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The Naxal Muddle - of Intellectual Haze, Governmental Clarity and Operational Realities

Col. Raj Shukla was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 09, 2010

    Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai spelt out the government’s strategy with respect to naxal violence at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, in Delhi, on March 5, 2010. By some unpropitious coincidence, on the same day, at the Foreign Correspondents Club, Arundhati Roy led the intellectual charge against the symbol of governmental resolve to meet the violent dynamic head on - Operation Green Hunt. Not very often in such philosophical contests does the Government of India emerge with greater credibility. But on Friday it did. Pillai’s talk was more than distinguished - it carried the hallmark of a virtuoso performance. He delivered his message and answered questions with a clarity, self assurance and composure that is becoming rare in government. Roy’s intellectualism on the other hand, though persuasive in parts, appeared hazy on the central issue – the dynamic of violence, forcing her to take refuge in homilies, sarcasm and name calling; her body language revealed her acute discomfort. There are obvious lessons here - when the ministerial team (the minister and his secretary) is individually competent and the ministry has done some honest work and thought the knotty issues through, the clarity will show. You will not then need to duck television cameras or evade questions. The demonstrated logic flies in the face of the general governmental inclination to view the media as a flippant device which will always distort and sensationalise and hence is either best avoided or responded to with such clever by half evasiveness that it only invites greater media wrath. Not once did the Home Secretary decline comment on a question, not once did he pass the buck. More than anything, it was a sophisticated exercise in using the media to send a substantive message about the government’s approach to the naxal problem - one of reasonableness, realism, clarity and resolve. If you are substantive, you will trump any attempts at sensationalism; if you are wavy and dodgy, sensationalism will carry the day. In the instant case, there was no need for the media to twist and distort to make the TRPs zoom; the Secretary’s substantiveness itself made for good TRPs.

    Home Secretary Pillai indicated the government’s intent to regain those areas where administrative voids have led to ceding of control to the Naxals. He emphasized that the core objective of the CPI ( Maoists) was the armed overthrow of the state; hence, while the government was prepared to talk to everybody and address all possible grievances in every conceivable manner, the violent dynamic had to be addressed head on. Talks were possible if the Maoists gave a commitment to abjure violence - this was the only precondition. Arundhati Roy’s argument of course is that the Maoists have been forced into violence in the first instance by the insensitive ways of the State; its subsequent heavy handedness has only made matters worse - the state should therefore abjure violence (abandon Operation Green Hunt) and talk without preconditions. She fights shy, however, of categorically condemning acts of violence by Naxals, most recently the murder of a rape victim. But the State’s battle for peace is not so much with Arundhati Roy and Kabir Suman but with Kishenji. The exchange of FAX and mobile numbers between the Home Minister and Kishenji in an ongoing, unconsummated courtship is symptomatic of the stalemate - posturing even as both sides sharpen their swords. If one were to attempt to steer clear of the polemical impasse, what is the way forward? One, of course, is to regain administrative control of lost areas by securing them and delivering development, and to keep persisting despite the inevitable setbacks. Two, is to nurse our police forces back to health, through a slew of measures which have been discussed ad nauseam. Three, is to address the grievances that threaten to explode in a socio-economic cataclysm - mining rights, forest rights, developmental neglect, rehabilitation of the displaced, uncompleted land reforms, agricultural indebtedness, urban slums and other sources of societal inequality. Four, we could even try and cash in on the latest offer by Kishenji and utilise the services of Arundhati Roy, Mahashweta Devi and Kabir Suman as ‘independent observers’ in an attempted mediation of the dispute.

    All this will take a while. But what about the violence that ensues in the meantime - the 1000 odd Indians who die each year - which will not stop unless the battle is taken to the hard core Naxal cadres (hard core cadres are estimated in the range of 12,000 with about 40,000 overground workers/sympathizers). And here, the Ministry of Home Affairs has a lot of soul searching to do. Offensive operations of this kind cannot be carried out by State police forces which simply do not have the requisite capacities, despite their claims to the contrary. The measures outlined by the Home Secretary, if pursued with requisite zeal, will only help the state police forces transit from sub-policing to bare policing, with viable counterinsurgency capacities still a huge, huge way off. The Greyhounds in Andhra Pradesh took decades to hone their skills. Chhattisgarh, the state which in recent times has been first off the block in fashioning a resolve to take Naxal violence head on, is still in no position to restore state authority in many of its southern districts leave alone the formidable Abhujmad (the operational nerve centre of Naxal operations). It is plainly ridiculous to expect a district superintendent of police to attend to law and order and policing duties as also undertake counterinsurgency operations at the same time. Offensive operations can only be undertaken by a dedicated counterinsurgency force which in our case is the CRPF.

