Skip navigation

Weapons Of Mass Desperation

Operation Green Hunt, the offensive against Naxals, might blow up in our faces. SHOMA CHAUDHURY examines the tricky and dangerous terrain

image
Enemy worthy? Naxals in Abujmarh. Women suckle babies. The poverty shows
Photo: AP

ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2009, India woke up to the news that the Delhi Police had captured a top Naxal ideologue, 58-year-old Kobad Ghandy – a South Bombay Parsi who had grown up in a giant sea-facing house in Worli, had gone to Doon School, and had studied for a CA in London before returning to India to work with the most destitute of Indian citizens in Maharashtra, before going underground in the 1970s. His wife Anuradha, a sociologist, went underground with him and died of cerebral malaria last year. (Malaria, particularly the lethal falciparium malaria, is a common affliction in the neglected heartland of central India.) Home Minister P Chidambaram called Ghandy the State’s “most important Naxal catch.”

On the night of September 22, Times Now had a prime time debate on the significance of Ghandy’s arrest. The aggressive rhetoric of anchor Arnab Goswami epitomised typical high urban attitudes to Naxal issues. If you happened to watch him anchor the show, several terrifying things would have become evident. Over this past year, the Home Ministry has been planning a major armed offensive against the Naxals, particularly in Chhattisgarh. According to reports, the plan involves stationing around 75,000 troops in the heartland of India — including special CRPF commandos, the ITBP and the BSF. Scattered newspaper accounts have spoken of forces being withdrawn from Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast; there is also talk of bringing in the feared Rashtriya Rifles — a battalion created specially for counter-insurgency work — and the purchase of bomb trucks, bomb blankets, bomb baskets, and sophisticated new weaponry. Minister Chidambaram has also said that if necessity dictates, he will bring in the special forces of the army.

The decision to launch such a massive armed operation on home ground — due to start this November — should have triggered animated political, civil society and media debate. But Operation Green Hunt — as the offensive is being termed — has been gathering force in almost complete silence. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Chidambaram have variously called Naxals — or “Maoists” — “the gravest threat to India’s internal security.” Perhaps a military offensive against them is the answer, but is it the only answer? Is it the best answer? Will it provide a solution? Who will be impacted by this offensive? What will be its repercussions? Who are we really declaring war on? What are we declaring war on? Are we going into this with eyes wide open? Is there anything we should have learned from the seemingly irreparable psychological mess in Kashmir and the Northeast? These are the questions a democratic society should be asking. One can perhaps understand the well-heeled turning their back on such bleak issues. But with such a significant operation looming on the horizon, what can excuse the complete absence of debate from national political parties?

But silence, perhaps, is only the lesser worry. A few days ago, the government announced an ad blitzkrieg as part of its psychological offensive. “Naxals are nothing but coldblooded murderers” the ad screamed across all major news dailies. The visual showed a series of men, women and children brutally killed by Naxals.

image

On the night of September 22, discussing Kobad Ghandy, Arnab Goswami mouthed the same line. “Terrorist or ideologue?” he intoned, with the moral certitude of a man who has never got off his urban chair to trudge the interiors of the country. “Six thousand innocent Indians have been killed on Mr Ghandy’s ‘watch,’” he said (as if Kobad Ghandy was some Idi Amin figure presiding over a banana republic), “and yet human rights organisations and NGOs are asking for his release.” (Mr Goswami always reserves special scorn for human rights activists, as if they are a uniform sub-species of anti-national humankind, rather than men and women with differing and individual views.) “What about the 12-year-old girl the Naxals killed in Jharkhand?” he thundered. “What about the 15 CPM cadres they killed in Bengal last night?” Every time one of his panelists tried to introduce the larger political context behind Naxalism or a more complex argument, Mr Goswami swatted them down: “The question we are asking is very simple,” he said, “is he a terrorist or an ideologue? Is he responsible for violence or not? Can he be blamed for 6,000 dead or not?”

Watching the show was like straying into a child’s playroom, watching the grave judgments of infants playing at Good and Evil. As an individual point of view it would have counted for nothing, but as the voice of Times Now, currently deemed the most popular English channel, Mr Goswami’s unthinking edit line seems symptomatic of a wider, urban, English-speaking constituency. Coupled with the government ads, it presents the disturbing prospect of a public discourse that is marked by reductive official propaganda on the one side and infantile ignorance and simple-mindedness on the other. We can afford neither.

