IF the recent security operations in Lalgarh, West Bengal, underscore anything it is the vital necessity of ensuring law and order before any development work can be taken up, work that brings basic benefits to the local people. Often one hears politicians declaring that the solution to lawlessness in remote regions or in any region for that matter is a drive to develop infrastructure, provide schools and health facilities and so on. This, while true, is the wrong way of approaching the solution.
Lawlessness of the CPI(Maoist) kind or of the United Liberation Front of Asom in Assam and of various other terrorist groups in the north-eastern States needs to be countered primarily by the security forces. Whether those forces are the States armed police battalions, or specialised counter-terrorist units that some States have, or other special forces and Central para-military formations such as the Central Reserve Police Force is something for the security authorities of the States and the Centre to determine after taking all factors into consideration. But the basic imperative is that the rule of law has to be established firmly and must continue to exist in a very real sense before anything else.
We have seen the folly of trying alternative strategies. Health centres or schools set up in areas where terrorist units operate do not function as the staff have fled or have been killed. At present work on two major infrastructure projects in the northeastern region a part of the broad gauge railway line linking all the States in the region and the line completing the east-west corridor has stopped as the contractors and their workers have fled. In areas of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand where the Maoists still have control, there are no functional schools or health centres or highways and roads that are not damaged.
Neither does the solution lie in trying to motivate staff to work in these areas by giving them big increases in their salaries and providing them with other perquisites, even police protection. A newspaper recently carried a story of the metre-gauge train that goes to Lumding (Assam) from Dimapur (Nagaland). The journalist who wrote the story was appreciative of the bravery of the driver and staff of the train; he reported that half the people on train were security personnel, and that on every hilltop and ridge there were security personnel. That a train is being operated in hostile territory is certainly admirable, but is this the way it will continue to run every day?
There can be no moving away, irrespective of political acceptability, from the imperative of having to establish the rule of law first firmly, using such force and means as are necessary to do so. One does not need to go back into history, but it may just be worth mentioning that that is precisely what good rulers that is, effective rulers did. The Mughals did it, and before them the great Chola kings in the south did it, as did the Vijayanagar kings; and, after a certain period of buccaneering, so did the British. And in more recent times, that is what happened in Andhra Pradesh.
The Maoists have virtually ceased to be a force in Andhra Pradesh because of the fact that they were eliminated killed or captured or driven out of the State. Then a number of development projects involving job creation, provision of foodgrains to the rural poor and the opening of schools and health centres have, by and large, helped turn people away from the Maoists in the rural and remote areas. True, there has been the odd incident when a landmine blast has killed police personnel, but the nature of the attacks is now furtive, done in the classic cowardly manner of all terrorists, using remotely detonated bombs and mines.
Only when order has been brought to an area can the authorities move in with social welfare projects schools, health centres and hospitals, roads and employment generating projects. And, it is vital that the security forces are fully equipped with the weaponry and the communication and transport facilities, are fit and skilled in the use of these sophisticated devices and are trained physically and mentally for their work. Besides, they must be free of political hindrance and obstacles.
They will and must be answerable at all times to the political executive, but the political executive must accept the fact that they need to leave the security forces free to devise their operational and strategic plans. Unnecessary visits by politicians to terrorist-infested areas need to be avoided; it ties up personnel who have to protect the visiting politician, who invariably needs the salutes and deference he sees as his due. Above all, it must be a realisation that is shared by everyone in the government, both at the Centre and in the States, that safeguarding the country against the corrosion of terrorist activities is an overriding priority, next only to defence.
It is not enough that this is something the Council of Ministers or the senior officers are aware of; the bureaucracy across the board must share this awareness. That cannot be ensured by issuing circulars, as some officers even today foolishly believe; it has to be done by holding orientation sessions where the urgency of the issue is conveyed in as effective a manner as possible.
This is necessary for a simple reason; it is possible for a project of extreme importance to be held up by a seemingly valid doubt or query made by some officer in a file. It should be possible for that officer to walk across to whoever can clarify his doubt and have it settled by a quick discussion instead of sending a file backwards and forwards. This is of particular importance in State governments, where a good deal of the delays occur.
With the Prime Minister identifying the Maoists as the greatest threat facing the country, the issue needs to be taken forward not by the Home Ministry alone but every other Ministry and by all the States. It is only when the threat of such large-scale terrorism is stamped out ruthlessly that true development can be taken up. Time is not on the side of the authorities; but it can be if there is collective and concerted action.