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Chhattisgarh shootings: Atrocities will fuel Naxalism

July 06, 2012 16:32 IST

The official premise that Maoism is India's 'greatest internal security threat' is profoundly mistaken. The Maoists aren't about to capture power, destroy India's unity, or undermine her security. They pose a civil law-and-order problem, which should be tackled by normal police methods, says Praful Bidwai.

The killing of 20 civilians by the Central Reserve Police Force at Sarkeguda in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district will go down as a disgraceful black mark in the history of counter-insurgency in India. All evidence, including media interviews with local Adivasis, and field investigations even by the Congress party, suggests that the CRPF committed a grave blunder by mistaking a village meeting to plan a seed festival for a Naxalite gathering and indiscriminately opening fire on it.

Among the victims were two 15-year-old class IX students (both toppers), a 12-year-old girl, and a professional drum player -- hardly the sort to be confused for armed Naxalites. Although the bullet injuries sustained by CRPF troops remain unexplained, and it's claimed that four of those killed had police records, nothing suggests that Naxalites ambushed the troops, who then fired in self-defence.

Even firing in self-defence cannot be indiscriminate. Besides, there's strong evidence of sexual assault and mutilation of dead bodies. This suggests an operation to target and punish civilians -- which is categorically unacceptable.

The CRPF's version of an 'encounter' is a cock-and-bull story unworthy of a schoolboy. Even more deplorable is the rationalisation of the butchery by some senior officers on the plea that the CRPF has no 'system of segregating' guerrillas from civilians during a gunfight; so 'collateral damage' with some civilian casualties is inevitable. Yet more odious is Chief Minister Raman Singh's argument that Maoists use civilians as human shields, and are hence responsible for their deaths.

However, the present case appears less an instance of unintended collateral damage than deliberate targeting. The attacking party issued no prior warning and made no attempt to separate civilians from Naxalite combatants, assuming any such were present. Rather, it behaved like a trigger-happy crew: fire first and ask questions later. 

The incident should serve to highlight a phenomenon that's almost universal in most insurgency-affected areas in India: the near-complete disconnect between the people and counter-insurgency troops, who have no comprehension of their language, culture, customs and sensitivities.

Paramilitary troops are predominantly drawn from the peasant castes of northern and to an extent peninsular India and have no acquaintance with the cultures and ethnic/tribal identities of the people of the northeast and the central-eastern tribal belt, whom they often regard as inferior. This is largely true of their attitude towards the people of the Kashmir Valley too.

By all accounts, this problem is grave in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region, where Adivasi identities, rooted in an ancient civilisation and culture, remain strong. It is only since the 1980s that Bastar has been exposed to large-scale intrusion by external predatory interests like forest contractors and the timber mafia, and now the mining industry. Forest-dwelling tribals have over the years lost enormous amounts of land, and their access to forests.

Regrettably, the state fails to comprehend this as it pushes destructive projects through hundreds of memoranda of understanding signed with mining and industrial companies, thus increasing the Adivasis' alienation. It hasn't even invested a fraction of what it spends on the paramilitary forces and armaments in addressing the Adivasis' grievances or helping its counterinsurgency troops understand the roots of tribal alienation thanks to which the Maoists thrive.

E N Rammohan -- a distinguished former Border Security Force chief with years of counter-insurgency experience in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, who was asked to inquire into the April 2010 killings of 76 CRPF troops in Chhattisgarh -- puts his finger on the nub: "Give land to the tiller and forests back to the tribals with the help of a strong-willed and honest administration. Plus, bring down the vast gap between the rich and the poor… and the Maoists would be on the wane."

In the Bijapur case, the CRPF was in the first place wrong to open fire. The proper objective of a counterinsurgency operation is not to kill or cripple rebels, but to bring them to justice through due process of law after establishing their culpability for specific crimes, and to isolate them politically from the larger population which supports them. 

This butchery of civilians has created mortal fear and insecurity among the local people, similar to that inflicted earlier by Salwa Judum, the state-sponsored militia. Many people are planning to move out of that part of Bastar altogether into neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. It will take a long time, perhaps generations, for the scars caused by this act of extraordinary cruelty and horrible injustice to heal.

