After a lull, Maoist ambushes and killings are back in Chhattisgarh. At least 22 state police and CRPF personnel have been killed in the Bijapur region in the latest clash. This comes on the heel of another ambush last week that took five policemen’s lives. Why the sudden rise in Maoist insurgency, we do not yet know. But it underlines that the problem, which former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh rightly described as India’s greatest internal security challenge, persists.
It has thrived under two Congress and three BJP governments in Raipur since the state was formed and central governments under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. Different issues arise with changing political landscape, but the basic weaknesses in India’s fightback remain. Lack of conviction, local politicians’ complicity with one group of Naxals or the other, corporates’ tendency to buy peace by paying ransom, and of course the bleeding heart “let’s look for the root cause of violence” sympathies all play a role.
Substantively, the waffling continues under NDA, especially as Chhattisgarh now has a Congress government. If the UPA blamed BJP’s Chief Minister Raman Singh, the BJP would now accuse Congress’ Bhupesh Baghel of being soft. Further, the BJP is fixated, for the reasons of its own politics, on what it calls the ‘Urban Naxals’ while the real ones carry on as before.
India is paying a heavy price for this messed-up politics. It will need to change, especially as, with the new MMDR Act, the Modi government wants to give a mega push to mining.
Essentially, however, things haven’t changed since similar confusions set back the UPA’s one effort to push back at the armed Naxals when P. Chidambaram was Union home minister. It is then, that this National Interest column was written on 1 June 2013 in The Indian Express. Please check out if it has stood the test of time.
In this quick piece, I pick up the thread from that column and take the argument forward. More as a reminder of our insensitivity, incompetence and callousness that cuts across parties.
‘Sainiko tum sangharsh karo’
The latest clash leading to the death of at least 22 state police and CRPF soldiers in Bijapur zone of the Naxal-hit tribal heartland isn’t the biggest setback to the security forces in recent times. The 76 killed in Dantewada on 6 April 2010 is by far the second-highest single-day loss for India’s security forces in counter-insurgency since 1947, 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 29 June 2008 in Odisha). This, at Bijapur, might be among the biggest. The other one I recall in the same range was the February 1982 Naga ambush on a Sikh regiment convoy in Manipur’s Namthilok, on the road between Imphal and Ukhrul.
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 in a single day of fighting even in Kargil, even on the nights Tololing and Tiger Hill were assaulted.
Which takes us back to the state response. How did the UPA government react to the 2010 Chintalnar massacre? Before security forces had got their wits together, its embedded bleeding hearts had popped up with conspiracy theories and root causes. And equally so when successive chiefs of the Army and the IAF made unsolicited statements that their forces can’t be used in fighting the Naxals.
For nine years now, the UPA and its various elements, ranging from the prime minister to those considered close to Sonia Gandhi and speaking for her, from the home ministers (I use the plural deliberately, because even the three who ran that ministry, Shivraj Patil, Chidambaram and Sushil Kumar Shinde, spoke in different voices, with the first being a pure root-causes man) to National Advisory Council (NAC) members, spoke at cross-purposes.
Through its 10 years, the UPA was conflicted on Maoists. Some of its top leaders, including the prime minister, routinely called them a grave threat or dismissed them as a bunch of bloodthirsty, extortionist bandits and so on. Another group romanticised them as merely misguided, well-meaning people fighting for the tribal victims of extractive industries. 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 (At NAC members’ NGO, they wait for Padma, wife of top Maoist, IE, 24 February 2011).
Many of us — including the paper I then edited — 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 did he have to be appointed 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 were we 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 keep letting you know how they read your confused minds, by wiping out large police patrols, and even the entire state leadership of the Congress party (the ambush that killed V.C. Shukla, among others).
The colour of uniform
Our governments are routinely confused while dealing with internal security challenges. 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 decade gave us this. On the Naxal front, nothing seems to have changed even now. Just that the parties in power have reversed, in Raipur and New Delhi.
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?
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?
Also read: The bleeding heartless
How many OB vans follow the coffins of CRPF men who die fighting what our former prime minister described as our gravest security threat? Which ministers visit their families? Obviously, the netas go where OB vans are.
I 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 struggled to keep my clinical reporter’s reserve, was when I saw the body of an Indian soldier.
My recurrent nightmare, even now, almost four 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 7 June 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 days?