By increasing the role of the IAF in counter-Maoist operations, government is sending the wrong message
A few weeks ago, a very unusual article appeared as the cover story in the Week magazine. The unusual part was not just the content of the article but the manner in which it went almost unnoticed. The article claimed that the government of India has authorised air strikes against Maoist insurgents in the forested areas overlapping Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. The article described one such operation in Odisha’s Malkangiri district, where two Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters fired on the insurgents who had collected for a meeting, even as Andhra police’s Greyhounds pursued them on the ground. The report mentions that the casualties included the civilians too.
While using a helicopter mounted gun to fire on the ground does not amount to air strikes, it does imply offensive action by the nation’s military. This narration fits in with the statement made by the former chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha in his farewell press conference in December (see last month’s ‘First Person’). ACM Raha said that the IAF’s role in internal security operations is going to increase in the coming years. So even if the Week’s journalist got the semantics wrong, his facts were not entirely incorrect. The IAF is indeed carrying out select offensive actions in the Maoist stronghold, going beyond its so far supportive role.
With this, now all the three arms of the Indian armed forces are engaged in internal security duties. The army is doing counter-insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, the navy is engaged in coastal security and now the IAF has been deployed in counter-Maoist operations. Even if one ignores the peacenik argument of deploying the air force against one’s own people, the fact that the military has to be used suggests that the government believes that it is no longer enough to deploy only the police and the paramilitary in these areas.
Does it mean that the Maoists are not on the back-foot as the government has been claiming? Or that the government is becoming extremely impatient at the protracted rate of success against the Maoists? Or could the reason be more sinister than that. Could it be that the government of India is beyond caring for the costs in terms of civilian casualties and wear and tear of military as long as the ground is cleared quickly for more mining activities? Whatever be the reason, shouldn’t there have been some amount of public/ media outrage at this?
I got my answer a few days back while watching television news. The issue under discussion was attack on social scientist and human rights activist Bela Bhatia in the Jagdalpur district of Chhattisgarh. Two kinds of responses met the questions of hounding out of human rights activists from the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Bela, incidentally, is not the only person being forced out of Bastar. The state enjoys the honourable distinction of meting out this treatment to a large number of social workers, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists, starting with Dr Binayak Sen.
One kind came from a former director general of police (who was on the panel). He questioned why organisations like National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) do not suggest a remedy to the Maoist problem, instead of talking about only human rights abuses. When it was pointed out to him that it was not the NHRC mandate to offer solutions to socio-economic (or even law and order) problems, he wondered why human rights activists like Bhatia don’t offer solutions.
The second kind of response came from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician on the panel. Unmindful of the issue under discussion, he ranted against the human rights activists. His complaint was that these activists do not protest when soldiers die at the hands of the Maoists. Unfortunately, the lone human rights activist on the show, whose voice was drowned in this cacophony, instead of refusing to respond to such fallacious insinuations, tried hard to mention instances when activists like her condemned Maoist violence.
Sure enough, she not only lost the argument, even the discussion descended into chaos with deliberate hectoring on nationalism and unappreciated valour of the soldiers. The issue of human rights violations, including the alleged mass rape of women by the state police, in Chhattisgarh did not crop up again.
Perhaps, that’s the reason why nobody is questioning this very deliberate shift in the government’s counter-Maoist policy; because to question the government is to question the unflinching bravery of the Indian soldier. The assiduously built narrative of the last couple of years has pitched all questioning citizenry against the uniformed class who have become the benchmark for patriotism. And so, everything now goes in the garb of national security and nation-building; if some unsuspecting civilians die or are hurt in the bargain, so what? Aren’t our soldiers dying every day!
However, this short-sighted policy has two unfortunate consequences: one, it holds the potential of further alienating the people, who had turned to the Maoists primarily because the government was so far away. Now not only is the government still far away, it will appear periodically in the sky to rain death and destruction on the ground. Two, this drawing in of the air force in a civil conflict will have a negative impact on the force, not to speak of attrition of scarce platforms and equipment.
Finally, popular insurgencies are not won through military means alone. They need a multi-prong approach, led by political and social outreach. For all its courage and selfless sense of duty, military is not the answer to all problems.