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Look who is waving the red flag now

The landmine attack on civilians by the Maoists in Chhattisgarh has, once again, brought transient focus on the widening depredations of left-wing extremists, but this is only the most recent and worst of a continuous string of tragedies that have passed largely unnoticed, not only in this state, but across at least 165 of India’s 602 districts currently afflicted by the Maoist insurgency. Chhattisgarh in 2005 emerged as the worst affected state after Andhra Pradesh — displacing Bihar and Jharkhand — and Dantewada district, where the latest excess was committed, is by far the worst off in the state.

The steadily deteriorating conditions in Chhattisgarh can be traced directly to the criminal irresponsibility and incompetence of the security policy establishment in the state, its immediate neighbourhood, and at the Centre. The most dramatic expansion of Maoist capacities in Chhattisgarh occurred during the “ceasefire” in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh over May 2004-April 2005, an initiative that was strongly supported by the Union home ministry. The Maoist engagement in the “peace process” was essentially tactical, and was exploited for political consolidation in Andhra Pradesh and active expansion in the neighbourhood. It is significant that a preponderant section of the Maoist leadership in Chhattisgarh is drawn from Andhra Pradesh, with Chhattisgarh providing much of the “cannon fodder” for the movement.

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh has repeatedly pointed to the impossibility of effectively fighting the Maoists in his state when surrounding states pursue conflicting policies. Indeed, Singh has been outspoken about the utter incoherence of state responses to Maoist terrorism, and has argued vigorously for a coordinated national approach: “State governments do not know what to do... Delhi does not know what it is doing. This confusion must be cleared immediately.”

If evidence was needed that state governments do not know what to do, it is abundant in Singh’s own policies, which do not display particular sagacity. Indeed, the second of the most extraordinary aspects of recklessness that has contributed to rising violence in Chhattisgarh has been the misguided and misconceived Salva Judum campaign, spearheaded by Leader of the Opposition, Mahendra Karma, of the Congress Party, but actively supported by Singh’s government. Euphemistically projected as a spontaneous “peace campaign”, Salva Judum literally translates to “purification hunt”, an often-violent state-led mobilisation of the tribals against the Maoists that is anything but the spontaneous “uprising” portrayed in official pronouncements.

Salva Judum has exposed the hapless tribals to repeated rounds of violence by the Maoists, and has displaced, according to various estimates, anything up to 40,000 tribals, who are now huddled in ill-equipped government relief camps in the worst conceivable conditions. Instead of “cleansing” their villages of Maoists, Salva Judum has, in fact, cleansed a large number of tribal villages of their residents, who have become “refugees in their own land”. Those who have remained in their homes are now vulnerable to reprisal attacks by the Maoists; worse, the “relief camps” have come under repeated Maoist attack.

Even before the mine attack on February 28, the Maoists had attacked tribals mobilised for the Salva Judum on several occasions. In the most significant incidents just this year, on February 26, two persons were killed and 25 injured when Maoists raided a government-run relief camp at Munder village in Dantewada district. Earlier, on January 29, in a similar raid on a “relief camp” at Gangalur in Dantewada district, eight civilians and three Maoists were killed. There were several such incidents last year as well, since June 2005 — when the Salva Judum was launched. On January 31, 2006, Chhattisgarh Home Minister Ramichar Netam admitted that 95 villagers involved with Salva Judum had been killed by Maoist rebels in Bastar till December 31, 2005.

And these are not, as the government is eager to state, “acts of desperation” by Maoists who have been “cornered” and “demoralised” by the “popular” Salva Judum “uprising”. Indeed, Maoist attacks on security forces in Chhattisgarh have also increased dramatically, and the state accounted for the largest number of SF fatalities in 2005, with 48 personnel killed, far ahead of Bihar (29), Jharkhand (27), and Andhra Pradesh (21). (Data: Institute for Conflict Management.)

Salva Judum has exposed large numbers of innocent tribals to unacceptable risks; it has encouraged vigilantism and there are significant reports of excesses by Salva Judum “volunteers” and special police officers (SPOs); large tracts of land — often with standing crops — have been abandoned by the villagers, many of whom experience acute food shortages in “relief camps”; there is also a perception that a “vast amount of corruption has crept into” the movement, and that it has taken on the character more of political adventurism than of a serious effort to neutralise the Maoist terror.

Worse, Singh’s government is being encouraged in its folly by the Centre, and there have been recent statements that suggest that the “successful” Salva Judum is to be “extended” to other states as well. On February 23, following a meeting with police officers of Chhattisgarh, special secretary of the Union home ministry, A.K. Mitra, spoke of the “success” of the Salva Judum, and said that it had been decided “to encourage resentment among the people wherever possible against the Maoists”. Senior police sources added further, “It has been decided to spread the Salva Judum campaign in other infested states.”

Such a course of action would be nothing less than disastrous and constitutes a complete and immature abdication of responsibilities on the part of the state. Popular mobilisation may play some role in a counter-terrorist strategy well after the security forces have established their domination in particular areas; but where they are unable even to effectively protect themselves, provoking the people to “resist” the terrorists in regions that are immensely under-policed will only invite retaliation and untold suffering on the heads of the innocent.

(Published in Indian Express, March 02, 2006 )





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