AT THE heart of the Naxal riddle, there are three primary questions: Who is a Naxal? What is one’s position on violence as a tool of struggle? And why is Naxalism on the rise across the country? To understand the first, try a useful metaphor. Imagine fish in water. Naxal leaders are the fish, finite, identifiable (even punishable); the water is the vast, infinite constituency they speak for. And swim in.

image

As Kobad Ghandy proves, a Naxal ideologue, commander or politburo leader can come from any milieu. The disempowered dalits of Andhra Pradesh, the destitute tribals of Chhattisgarh, the middle-class intellectuals of Bengal or the privileged rich of Bombay. These “informed revolutionaries” function at two levels. At a political level, they do not believe in parliamentary democracy (where they see power still concentrated in the hands of the feudal upper class) and their long-term objective is to seize State power for the people through armed struggle. In this, they threaten the sovereignity of the Indian State and many humanist thinkers, including men like K Balagopal of the Human Rights Forum, who was part of brokering peace talks between the government and Naxals in Andhra Pradesh in 2004, believe the State is within its rights to confront them. “The Maoists themselves would not tolerate such a challenge if they came to power,” says he. Balagopal is also critical of Naxal leaders creating “liberated zones” where the Indian State cannot function. “If they claim to be the voice of the people, can they pursue a political agenda that injures people — either by their actions or the repercussions they invite? Does the current tribal generation of Chhattisgarh want to sacrifice itself for a utopian future that may never come?”

It is true that in this prolonged ideological war, many Naxal attacks like the horrific one on the Ranibodli police station two years ago and the more recent one in Rajnandgaon embrace brutal tactics and almost fetishise violence. Even if these attacks are against an oppressive and corrupt police, it is a nobrainer to condemn them and say one is opposed to this violence. Or that their perpetrators should be punished.

But like dozens of other intellectuals, Balagopal points out that it is suicidal to focus only on this ideological war or resort to extrajudicial means alone to quell it. Can Naxalism really be wiped out by brute counter force? If that were so, Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s crackdown in Bengal in the 70s should have nailed it for all time. But the fact is, while stories of their own coercions are true, Naxal leaders enjoy wide support because they also espouse social-economic causes and empower people that the Indian State has ignored — criminally — for 60 years. Most Naxal cadres, therefore, are not “informed revolutionaries” fighting a conceptual war: they are beleagured tribals and dalits fighting local battles for basic survival and rights. Bela Bhatia, an activist, says she met a mazdoor in Bihar who was part of the cadre. “You can call me a Naxal or whatever you want,” he said. “I have picked up the gun to get my three kilos of annaj.”

The point is, should the Indian State be declaring armed war on its most despairing people? Is there no other way to empower them and wean them away from the gun and the seduction of the ‘informed revolutionary’? When Arnab Goswami evoked the 15 dead CPM members in Bengal last week, he forgot to mention that, according to newspaper reports (since no TV channel bothered to send teams there to find out) a 10,000-strong crowd of tribals had descended on the CPM office which was stockpiling arms in Inayatpur, near Lalgarh. When his panelists tried to draw his attention to this, he scathingly dubbed all 10,000 tribals as Maoists. Should “Operation Green Hunt” then stamp all 10,000 out? And if 10,000 Maoists had attacked an office, is it possible that only 15 people would have died? What is the real truth about the attack on the CPM office last week? And why was the superintendent of police, visiting a day later, unable to find any bodies? And why were the central paramilitary forces stationed there unable to prevent any of it?

