On April 4, Union home minister P. Chidambaram flew into Lalgarh, the hub of Maoist activity in West Bengal’s West Midnapur district. Chatting with the villagers there, he asked what they wanted. “Unnayon (development),” they chorused, an official who accompanied the minister told Outlook. The minister’s response? If the people helped the government eliminate the Maoists from the area, he told them, development would come to Lalgarh. Later that day, he asked officials why the state government had not yet tackled the Maoists—after all, the Centre had provided the manpower, money and resources.
The home minister’s responses that day, a senior police officer engaged in anti-Maoist operations told Outlook, summed up the Centre’s approach to the Maoist problem—one that left 76 CRPF jawans dead in the jungles of Dantewada, in Chhattisgarh, less than 48 hours after the minister’s Lalgarh visit. “Mr Chidambaram is very sincere and earnest,” the official said. “But he must understand this isn’t a corporate problem, where an input guarantees an output. You rarely get a solution just by upgrading technology.”
It’s early days yet for a studied change in strategy. For now, a stunned government is engaged only in an autopsy of the Dantewada carnage. Indeed, that evening, the National Security Council met under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and discussed the issue in the presence of, among others, the Union home minister, the defence minister and the three service chiefs. “The policy (on dealing with the Maoists) has to be regulated from time to time,” the prime minister said, 24 hours later. “But we are too close to the incident to review it. All options are open.”
Earlier that day, after laying a wreath in memory of the dead jawans in Jagdalpur, the nearest major town from the site of the ambush, a sombre home minister said, “I’d urge that, even as we grieve, we remain calm, hold our nerve and not stray from the carefully chosen course we have adopted since November 2009.” This, home ministry sources said, indicates that the current strategy would continue. However, the home minister added a new element, suggesting the government could “revisit” its decision not to deploy air power, pointing to his desire to raise the pitch of the current battle.
Publicly, the prime minister said the “air power” question could be examined, but the view in both South Block and North Block was the same: it was a bad idea. Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik was the first to react. He said he was opposed to deploying the air force against the Maoists because the armed forces are trained for lethal operations to kill the enemy, not fight “our own citizens”. And officials in both the prime minister’s office and the home ministry told Outlook that if the proposal came to the cabinet, it would be shot down.
Indeed, before the current phase of anti-Maoist operations began in November 2009, the home minister’s “maximalist approach” had been beaten down at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security on October 8 last year. “The home minister was told his plans were too ambitious and would have to be scaled down,” sources had told Outlook then. Within the Congress, too, there was disapproval of the militarist approach, with party functionaries quoting general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who had praised the Andhra Pradesh model for tackling Maoists. “It took central welfare schemes to problem-hit areas. But the Chhattisgarh government is not reaching out to the trouble-hit areas,” he had said.
Today, the official line is bland, with only a gratuitous swipe at opposition-ruled states where Maoist activity is flourishing marking it out. “Whatever has happened in Dantewada is a challenge to our democratic system,” said Congress general secretary and media cell chairman Janardan Dwivedi. “All state governments must tackle this problem seriously and cooperate with the Centre.” Interestingly, the BJP, usually quick to criticise the upa government, has backed the home minister, a senior party functionary told Outlook, possibly because Chhattisgarh is a BJP-ruled state. “He (the home minister) understands the problem and is trying to do something compared to his predecessor (Shivraj Patil) who refused to act,” said Arun Jaitley, the leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
An escalation of the battle against the Maoists may suit the public mood and the BJP, and even though Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan exhorted the government to “wipe out this terrible scourge...with all the strength at our command”, the party is wary. “When casualties mount, the natural tendency is to overreact. But that would be a mistake. We have to make a distinction between the Maoists and ordinary tribals. Every Maoist is not a tribal; neither is every tribal a Maoist,” a party functionary told Outlook. Senior party leaders also say Chidambaram must talk a little less and desist from communicating with the Maoists through the media, or to make an appeal for talks “on such a grave issue via mobile phones and SMSes”.
Instead, police officers, intelligence officials and army officers with experience in dealing with insurgency stressed the need for a change in tack to defeat the Maoists. They pointed out that without security, it was difficult for the administration to provide development; but at the same time, it would not be possible to win the battle without winning over the population. “Every tribal is not a Maoist supporter, but many tribals have only seen the Maoists. The policemen, who are looking at an invisible enemy, and have no one in the Maoist camp, need to make friends with the people to gather intelligence,” says Brig B.K. Ponwar, a veteran counter-insurgency expert who runs the Counter Terrorism & Jungle Warfare College in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district. “But if you ill-treat the people, cut off their food supplies, you not only don’t make friends, you end up creating a Maoist.”
Currently, of course, the government is only too aware it is working blind. Home secretary G.K. Pillai went to the extent of saying there was no intelligence lapse, because there was no intelligence from the jungles in the first place. And the home minister was at pains to stress that the CRPF mission was not one based on intelligence; it was an “area domination exercise”, aimed at familiarising the jawans with the territory.
But clearly, intelligence is key to any success the government may have against the Maoists—and hence the need to have a friendly outreach among the people, along with efforts to contain the Maoists. Indeed, this is an issue on which at least two chief ministers of Maoist-affected states have locked horns with the Union home minister—Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and Jharkhand’s Shibu Soren. It was not merely the desire to win elections, Nitish said, that had made him “oppose tough action”, but his 30-year-old political career in a Naxalite-affected state that had taught him that “alienated elements” had to be dealt with through “peaceful, democratic ways”.
Apart from intelligence, senior police officials engaged in anti-Maoist operations feel there is a serious need to pause and review strategy, not just do an autopsy of this particular operation. “The Maoists are fighting a very intelligent battle,” a senior police officer engaged in anti-Maoist operations told Outlook. “One, they are fighting this at the political level, subverting sections of the intelligentsia; two, at the developmental level; and three, through a military campaign. Ours is only a military campaign. So we need to diagnose the problem, have a conceptual framework, then a road map. We aren’t chasing dacoits, we must remember.” Force alone, he said, would be counterproductive. Is the government listening?