Politically, the incident is a huge victory for the Maoist argument that the Indian state is structurally and irredeemably anti-people, anti-Adivasi and brutal. Democracy is a mere façade. The Indian state must be overthrown through an armed revolution or People's War. That's precisely the agenda of the Communist Party of India-Maoist!

It goes without saying that the only way to redeem the situation in Chhattisgarh is to award exemplary punishment to the CRPF personnel responsible for the killing of innocent civilians. No lame argument about not lowering the morale of the counter-insurgency forces should be allowed to impede the process of bringing them to justice through a fair trial.

Indian society has paid a heavy price for not bringing the culprits of past counter-insurgency excesses to book. Take the Chittisingpura massacre of 2000, in which 36 Sikhs were killed. Five days later, Indian military forces killed five innocent locals at Pathribal in Anantnag district, claiming these 'foreign militants' were the massacre's culprits. Their bodies were dressed up in military uniforms and set on fire in a despicable but extraordinarily shoddy cover-up attempt. 

The Pathribal operation was a heinous cold-blooded crime, for which army officers were decorated and monetarily rewarded. They further compounded their offence by substituting the victims' DNA samples with fake ones.

To this day, the incident rankles in Kashmir, as do several other excesses starting with the Kunan-Poshpora rape case of 1990. All these have aggravated popular alienation in Kashmir and given legitimacy to the separatist militancy over the years.

Yet, nobody has been tried or punished for the Pathribal killings. The Supreme Court has strongly refuted the army's misguided invocation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act as a ground for rejecting the demand for the culprits' trial. But 12 years on, the trial is yet to begin. 

The latest Chhattisgarh killings raise serious questions about the anti-Maoist campaign commonly termed Operation Green Hunt, under way in nine Indian  states. It has come in for scathing criticism not only from civil liberties defenders, but also from an expert group appointed by the Planning Commission on "development challenges in extremist-affected areas".

The expert group holds: "The methods chosen by the government to deal with the Maoist phenomenon [have] increased the people's distrust of the police and consequent unrest. Protest against police harassment is itself a major instance of unrest frequently leading to further violence by the police… The response of the Maoists has been to target the police, which in effect triggers a second round of the spiral." 

In many parts of India, the state has been captured by the rich and powerful or become dysfunctional and predatory upon the people. Notes the expert group: "One of the attractions of the Naxalite movement is that it does provide protection to the weak against the powerful and takes the security of, and justice for, the weak and socially marginal seriously." One doesn't have to romanticise the Maoists to recognise this.

The conduct of Operation Green Hunt only pays lip service to the officially advocated "two-pronged" approach of "development" and "law-and-order", or simultaneously redressing popular grievances and forcing the Maoists into submission. In practice, it overwhelmingly relies on brute force alone without recognising -- except in the abstract -- that the current phase of the insurgency feeds on the systemic violence inherent in this society, further aggravated by the Adivasis's dispossession and brutalisation.

The official premise that Maoism is India's "greatest internal security threat" is profoundly mistaken. The Maoists aren't about to capture power, destroy India's unity, or undermine her security. They pose a civil law-and-order problem, which should be tackled by normal police methods -- good intelligence-gathering, crime control, painstaking evidence collection, and prosecution of those instigating or practising violence.

In fact, the real threat to India's social cohesion comes from the communal right, including the Bharatiya Janata Party and its extreme terrorist associates like Abhinav Bharat and Col Shrikant Purohit. But the state drags its feet in bringing them to book.

The Indian state must correct course at once and heed counterinsurgency experts like Robert Thompson, who say. "Hardly if ever has a counter-insurgency campaign been won strictly by waging war. Military action has an important role in overcoming guerrillas, but the philosophy espoused by the guerrillas must also be defeated and this requires a well-reasoned combination of political reform, civic action and education of the population." 

As Rammohan puts it, a counterinsurgency operation must be "scrupulously legal". This is a precondition not only for its popular acceptance, but also for the state's legitimacy. When will India's rulers learn this?

Praful Bidwai