image

Lalgarh, in fact, is a textbook case for the Naxal riddle. Over the last six months, mainstream Indian media has been agog about the “Naxal menace” in Lalgarh. But almost no one thought to ask, was the flare up in Lalgarh in May sui generis? Does an entire society become Maoist overnight? Very few bothered to report that the trouble in Lalgarh began after the Maoists attempted an assassination of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya earlier this year. In retaliation, the Bengal police rounded up and brutalised scores of innocent tribal boys in neighbouring Lalgarh, who had nothing to do with the attack. After several months of this sort of general, untargeted police oppression, angry and desperate, the tribal community spontaneously organised themselves as a resistance force, fighting the might of the Indian State with nothing more than traditional tools – pick-axes, bows and arrows. A few weeks later, it appears, Kishenji, a Maoist leader from Andhra Pradesh arrived to raise the ante, teaching tactics of struggle, meshing solidarity with guns and advice. The State responded with increased force and brought in paramilitary forces — a dry run for Operation Green Hunt. After several days of heavy fire, ironically using Maoist jargon, the State declared Lalgarh had been “liberated”. But, the truth is, it has been on burn ever since. The attack on the CPM office is only the most recent expression of simmering anger in the area.

As Himanshu Kumar, a Gandhian and the only human rights activist on ground zero in faraway Dantewada where Operation Green Hunt is to be launched, says, “We can all be agreed on the premise that Naxalism is a problem, but why are these poor people attracted to a politics that will end in death? Have we created such a heinous system that death is more attractive than the deprivations and humiliations this system doles out? If that is so, why should I defend this system? All that these people want is food, health care, school, clothes and their legitimate right over their land. Yet, instead of weaning them away by strengthening the democratic process, if we are going to run our democracy only on the strength of weapons, I fear we are entering a dangerous and irrepairable state. We are headed for civil war.” Men like Himanshu should know. For 17 years, he has functioned like an ICU on the edges of a wounded society, providing education and health care, painstakingly drawing tribals into the electoral and constitutional process. The government, loath to undertake the trouble, has been happy to outsource its functions to him. Yet now, it is deaf to his wisdoms. Worse, it hasn’t even consulted him.

WHICH BRINGS us to the element of water in the Naxal metaphor. People who say human rights activists and the questions they raise are antinational, would be surprised to know what men like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee themselves have had to say earlier about the Naxal riddle. Not to mention a galaxy of judges and constitutionalists.

image

In 2006, the Planning Commission asked an expert committee for a report on development challenges in “extremist affected areas.” The committee comprised senior officers like former UP police chief Prakash Singh; former intelligence head, Ajit Doval; senior bureaucrats like B. Bandopadhyay, EAS Sarma, SR Sankaran and BD Sharma; and activists like Bela Bhatia and K Balagopal. The report submitted in October 2008 had some visionary analysis and recommendations.

“The main support for the Naxalite movement,” it said, “comes from dalits and adivasi tribals”: the element of water: the infinite constituency in which Naxal leaders swim. Dalits and adivasis comprise a staggering one fourth of India’s population, yet are disproportionately destitute and low on the Human Development Index scale. Worse, they suffer the most humiliation and indignity: the proverbial insult on injury. The report is an exhaustive anthology of the causes for rural discontent and violence — recording meticulous data and case studies — but at the heart of its argument, it places the “structural violence implicit in our social and economic system” as the key explanation for Naxalite violence. Slamming the neoliberal directional shift in government policies, it urges a “development centric” rather than “security centric” approach to the Naxal problem.

Curiously, three years earlier in 2005, human rights lawyer Kannabiran had written a letter to Dr Manmohan Singh reminding him of his own report as a Planning Commission Member in 1982 and one written by Pranab Mukherjee in 2002 that had come to the same conclusion. As Bela Bhatia says, “With all this insight and understanding already with them, it is completely mystifying why they should go against their own intuition and recommendation and take a security-centric route. Actually,” she adds, “it is not mystifying. It only makes the character of the Indian State more clear.”

WHO IS A NAXAL? IMAGINE FISH IN WATER. NAXAL LEADERS ARE THE FISH, FINITE, IDENTIFIABLE. WATER IS THEIR INFINITE CONSTITUENCY

This ‘character’ gets even more depressing when you know that barely a week ago, on 15 September, Arjun Sengupta, former economic adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also wrote that “Naxalism is a cry that must be heard”. Responding to Dr Manmohan Singh’s admission that despite the State’s best efforts to contain the “Naxal menace”, violence was still on the rise, Sengupta wrote powerfully, “It is important to understand why this is so and in what sense Naxalite violence is different from other violent outbursts. Although it has always expressed itself as a breach of law and order with violence, murder, extortion and acts of heinous crimes, it may not be prudent to think of every protest movement of the disaffected people as a simple issue of law and order violation, and calling for its brutal suppression. This form of extremism, indeed, goes beyond law and order, fanning some deep-seated grievance. We must try to resolve those problems first, as otherwise the violence will remain insurmountable.”

image

(Way back in 1996, Justice MN Rao of the Andhra Pradesh High Court had also remarked in a judgment, “While left wing extremism is viewed as a problem by the administration, it is increasingly being perceived as a solution to their problems by the alienated masses.” Why is this so? That’s a question every self-styled jingoistic nationalist must ask themselves.)

