First Person | No End in Sight

The State needs an empathetic outlook towards the people caught between the Maoists and the security forces
Ghazala Wahab

With nostalgia, frequently bordering on sentimentality, several national newspapers commemorated the golden jubilee of the Naxalbari uprising in the last week of May. Most articles revisited the obscure village in north Bengal where it all started in 1967, observing with irony how the Left-wing thinking is gradually being replaced by the now mainstream Right-wing ideology. Few writers of a certain vintage recalled the headiness of those years when university students quit the mainstream to join the peasants’ movement, choosing the adventure of the jungle over the assurance of the city.

While nostalgia can be sweet, romantic even in some cases, in the context of what eventually metamorphosed into the deadly and dehumanising Maoist armed rebellion that has caused enormous suffering to a large number of Indians on all sides of the conflict, not to speak of loss of life and habitat, this wistful trip down memory lane was a bit strange to put it mildly.

If anything, the 50th year should have been an occasion to reflect on why the discontent of one village found resonance in so many others and continues to do so. How, caught between the government and the Maoists, the hapless tribal and rural poor have been brutalised over the last few decades. And what steps should be taken to ensure that the envisioned future of India includes the dispossessed and the marginalised so as to erode the fertile grounds which breed resentment and revolt.

This chasm between the past and the future came into sharp relief at the commemorative discussion organised by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) on May 26. On the panel were Dilip Simeon and Nandini Sundar on one side and Indian Police Service (IPS) officers like K. Vijay Kumar, K. Durga Prasad, K.S. Subramaniam and M.L. Kumawat, who was the chair, on the other side. In a small conference room, bursting at seams with the audience, which included several foreign diplomats, the lines were clearly drawn — between the civil society and the State — and it was clear after two hours of individual presentations that none would cede ground. While Simeon and Sundar spoke of the cause and effect of the Maoist movement, Vijay Kumar, Durga Prasad and Kumawat spoke of the police approach to the problem, which according to them has been successful in containing the menace to few select districts.

Two comments stood out. Making a point about the harassment of the human rights activists in the name of counter-Maoist operations, Sundar showed a map of south Bastar in one her slides. Her focus was the Sukma district and the villages around it. This is the area which has seen several massacres of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, two of which happened earlier this year with the casualty figure of 12 and 25.

Pointing at different villages on the map, she said that the entire area is heavily populated as all villages are inhabited, unlike some other districts where the villages have been destroyed and villagers have escaped into the forests deep inside Abujmarh. Yet, she said, the security forces get no human intelligence, which is evident by the number of surprise attacks that have happened in this general area. To illustrate her point, she recounted the story of Podiyam Panda, three times sarpanch of his village in Sukma district who was picked up by the police in May on charges of being a Maoist. The police claim that Panda surrendered and sought police protection, which is why he is in their custody.

While Sundar narrated Panda’s story, accusing the police of torture and foul play (falsely labelling Panda), her larger argument pointed to the stark reality of people’s distrust of the State more than their fear of the Maoist. And this is the reason why the police get very little timely and actionable information from the people.

Ignoring Sundar’s larger argument, K. Vijay Kumar dwelled briefly on Panda’s case to assert that the tribal politician is not being tortured at all. However, as senior security advisor to the ministry of home affairs, he said that one can talk with the Maoist if they give up guns. A Maoist without a gun is a very good person, ‘in fact, we should invite him to come and chat with us here,’ he added for good measure.

At that point he was completely unmindful of the long list of people — including social workers, journalists, doctors, human rights activists, lawyers, academics and so on — who have been frequently imprisoned, tortured and harassed merely on charges of being Maoist sympathisers or ideologues. Even if the appellation of ideologue holds true for some say like Kobad Ghandy, they are still Maoists without guns! Or probable sympathisers like Prof. G.N. Saibaba who has recently been given life sentence. Far from talking with them, the government fears their freedom.

