing with Maoism, IE, June 9), the Indian Union cannot abdicate its responsibility and seek refuge behind the plea that law and order is the responsibility of the States. “Ultimately all people of India” would look to the Indian Republic/Union for exercising the fundamental right of peaceful living. The objective of the Maoists is not merely to subvert law and order in tribal areas in various States but wage war against the Indian Republic and the Indian Constitution. Under these circumstances, the Union Government will have to consider invoking Article 355 of the Constitution which states, “It shall be the duty of the Union Government to protect every State against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the governance of every state is carried out in accordance with provisions of the Constitution. The Union Government will have to work out a coordinated plan of operations by all the States carried out in an integrated manner.’’

Role of the State Police, CRPF and the Army and Airforce

APART from the Centre-State issue, another important aspect is the relative roles of the State Police, the Central armed reserved force and the Army and Air Force. The position taken was that it is basically the responsibility of the State Police, the Centre can heitherto supplement the State Police force by providing troops of the Central armed reserve police force. After the recent ghastly massacre, the Home Minister felt that this approach may not be adequate and the help of the Army and Air Force will have to be invoked. This thinking is a sharp departure from the hitherto held position that the Army is meant to and equipped for dealing with external aggression by forces of the hostile country and not with the people of the country. This principle has already been sacrificed in dealing with disturbances caused by insurgency in the North- Eastern States like Manipur as well as in Jammu and Kashmir which has for long been the victim of externally induced terrorism. The Disturbed Areas Act and Armed Forces Special Powers Act have been designed to facilitate the active role of the Army in these border States. Now the same approach, it was suggested, had to be extended to the tribal areas to introduce the Army to deal with the Maoist challenge. The Army and Air Force were reluctant to get embroiled in this problem. Heads of both the organisations gave open expression to their views and had to be cautioned by the Prime Minister not to give public expression to their opinions. The Ministry of Home Affairs, considering the reluctance of the Army and Air Force, has been trying to work out a compromise. The Army is prepared to send its officers on deputation to the States to give guidance for carrying out effective operations. They could also provide training to the State Police force. The Army has been openly criticising of the standard of work and training of the CRPF which is not to the liking of the senior officers of the CRPF who try to rebut the Army criticism. As for the Air Force, they are prepared to provide helicopters for surveillance and transport. All these and other matters formed part of the proposals in the paper submitted by the Home Ministry to the Cabinet Committee on Security presided over by the Prime Minister himself. Having regard to the opposition of the Defence Ministry to any kind of involvement of the Army and Air Force, the Committee advised the Home Ministry to recruit on contract basis ex-servicemen to help in the operations against the Maoists.

Basic Approach

BUT even more important than the two issues namely, respective roles of the Centre and States and the roles of the State Police, CRPF and Army and Air Force are matters relating to the basic approach itself. Everybody including Chidam-baram, would agree that the basic approach should be two-pronged or three—pronged-first, using coercive powers of the state to combat and defeat the guerrilla war of the Maoists challenging the authority of the Indian Republic and the Indian political system of parliamentary democracy; secondly, promoting ‘development’ to improve the living of the tribals; and thirdly, providing ‘good governance’ to win the confidence of the tribals. But the problem of this approach is like “what comes first—the chicken or the egg?” There cannot be development and good governance without law and order and there cannot be law and order without develop-ment and good governance. How can the state machinery of administration function and development schemes be executed successfully if the ‘Maoist Army’ attacks schools and panchayat offices as also police chowkies taking away weapons from the armoury and abducts tehsil and block officers, and displays the abducted officers as prisoners of war? Normal adminis-tration cannot function and development programmes executed in an atmosphere of fear. At the same time Maoist forces cannot be defeated without gaining confidence of the ordinary tribals and getting intelligence from them about the movements and strategies of the Maoists leaders who seem to function according to a definite plan. Such is the terror let loose by the Maoists that out of either fear or loyalty, they seem to support the Maoist leaders and their henchmen rather than the functionaries of the state. It is not easy to resolve these contra-dictions. It is all right for people like Digvijay Singh to advise Chidam-baram that development should come first and use of coercive power later but how can development take place at all with constant sniping by the Maoists? Chidambaram, whose Ministry is incharge of law and order and internal security, therefore feels that “let us first end the Maoist challenge by the use of force, and create a conducive atmosphere for development”.

The human rights activists pooh-pooh this approach. They pose this as an issue between Maoists terror and ‘state terror’ through the use of coercive power. They equate Maoist violence and state violence and adopt a neutral approach, condemning both of them as responsible for the present dangerous situation. They even extend moral justification to the Maoists and term as legitimate their terrorist tactics as an answer to the brutal use of force of the state and violence let loose by it. The severity and brutal violence of the recent events do not to make these intellectuals—who include such well-known personalities as Mahashweta Devi, Arundhati Roy and Romilla Thapar—to come out and openly condemn the violence of the Maoists despite the appeal to do so by the Union Home Minister and Union Home Secretary. They seem to use their moral authority in favour of Maoists rather than the state. So far the state has not take any action against them.

What kind of Development?

