When television channels flashed the news of 18 tribals killed by the CRPF in Chhattisgarh, it was as if the same story was repeating itself. The terror that perhaps innocent tribals in Bijapur were held hostage by Maoists in the dead of the night on 28 June. The terror of them being caught in a crossfire between the Maoists and the CRPF. The terror of them having nowhere to run. Of those who survived the night’s gunshots being called in for questioning the next day as suspected Naxals. Not just the next day, but potentially forever. The terror of being alive and under surveillance by both sides. And the eventual steely silence of death — if not from Naxals or the CRPF, then from abysmal living conditions with no clean water and disease swarming overhead like a third imminent threat.
But for the nation, watching and reading, there was also the weariness of “we have read this before and nothing has changed”. The traps of jawans losing out not only to ambushes set by Naxals but also to mosquitoes. Every year, more than 20 CRPF jawans die because of malaria. And of officers whose long list of litanies have become the subject of countless security and intelligence briefings behind the hermetically sealed doors of the Union home ministry; while on the ground, it’s business as usual — the business of death.
But there are some specifics in this case that make this black hole of unanswered questions particularly disturbing. Three parties of CRPF jawans, led by a DIG, received intelligence that a Naxal gathering was to take place in Silger village. Before they could get there, the CRPF and police claim that they were fired upon en route in Sarkeguda. They had no choice but to return fire. It was the dead of night. Eighteen people ended up dead. One of them was a Class IX school topper and the other, a teenaged girl. Also four people whom the CRPF and Chhattisgarh Police say are confirmed Naxals.
Among the initial questions being asked are: what prompted the CRPF to fire into the crowd in a village that was not meant to be their target? Especially since officers acknowledge it is virtually impossible even by daylight to tell an ordinary villager from a Maoist. Equally unclear is the reason behind the gathering. Were they coerced into acting as a cover for Naxals to attack the CRPF? Are they really innocent or are some of them Naxal sympathisers? Is that even a relevant question in a part of Chhattisgarh deemed to be in the ‘liberated zone’ where the freedom to have your own opinion is a piece of fiction only journalists seem to imagine is possible? But the larger questions that repeat themselves and then scatter off the radar just as quickly are these: when will this war stop? When will tribal issues be put on the table outside the context of conflict? When will the demands of tribals and the CRPF — victims of the conflict from seemingly opposed sides — for drinking water and sanitation and food be met? What will it take to change this? As TV debate after debate trot out the same questions, they bring us to the gist of the battle: nothing has changed.
Q&A K Vijay Kumar, DG, CRPF
‘We are not a ragtag army or irresponsible militia’
Faced with a barrage of criticism over the death of innocents in the anti-Naxal operation in Bijapur, Chhattisgarh, CRPF Director General Vijay Kumar tells Brijesh Pandey and Prakhar Jain that the paramilitary force is only doing its job and is not in the jungles on a picnic.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Some activists have dubbed the Bijapur encounter as the worst-ever massacre in this area since Independence.
Since independence, no one has gone into that area. In the Indian context, we got independence in 1947. But that area hasn’t seen any kind of independence since 1947. Therather call them adversariesre’s no government present there. I have lot of regards for the activists. Many of them mean well and want to do things for the oppressed or the deprived community, which is fine. But to immediately snap an allegation wantonly, that’s wrong. My point is: go into the context. How it happened, why it happened, whether it could have been avoided. You can go into all these things. You have every right to look into it. But to immediately slap an allegation, it’s wanton. It should not happen. It’s wrong.
What happened during the operation?
The CRPF parties were supposed to converge in Silger. You should look up that place. It is not on India’s security map. Three teams were approaching the area from three directions; all carefully chosen teams with good commanders. It was a joint operation with the state administration. As they were approaching the area, one of the teams heard a noise in Sarkeguda. They stopped to find a congregation there. Before they could verify anything, someone from the crowd fired at the jawans, injuring some of them. It was difficult for the team to verify whether they were Naxals or innocent villagers. You need a thorough probe to verify the source of the bullets. But it’s incorrect to say that it was a reckless and deliberate attack.
Have you been able to verify how many of those killed were Naxals?
