To combat red terror, tackle its root causes
Shankar Roychowdhury (Asian Age, 21 April 2009)
April.21: Many people might have missed the small news item on the inside pages of newspapers, and the brief mention on the news wires scrolling at the bottom of certain television channels. Nine personnel of the CRPF’s 55th Battalion killed and 11, including an assistant commandant, injured in a two-hour clash with Naxalites on April 10 in Dantewada district of the southern Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. A couple of days earlier two police constables had been killed in the same area when their jeep was blown up by a landmine. A fairly major encounter in terms of casualties, but passing almost unnoticed with national attention focused on the elections and IPL.
Then, a couple of days later, bigger news: Naxalites in strength, between 70 and 120 of them, attacked the National Aluminium Company’s bauxite mining complex at Damanjodi in Orissa’s Koraput district, in a bid to hijack explosives, weapons and ammunition. The information is sketchy, but up to 10 or 11 CISF persons were reported killed, around the same number injured, while the attackers reportedly suffered up to seven casualties. They ransacked the CISF armoury and appeared to have got away with some amount of explosives.
But the full fury was to come four days later, April 16, the first day of the five-part general election across the country. The Naxalites struck in many of their old battlegrounds — in a series of rapid-fire attacks across Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and Maharashtra. Eleven police and paramilitary personnel as well as eight civilians, including personnel on election duty, were killed. Just a day earlier, the Election Commission had pronounced itself "totally satisfied" with the poll arrangements. There are four phases of the election still to go — what lies ahead for us?
The electoral processes of our democracy have never held much appeal, or relevance, for many original inhabitants of this land — adivasi tribals of many ethnicities — who have often found any encounter with the Indian State a cruel and humiliating experience. Many of them have now decided to take matters into their own hands.
Welcome to the "people’s war" raging inside the guts of our country, inhabited by its most desperately poor and marginalised communities. The heartland of this faraway conflict is the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, almost a "dark continent" to much of the rest of India, where the Abujmarh, a huge forest, unsurveyed and unmapped even six decades after Independence, is virtually a "no-go" area for government forces. Comparisons with the Iron Triangle and "Special Zone D" set up near Saigon by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War are obvious and irresistible. Are we too headed in that direction?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described the Naxalites, officially categorised as "left-wing extremists" (LWE), as the "greatest internal security threat to the country". Let there be no doubt, Naxalism is a totally home-grown problem which we have brought upon ourselves, and for which no external elements can be blamed. Venally corrupt local administrations, particularly at the state level, have maintained a vacuum of total neglect in rural areas over the past six decades, and more specifically in the adivasi zones of extreme deprivation. Maoist LWE began in these regions, and this is now well on its way to becoming a rural insurgency in the classic Maoist mode: holding significant control of a strategic "compact revolutionary zone" (CRZ) stretching over 12 to 14 states and up to 156 districts, all predominantly of tribal communities, astride a Golden Quadrilateral deep in the Indian heartland.
More dangerously, the CRZ has created a "red corridor" of internal instability, stretching from Prachanda’s Maobadi Nepal right down to the dry and desiccated forest regions of peninsular India. In relative terms, the Maoist CRZ poses a much greater potential threat to India’s national security than either the jihadis in Kashmir, the Indian Mujahideen, or the Naga and Meitei underground in Nagaland and Manipur. The reasons are obvious — Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur and indeed the entire Northeast are all located on the external peripheries of the country, and events there have only a limited impact on the nation’s heartland. But Maoist LWE is active deep within the geographical and geo-political gut of the heartland, and can more directly and immediately impact and disrupt the country’s political, economic, transportation, communications and security infrastructure.
Therefore, of all the internal conflicts which plague India, Maoist LWE offers the most attractive high-value low-cost strategic option for external exploitation. Rest assured: Pakistan, Bangladesh, and perhaps even "Maobadi Nepal" — as a proxy for the People’s Republic of China — are eyeing it very closely indeed.
The functional contrasts between the Maoists and the government could not be more striking, or startling. The Maoists function through a fairly centralised hierarchy and reasonably well-coordinated politico-military command and control structure for inter-state coordination, which extends right down to the villages through a network of political and military committees at central, regional, state, and zonal levels. The policy of the Union government can best be described as perplexing experimentation with decentralised anti-Naxal operations by individual state governments within their respective boundaries, according to their respective political agendas and initiatives, coordinated through a system of bureaucratic consultation through inter-state committees, where participation is often optional. State police forces and the paramilitary units they are allotted are often tied down by jurisdiction issues and problems in inter-state movement, whereas their opponents, the Naxals, can concentrate and disperse swiftly according to operational needs.
History is repeating itself: Shivaji is running rings around Aurangzeb. Time is precious, but is being wasted in a policy of drift, while the Maoists consolidate their hold in the so-called "liberated zones". Policies to alleviate the situation have to be urgently initiated. "Alleviate" is the keyword, not "defeat" — because attempts to defeat a people’s movement, which has arisen due to genuine problems, will ultimately end up defeating the nation itself, and tearing it apart in the process. Central intervention or executive direction, preferably direct, is essential in such a diverse and fragmented political milieu of totally divergent ideologies, with each state nursing problems of local personality cults and ego-perceptions. But none of this appears to be forthcoming. The Government of India and the governments of the affected states look as if they are losing this war. Whichever government comes to power after the elections, this drift has to be stopped.
Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury (Retd) is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former Member of Parliament