Making An Utter Mess Of Things

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All the reasons why Chidambaram has got the wrong end of the Maoist stick

Prem Shankar Jha
Prem Shankar Jha
Senior Journalist

Prem Shankar Jha
Senior Journalist

WHEN A State is threatened by revolution its greatest nightmare is that the insurgents may find some way of welding the hosts of discontented that exist in every society, into a cohesive political and military force. To do this, they need to highlight its iniquitous and oppressive nature, and offer an alternative vision of the State. But this will not serve their purpose if they cannot communicate their assessments and their programme for change to those whom they wish to mobilise. It is therefore no surprise that from the beginnings of the modern state in the fourth century BC in China, one of the main preoccupations of the State, in every country, has been to isolate pockets of discontent and deal with them piecemeal, through either accommodation or elimination.

Unless they are given timely back-ups, it will not be long before security forces start refusing to fight

This is the isolation that Union Home Minister P Chidambaram has now irretrievably shattered. Till April 6, the Maoists were able to spread their message only among the Adivasis of the central Indian ‘Red Belt’. Today, that message has reached virtually every home in the country. Chintalnar, in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, is not the only place where Maoists have slaughtered a large number of policemen. In June 2007, a supposed informer led a large police party into an ambush in Chhattisgarh, in which 25 policemen lost their lives. In July 2009, Maoists ambushed and killed 36 policemen, again in Chhattisgarh. In the previous three months they killed 16 policemen in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, 10 near Bokaro, hijacked an entire train in Jharkhand and killed 10 more policemen during an attack on a bauxite mine in Orissa.

These attacks alarmed the cognoscenti but hardly dented the public’s consciousness. What made the last two attacks in Dantewada different was not just the large number of policemen killed, nor even the huge publicity that they were given in all the media, but the way in which Chidambaram turned them into a challenge to the State itself.

Slammed Chidambaram's anti-Naxal strategy has come in for criticism.
Slammed Chidambaram’s anti-Naxal strategy has come in for criticism.
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

When the first police minivan was blown up on April 4, Chidambaram, who was in Lalgarh, called the Maoists cowards. “Why are they hiding in the forests,” he asked rhetorically. This challenge could not have come at a worse time for a day before the minivan was blown up, the Maoists had begun a second, entirely separate operation against a CRPF company based in Chintalnar. Thus, although there was no direct connection between the two operations, when they wiped out the company a billion Indians concluded that this was the Maoists’ riposte to Chidambaram.

Chidambaram completed his promotion of the Maoists from a local into a national threat when he told the Lok Sabha on April 15: “I did not lose my nerve. I did not lose my will. I do not fear the Naxalites.” It did not occur to him that by protesting too much he was in fact sending the opposite message to the public. Not content with this, he then made sure that every Indian got the message that the Maoists had been struggling to send for the last decade: “The Maoists have declared war on the state. They call us enemies. They call this hallowed hall (Parliament) a pig sty,” he said in a voice choked with emotion.

Not surprisingly, the Maoists now loom large in every conversation. As the outpouring of opinions on television and not a few newspapers shows, they have become the targets of rage in the new India. But one can only wonder how many of the millions that daily face extortion by unaccountable petty bureaucrats; that wait for years at courts for a justice that is never rendered; and know that a third of candidates that political parties ask them to vote for are criminals, share this rage. Today, many of them must be looking at their government with new eyes and asking questions it had not occurred to them to ask before.

Chidambaram has thus given tangible shape to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s worst nightmare. But one does not need to be a psychologist to understand what has made him do so. For years before he became the Home Minister, the state governments had been begging for more arms, better training and additional, specialised personnel to fight the ‘Naxalites’. Chidambaram gave them all of that and more. For he personally oversaw the replacement of the earlier, bumbling, defensive strategy, which was based on the premise that Maoism was a law and order problem, with an offensive strategy based on aggressive patrolling designed to secure “area dominance”. His personal commitment was reflected by several visits to the ‘Red Belt’ and his castigation of the West Bengal government for not falling in line. In December, Chidambaram put his personal seal on the anti-Maoist operations by ‘coordinating’ (in reality, launching) Operation Green Hunt.

The Maoists’ aura of invincibility will be hard to counter through intelligent, humane reforms

But Chidambaram’s tactics have boomeranged. In 2009, even by official estimates, Maoists killed 312 members of the security forces, against the police’s tally of 294 ‘Naxalites’. But the real disparity was almost certainly much greater, for the police have very few bodies to show for their successes. This was the fourth year in a row in which the Maoists had got the better of security forces. It was therefore inevitable that when the Congress began to sense that things were going wrong, he would be the main target of the doubters. Chidambaram’s plans for Operation Green Hunt met with opposition in a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security as far back as October 8, last year. But he was able to prevail over the sceptics.

But far from achieving ‘area domination’, Operation Green Hunt seems to have widened the gap between the capabilities of the Maoists and the security forces. In the Chintalnar massacre, the Maoists took a page from the Taliban and laid an ambush in a pre-selected spot, planted anti-personnel mines in the trees where the soldiers were certain to take cover and forced them back into the open. This is what turned Chintalnar into a killing field.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, Chidambaram has been openly castigated by the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, and openly opposed by Defence Minister AK Antony and the Army and Air Force chiefs. Thus, when he spoke in Parliament on April 15, he was defending not so much his government as himself.

But no matter how it happened, the genie is out of the bottle. In the Red Belt, there is a mystique of invincibility building up around the Maoists that will make it more and more difficult to erode the support they enjoy through intelligent, humane reforms. Thus it may be difficult to abjure the use of force till the State re-establishes its authority. But turning the Army and Air Force loose on the population will not do so, for innocent civilians will be killed.

The answer lies in providing full body armour of the kind worn by the Americans and the Chinese riot police, in close air support for them, in bringing in reinforcements and encircling the Maoists even while a firefight is on, in securing better intelligence and in constantly offering a political alternative to violence to the people of the areas from which Maoists draw their recruits.

In Afghanistan, ground-air coordination is now so good that air support for a beleaguered force arrives in as little as three minutes. In the Maoist belt, even if reinforcements could be brought in within 15 minutes, it would turn the tide. It is for military experts to decide how they will achieve this but evading the issue, or getting bogged down in the red tape that surrounds defence procurement is no longer an option. If the government allows this to happen it will not be long before the security forces start refusing to fight.

Writer’s Email: [email protected]

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