Even as senior security advisor to the minister, Vijay Kumar remains a policeman, hence despite his assertions he could not bring himself to be critical of fellowmen-in-khaki who abuse powers given to them by law; for instance, the former inspector general of Bastar. Clearly, Kumar can do very little in a conflict that is essentially the result of socio-politico inequities, except quote statistics to emphasise how the State is winning the war against the terrorists. In this, he was ably supported by brother-in-arm, Durga Prasad, an Andhra cadre police officer, which itself is a badge of honour against the Maoist. Of all the state police forces, Andhra police has the distinction of successfully eradicating the menace of Left-Wing Extremism from their state without piggy-backing on the CRPF. Durga Prasad recently retired as director general, CRPF. Hence, he had several experiences and lessons to share.

As an aside, last year I was in Hyderabad along with the FORCE team for the India Aviation show. Over the next three days, I had the opportunity to chat-up with three taxi drivers and one roadside food vendor. With all four, the conversation started innocuously enough — weather, water and opportunist politicians. However, as we started talking about the problems that the poor faced in Hyderabad and the new state of Telangana, some brought up the issue of terrorism and harassment by the police.

Encouraged, I asked, what about the Naxali (Maoists)?

‘We don’t have that problem in the city,’ one of them remarked. ‘It is only in the villages and the outskirts’. However, after a pause he took off. ‘To tell you the truth, Naxali are not a problem. They don’t trouble poor like us. On the contrary, they help the poor. You know very well how poor are troubled by everyone — the police, the politician and the rich. At election time, everyone comes to us because we vote. But after that they suck our blood. Who are Naxali? They are people like us who are being harassed and killed by the police and the government because they speak for us…’ And he continued so in the same vein.

While not everyone was so articulate, they expressed similar sentiments about Maoists being the local Robinhoods; who give to the poor what the State doesn’t or is unable to. Physically, the Maoists may be on the periphery of the state of Telangana and Andhra now, but as an idea, they remain in the heartland. This neatly links-up with Sundar’s observation that despite being heavily populated, the police hardly get any human intelligence from the Sukma district.

In 1967, when the farm labourers revolted against their landlords, leading to the Naxalbari movement, it took the West Bengal state government only about three months to brutally crush it. The earliest rebels were either killed or arrested. But the idea endured and the forest fire spread to other districts and then states, including parts of Bihar, Orissa and Andhra. By 1972, at least in West Bengal, it appeared that the fire was doused. But the foot-soldiers had moved on to other fertile grounds.

By late Seventies, the tribal-led peasant movement of Bengal had acquired the shades of caste war in Bihar, where the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) found support amongst Dalits who had been suffering violence and subjugation for centuries at the hands of the upper caste land-holders or Bhumihars. To counter the violence of the MCCI and the parallel administration in the areas under their control, the Bhumihars, with the patronage of right-wing political outfits, raised their own militia called the Ranvir Sena in 1994. A cycle of retributive caste violence commenced in Bihar, with the Dalits and MCC cadre suffering substantive loss of life (including women and children) in some of the ghastliest massacres, primarily because the Ranvir Sena had the government and the police on its side.

In Andhra, the Naxalbari-inspired rebels formed the People’s War Group (PWG). Even as the primary targets were the feudal landlords, they frequently took on the government as well. Predictably, the State came down heavily on the rebels and by mid-Nineties it was being said that PWG had been successfully neutralised.

Yet it October 2003, PWG mounted its most audacious attack ever. It tried to assassinate the Andhra chief minister Chandra Babu Naidu (N.T Rama Rao’s son-in-law) and almost succeeded. The attack showed not only their penetration inside the government, but also their technical soundness and meticulous planning. The extremists knew months in advance that the chief minister was to visit the Tirumala-Tirupathi temple on a particular date. They planted claymore mines using gelatin sticks on either side of the culvert without disturbing the road as they knew that the entire road would be sanitised several times by different means before the chief minister’s convoy passed that way. Using huge quantity of mines, they dug them deep inside the mud. Over the next few months grass grew on it, completely camouflaging the mines. They also figured that the convoy would be accompanied by electronic jammers which would not allow radio or remote controls to function. Hence, they relied on the technology of World War II vintage using a mechanical device that was set off from a distance by an operative who could see the convoy.

