Sri Lankan style operations against the Maoists in central India have already begun. In fact, it isn’t clear if they ever stopped after 2005, when the Salwa Judum herded thousands of villagers into camps. The only difference now is that war has been openly declared, in contrast to the government’s fiction of a “people’s movement”. The talk of using airpower, even if in self-defence, is being accompanied by propaganda blitzes, such as a home ministry ad containing gruesome photos of people killed by the Maoists. Clearly meant to desensitise the public to the civilian carnage that could follow a paramilitary sweep, the ad’s violent tone was also calculated to strike fear and signal the government’s seriousness in acting against the Maoists. As if on cue to prove the government right, the Maoists committed their ghastly beheading of Francis Induwar, a police officer. Faced with two belligerent parties, what are ordinary citizens to do?
For one, intellectuals—despite that word being the latest swear word for the government and media—must try and provide history and context to the situation. The Union home minister is talking of a “clear and hold” operation, after which he hopes to introduce development in the region. What he does not explain is what prevented development for 62 years or what hinders it in areas where the Naxalites are not active. Spending enormous resources on waging war rather than battling hunger—especially in a drought year—shows the government’s perverse priorities.
At a recent conference with director-generals of police, the prime minister asked why Naxalism showed no signs of abating despite the deployment of ‘Cobras’ and other paramilitaries. The crucial word that neither the prime minister nor the home minister mention is “justice”. While the home ministry spends taxpayers’ money calling Naxalites “cold-blooded murderers”, not a word is said about the hundreds of victims, including children and old people, murdered by the security forces and Salwa Judum vigilantes. These are citizens too, and their deaths are equally horrific. But no newspaper carries photos of them, no inquiry is held, their relatives get no compensation. Human rights activists are repeatedly called upon to condemn the Maoists, even if their statements are blacked out. However, I have yet to see one instance when the home minister has acknowledged, leave alone condemned, the increasing number of encounters faked by the police. You cannot speak of violence by one side while remaining silent on the other.
When people are attacked and see no hope from the state, who else will they turn to but insurgents? If a rape victim complains to the SP asking for an FIR to be filed, and his only response is to actually ask the rapists for their explanation, what is she supposed to do? Such has been the practice in Chhattisgarh for the past five years. It is this which accounts for the massive growth (22 per cent by intelligence estimates) in recruitment by the Maoists since Salwa Judum began.
When it comes to telling off Pakistan, both the prime minister and home minister reject the autonomy of non-state actors, with the prime minister noting that “it was the duty of their (Pakistani) government to ensure that such acts were not perpetrated from their territory”. But in their own country, they support Salwa Judum vigilantism, despite findings by statutory bodies like the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights that the Salwa Judum and security forces have been responsible for widespread arson, rape, forced disappearances, suspect encounters and extra-judicial killings. The NHRC report on the Salwa Judum states that “villagers were even killed (no criminal cases were, however, either reported or registered). Though the State has taken action against spos in some cases... these...do not pertain to the violence let loose on innocent villagers during operations against Naxalites”.
Of course, the NHRC also lost a golden opportunity to ensure justice, and thereby peace, by allowing a biased police to whitewash the truth. To cite just one example of the NHRC’s investigation: the death of Vanjam Mangu of Kotrapal. Villagers told the NHRC that he was killed by the CRPF and Salwa Judum in 2005 after being brought to the village. FIR 15/05 says he was a Naxalite killed in a police encounter. The NHRC, on the other hand, “finds” on the basis of “police records” and “Salwa Judum camp residents” that he was killed by Naxalites because his relatives had accepted government compensation (which is available only to victims of Naxalites and not to victims of Salwa Judum). It did not go into the basic discrepancies and ask how, in police records, he could be both a Naxalite and a person killed by Naxalites, or question how selective compensation was influencing the truth.
In ‘Operation Green Hunt’, which took place in September 2005, despite the then DGP claiming (Hitavada, September 6, 2005) that 10 armed Maoists were killed in an encounter on September 2, FIRs registering it as a case of villagers from Hariyal Cherli being killed in police-Naxalite crossfire, and relatives saying they were all innocent villagers who were lined up and shot by the Naga battalion while fleeing a Salwa Judum attack, the NHRC has concluded that eight of them were killed by Naxalites.
The current ‘Operation Green Hunt’ is equally suspect. A fact-finding by PUCL, PUDR and the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram has found that at least seven innocent adivasis were killed from Gachanpalli and Palachelma villages on September 17. The encounter in which security personnel died took place elsewhere. Another round of eight civilian killings took place on October 1 in village Gondpad, in which several young boys were picked up from Mukudtong and other villages, and several houses were burnt. While journalists in Dantewada have always been a threatened lot, the West Bengal government has done even better by sending policemen posing as journalists to arrest Chhatradhar Mahato. Not only do such strategies put all journalists working in combat zones at risk, they ensure that it is the insurgents who pre-emptively shut off access to the media. Democracy cannot work without a free flow of independently verifiable information from all sides.
When the home minister says that the Maoists are “the gravest challenge to our way of life”, he must clarify which “way of life” he means—the right of ministers to live in five star hotels while 50 per cent of Indians are below the poverty line in terms of calorie intake, the right of companies to fraudulently and forcibly acquire land, the right of farmers to commit suicide? If “our” way of life depends on exploiting the resources that the adivasis of Chhattisgarh live on, taking their lives falls perfectly into place. For many years, the Naxalite movement was seen as a socio-economic problem. By ignoring this aspect of it completely, and instead repeatedly terming it the “greatest national security threat”, the government has only added to that security threat. This is precisely what political scientist Jef Huysmans calls the “performative function of security labelling”.
In Chhattisgarh, even the Supreme Court’s demand for action on the NHRC recommendations, including compensation and rehabilitation for displaced villagers and moving security forces out of schools, are being ignored by a government confident of its own impunity. Schools and ration shops do not function in the villages, even though a majority of people have now gone back from the camps and desperately need these services. In Andhra Pradesh, the internally displaced people from Chhattisgarh are suffering from Grade III malnutrition. In their case, there is no lack of area domination. Even if the government wrests back Maoist territory, the fact that it will work through the same corrupt, authoritarian police force and the same exploitative traders who are currently its mainstay will mean that discontent is bound to revive.
The language of counter-insurgency sees “success” when populations are controlled, regardless of the human cost. As insurgents get dehumanised as vermin (as in the phrase “Naxal-infested”), the civilians get reduced to statistics, enabling displacement and death to be seen as an administrative necessity, a simple case of “broken eggs”, as a senior government official recently put it, rather than a fundamental violation of citizens’ rights. Besides, since it is mostly just the ordinary CRPF jawan who dies, the government is happy to choose a military option rather than dialogue.
The Maoists follow the same dehumanising practices, when they see nothing morally wrong in killing the security forces. Their language reeks of blood-sacrifice, their own and others. Their intolerance towards other groups working in their area and their disregard for the consequences of their actions on ordinary citizens hardly makes them a model of alternative democracy.
If Sri Lanka is the current flavour of counter-insurgency, the government would also be wise to remember the US debacle in Vietnam and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. And if the Maoists have China as their model, they must equally think of Peru, where the violence imploded on the very people they were claiming to represent. Certain wars can never be won with force, but only with justice and reconciliation, dialogue not death.
(The author is a professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University.)