Four or five were Naxals. One was a man called Markham Suresh, who was involved in the 2007 Dantewada jailbreak. The one projected in the media as a schoolboy was a different Suresh. We don’t want to analyse whether he was part of the Bal Sangham. We don’t want to make any insinuations. We really don’t know. It’s a matter of investigation. Maybe he was a schoolboy. But we were talking about the other Suresh, who was an accused. That information did not come out clearly in the media. That fact was suppressed. Why was this selective reporting done? When you project it as a high-profile case, the entire public looks at that schoolboy. They have forgotten that there is another Suresh. Now, it is for us to go and prove that there is another Suresh. You have put us in the dark and then you are expecting us to answer. We are the country’s premier counter-intelligence operations (CI-Ops) force. The media has made us look like the accused. We are just doing our duty. To mix up the identities, it has done lot of damage. Of course, there was a girl who was killed and we are sorry about it. We are sorry for all deaths. Even in Kishenji’s encounter, I started my interview with the family by offering my condolences, because the family is something outside it.
Another important point is in an area like Silger, how can one identify who is a Naxal and who is not. You will not know. The CRPF would definitely not know. The local police would obviously not know because they will have the identity of very few people for whom records are kept. It is not like the regular police station in Delhi or Raipur. This is the outback of the most backward area of the country. This is called the ‘liberated area’. Do you think the government has a proper census? According to their documents, there are more than 1 lakh Jan Militia. So, who knows who are part of that 1 lakh? This is a very hazy world. It looks like that the burden is on us to prove that the person is innocent or not innocent. It is not our job.
‘If you notice the villagers’ statements, they said that they had been coerced into attending the meeting’
Finally, we could not get much from Silger, which is definitely an important point, because the operation got distracted. The other operation (party) was engaged in the Penta encounter. The third party from Jagargunda had another encounter. All these encounters did not happen by chance. It clearly proves that the area is under Naxal control. If you notice the statements made by the villagers in the media, they said that they had been coerced into attending the meeting. We sympathise with the villagers because they are under pressure from the other side. They do not have any pressure from the police because it is for the first time that they went there.
We go into the CI-Ops area to liberate. Whether we have the legitimate duty or the so-called Maoists who are picking up arms and saying they are going to throw away the democratic government of the country. This is what all the civil society and all of you would have to answer.
Union Tribal Affairs Minister KC Deo has lashed out at the CRPF and has said that half the people killed were aged under 15.
I would not venture to comment on a minister’s remarks. It won’t be proper.
There are allegations that some of the bodies were mutilated.
You just probe an allegation. It is very difficult to play in the muck. If someone chucks some muck on your face and because you don’t have a proper detergent, that doesn’t mean that it is very genuine and you carry that as a permanent scar. The CRPF is used to such muck. But it is not proper for the premier counter-insurgency force to be tarred, sullied and muddied. Who is going to gain now? We should not allow them to gain any momentum. I’m urging the civil society activists: they will have to be cautious about it. They must take up the cause of the poor tribals. In fact, our people who went into Abujmarh, we know that the conditions there are more abysmal than anywhere else. Abujmarh is an area not held by the Chhattisgarh government, not by the Central government, army or the CRPF. Occasionally some forays had been made into the area a few years ago. In March, our people went there in a big way. We couldn’t stay and stabilise the area. We came back. But what we found was that the women were more scantily clad. Men had less food. Their children had no education. It is the most backward area of the country. The area requires immediate attention. It requires proper administration. It might not be what the Indian or Chhattisgarh government thinks. There should be an appropriate administration. What is required is that which is happening in Saranda. In Saranda, the security and CRPF forces went and cleared the area last June-September at great cost. More than 500 people were down with malaria falciparum. We lost one of our boys. A dozen more would have almost died but we rushed in medical aid. We could not send helicopters because the weather was bad. We could not send motorcycles because the land was mined. Imagine our plight. With great difficulty, we pushed 10 helicopters there in July, which was a huge step forward.