    But here a different set of problems come in the way. The first is command and control - the nature of counterinsurgency operations is such that they cannot be conducted by persuasion and consensus. The lines of authority have to be clearly delineated with accountability fixed. The amorphous arrangement that presently obtains does not augur well for meaningful operations. We are also told that the federal nature of our polity does not allow operations across state boundaries to be undertaken - till when will we continue to shield ourselves behind such bizarre technicalities? When you pursue Naxals across State boundaries you are surely not entering foreign territory? In any case, just because we cannot find the legal/administrative rationale to facilitate such movement, should 1000-odd people continue to die each year? The State police must be tasked to secure infrastructure while the counterinsurgency force should be firmly mandated to neutralize the hard core cadres across state boundaries. It is only when the latter’s numbers dwindle will the spectre of violence begin to recede and talks become meaningful - that is the harsh reality.

    The Home Secretary also spoke of political interference as the principal obstacle to police reform. Well yes, but there is an equal malaise that afflicts the police force - that of stifling bureaucratic control which needs to be addressed in equal measure. Ask any police officer in the affected states and he will tell you as to how the building of credible capacities is hamstrung by the very State Home Secretaries in whom the Home Secretary reposes so much faith. Closer home, he would surely know that DGPs are reduced to craven pleaders before Joint Secretaries in the Ministry of Home Affairs. Unless the police forces are freed from the clutches of such meaningless bureaucratic control they will not be able to rise to the challenge. (The CAG Report of 2005, for example, documents how an empowered committee headed by the Chief Secretary of Jharkhand siphoned off Rs. 15.7 crore to buy SUVs for VIPs instead of vehicles for patrolling. Such examples abound.) The police needs to be resurrected as a professional and independent force accountable only to its own leadership while submitting to unambiguous political control. While still on the issue of police reforms, Home Secretary Pillai pointed an accusatory finger at the States for less than adequate movement on critical issues. Fair criticism, but then why does the Centre not lead by example - speedily implement reforms, to begin with in Delhi itself where it has a relatively free run. Pillai lamented as to how transfers of police officers in Uttar Pradesh were rubber stamped by a supine police establishment board. Here again the Centre cannot escape blame - when you overlook officers like Kiran Bedi, you send a strong message about the kind of police leadership you wish to nurture. 26/11 and Vinita Kamte’s stirring account in her book, To The Last Bullet, expose the grim consequences of encouraging a pliant leadership and destroying its combat ethos, but alas we continue to do so.

    The conceptual clarity that the Home Minister and the Home Secretary bring to their work will not translate into meaningful change on the ground unless these warps are addressed. And it is precisely police weaknesses as a consequence of these warps that the Naxals capitalize on to engineer violence and invite reprisals for the likes of Arundhati Roy to step in with their intellectual salvos. A sophisticated police force with a strong leadership unencumbered by needless layers of control is what we need if the Chidambaram overhaul is to manifest into meaningful results. Or else, it will simply be business as usual. The Naxals of course will never be able to overthrow the Indian State by 2050 (their purported goal as stated by the Home Secretary) or before (as claimed by Kishenji). They don’t need to - they already have a separate state with the Dandakarnaya (a 92,000 kilometre expanse of jungle that spans the states of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh) as its hub from where they will continue to bring their convoluted brand of governance to bear. There is of course the other school led by the indomitable M.J. Akbar, which asserts that India will survive the Maoist insurgency by ending poverty and in no other way. May be, but the bigger truth is that in a country of India’s size, diversity and conflicting aspirations, no matter what you do ( even if you were to conquer poverty once and for all), violent disaffections of some sort will afflict us. While attempting to address them, apart from other tools, you will need a sophisticated police force. The Naxal challenge is a wake up call to rejig our internal security instruments and restore their organizational ethos, autonomy and operational credibility. With regard to its violent hue, we need to act with dispatch. While there may be numerous constraints of democracy that come in the way, the 1000-odd Indians who continue to die annually is a political price that may soon become difficult to bear. Even by the measure of cold political logic, we need to act fast.