As Sengupta reminds the prime minister, he is right to fear that Naxal violence will raise its head again and again, because at its heart is the deeper structural violence that our democratic Republic refuses to address: a violence that forces 77 percent of Indians to live on less than Rs 20 a day while 5 percent enjoy lives that border on obscene excess.

Structural violence: that’s an imaginative vacuum. For most urban Indians, the lives of tribals and dalits has no meaning, no face, no flesh. Our books no longer write of it, our films no longer evoke it, our journalists no longer cover it. It’s not just the poverty; it’s bumping into a face of the Indian State you have never seen before: brutal, illegal, rapine, pimped out to serve the interests of a few. Unless one travels into the silent smoky hole in the heart of this country — the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh; the desolate corners of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and Rajasthan, one cannot feel the dread of this question: How will Operation Green Hunt solve this? You might stealth-march a mythic army of COBRA commandoes into this imaginative vacuum, but how will that dissolve the “two categories of human beings” our nation has created? Operation Green Hunt may kill several hundred ‘informed revolutionaries’ and several thousand of the despairing poor who have taken up arms, but how will it address the birth of new anger — anger born out of bombing an old wound?

THE DISCOURSE ON NAXALS IS MARKED BY PROPAGANDA ON ONE SIDE AND INFANTILE IGNORANCE AND SIMPLEMINDEDNESS ON THE OTHER

As anthropologist and historian Ram Guha says, “It’s like a house with three rooms. One room was already on fire. Instead of dousing that, you willfully set fire to another room, then bulldoze the whole structure down.”

image

ONE OF the key architects of Operation Green Hunt, Home secretary Gopal Pillai sits in a giant office in powerful North Block. At first meeting, he doesn’t seem the average cynic you expect Indian bureaucrats to be. An amiable, thoughtful man, he says he’s seen long years of service in the Northeast and knows what a security-centric approach can do to a people, how it can trigger a world of smoke and mirrors where nothing is what it seems and everyone is chasing someone’s shadow. He seems open and ready to listen. More, he is full of surprisingly honest admissions: Manipur is a society in collective depression, he says. Yes, raising the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh (which human rights activists have been crying hoarse about) was wrong; yes, the Naxals have often taken up causes and done work that the government should have. But, he adds, their violent disruptions are a real deterrence for governance. You have no argument with that.

According to him, then, Operation Green Hunt is being planned as a kind of “area domination”. “We want to take back control of the land; but we will only fire if we are fired against,” says he. “Lalgarh is the model; we want no collateral damage. Our real success will be in restoring civil administration in this area. PDS, mobile medical vans, stronger police chowkis, schools – that’s our goal.” You feel eager to believe him.

MANMOHAN SINGH AND PRANAB MUKHERJEE HAVE BOTH HEADED REPORTS URGING DEVELOPMENT CENTRIC APPROACHES TO NAXALISM

Part of the problem of administering the tribal villages in the jungles of Chhattisgarh is that they are lonely and farflung; also few in the district or political administration know the tribal languages. Operation Green Hunt has been long in the planning. Battalions of CRPF men and para-military forces across the country are being given crash courses for the impending operation. The Centre has sanctioned 20 new schools in jungle warfare; invited crores worth of bids for military equipment. Is there a similar hot-foot programme for training, sensitising and incentivising the civil administration? you ask. Has he invited civil society activists in the region for their inputs? Mr Pillai has a sudden shocked moment of self-recognition. No, he admits, and scribbles “training” and “dialogue” on a yellow notepad.

