State on the hunt

Published : Sep 24, 2010 00:00 IST

THE BODY OF the Maoist leader Cherukuri Rajkumar whom the Andhra Pradesh police claimed to have killed in an encounter on the Velgi hills in Adilabad district on July 1.-S. HARPAL SINGH

THE BODY OF the Maoist leader Cherukuri Rajkumar whom the Andhra Pradesh police claimed to have killed in an encounter on the Velgi hills in Adilabad district on July 1.-S. HARPAL SINGH

The Centre's approach to the Maoist problem, based on indiscriminate force and non-judicial executions, is damaging democracy and the country's security.

THE Central and Andhra Pradesh governments have a lot of explaining to do about the killing of Maoist leader Cherukuri Rajkumar Azad. Azad was killed on July 1 in Adilabad district just when his party was about to open negotiations with the Centre through the mediation of the social activist Swami Agnivesh. The official account, which described the encounter killing as a 30-minute exchange of fire between a group of 20 Maoists and the police, always sounded like a cock-and-bull story. It is hard to believe that Azad would go on his own to Adilabad, where there is little naxal activity, and that he would have fewer than 40-50 guerillas protecting him. The police also claimed that Maoist Hemachandra Pandey was killed with Azad. But by all accounts, Pandey was a freelance journalist, not a hard-core Maoist cadre.

At any rate, it is highly unlikely that the surviving Maoists would have left behind the body of a senior leader like Azad: they are known to carry away their dead. Above all, it made no political sense for them to attack the police when they were about to open talks in response to Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram's offer.

Now, the worst suspicions stand confirmed with Outlook magazine accessing Azad's post-mortem report and getting it analysed by forensic experts. The report's findings contradict the official account, which claims the police fired in self-defence at the Maoist squad which was at a higher elevation than them. Analysis suggests that the bullet that killed Azad was fired from an extremely close range, less than 7.5 centimetres (3 inches). It left a characteristic burn mark, with a blackening of the entry wound. This distinguishes it from shots fired from longer ranges such as 15 or 60 cm. (These leave patterns like collars and tattoos, but not burns and blackening caused by smoke.)

In addition to the angle of the bullet's entry and exit, and the fact that no policemen were injured, this creates a formidable prima facie case that Azad was premeditatedly murdered. Only a full, impartial inquiry will establish the truth and the motives. But it seems logical to suppose that Azad was deceived into believing that he would be secure, and then trapped (according to The Hindu, July 5, in Nagpur) and abducted to Andhra Pradesh and killed in cold blood. It seems equally logical that the operation could only have been carried out by the Andhra Pradesh police with the Centre's concurrence and probably foreknowledge. That is the way anti-Maoist operations have been conducted in the recent past, particularly since Chidambaram took charge of Home.


This hypothesis raises many questions. Who authorised Azad's killing? How, and through what chain of command, was the decision transmitted to the Adilabad police? Which leaders gave the requisite clearance? Was the motive to tell the Communist Party of India (Maoist)'s top leaders that they remain vulnerable to the state, which reigns supreme, and can resort to the lowest form of deception in eliminating them? Was Pandey killed because he had witnessed Azad's murder?

It is absolutely imperative that these questions are answered through a truthful, credible and thorough inquiry. Azad was a key player in the move to hold talks with the government. His killing marks a turning point in the evolution of the official Green Hunt counter-insurgency strategy and the likely Maoist response.

In many ways, the killing repeated in a compressed form the sordid drama played out in Andhra Pradesh in 2004-05. Then, Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy invited the naxalites to good-faith talks on the understanding that neither side could use them to gain unfair advantage for instance, through surveillance of Maoist hideouts. Reddy violated that understanding; his police tracked down and spied on important hideouts. After the talks broke down, they surrounded a meeting of top leaders at a hideout and gunned them down. Thus the success of the gallant Greyhounds.

The public must know if this is the way India's democratic state behaves and intends to behave and where it draws the line on deception. Has it reached such a point of desperation that it must resort to dishonourable forms of trickery and duplicity? Has it no other less violent, less Machiavellian, and at least infinitesimally wiser, ways of addressing the naxalite problem?

Questions have already been raised about Azad's killing not just by Agnivesh who says it was the greatest political shock of his life but within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) too. Even Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has implicitly endorsed Railway Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee's demand for an inquiry into Azad's death. She may have demanded this for narrow political reasons, but Mukherjee is too shrewd not to know that that alone cannot be a ground for dismissing it.

The killing should impel the Indian state into some serious, honest soul-searching on its anti-naxalite strategy and the policy of promoting unlimited force to deal with internal security. How it tackles the naxalite/Maoist question will significantly determine the form of the state and the nature of governance in the coming years. Indeed, it is one of the central axes around which governance is already being reshaped and the balance between coercion and consensus reworked.

The Green Hunt strategy only pays lip service to the carrot-and-stick or two-pronged approach of development and law and order, or a combination of redressing popular grievances and forcing naxalites into submission. In practice, it overwhelmingly relies on brute force and military means without recognising except in the abstract that the current phase of the Maoist insurgency feeds on the systemic violence inherent in this society. Its severity has greatly increased recently in the central minerals- and forest-rich tribal belt where rapacious exploitation of natural resources has been intensified by neoliberal policies. Maoism appeals to sections of the underprivileged who suffer dispossession, disenfranchisement and brutalisation.

