It is now almost routine. Every summer, after the biting cold of winter has receded and the monsoon is yet to make the thick jungles of Chhattisgarh even more inhospitable, Maoists launch their most audacious strikes of the season at the Indian State. If it was the massacre of 76 CRPF jawans in Dantewada in April 2010, last week saw the brutal attack on the top Chhattisgarh leadership of the Congress—momentarily dislodging the attention of urban Indians from such flighty matters as the IPL controversy to a real war, one where people die. The government may have showcased a lower death toll in Maoist-held areas this season, but the May 25 attack on a Congress convoy returning from a political rally left no doubt that the Maoists retain the power to strike hard. The Bastar massacre left 29 dead, with special violence being visited on Salwa Judum founder and party leader Mahendra Karma, as well as state Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel and his son Dinesh.
So where does this ‘retributive’ attack leave the fight against Maoism? What path should the state take from this point? Can a ‘security’ approach ever offer a permanent solution to the Maoist riddle? Questions arose one after the other as the government and the party tried to come to terms with the news. Yet, no doubt, the brazen attack will beget a hard and matching response from the state. Security experts have been suggesting on television that no war is ‘clean’. It is inevitably ‘dirty business’, implying a price needs to be paid, if required with the deaths not just of combatants, but also of innocents.
Former Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwaranjan is an exemplar of this approach. While refusing to use the term “all-out war”, he says the state must pile on “constant pressure” on the Maoists and “batter them into submission”. “Keep them on the run till they get tired, till they have a rethink on their core ideology that seeks to overthrow the Indian State through violent means,” he adds. “Yes, we have to try and reach equilibrium as far as socio-economic problems are concerned, but through democratic means, not with arms. Development is something that can be carried out in a scenario of peace, not war.”
Here, what came to be spoken about were the rites of war, an enactment of surplus violence: the Maoists, including women cadres, reportedly did a ‘victory dance’ around Karma and stabbed him 78 times, and killed Nand Kumar Patel’s son in front of him. The convoy of over 40 cars carrying these leaders and other workers was crossing Darbha Ghat that Saturday afternoon. They were on their way to Jagdalpur from Sukma, where they had just concluded a parivartan rally. An ied explosion blew up the first vehicle, bringing the others to a halt. This was when a reported band of over 150 Maoists, including over 30 women, started firing indiscriminately on the cars. Once the security forces accompanying the leaders ran out of ammunition, the Maoists descended, reportedly pinching people to ensure they were dead. They then asked for Karma and the two Patels to be identified, after which they took them to a nearby ditch and killed them. Senior leader V.C. Shukla was luckier as he had left Sukma later than the others and was at the end of the convoy. His Telugu-speaking driver pretended he was a businessman.
The Maoists need not have spelt out why they chose these particular leaders as their targets—especially Karma—but a Communist Party of India (Maoist) press release, issued two days after the attack, did so anyway even as it claimed responsibility. For Karma, they invoked the anti-Naxal militia of Salwa Judum, which had itself become a byword for terror for adivasis; Patel because he had deployed paramilitary forces in the jungles of Bastar as state home minister; and Shukla because he was “an enemy of the common man”.
What no one can understand, however, is how the Maoists managed to strike with such deadly precision. Was it because of the poor security arrangements by the state administration? Or the foolhardy approach of the Congress leaders in having nearly its entire leadership file in together into the Maoist lair? Or did the Maoists simply get the better of the state this time? So striking was the attack that it triggered several political conspiracy theories as well. Especially because the attack eliminated two CM hopefuls (Patel and Karma) and severely injured another (former Union minister Shukla).
That this attack came at a time when the Congress, including Karma, had adopted a conciliatory and softer approach towards the tribals hasn’t helped quell these theories either. The attack also accentuated yet again the perennial problem of coordination between the state and central forces. Separate inquiries by the National Investigation Agency and a state-appointed judicial commission may (or may not) throw some light on these issues.
Caught in this speculative storm around an insider’s hand is Konta Congress MLA Kavasi Lakhma, who was travelling in the same vehicle as Patel but who managed to come out alive. Strongly dismissing any such aspersion, he told Outlook, “I identified Patel once the Naxals asked me to but I pleaded with them to spare him. They threatened me and shouted at me to go away. I came straight to the police station. I still don’t know why they let me go.” Ajit Jogi too defended Lakhma (see interview with the former CM.)
The air has been further vitiated by the political bickering between the Congress and the BJP, each trying to get the other to accept responsibility for the tragedy. There has understandably been a growing clamour to fix responsibility for this high-profile strike. “Almost the entire Congress leadership of Chhattisgarh has been wiped out,” minister of state for home R.P.N. Singh told TV channels. “The buck will have to stop somewhere.” Bastar SP Mayank Shrivastava was suspended days after the attack. On May 30, the Congress accused the Raman Singh government of being responsible for the attack and backed out of an all-party meet on the issue.
In this charged atmosphere, there are many who caution the government against adopting a hardened military stance that treats the Maoist problem solely as a law and order issue. “It is clear that there has been a security lapse,” says retired bureaucrat E.A.S. Sarma, who was one of the legal petitioners in the Supreme Court to push for a ban on Salwa Judum. “It should be investigated thoroughly, and those responsible for this heinous attack must be brought to book. There is no place whatsoever for violence in a parliamentary democracy.”
His concern, essentially, is to ensure a short-term approach to problem-solving not lead to a long-term problem, making it worse than the original one. “If the government moves away from development to treat this strictly as a law and order problem, it is not going to be a solution. It will only worsen the problem; as the experience so far has shown.”
