The most-quoted statement about the Naxal insurgency to demand an ‘all-out assault’ on the rebels, a statement that is again in currency following the recent Naxal attack in Chhattisgarh, has come from a prime minister not really known for his assertiveness. But what complicates the irony are the events before Manmohan Singh termed Naxals the “single biggest internal security challenge” in April 2006. Exactly a year before his statement, the Tatas signed a much publicised MoU on 4 June 2005 with the Chhattisgarh government for a mega steel plant in Bastar. A day later, Salwa Judum was formally launched to terminate the insurgents from Bastar, and began the most bloodied decade of the State-Naxal battle. The Tatas had to eventually shelve the project a decade later, but a large number of adivasis who joined the Naxal ranks following the protests against the project continue to carry a rifle to date.
Bastar was relatively quiet before Salwa Judum, with just a few paramilitary battalions. Dandakaranya had become the Naxal capital and their laboratory by then; but they had limited armoury, mostly single-shot guns and the obsolete bharmar (fill and shoot). Today, Bastar has some 50 central battalions, besides Bastaria battalions and adivasi women commandos, with new additions every year, making several parts of Bastar among the most militarised zones on the planet.
And yet, the insurgents continue to hold considerable ground. Compared to the previous decade, the Naxal movement is on a decline but they are still capable of causing massive damages, with the looted ammunition enabling them to raise a couple of companies and carry out several more ambushes.
War against Naxals is always on
After every major police casualty, there are demands for an ‘all-out assault’, and that the governments must give security forces a ‘free hand’. An absurd mendacity. No state government in the last 15 years has restrained its forces. They always demand more paramilitary forces. Last year, five more specialised CRPF battalions landed in Bastar, and soon the state police began demanding for five more.
The government also hands over weapons to local adivasi boys under one pretext or the other, a mechanism that began with the Judum when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power in Chhattisgarh and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre. When the Supreme Court declared Special Police Officers (SPOs) inducted under the Judum ‘illegal’ in July 2011, the Chhattisgarh government immediately bypassed the ruling by enacting a law and giving SPOs a new nomenclature of auxiliary constables.
The UPA cared little for collateral damages, or the fake encounters of adivasis. The Maoist emissary Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad was bumped off in the middle of negotiations with the UPA government. One now blames the BJP for discrediting activists and writers as ‘Urban Naxals’, but the UPA had long before told the Supreme Court that “the ideologues and supporters of the CPI (Maoist) in cities and towns…have kept the Maoist movement alive and are in many ways more dangerous than the cadres of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.”
Thus, the war cries after last week’s attack by some sections seem absurd. A war is already on. Do make a Bastar trip.
A collective apathy
Of course, a constitutional State cannot allow any individual to carry unauthorised arms. The State needs to take urgent steps to end the insurgency. But in the sixteenth summer of Salwa Judum, let’s introspect the State’s approach to the insurgency. I have closely interacted with all the three chief ministers, besides a range of politicians and bureaucrats in Chhattisgarh. Except a few police officers and some young collectors in Bastar, no authority was even remotely interested in the issue.
Both Raman Singh and current CM Bhupesh Baghel pumped forces in the region, devised new ways to recruit adivasis in police, sent surrendered Naxals to the battlefield, but never showed any interest in understanding the insurgency, its constitution and complexities. Never was any state cabinet meet perhaps held to discuss the crisis, other than the emergency ones in the wake of a major assault. There’s never been a Naxal beat in any media organisation, not even when they assaulted the forces almost at will. Just a handful of journalists and academics have studied the ‘biggest internal security challenge’.
The government wakes up after the casualties of soldiers, but blinks over the continuing deaths and suppression of adivasis. Any constitutional State cannot afford to discriminate among the rights of its citizens without undermining the constitutional pledges. Consider this. A gram sabha that gave its consent in July 2014 to lease the forest land of Bailadila iron ore Deposit 13, whose developer and operator was to be an Adani company, was declared void by the Dantewada collector in 2020 when he found a series of illegalities, one of which was that several persons shown to be present during the gram sabha had died long ago.
Restoring faith, a tall order for the State
To win a battle, you need to know the adversary. It’s not a separatist movement, it doesn’t demand a different state. Some veteran rebels still harbour the dreams of a revolution, but an overwhelmingly large number of adivasi foot-soldiers take up rifles to save their ‘jal, jungle aur jameen’. One can say that the Naxals ‘brainwash’ the adivasis, but why can’t the State convince them that their rights will be duly protected?
A dialogue is the only way. Convince the rebels to return to electoral democracy as their brethren like the CPI (ML) had earlier. But how would the State restore the faith of a citizen in the Constitution when the electoral process, the foundation of the democracy, seems to be a beehive of corruption? With what moral authority can the State promise to be the guardian of the adivasis’ rights when their land are being taken away illegally in the face of people’s opposition?
The Maoists will lose, sooner or later. But they still hold large swathes of territory in Dandakaranya, and have sufficient cadres and ammunition that should sustain them for several years. Should the material conditions change, as the Maoists have been hoping, the battle will be prolonged. But what could those material conditions be in 21st-century India? I once asked a veteran Maoist ideologue. He, in turn, asked: “Nehru was once your most beloved leader. Could you have ever anticipated that your first prime minister, who laid the foundation of independent India, would come to be vilified overnight?”
His words were brazenly rhetorical, and yet I didn’t have any answer to the question.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, which traces the Naxal insurgency, received the Atta Galatta Best Non-fiction Book of the Year 2020 award. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.