Fighting Maoists

Print edition : August 10, 2012

Wanton civilian casualties are simply impermissible while combating extremists, even if they use human shields.

Why does the Indian government always get it so totally wrong when responding to excesses committed by its paramilitary forces in their internal security operations? Why does it invest more energy in strenuously defending and covering up for them and inventing all manner of excuses for their conduct than in honestly investigating what appears to be an unambiguous case of extrajudicial killing and a terrible offence against its own citizens?

The simple answer is that our internal security apparatus, from the Home Ministry downwards, has cultivated a deplorable laager mentality which compulsively forms a protective ring around the self-imposed paramilitary encampment, much like apartheid-era South African Whites did.

This mindset says our boys must be defended and protected against a hostile public and the jholawala human rights activist out to malign us. If the boys committed excesses, that must be unintentional. Keeping their morale up amidst adverse publicity is what team spirit and loyalty to the force is all about. Honour and dedication to service lies in that.

Take the June 29 killing of 20 civilian men, women and children in a combined operation by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Chhattisgarh police at Sarkeguda in Bijapur district, which will go down as a black mark in the history of counter-insurgency in India. Evidently, the CRPF personnel committed a grave blunder by assuming that the late-night village meeting they encountered at Sarkeguda must be a naxalite gathering and indiscriminately opening fire on it. According to many accounts, it was a meeting to plan an Adivasi seed festival.

At any rate, among the victims were at least 10 teenagers, including girls, and a professional drum player hardly the sort to be confused for armed naxalites. The police rationalised the butchery of civilians by first claiming that they had been ambushed and had retaliated in self-defence, and then by saying that four of those killed had police records. These charges were not substantiated. The argument was then advanced that the CRPF had no system of segregating guerillas from civilians during a gunfight, so collateral damage with some civilian casualties was inevitable. Even more odiously, Chief Minister Raman Singh justified the killings by saying that Maoists use civilians as human shields, so they must be blamed for the deaths.

Even assuming the police had fired in self-defence after they were ambushed, such firing cannot be indiscriminate. Nor can it be disproportionate to the original attack, in which only primitive muzzle-loaded country guns with pellets were used, causing injuries far less severe than automatic fire, and certainly no fatalities. Besides, there is evidence of sexual assault and mutilation of dead bodies. This suggests an operation to punish civilians which is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances.

Even going by the best conceivable scenario for the CRPF, its attacking party made no attempt to separate civilians from naxalite combatants, assuming any such were present. Rather, it followed the fire-first-and-ask-questions-later approach. The CRPF was wrong to open fire in the first place. The proper objective of a counter-insurgency 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.

Politically, the incident is a huge triumph for the Maoist argument that the Indian state is structurally and irredeemably anti-people, anti-Adivasi and brutal. Democracy is a mere faade. The state must be overthrown through an armed revolution or peoples war in keeping with the Communist Party of India (Maoist) agenda.

Yet, Home Minister P. Chidambaram continued for days to assert that this was a genuine encounter. It was only later that he (and reluctantly thereafter, the CRPF) offered a graceless, half-apology in case any excesses were committed, by mistake, of course. The lesson was largely lost on the high functionaries of the state that targeting and killing non-combatant civilians was unacceptable even in war, and even if it happened during a genuine engagement.

It is virtually certain that their response would have been radically different if the victims belonged to a privileged group unlike the poor Adivasis of Chhattisgarh, who have been uprooted from their habitat, deprived of land and access to forests, and brutalised by predatory interests such as forest contractors and the timber mafia, and now the mining industry. These groups work in league with the administration, which sponsored the murderous Salwa Judum militia, which killed, raped and burned at will, sending tens of thousands into exile.

Regrettably, the state continues to push destructive mining and industrial projects through, thus increasing the Adivasis alienation. It has not even invested a fraction of what it spends on the paramilitary forces to address Adivasi grievances or help its counter-insurgency troops understand the roots of tribal alienation, thanks to which the Maoists thrive.

The government has reluctantly, under the pressure of public opinion, agreed to institute a judicial inquiry into the Bijapur incident. Had it done so proactively and graciously, it might have come through as earnest about rectifying its errors. Some of the damage can be controlled if exemplary punishment is awarded to those responsible for the killing of civilians. No lame argument about the morale of the counter-insurgency forces should be allowed to impede a fair trial.

However, more needs to be done. Following on the July 13 meeting of the security forces in the Left-Wing-Extremism-affected States where a tentative decision was taken to abandon combat operations if militants use civilians as human shields, and to raise the reward for those who surrender their weapons the Centre should formally revise the rules of engagement by making it clear that the topmost priority is to avert civilian casualties and harassment and that there will be no impunity for this. The use of force cannot be indiscriminate even in war. It must be carefully calibrated and tightly controlled in internal counter-insurgency operations, where civilians are directly endangered. There must be no resort to extrajudicial punishment, torture, or inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment no matter what the provocation.

Operation Green Hunt

The anti-Maoist campaign in nine Indian States, commonly termed Operation Green Hunt, has come in for scathing criticism not only from civil liberties defenders but also from an expert group of the Planning Commission on Development Challenges in Extremist-Affected Areas, which holds: The methods chosen by the government to deal with the Maoist phenomenon [have] increased the peoples distrust of the police and consequent unrest. Protest against police harassment is itself a major instance of unrest. The response of the Maoists has been to target the police, which in effect triggers a second round of the spiral. 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.

The government only pays lip service to the 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.

The underlying official premise, that Maoism is Indias greatest internal security threat, is profoundly mistaken. The Maoists are not about to capture power, destroy Indias unity or undermine its 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. The Indian state must correct course at once and heed counter-insurgency experts, such as Robert Thompson, who says: Hardly if ever has a counter-insurgency campaign been won strictly by waging war. Military action has an important role in overcoming guerillas, but the philosophy espoused by the guerillas must also be defeated and this requires a well-reasoned combination of political reform, civic action and education of the population.

E.N. Rammohan, a former Border Security Force chief with years of counter-insurgency experience, 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 tribal people 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.

Such advice is not new. Soon after the outbreak of the 1967 Naxalbari uprising and large-scale agrarian unrest in many States, it was proffered by the Home Ministrys Research and Planning division in The Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Tensions (1969): The basic cause of the unrest, namely the defective implementation of laws enacted to protect the interest of the tribals, remains: unless this is attended to, it would not be possible to win the confidence of the tribals whose leadership has been taken over by the extremists.

Further: Although the peasant political organisations in most parts of India are still relatively weak, the tensions in the rural areas, resulting from the widening gap between the relatively few affluent farmers and the large body of small landholders, landless and agricultural workers, may increase in the coming months and years. The monograph emphasised land reforms and other corrective measures.

The advice fell on deaf ears then. It is falling on even more cynical and equally deaf ears now.

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