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Red Letter Day
Can there be development in the time of Naxalism? Leaders like Digvijay Singh of the Congress and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar are of the view that the political executive must not play the role of the police and should instead address the problems of the people and ensure that they are not denied justice nor in any way exploited. The Bihar CM has been pumping resources for public works, education and health in the Naxal-hit Jehanabad district of the state. Outlook travelled through the district to make an independent assessment. Our reporters also visited two other districts—Lalgarh in West Bengal and Malkangiri in Orissa—two other Maoist hotspots. One stark contrast, in both places there’s little in the name of development or governance on the ground.
Under an unforgiving sun, old-timers in the village of Sikaria, a half-hour drive from Jehanabad town, talk about a time when they were scared to sleep at night. A time when this Kurmi-dominated village was a nerve-centre of left-wing extremism, and the threat of retaliatory assaults by Bhumihar landlords from the surrounding areas always hung in the air. Indeed, as recently as in November 2005, Maoists mounted a daring attack on the jail in Jehanabad town, escaping with 375 of their jailed colleagues.
But today, it’s hard to believe those stories as you watch teenaged girls from neighbouring areas cycle in for sewing classes. The Bihar government’s ‘Aapki Sarkar, Aapke Dwar’ programme has provided every possible facility in the village—from a public health centre to a Madhya Bihar Gramin Bank to a computer centre and facilities to provide subsidised farm inputs as well as purchase of farm produce, even a veterinary centre. It has even made Sikaria an attractive destination for private enterprise. Last month, Anil Kumar Singh, a schoolteacher, decided to sink all his savings and start an English medium private school here even though there’s a government school not too far away. And in keeping with the new mood, the school has been named Ahimsa Vidyalaya by its proud owner. Indeed, Sikaria has become symbolic of the changes sweeping through what were once “the killing fields of central Bihar”. The bloody clashes that left hundreds dead in the districts of Jehanabad, Gaya, Arwal, Nawada and Aurangabad now seem a thing of a distant past.
Construction work on at notified ‘adarsh gram’, Sikaria
How did all this happen? There are, of course, several reasons, but a major one is that when the JD(U)-BJP combine came to power in 2005—after 15 years of RJD rule—Nitish, CM at last, decided to turn his attention to governance, to dovetail development with restoring law and order in the state. Senior civil servant H.C. Sirohi, who was home secretary then, recalls, “I was sitting talking to the CM late into the night at the state guesthouse, shortly after he was sworn in. It was almost 2 am. I asked him, “What have you promised the people?” He said I have promised them nothing except that I will bring governance to their doorstep. And that was how the idea for the ‘Aapki Sarkar, Aapke Dwar’ programme was born.” On January 5, ’06, he set out for Sikaria in Jehanabad to launch it.
Indeed, development has become key to the Bihar government’s policy of tackling Maoist violence, which has now virtually disappeared from central Bihar. All extreme left-wing activity has been pushed to the borders, to the districts edging the hilly, forested tracts of Jharkhand in the south and Nepal in the north.
In this year’s budget, deputy CM and finance minister Sushil Kumar Modi says money has been set aside to saturate 67 panchayats in 24 blocks of the seven districts most affected by Maoist activity with development work. “We are also creating a network of roads in central Bihar. We have set aside Rs 258 crore to lay 593 km of roads,” he says.
But even with all this, the Bihar government is acutely aware that development by itself cannot counter Maoist violence. Bihar DGP Neelmani told Outlook, “We are under no illusions...the armed Maoist squads have to be neutralised.” A special State Task Force like Andhra’s Greyhounds has been created for the purpose.
The key word for the state police now is “selective action”, to ensure that rights violations are minimal.
That said, the key word for the state police now is “selective action” to ensure that rights violations are minimised. “We try and act only when we have specific inputs about armed assemblage. We have succeeded in arresting top leaders through selective action. We can’t alienate the civil society as only they can provide us with intelligence,” says additional DGP P.K. Thakur. In 2009, 34 top Maoist leaders, including area commanders, were arrested. Another 18 had been nabbed till April 12 this year. Anti-Maoist operations have also become more humane and arrested Maoists are now treated as political prisoners. “Earlier,” says Modi, “they would be tortured, legs chained in ‘danda bedi’, so that they couldn’t run. We ended this in 2005, sending out a very positive message.”
Of course, these aren’t the only reasons for the Maoist decline in central Bihar. In the RJD years (1990-05), then CM Laloo Prasad Yadav had turned a blind eye to what was happening, leaving the Bhumihar-led Ranvir Sena to battle the Maoists. The first signs of improvement came during the last years of Laloo’s successor, Rabri Devi, but this was partly because after Bihar’s division, Maoists saw Jharkhand as a more fertile ground for their activities, monetarily and logistically. The sea change came after the JD(U)-BJP came to power. The police and administration were given a free hand in arrests and action—against both the Ranvir Sena as well as the Maoists. Long-pending trials relating to the various massacres were also speeded up.
The caste factor also came into play: many members of the erstwhile People’s War which dissolved and became part of the united CPI (Maoist) in Bihar in ’04 were Kurmis. With a Kurmi CM now, there was another route to justice. Indeed, the fact that Sikaria was chosen as the starting point for the ‘Aapki sarkar...’ programme was deliberate, says a resident: “It’s essentially a Kurmi village, and it sent out a message to the entire community.” Simultaneously, since the Bhumihars had also backed the JD(U)-BJP combine, they too decided to put the Ranvir Sena in cold storage.
Still, despite the positive trends, things are far from picture perfect. It’s said that the Maoists are merely “inactive” for the moment. In Imamganj in Arwal district, a local businessman speaks in hushed whispers about them waiting in the aisles, hoping Nitish will lose the next polls. A “retired” Maoist area commander who came out of jail a year ago confirms that his comrades are just biding their time. How is it, we ask, that the Maoists are not blocking the development? “Of course, they are,” he says, “they are charging huge levies from contractors engaged in public works.” DGP Neelmani admits it’s extremely difficult to cut off the money supply to the Maoists. And it cuts both ways. “If we can’t give protection to those from whom they are extorting money, we can’t punish them also. We can’t protect every businessman.”
But it isn’t just the Maoists who are extracting their pound of flesh. Across Jehanabad and Arwal districts, locals say while the free hand to the administration to tackle law and order has brought peace to the area, it’s also increased corruption. “More money is being spent on development so there’s more room for corruption,” a local teacher says, adding, “it shows in the quality of some of the development works too.” Indeed, the irony is that while a village like Sikaria is booming today, the eight-kilometre stretch from the village to Karauna is patchy and potholed. The challenge before Nitish Kumar now is: he’s brought peace but can he end the corruption, make his governance drive more meaningful?