THERE are more basic questions relating to the three-pronged approach. It is not enough to talk glibly of development and good governance. The question is: what constitutes ‘development’ and ‘good governance’? Often it seems that what is done in the name of development, namely, exploi-tation of forest and mineral resources, has, far from improving the lot of the tribals, deprived the tribals of their traditional means of living and destroyed their ‘way of life’. In the name of ‘development’, forest and mining contractors have ruthlessly exploited national resources and displaced the tribals from theirs national habitats which were there for thousands of years. The so-called benefit of development has enriched the contractors and their owners and impoverished the tribals. And the state machinery of the government has supported the contractors and exploiters rather than the tribals when conflicts inevitably arise in the name of development. This process of disparate develop-ment has been accelerated in the era of marketi-sation, liberalisation, privatisation and globali-sation which started in the name of economic reforms in 1991 with the blessings of the IMF and World Bank. The multinationals became the main actors in this vast process of development. Governments signed agreements with Indian and foreign companies in complete disregard of environmental and social consequences. Tribals were compulsorily deprived of their land and natural resources by the wrong application of the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act. When there were confrontations between the tribals and contractors of the multinationals, the state machinery of police and civil adminis-tration was mobilised in favour of the contractors and against the tribals. Incidents of firing on the protesting tribals as at Kashipur and Kalinga-nagar in Orissa brought before them the brutal face of governance. What happened in Orissa happened in other States as well. Collection of minor forest produce like tendu leaves, honey and wood for fuel was for the tribals both a life support system and means of meagre earning. The hills and caves were the objects of worship of tribals for centuries, When the ‘market’, supported by the state machinery, destroyed the life supporting system of the tribal community, there was bound to be wide-spread disenchant-ment and anger in the tribal communities. They look upon their exploiters and government officers who join hands with them as their enemies whom they cannot trust.

The district administration, in tandem with the police and the politicians, has acted almost like the advance guard of the companies. (Quotation from Ramchandra Guha’s magnum opus India after Gandhi, pages 708, 709) As pointed out by Guha in March 1999, a group of social scientists visited Rayagada (in Orissa) and issued a report warning the Orissa Government that ‘unless the popular discontent among local tribals over the acquisition of land was properly addressed the peaceful district may turn into a hotbed of Naxalite (Maoist) activity’. Similar predictions were made by the environmental journalist, Daryl Demonte.

The present situation in the so-called Naxal affected districts is the outcome of accumulated anger built over years. This kind of ‘development’ has accelerated in the years of the policy of liberalisation and in the wake of open invitation to multinationals to set up huge steel plants and other mining projects. The consequences of this type of development were clearly foreseen.

Stereotyped schemes like the NREGA are no answer to deal with this kind of situation. The Centrally designed scheme, based on the idea of ‘one-size-fits-all’, is hardly the answer. The tribal areas have special problems and schemes of development should be designed and tailor-made to meet the special needs of the tribal communities and their way of life. In earlier days after independence there were schemes like the Special Tribal Development Blocks and Tribal Cooperative Societies helping the tribals for collection and sale of minor forest produce so that the benefit of the price paid for the produce in the market would go to the tribal members of the co-operatives. Such schemes are no longer talked of. Instead of using the market for the benefit of the tribal community through a sympa-thetic machinery of administration of tribal community development blocks and tribal co-operatives, the tribals are thrown to the wolves in the shape of contractors and multinationals who ruthlessly exploit them and have no sympathy for their welfare. In the early days after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru had consulted Verrier Elwin who dedicated himself to the welfare of tribals and who lived with the tribals after marrying a tribal woman. Thakkar Beppa, a Gandhian worker, spent a lifetime serving the tribals in Dangs; so did the Communist leader Godavari Parulekar in the Sawhar area in Maharashtra. Dedicated leaders and selfless people like Baba Amte and his sons, Vikas and Prakash, spent years in tribal areas, providing them medical service. So do the couple, Abhay Bang and Rani Bang. They are respected by the tribal society but the government does not feel it necessary to consult them and take their guidance. Instead selfish leaders from the tribal communities rule the roost and instead of helping their own community they promote their own interests and those of their families. Indian democracy has thrown up tribal leaders like Madhu Koda and Shibu Soren who have ruthlessly exploited their positions in government as Chief Ministers and Ministers for indulging in corruption and making a fortune for themselves.

The Maoist leaders, most of them from Andhra Pradesh’s old Telangana movement, have exploited the opportunity provided by the accumulated anger of the tribals to steadily build up their network and, through inducement and fear, gathered tribal support for their rebellion against the duly elected democratic governments of the Indian Republic. They describe the present-day democracy as sham which is not totally untrue, considering the hideous acts of corruption and misuse of power by those in authority.

A New Approach

THE answer to Maoism or the Naxalists’ blind use of force is not the power the regular police, armed reserve forces, or the Army show but root and branch changes in our democratic system so as to make it an institution for serving the people with honesty and selflessness. This is what our long suffering people—not just the tribals—expected from our democratic govern-ments. Unless policies make quick amendments to correct themselves, the anger will spread to non-tribals as well engulfing the nation in violent outbursts all over the country which may sweep away our façade of democracy.

As a beginning, the time has come immediately to put a moratorium on what goes on in the name of development, starting with mega projects of steel and mining and compulsory acquisition of land for the irrigation projects submerging tribal communities and ruthless deforestation by forest contractors. This would leave the tribals free to carry on their traditional occupations of collection and sale of minor forest produce. This may appear to be a setback to ‘development’ but a policy announcement to this effect may assuage the anger and create a climate for winning over the tribal communities. In the hurry to become a superpower we cannot alienate our own people. If we do so, we will dig our own grave.

We will have to refashion our administration of the tribal areas. A large number of young people with dedication and idealism, conversant with tribal language, culture and way of life, would have to be put in service in administrative positions in the tribal areas. The sooner such a new approach is adopted, the better.

Formerly Secretary to the Government of India and Vice-Chancellor, Goa University, the author is currently the Chairman, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra, and a Padmabhushan awardee. He can be contacted at e-mail

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