The chief minister survived primarily for two reasons. One, the mines went off on either side of the heavily armoured vehicle. Had they gone off below the vehicle, survival would have been very difficult because the underside is usually not armoured. Two, the scout team which was to inform the detonating team about the chief minister’s departure couldn’t do so well in time. The detonating team carried out the blast on its own after seeing the convoy approach. Hence, by the time the mines exploded, the car had moved ahead and the full brunt was borne by the boot. Nevertheless, the car was thrown up and the chief minister sustained serious injuries. These details subsequently came out as part of self-assessment in one of the in-house magazines of the Maoists, Jung, which was subsequently accessed by The Hindu newspaper, which carried a detailed article on it.

Thereafter, the Andhra government tried to engage the Maoists in talks. They failed. Both sides blamed one another for the failure. Whatever may have been the reasons, after the failure of the talks the Andhra police was given the free hand to crush the Maoists, which it did over the next few years. It was this success story that Durga Prasad recounted at the ORF conference. Perhaps, unmindful that historically in India, the police success usually sows the seeds for future uprisings.

Revolt by the dispossessed against the powerful has a long history in India, and goes well beyond the historical marker of 1967 or evolution of a political ideology — Left or Right. There could have been more revolts in the past, but one that was definitive because of its impact was the Peasants’ revolt in Telangana from 1946-1951. The causes were atrocities meted out by the landed gentry on the labourers. Of course, such violent uprisings cannot be sustained for long and eventually the State succeeds in subduing them. But as long as the conditions remain unchanged, a vast section of the Indian society continues to live on the periphery and the State remains insensitive and unmindful, the scorched earth will continue to harvest dissent and discontentment.

Today, both the police and the government of India have been congratulating themselves on containing the sway of the Maoists to a few districts, mainly in Chhattisgarh. This could be true. But there are other markers too which needs attention. In February 2014, the then union minister of state for home, R.P.N. Singh told Rajya Sabha said, ‘The CPI (Maoist) has developed close fraternal ties with the Northeast insurgent groups like the Revolutionary People’s Front and People’s Liberation Army of Manipur. Both the outfits have agreed upon mutual cooperation in the areas of training, funding, supply of arms and ammunition.’

Another bit of information might be useful in putting the Maoist reality into perspective. According to the ministry of home affairs annual report for 2015–16, a total of 116 battalions of various paramilitaries are currently deployed to combat the Maoist insurgency; a number likely to increase. If each battalion has about 1,200 men, then a total of 1,39,200 central government troops are engaged in combating the Maoist. Add to this, the state police, the state armed police and now even the Indian Air Force (IAF) in support and logistics role. This is no mean national effort, in terms of man-power and resources. And yet, the results are dubious.

The problem is not of undermining the threat. The problem is of deliberate obfuscation of the realities. The number of Maoists is immaterial. What matters is the number of people who believe that Maoists represent their concerns, understand their fear and stand up to the powerful on their behalf. This number is worrisome, because as long as this number does not diminish, Maoists with weapons will continue to sprout in different parts of India.

Even more worrisome is the total reliance of the State on the police. The police cannot reduce the number of people who rely on the Maoists, because police action in these parts of the country only helps in pushing the fence-sitters across the divide. Take the example of Panda, as narrated by Sundar.

Though the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in its election manifesto of 2014 described Maoist violence as insurgency (as opposed to the term ‘extremism’ which the previous government preferred), as far as policies on the ground are concerned, it has continued with what its predecessor was doing — hard economics and hard policing. In his presentation at ORF, Vijay Kumar acknowledged as much. “There are three pillars to our approach: police action; police action plus development; and only development,” he said, adding that this approach has remained unchanged. No wonder the situation remains unchanged too, after 50 years.