‘I wouldn’t like to use the word ‘enemy’, but rather call them adversaries who are tactically opposing us’
Thereafter, the home ministry and the rural development ministry stepped in, and the Saranda plan was unveiled. The Indian government, in conjunction with the state governments, wants to replicate it. If this happens, if there is true development, the people don’t feel threatened. The rural development minister seems to have said that multinational corporations won’t be allowed into the area. It would be the Indian government corporations. That itself is very consoling for the locals. But security should step in first so that development could follow. We are clear about our policy. We have showed a lot of restraint because these are our people. But that doesn’t mean others are allowed to shoot at us. My boys are not there just to be shot at.
Earlier, the CRPF was stuck with a terrible image problem. Has there been a change in strategy ever since you took over?
The moment I took over, I sent a 22-point agenda to all the company commanders. For the first time, the company commanders got a direct letter from the DG. I got a reply from every single one of them. One of the important instructions was not to treat everybody as the enemy. In fact, I wouldn’t like to use the word ‘enemy’ but rather call them adversaries who are tactically opposing you in your approach. Don’t react in a knee-jerk fashion. Be steady. We have focussed a lot on daily training. Not to become cannon fodder; just to be shot at. To be more careful, more alert. At the same time, to be more sensitive and restrained whenever there is a firing.
Ever since the Salwa Judum came into being, the CRPF has been pushed or deployed more into Naxal-affected areas.
I take it as that we have taken on more difficult areas. We have said that we will form the internal Border Security Force (BSF). The actual BSF is guarding the Indo-Pakistan and Indo-Bangladesh border. I have redefined CRPF as an internal BSF. Every border, junction (between states) and tri-junction acts as a refuge for the enemy. They are very happy because the local police, conventionally or by practice, skips the last 30 km, which becomes no man’s land. 20-30 km on this side (of the border) and 20-30 km on the other side becomes the paradise of our enemy. I won’t like to use the world ‘enemy’, but I would call them adversaries who are tactically opposing you in your approach. We are here to help the state administration to stand on their feet. It is not that the state administration or police don’t have good people. They have many of them, but they lack the numbers, equipment and training. And some of the special forces in the state are even better than the Central forces. What we are trying to do is to address all these problems. When we are pushed or deployed, I have told my boys that we will take on at the most difficult places. But take the local police along. We are not a standalone force. We are not an independent force establishing everything. Whenever the CRPF is deployed in a remote area, you should have one of the state components as a wedge. We call it the sandwich pattern. Either the CRPF stands between the state police and the Naxals or the state police would stand between the CRPF and the Naxals. This is the pattern we are taking and the home minister and the home secretary have also concurred with it. So, three of us are on the same page as far as this is concerned. And we are coordinating with the state police to work together.
There is also a problem with intelligence gathering.
Intelligence gathering has improved, but there is scope to get better. Kmusania, which is located along the Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh border, is not been fully explored or policed. Areas such as Saranda, Sarju, Kmusania and Abujmarh are a blot on the security system. It is this blot that we are trying to wipe out. We are not here to wage a doctrinal fight with anyone. We are here to do policing and we believe that if proper policing is done along with overall development, things will improve.
We can’t afford to have an area that is outside the State’s ambit. It is p eculiar and no one should feel hurt or threatened because of this. It is the responsibility of the State to put it roots down in every part of the country. And our job is, and I’m oversimplifying, to create an atmosphere for the security of those living there.
This incident on which the activists are taking a particular view, I want to ask: are we on a picnic? Are we a ragtag army or irresponsible militia? We are a responsible counter-insurgency force. We went there with the local police with a job to do. If, by bad luck, innocents were also hurt, it is a matter of regret. We responded with minimal force. It shows the highest quality of restraint. I have the greatest trust in the captain of the team. A man who leads from the front. A dig could have sat back in the camp. Why should a dig lead? Because this is a highly threatened area and he wanted to motivate the team and boost their morale. Otherwise, why should he go? He could have sat behind and asked his commandant to go; like many others do. This force is not like that. We are telling our officers to lead from the front.
The incident has also acquired political overtones.
What can I say about the politicisation? I will defend the quality of the force but I cannot talk about politicisation. I’m more than happy to get into counter-insurgency operations than answer such questions.
Has any inquiry been ordered into this?
A magisterial inquiry is on and we have our own procedure to investigate matters. Both the things are on.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka.