Strategy gone awry

Published : Sep 21, 2007 00:00 IST

At Rani Bodli village in Dantewada district, bodies of policemen killed by naxals who attacked a school building where security men were asleep, on March 15. Fifty-five security men, including 38 Special Police Officers trained under the Salwa Judum campaign, were killed.-RUPESH YADAV

At Rani Bodli village in Dantewada district, bodies of policemen killed by naxals who attacked a school building where security men were asleep, on March 15. Fifty-five security men, including 38 Special Police Officers trained under the Salwa Judum campaign, were killed.-RUPESH YADAV

Salwa Judum, or the peoples peace movement against naxalites, has turned out to be a case of a cure that is worse than the disease.

At Rani Bodli

ON July 26, independent India had its first-ever in camera meeting of a State Assembly, in Chhattisgarh. The legislators and three senior officials, the Chief Secretary, the Director General of Police and the Home Secretary, met for a record eight hours and 40 minutes without a break. Not even marshals were allowed to be present in the House. The discussion centred on the naxalite violence and the atrocities committed by the peoples peace movement, or Salwa Judum in the local Gondi language, which was meant to counter the naxals. The gravity of the situation was such that politicians could perhaps ignore it only at their own peril.

In the worst-affected Dantewada district, over 65,000 people are living as refugees in their own land and an equal number of them are suspected to have fled to neighbouring Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. More than 600 of the 1,354 villages in the district are deserted and over 42,000 hectares of agricultural land lie fallow. The residents of these villages joined the Salwa Judum and fled after naxalites threatened to kill them. Indeed, thousands of people, including policemen and civilians, have been killed by naxalites since June 2005, when Salwa Judum was launched.

The Chhattisgarh government finds itself caught in a cleft stick with the anti-naxal campaign boomeranging and the administration clueless about the next course of action. The government can neither withdraw the offensive honourably nor continue with it. The casualties, mostly among tribal people, are mounting and so are the miseries of the people. But withdrawing the offensive could lead to a loss of face for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), something it can ill afford when Assembly elections are due in the State in November next year.

The in camera Assembly session was Speaker Prem Prakash Pandeys idea. He called it under Article 263 (A) of the House Rules in order to facilitate an all-encompassing debate. Speaking to Frontline, he said discussions in the Assembly centred on specific events of naxal violence and a larger debate was needed on the issue.

The records of the July 26 Assembly session have been kept confidential and there is nothing to suggest any action at the ground level as a result of any decision taken at the meeting. There was complete unanimity among members that this problem should be dealt with in an apolitical manner; that no political colour should be given to the problem. All agreed that the problem must be solved as it was leading to untold suffering among the people, Pandey said.

A positive outcome of the meeting was the consensus that the problem had to be solved irrespective of which party was in power, he said and added that it was a mandate for the government to go ahead with its anti-naxal strategy.

But does the government have an anti-naxal strategy? The BJP won 49 of the 90 seats in the November 2003 Assembly elections, the first in the State since its formation in November 2000, mainly on the promise of ridding the State of the naxal menace.

Salwa Judum was the first major anti-naxal campaign and was meant to be a spontaneous movement, which the government supported but claimed not to have a role in. However, a detailed report by the then Dantewada District Collector, K.R. Pisda, on how to make the movement a success pointed to a role for the government. Interestingly, the movement was led by the Congress Mahendra Karma, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.

Salwa Judum envisaged close coordination between the security forces and the local people but it soon degenerated into a private militia that behaved in much the same manner as the naxalites, killing to settle old scores in their villages, looting and perpetrating atrocities on those who opposed them.

The governments strategy, under the Salwa Judum campaign, of picking up able-bodied local men, giving them arms training and inducting them as Special Police Officers (SPOs) to assist the security forces in anti-naxal operations also backfired.

The SPOs were supposed to assist in combing operations, pass on information about naxal sympathisers, point out hideouts and fight alongside the security forces. Instead, they used the opportunity to enforce their might in the villages, indulging in arson, loot and mayhem. Apparently, the security forces turned a blind eye to their activities.

