Between Congress and its ‘coterie’ they couldn’t make up their minds if Naxals were a grave threat or merely misguided people fighting for tribals.
How do we justify using a Bushism as the UPA finally displays some clarity of vision in dealing with violent Maoists? And a Bushism like, you are either with us, or against us.
Because, so far, for all of these nine ridiculous years, the UPA has not been able to decide whether it is with itself, or against itself, on this insurgency in India’s east-central heartlands. Every few months, usually at some high-level security conference, the prime minister describes it as the greatest threat to India. Then a Chidambaram takes the cue and builds a more robust response to the armed insurrection. And both are cut down by a Digvijaya Singh coming up with his own “root causes” theory.
Operation Green Hunt may still be a mythical codename, but the home ministry does launch an audacious campaign to move into the so-called “liberated zones” (frankly, the most brutal obscenity that this nation has been gifted in this decade of waffling). The forces make some progress, and also suffer some reverses — the 76 killed in Dantewada is by far the highest single-day loss for India’s security forces in counter-insurgency after the first night of Operation Bluestar (149). The third highest of a day has also been in this confused war (38, when a police boat was attacked on June 29, 2008, in Orissa).
You need to put these figures in perspective. India’s armed forces rarely suffer such high single-battle or single-operation casualties in counter-insurgency. They did not lose these many lives on any one day of fighting even in Kargil, even on the nights Tololing and Tiger Hill were assaulted. And how has the UPA responded?
It has kept mum as its embedded “liberals” have popped up routinely with conspiracy theories and “root causes”. And equally so when successive chiefs of the army and the IAF have made unsolicited statements that their forces can’t be used in fighting the Naxals (if I may add with some trepidation because I know what militaristic fury this could unleash), with poorly concealed delight that the paramilitary forces were getting their “comeuppance”. No chief has been questioned, countered or counselled to also stay out of the debate as much as they want to stay away from action.
This is why we say that on the Naxal issue, the UPA’s response would confuse George Bush himself. How would his simple, maybe simplistic, and uncluttered mind deal with a situation where a government is against an enemy, but also with it? Or, forget poor Bush. How would your mind deal with it? And mine?
For nine years now, the UPA and its various elements, ranging from the prime minister to those considered close to Sonia and speaking for her, from the home ministers (I use the plural because even the three who ran that ministry, Shivraj Patil, Chidambaram and Shinde, spoke in different voices, with the first being a pure root-causes man) to NAC members spoke at cross-purposes. One set called them a grave threat, a bunch of bandits and so on, while the other romanticised them as merely misguided, well-meaning people fighting for the tribal victims of “extractive” industries.
For a full nine years, the leadership of the Congress bought this unquestioningly. It allowed, even welcomed, the embedding of the Maoist middle ground and sympathisers within its establishment, notably the NAC and the Planning Commission. Remember that one of those eight Maoists released in exchange for the abducted Malkangiri collector Vineel Krishna was A. Padma, wife of top Maoist Akkiraju Haragopal alias Ramakrishna. And she managed Aman Vedika, an orphanage run by activist and then NAC member Harsh Mander.
Many of us sympathised with Dr Binayak Sen for being charged and convicted under the obviously archaic sedition law. He is also a very likeable, soft-spoken, sincere paediatrician. But must you appoint him in a key Planning Commission committee (steering committee on health, drafting their 12th Five Year Plan)?
Gentle, children’s doctor, yes. But he is a convicted Maoist sympathiser. Bringing him inside the tent like this, what message are you sending out to the security forces, to the police and intelligence agencies and people of India? Or, to twist the knife, and twist a popular Hindi heartland slogan as well, sainiko tum sangharsh karo, hamein pata nahin hum kiske saath hain (fight on soldiers, just that we are not sure whose side we are on). And finally, what message are you sending out to the Maoists? They only let you know last week how they read your confused minds, by wiping out the entire leadership of your party in Chhattisgarh, including the veteran Vidya Charan Shukla.
This is not the first government to be confused while dealing with an internal security challenge. The one comparable example is V.P. Singh sending Jagmohan as governor to throttle the then incipient Kashmiri insurgency and, at the same time, designating George Fernandes as the Kashmir affairs minister to apply the healing touch. The two worked at cross-purposes, clashed and confused everybody, from the armed forces to the people of Kashmir, even the separatists. The price of that schizophrenic approach, we are all still paying. The UPA’s nine years have given us a bit of this. It was reassuring earlier this week to see the rural development minister speak out on TV channels, finally using the correct and fitting description for the Maoists. But the same minister was saying smugly until the other day that Maoism only prospered in states not governed by the Congress.
Sadly, politicians are not the only guilty party here. Your heads and hearts should burn with fury every time an armed forces chief says he won’t send his forces to fight the Maoists, because his troops can’t be seen fighting their own countrymen. Own countrymen, did you say? Then who are the Kashmiris whom you’ve been fighting with pride, and to subdue whom you have built the largest and most powerful military command in India’s history? So large that the Northern Army Commander has more than 50 two- and three-star generals reporting to him. So you think Kashmiris are not your countrymen as much as the heartland Indians are. Isn’t that exactly what the Kashmiri separatists are saying?
Or what about the Nagas, the Manipuris and other tribal insurrectionists of the Northeast, to fight whom, sort of permanently, you have set up an entire counter-insurgency corps in Dimapur? Do you think they aren’t Indians as much as the tribals of Dandakaranya? If so, isn’t that exactly what the northeastern separatists are saying? The fact is, the leadership of the armed forces has merely jaywalked into the policy vacuum left by the UPA. At one point, it had got so frustrating that the newspaper I worked for even carried a half-serious editorial asking why the admiral was letting his navy down by also not coming out to say that under no circumstances would he allow his warships and submarines to be used against the Maoists.
Since we have been jolted into saying and listening to rude things this week, here is another. How are we to explain this utter indifference to the loss of police and paramilitary life in east-central India? Could it be that we put a different value to the life of an Indian soldier depending on the colour of his uniform? How many OB vans follow the coffins of CRPF men who die fighting what our prime minister describes as our gravest security threat? Which ministers visit their families? Obviously, the netasgo where OB vans are. Why does the air chief get away with his contemptuous dismissal of the perfectly valid demand that there be a proper inquiry into how his crew fled with unsoldierly cowardice from their downed helicopter, leaving an injured comrade in it? He was from the police, you see.
I have made my living as a reporter covering wars and strife all over the country and elsewhere, notably Sri Lanka when the IPKF was there. I have said often that the only time I struggled, and failed to keep my clinical, reporter’s impartial reserve was when I saw the body of an Indian soldier. My recurrent nightmare, even now, almost three decades later, is the bodies of jawans on stretcher bunks, three on each side, in an army truck leaving the Golden Temple on the morning of June 7, 1984, after the long night of Bluestar. The one on the top stretcher on the right side, a boy barely 20, still had beads of perspiration on his face, indicating he must have just died. Would it have mattered if he wore khaki, instead of olive green? Wouldn’t you rather be colour-blind than accept the cynical finessing that seems to be the norm these UPA days?
(A version of this was published as National Interest on June 1, 2013)