Why is civil society turning into an enemy?

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India’s attempt to crush the Maoist insurgency is proving a failure

Prem Shankar Jha
Senior Journalist

End of the tether? An Adivasi woman sits outside her house ransacked by Dalits
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

SINCE ITS inception, India has faced — and very largely mastered — four serious insurgencies. It has therefore developed a highly sophisticated strategy for dealing with them. The first of its underlying principles is that military power alone can never crush an insurgency. The most it can do is to wear out the militants and make them lower their demands to a point where a compromise agreement comes within reach. Second, since this requires both the insurgents and the state to constantly reassess their positions, it becomes imperative to keep lines of communication open at all times. Third, the greater the number of contacts, the easier it is to assess what one’s opponents want or can be persuaded to accept.

An essential prerequisite for such an interaction is a vigorous civil society, consisting of lawyers, professors, journalists, TV anchors, social workers and civil rights campaigners, which speaks its mind freely and is willing to act as an intermediary between the State and the insurgents. In doing so, it becomes a strong magnet pulling against complete separation from the parent country. But civil society flowers only in a healthy democracy. The insurgents usually know this, so if their goal is freedom defined as Amartya Sen would define it — in the positive sense of empowerment and not as dissociation — interaction with civil society makes it easier for the insurgents to yield to the pull of democracy without leaving the Union.

So why has India forgotten all the lessons it has learned from its past successes when it comes to dealing with Maoists in the central tribal belt? How has it managed to turn civil society, which should have been its friend, into its enemy? Why has this alienation gone so far that members of civil society have become less critical of the atrocities Maoists are inflicting on the Adivasis than of those inflicted by the State? Why, in sum, is civil society, which should have been the State’s ally, turning into its enemy?

To see how far the alienation has progressed, one needs only to look at the most recent issues of Outlook and TEHELKA, two of India’s most serious magazines, read the first page of The Hindu on January 16, and read the powerful, sustained writing by eminent historian Ramachandra Guha in the Telegraph to sense the profound alarm that has gripped civil society over the direction the anti-Maoist campaign is taking.

The alarm springs from the fact that from the very beginning of the war on Maoism, the Central and state governments have relied single- mindedly on force and force alone to crush the insurgency. This policy is manifestly failing, but having started down this road the Home Ministry is determined to prove that the reason it hasn’t worked so far is that it has not been implemented strongly enough. So, the antidote to a failure of power is to apply yet more power.

This policy has developed in stages. In Chhattisgarh, the epicentre of Maoism, when the ill-trained, ill-equipped and demoralised state reserve police proved no match for the Maoists, the Salwa Judum, a paramilitary force consisting of tribal and non-tribal locals, was created. The armed police was beefed up by creating special counter-terrorism units within the CRPF with fancy names such as the Greyhounds, the COBRAs and the Jharkhand Jaguars. These forces were to work in tandem to resettle villages in Naxal-infested areas and then declare a free-fire zone in the vacated area. It did not occur to the planners that this was exactly the strategy the US had devised for Vietnam.

The abuse inflicted on the Adivasis by the Salwa Judum is the main cause of the growing opposition to the government’s force-alone strategy. For a brief period after its birth, it was a genuine popular movement against the Naxalites. But then Congress leader Mahendra Karma took it over and made it the weapon of choice for doing the dirty work of the state. The Chhattisgarh government began to recruit semi-literate tribal youth as Special Police Officers, gave them Rs 1,500 a month and a rifle, and ordered them to bring villagers in Naxaliteinfested areas into government camps. By January 2007, therewere more than 4,000 such SPOs in Chhattisgarh and more than 50,000 displaced people in camps. Pretty soon, Chhattisgarh began to resemble Bosnia and Kosovo.

The power of the gun and freedom from accountability has acted as an aphrodisiac for the youth who make up the Salwa Judum. Over the next three years, the Vanavasi Chetna Ashram, set up by Gandhian Himanshu Kumar 17 years earlier to educate Adivasis on their rights and opportunities, lodged 600 cases against the state for burning Adivasi homes, seizing their belongings, assault, rape and murder. Kumar eventually succeeded in bringing these crimes to the notice of the Supreme Court which, following a report from the National Human Rights Commission, found prima facie evidence of largescale burning of villages, and large numbers of missing people. It also concluded that many people had been forced into camps against their will (though it is claimed that subsequently most returned) and that the state government recruited minors for the police force.

The Chhattisgarh government has stoutly defended the Salwa Judum and the Centre has fallen in line. This was true of former home minister Shivraj Patil as well as, rather surprisingly, P Chidambaram.

IF THE Salwa Judum drove the second peg between the state and the Indian intelligentsia, the utter failure of the use of force split the log altogether. The government’s own figures tell the story. On October 8 last year, the Maoists killed 18 policemen, including 10 commandos of the Maharashtra police, in Gadchiroli. Police claimed to have killed 15 to 17 Maoists but no bodies were found. On September 17, Maoists ambushed a COBRA force in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, killing six. Between June 11 and 30, Maoists killed 53 policemen in three attacks in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Police were able to respond and kill Maoists in only one of those exchanges.

Maoists killed 293 policemen during the first 10 months of 2009, suffering 234 casualties, according to police estimates. This is the only insurgency in the past five decades — not including the bloody battle the Pakistan army is fighting with the Taliban on the Afghanistan border — in which security forces have consistently lost more men than the militants.

Failure is sowing panic in the state administration and the Union Home Ministry and with it has come an overpowering desire to conceal the magnitude of the disaster. Trust, tolerance and freedom of information have been the first casualties. Thus on May 17 last year, as the rest of the country celebrated the Congress’ Lok Sabha election victory, 500 Chhattisgarh police and paramilitary personnel descended on Himanshu’s ashram near Dantewada, woke up the sleeping social workers, gave them an hour to pack up and leave and then bulldozed everything in sight. When a visiting student from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, protested, the police officer conducting the operation had him taken away, beaten mercilessly and told to “confess” that Himanshu was a Naxalite agent and also ran a prostitution ring. Police then arrested his closest aide at the ashram, Kopa Kunjam, and terrorised two more, Sukhdev and Lingu, into leaving.

At various times during the past three years, university professor and author Nandini Sundar, historian Rama – chandra Guha, Medha Patkar, Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey, human rights lawyer Alban Toppo, Kopa Kunjam and other social workers have suffered similar treatment.

Today, the Indian State is waging war (unsuccessfully) not only against the Maoists but also (successfully) against civil society. Chidambaram remains unfazed; his favourite mantra is that the State cannot fight and negotiate at the same time. The Maoists must come to the camps and lay down their arms or be crushed. Only then will development begin and nothing must be allowed to get in its way. The Home Minister has only contempt for “Left-leaning intellectuals” and human rights groups who plead the Naxalite cause, ignoring the havoc they wreak. •

WRITER’S EMAIL:
premjha@airtelmail.in

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