Reports, unsubstantiated so far, of civil rights organisations such as the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) pointed to Salwa Judum gangs harassing people. This correspondent witnessed first-hand the high-handedness of Salwa Judum activists when on a visit to Dantewada district along with a photographer after the massacre of more than 25 tribal people at Errabore last year. They not only blocked the car of the Frontline team but also demanded money for & #8220;chai pani. On being refused, they turned hostile but backed down when some elders in the crowd intervened.

Indeed, people have found themselves caught between the Salwa Judum and the naxals charged up to neutralise the campaign. The naxals changed their strategy of targeting security forces or government officials and started killing tribal people in villages where residents participated in the Salwa Judums activities.

During the visit last year, the Frontline team came across the body of a tribal person in Inzerram village with a poster stuck to his shirt warning people of a similar fate if they did not stop supporting the Salwa Judum. He had bee n kidnapped by naxalites two days earlier. This was one of the many retaliatory killings, both of tribal people and security forces, during the last three years.

The latest incident happened on August 30 when 12 policemen were killed at Jagargunda in the district. The most daring of the attacks yet was the one at Rani Bodli village on March 15 this year when naxals attacked a school building in which security men were sleeping and killed 55 policemen (including 38 SPOs).

Fear of naxals has led to the desertion of entire villages in Dantewada district. Their residents, more than 65,000 of them, are now living as refugees in relief camps set up by the government. Many have even fled to the neighbouring States.

Senior Congress leader and former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, a bitter critic of Salwa Judum despite his party supporting it, says it is not possible for those in the camps to go back to their villages now. He believes that the only way out of this impasse is to open channels of dialogue with the naxalites, convince them to stop killing civilians and then disband the Salwa Judum.

The naxalites can be convinced that unless they stop killing people the Salwa Judum cannot be withdrawn. Once this basic agreement is reached, more headway can be made, he says.

However, the government seems to have closed all channels of communication with the naxalites. Anybody suspected of having any link, howsoever thin it may be, is today in jail in the State. Dr. Binayak Sens is a case in point. The PUCL leader and medical practitioner, known for his charitable work in the naxalite-affected areas, has been languishing in jail since May. He had raised his voice against the Salwa Judums excesses and that was apparently enough to suspect that he had links with naxalites.

According to Ajit Jogi, the naxalite problem cannot be dealt with as a purely military one, as the present government is doing. It has to be tackled at the socio-economic and political levels. One has to understand the root causes why naxalism gained ground in the State and try to remove those causes, he says.

The BJPs claims of development work in the naxal-affected areas ring hollow when tested against government documents, which show that a major part of developmental funds for these areas goes into creating barracks and other infrastructure for the police forces.

Senior BJP leaders in the State admitted that the governments anti-naxal strategy, especially Salwa Judum, had backfired badly and could well obliterate the achievements of the government. We ought to have first worked at the socio-political level in the naxal-affected areas and then followed it up with the military strategy. But it happened the other way round and was bound to flop, said a senior leader.

Now, as a damage-limiting exercise, the party has formed a coordination committee headed by its Lok Sabha member Ramesh Bais and comprising senior Ministers and party functionaries. Interestingly, the Chief Minister does not figure in this committee.

There certainly was a communication gap between the Chief minister and the party organisation on the one hand and the party and the people on the other. The committee will try to bridge this gap, said the senior leader. The committee will try and find out how to minimise the political damage by this over-hyped anti-naxal operation.

As for the Congress, it is in no position to gain politically because its legislature party leader heads the Salwa Judum. In fact, in the next elections the partys confused role could impact its prospects in more than 22 seats, 12 in Bastar and 10 in Sarguja. But we can still resurrect our prospects. People have seen that naxal activities were not so intense during my time. Besides, our emphasis was on development in the naxal-affected areas, and now people realise that this is the only strategy that will work, says Ajit Jogi.

But will the naxals allow it? State Home Minister Ram Vichar Netam may have sounded a warning of intensified naxal attacks when he said: We have bigger challenges ahead. Meeting them would perhaps involve implementing the decisions taken at the in camera meeting of the State Assembly.

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