How We Are Letting Heart Of India Slip Away

The Maoists/Naxals are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their insurgency in the forests of Dandakaranya.

They have combatting them a "three-lakh strong paramilitary force, the largest in the world," says security expert, M.P. Nathanael (emphasis added) in the Indian Express.
Besides having at their disposal multi-million dollar Heron drones whose sights can penetrate heavy forest foliage, the force is equipped with AK-47s, Under-Barrel Grenade Launchers, LMCs, INSAS rifles, AKM assault rifles, wireless sets, binoculars, bullet-proof jackets, AK magazines and ammunition. How do I know? Because this is the equipment the Naxals made off with after their attack on our security forces at Bhejji on March 11. This time round - the attack at Burkapal in Sukma district on April 24 that took 26 jawans' lives - it has been reported that again "there has been a huge loss of weapons". So, it is principally from the Government of India's Home Ministry, via the CRPF, that the Naxals get the wherewithal to fight their war. Nandini Sundar, author of The Burning Forest, has summed it up pungently in the sub-title of her book: "India's War in Bastar".

For half a century, we have been losing this war against our own citizens. And that is because the one thing lacking in our armoury has been the people's support. Take the present incident. The under-construction road that the CRPF detail was guarding runs through thick forest. Up to 400 heavily-armed Maoists were able to silently gather in the vicinity of the road-works - and bide their time. No one - not one villager - tipped off the CRPF about the looming threat. And why? Because, as DP Upadhyay, Deputy Inspector General, Dantewada, confesses, "Villagers stopped coming to the camp", adding, "unless they were desperate." Clearly, the Maoists, celebrating their Golden Anniversary, had not rendered the villagers "desperate". And that is how an estimated 400 well-armed Naxals were able to get to the site unnoticed, "barely a kilometre away from the 74th battalion camp."

The CRPF calls this "intelligence failure". It is, but it would be more accurate to treat this as a failure of intelligence - a failure of ordinary good common sense to recognize that the Naxals got into the forest, in the first place, because the State absented itself. The only face of the State the tribals saw was that of the intimidating forest guard, the corrupt forest contractor, the bullying thanedar, and the bribe-taking patwari. As Sayanathan Ghosh, in a Letter to the Editor of The Indian Express has succinctly put it, tribal hamlets have "schools but no teachers, tube-wells but no water, roads but no means of transport. There is no accountability to such endeavours. Only an inclusive, compassionate administration can douse these insurgencies". How utterly-butterly correct!

None of this is breaking news. A decade ago, the Planning Commission set up the Debu Bandyopadhayay expert committee that, in excruciatingly painful detail, set out the sad tale of the trials and tribulations of India's tribal communities. It stressed that the solution lay in sincere implementation of The Provisions of The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 [PESA]. Simultaneously, the Home Ministry asked for an additional grant of 600 crores to induct and equip a massive surge in security forces in the Bastar area. That demand was immediately accepted, but the Bandyopadhyay report was kept in limbo. A few years later, another expert committee, this time under my chairmanship, on leveraging Panchayat Raj Institutions for the more effective delivery of public goods and services, was set up by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj at the directions of the Prime Minister. The expert committee, inter alia, took up the threads from the Bandyopadhyay report, but suffered the same fate as the earlier report. Despite much hypocritical repetition of tired cliches about the need to win the "hearts and minds" of the tribal communities, the ground reality remains that, in the eyes of both the central and state governments, it is only harsh police and paramilitary action, laced with a leavening of State-imposed "development", that finds any resonance with them. So, a blind belief that the Naxals can be wiped out if the security forces are adequately strengthened, rather than some sentimental nonsense about PESA and fully-empowered tribal panchayats, dominates the discourse. In consequence, the Maoists are celebrating half a century of taking on the Indian state and ruling the roost in 106 districts in 13 states of the country.

The symbol of this approach is that the Home Minister's principal security adviser, K Vijay Kumar (of sandal-wood smuggler, Veerappan fame) and an additional DG have been ordered by Rajnath Singh to spend the next two months in south Bastar, while the Ministers for Panchayati Raj and Tribal Affairs rot away in obscurity in New Delhi, counting for nothing. The Naxals realize that this way they will be celebrating their centenary in another 50 years' time.

There is no dearth of suggestions from the failing security forces themselves about how they might be strengthened: more forces; more equipment; an intelligence wing of their own as the army has; an AFSPA for the CRPF and other paramilitary forces (so that they can "kill on suspicion" as AFSPA permits); better cooperation from the local state police; quick filling of the over 10,000 vacancies in the state police in unemployment- and poverty-ridden Chhattisgarh state; better road construction technologies to finish roads on time instead of the years it is taking to complete the short road on which the Maoist attack took place; telephones in at least 14 of the police stations recently set up; at least 23 more police stations (this time with telephones, please), etc., etc. Yet, as a CRPF jawan, Pankaj Mishra, told Vijay Swarup of The Hindustan Times, knowing he would be quoted: "The entire system is bad. There is nobody to listen to us." Listen to him they did - and ordered all jawans to no longer speak to the media!

Looking at the CRPF, headless during the 50 days that led to the massacres at Bhejji and Burkapal, the answer they hear "blowin' in the wind" is that the CRPF must never be left headless. Of course, it must not. But would these attacks have been called off as the Maoists cowered in the face of yet another DG? For 50 years they've seen DGs come and go - and have remained unfazed.

Another eminently sensible suggestion is that instead of the CRPF forces being "tossed about the country, tackling everything from anti-riot duties to static guard", they should be divided into "theatre-specific counter-insurgency formations familiar with the conditions in which they operate". This is so obvious a suggestion that one wonders who ever promoted the mandarins in the Home Ministry to whom the idea has not occurred in 50 years. Yet, even that will provide little comfort, let alone victory, unless as Prakash Singh, the prolific former Director-General of the Border Security Force, points out on the same page, "appropriate socio-economic measures" are taken "to address the legitimate grievances of the tribals and draw them into the mainstream". Typical of our internal security community, Prakash Singh does not spell out what these "socio-economic measures" need to be. That, of course, is not their business. But it is the business of the thrice-elected (and thrice-failed) Raman Singh government that has let the heart of India slide out of its hands, although there are no Pakistanis or Chinese visible in the centre of the country on whom to pin the blame.

Compared to former DGs turned public intellectuals, Praveen Swami, chief editor of The Indian Express, has far stronger credentials to take a more holistic approach to the issue. He draws attention to the fundamental lesson learned by the French in unsuccessfully combating the guerilla forces that led Algeria to independence in 1961: "Our military machine reminds one of a pile-driver attempting to crush a fly, indefatigably persisting in its efforts", said French security expert, Roger Tranquier, and, adds Swami, "fated, therefore, to fail". Pointing out that our Home Ministry under successive governments these past 50'years has been relying on "gargantuan concentrations of forces" in the belief that "pumping huge forces into under-policed Bastar would sever links between the Maoists and Adivasis, degrading the insurgency", Swami reminds his readers of then Home Secretary GK Pillai's claim that "within 30 days of security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there." However, the operation (termed "Green Hunt" by the media),"had the proximate consequence of making the region less secure". "The option to finding better ways," warns Swami, unconsciously reprising Nandini Sundar, "is endless war."

The Times of India in its editorial has underlined, "There has been a stream of reports of human rights abuse perpetrated by both security forces and Maoists in Chhattisgarh's 'red zone'. Alienation of tribals needs to be addressed if long-term development and peace are to prevail. In fact, the government needs to deploy the right mix of security, development and human rights protection to root out the Maoist problem. This can be done by bringing Adivasi groups, civil society organizations and political parties together." Instead, the state government, in cohorts with the centre, has been hounding civil society activists like Nandini Sundar, ignoring Adivasi groups, and keeping torn asunder political parties that are not their own.

What others are saying is what I have been pleading for decades as a parliamentarian, a cabinet minister and a media commentator. But because no one listens to me, I thought it best to fill this column with quotations from those more expert than me, more versed in counter-insurgency than me, and better informed on Panchayat Raj than me. I fear, however, that the plea will continue to fall on deaf ears, for those with 56-inch chests bounce all constructive criticism off their broad bosoms. Alas!

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

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