The Maoists are the most extreme segment of a wide spectrum of popular movements resisting neoliberal industrialisation. These are rooted in the systematic denial of social justice and life with dignity to millions of people, whose fundamental rights are being ruthlessly crushed. The spectrum includes everything from the incontrovertibly peaceful Narmada Bachao Andolan; agitations in Orissa against mining and metallurgical projects; campaigns in numerous States against special economic zones, polluting industries, nuclear plants and destructive hydroelectric dams; to movements for the right of access to land, water and forests.


One must not romanticise the Maoists. Their obsession with violence and armed struggle to overthrow the state, their rejection of mass organisation, their internal regimentation, and their substitution of class politics with militarism are deplorable. But the injustices which they articulate are undeniable. These will not go away even if they are eliminated at an exorbitant cost to legality and human rights.

Maoism's recent rapid spread is attributable to the growing failure of the state and the collapse of its integrity, especially in respect of public service provision. A dysfunctional state becomes irremediably corrupt and predatory upon the people. It acquires a major stake in deepening and perpetuating their deprivation. It forfeits its claim to hegemony in the Gramscian sense. Its reliance on force or domination triggers a cycle of violence and counter-violence.

As the Expert Group of the Planning Commission on Development Challenges in Extremist-Affected Areas (2008) points out: 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. 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.

The government has paid no attention to these observations and conclusions. Instead, it has hugely stepped up allocations to anti-naxalite operations, with plans to buy the latest high-tech weapons, establishing 400 new police stations, raising 34 new India Reserve battalions, inducting 20-22 helicopters, and involving a Major General-level officer in the so-called Unified Command ( la Kashmir) in each State (Maharashtra, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh refused to join this).


The strategy of maximum force is rooted in the proposition that Maoism is India's greatest internal security threat. This itself derives from the colonial police view of all communists as a security threat. The proposition is mistaken. The naxalites are not about to capture power or destroy India's unity or integrity. They present a law and order problem, which should be tackled by normal police methods good intelligence gathering, crime control, painstaking collection of evidence and lawful prosecution of those instigating or practising violence.

Maoists do not threaten India's security or social cohesion seriously. In fact, social cohesion is far more gravely threatened by the communal Right, including the Bharatiya Janata Party and its more extreme associates, some of whom have embraced terrorist means.

The cornerstone of the official strategy should have followed the counsel of E.N. Rammohan a former Border Security Force chief and highly regarded policeman who was asked to inquire into the April killings of 76 Central Reserve Police Force troops in Chhattisgarh. This holds that a counter-insurgency operation must be scrupulously legal. This is a precondition not only for its popular acceptance but also for the legitimacy of the state.

Nothing can undermine legitimacy more effectively than the state's adoption of illegal means. Pitting one form of illegality against another might at best yield short-term gains. But this is the surest long-term guarantee that the state's minimally credible, essential function as a relatively impartial institution that abides by the Constitution and its own laws will be destroyed. And that is a recipe for greater violence and chaos.

No exception should be allowed to this cardinal principle. Once you justify illegality, and even torture and non-judicial killings in rare cases, you are on a slippery slope. The exception destroys the rule, nullifying inclusive governance and making the state illegitimate in the eyes of the people.

The Union Home Ministry has not learnt this lesson. It continues to defend or condone the patently illegal actions of the State governments, including the harassment of innocent citizens like Binayak Sen, Himanshu Kumar and Lingaram Kodopi, and the murder on August 4 of Kunjami Joga in Dantewada. Joga was falsely accused of being a Maoist and shot down by the Koya Commandos, a fierce militia within the police, the official counterpart of Salwa Judum, another dangerous state creation.

Worse, the Home Ministry is seen as having actively instigated the States to give an explicitly militarist dimension to Green Hunt with limitless and indiscriminate force that makes no distinction between hard-core Maoist guerillas, their peaceful sympathisers, and ordinary civilians. Irresponsible talk of military-style combat operations, the possible use of helicopter gunships, the clearing of forests to create safe corridors for troop movement, and a strategy of encircling and besieging naxalite-dominated villages has created fear and insecurity.

This will push India down the slippery slope to state terrorism. The Home Ministry under Chidambaram is abandoning the role of policy planning and guidance within the framework of its constitutional duty to protect all citizens, in particular vulnerable strata. Instead, it is micromanaging counter-insurgency operations and acting like the head of the constabulary.

The rot is beginning to infect the Indian Army. The gory civilian killings at Pathribal in 2001, the ketchup colonel episode of 2003, and this year's murder in Kupwara of three men all to claim rewards are instances of illegal executions. Yet another scandal seems to be breaking out. Veena Kohli, the mother of Shaurya Chakra winner Captain Sumit Kohli who died under mysterious circumstances four years ago, has accused Army officers of plotting his murder to cover up the killing of four porters in Lolab in the Kashmir Valley in 2006. Kohli knew who was guilty. He was found dead with a gunshot wound. The Army claimed this was suicide. The Defence Ministry is reportedly considering an inquiry into this.

The conclusion is inescapable that the proliferating culture of encounter killings, execution of suspected criminals without trial, hounding of non-combatant citizens, and the terrible examples set by Green Hunt are undermining the legitimacy of the state and the rule of law and weakening the integrity of the armed forces. Nothing could be worse for India's democracy and her security.

A course correction, urgently, radically and sincerely, is needed. This means pursuing the agenda not just of development building roads, schools and hospitals, and so on but of social justice and people's rights. It is only when the downtrodden are convinced that the state is willing to give them real rights over land, forests and natural resources and practise inclusion that the naxalite problem will be resolved.

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