Unfortunately, these are dangerous times when a pro-adivasi stand or even a purely pro-Constitution one, which calls for nothing more than to give the tribals what the rulebook promises them, is immediately tagged as a pro-Maoist ideologising. For those like Sarma, a solution is possible only if justice is pursued vigorously and tribal rights implemented effectively along with professional security measures. This would mean avoiding civilian casualties and punishing those responsible for killing innocent tribals. The buck must stop not only when Congress leaders are killed but also when innocent tribals are murdered, as it happened in Edesmetta in Bijapur on May 17.
The basic measures key to a solution may or may not entail flooding the forests with troops but certainly fulfilling the law would be a part of it. For instance, implementation of tribal rights such as those scripted in the Forest Rights Act 2006 that gives both individuals and the community land ownership, adherence to the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, whose Clause 5 even allows existing laws to be amended to suit tribals, and remaining faithful to the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 that empowers gram sabhas to decide on local governance. And a lot remains to be achieved on these three counts. “The government should know that any area where there is a governance deficit and where the local communities’ views are not respected becomes a space for people’s alienation and extremist tendencies,” says Sarma.
But won’t the Maoists, for whom the cause of the locals only helps form a justificatory narrative for their aim of a violent overthrow of the state, find some other pretext to carry on with their armed struggle even if the tribals are given what should be theirs rightfully? Ajay Dandekar of the Central University of Gujarat in Gandhinagar thinks an effective local governance system will go a long way in whittling down the support base for Maoists amongst the tribals. “There are large tracts that are free of violence,” he says. “At least there, one has to ensure devolution of power and an effective participation of locals in local governance.”
Government officials have always pleaded that more often than not, development work cannot be carried out in Maoist-held areas because they are fundamentally opposed to any progress that might undermine their support base. To which, the critics retort that without development, this war can never be won. Are we then perpetually condemned to this hamster wheel?
A former collector who has served in the Maoist-held areas of Chhattisgarh and who wishes to remain anonymous as he’s a serving bureaucrat, says the way forward is to build trust. “Make the tribals realise that the Maoists are not at all for them,” he says. For instance, he points out, the Maoists have never done anything about the local petty dealers who continue to practise an unfair barter system with the tribals even in this 21st century, because it suits their interests. “Trust has to be built with them. It’s not the dream of the adivasis to capture the Red Fort,” he says. As of now, given the political history of India’s tribal tracts, there is a trust deficit. Maoism, rather than being contained, is taking hold in newer areas such as Assam.
One successful example being touted as a possible model to ward off the Maoist threat is the one in Mendha Lekha. This village in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra is the first in the country where the Forest Rights Act 2006 has been implemented in full, giving locals and the gram sabha the right to land and local forest produce. This success has angered the Maoists, who are said to have even issued petulant threats to locals in Mendha Lekha asking them to pull back from this cooperation. To their benefit, though, the state hasn’t been able to replicate this success elsewhere.
Even Saranda in Jharkhand, supposed to be an emulation-worthy model of developing areas wrested from the Maoists, now evokes more suspicion than inspiration. Development measures have been scant, patchy and slow to take off in this showpiece block where the state ought to have mounted a full frontal developmental assault instead.
Not just that, despite promises by Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh not to allow private mining in this region, known for its abundant iron ore deposits, mining leases are being handed out now that the Maoists have been kicked out. Over 1,500 hectares of forest land here in this West Singhbhum district were passed on to JSW Steel Limited and Jindal Steel and Power Limited earlier this year. The much-touted Saranda Development Plan has now become a ‘Saranda Business Plan’ for many—in other words, a retrograde step in the fight to curb Maoism.
Indeed, the CPI(Maoist)’s press release had some tough questions for the government. “Does your ‘democracy’ only applicable (sic) to the mass murderers like Mahendra Karma and ruling class agents like Nand Kumar Patel? Whether the poor adivasis of Bastar, the elderly, children and the women come under the umbrella of your ‘democracy’ or not? Are the massacres of adivasis a part of your ‘democracy’?” Not that the Maoists offer any ethical alternative. But as an armed retaliation looms closer, the State can hardly afford to give the tribals any reason to believe that the democratic system doesn’t hold them dear. This has to be a war to win their heart and minds, not their land and resources.
The Way Ahead
- An all-out war that risks large casualties, including deaths of innocent tribals
- A prolonged low-grade and localised conflict, backed up by a development offensive as and when areas are liberated
- Enhance development work in vulnerable but violence-free areas
- Sincere efforts at ensuring justice for tribals, just as those behind killing Congress officials are brought to book
- Offer of talks, matched up with a truth and reconciliation commission
Purification Hunt That Turned Rogue
- Originally comprised tribals, including minors, who were armed to fight the Maoists in a state-backed initiative
- Literally meaning a “purification hunt” in Gondi, it began as a move to oppose a Maoist ban on collecting tendu leaves
- Its supporters said they represented tribal anger against Maoists; soon enough, swamped by accusations of atrocities
- After a long public campaign and petition, the Supreme Court in 2011 ruled that the state must disband the force
- Post-judgement, few of the Salwa Judum cadre could return to their villages for fear of tribal/Maoist reprisals
- Initially formalised as SPOs or special police officers, former cadre have now been incorporated into an auxiliary force, at a salary of Rs 8,000 a month and other benefits
- There are about 4,500 of them, now forming part of the overall security apparatus engaged in anti-Maoist operations
By Debarshi Dasgupta in Delhi and Yeshwant Dhote in Bastar