There is a month to go before Operation Green Hunt is launched. A familiar despair sprouts: the gap between stated intention and action. And miles of paper and good advice gathering dust in the Planning Commission.

image

TODAY, THE biggest riddle for anybody concerned about a just and equal world is the dilemma of violence as a tool of political struggle. When the government shows such poor intention, when it is completely deaf to peaceful people’s movements like the Bhopal gas victims’, or the tribal resistance to bauxite mining in Niyamgirhi, or the Narmada Andolan, is one justified in asking the poor to defang themselves, unless one is willing to step out of one’s comfort zone and share their lives of helpless status quo?

Should one distinguish between Naxal violence and spontaneous rural violence? Yet, in a democratic society, how can violence of any kind be condoned? Where does that leave democratic practice?

Despite these internal tussles, contrary to what Arnab Goswami asserts, almost the entire human rights community is agreed that not only is Naxal violence to be condemned, but subdued. Increased and international access to weaponry has led to escalating violence. As Prakash Singh, a widely respected retired police chief, says, “The Naxals used to move in dalams [cells] of 20. That’s gone up to a 100. They have sophisticated weapons and their attacks have become more brutal. We have to show that such armed insurrection will not be tolerated.”

NAXALS ARE OFTEN GUILTY OF BRUTAL VIOLENCE. THEIR STRUGGLE TO SEIZE STATE POWER THREATENS INDIA’S SOVEREIGNTY

The disagreements arise over strategy and efficacy. A top security expert who wishes not to be named but is generally considered a hawk, for instance, has serious doubts over Operation Green Hunt. Ironically, he voices the anxiety of a wide range of human rights activists. “To attempt this kind of an action by police forces against your own land and people is a dangerous trap,” says he. “We usually reserve such operations for hostile territory. The police is supposed to go after particular individuals – say, Ram Lal, a criminal. But in an operation of this kind, you don’t even know who Ram Lal is, it is very difficult to know who he is or get accurate intelligence on his movements. You might end up killing Ram Lal’s relatives or his whole village. And if you don’t hold inquests, you’ll never know who you killed.”

Kashmir and the Northeast are bleeding, painful reminders: once paramilitary forces or the army moves in, you can never really withdraw. No bureaucrat or military strategist or powerful minister can control the vicious logic of paranoia, fake killings, genuine mistakes and revenge that sets in. When friend and family can be an informer, everyone is an enemy.

Already, this helpless cycle has started to turn in Chhattisgarh. Last week, in the first of its assaults, a company of 100 COBRA commandos set off to destroy an alleged Naxal arms factory in Chintagufa area. They were caught in Naxal fire. Seven COBRAs were killed. In turn, they claimed to have killed nine Naxals (whose bodies they say they have) and many more they claim the Naxals dragged away. The government has tried to pass this off as a big triumph. But the deadly smoke and mirrors game has already begun. Villagers claim the COBRAs made no kills and had dragged innocents out of villages to tot some up, among them an old man and woman. Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwaranjan does not help matters by refusing to answer questions: “I don’t have any details,” he says. An odd answer for a DGP. Plus, there’s the wound of six COBRAs dead in the first sortee.

As Operation Green Hunt kicks into top gear, all these problems will magnify. The hallucinations of the impregnable forest. Extremists who disappear, leaving villagers to bear the brunt of the commandos’ ire. Paranoia within and without, revenge and, as in the Salwa Judum, innocent tribals caught between the fury of the Naxals and the fury of the State.

TODAY, THE BIGGEST RIDDLE FOR ANYONE CONCERNED ABOUT A JUST WORLD IS THE DILEMMA OF VIOLENCE AS A TOOL OF POLITICAL STRUGGLE

Pressure will create equal and opposite counter pressure. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can’t seem to grasp this simple physical equation. The impact of the Salwa Judum was to drive more tribals into the arms of Naxals. Operation Green Hunt promises to set the place on fire. When Binayak Sen spoke against the Salwa Judum, he was jailed. Now, when Himanshu Kumar is warning about impending civil war, no one is listening.

image

“Not commandos. Send in health workers and schoolteachers protected by the CRPF,” pleads he. “Show the tribals hope and they will choose life over death.” But the weight of his voice does not sway even a mote of dust in the corridors of the Home Ministry.

THERE IS one final silent piece in the escalating Naxal violence that has gripped the country: neo-liberal land grab and tribal rights. It is no coincidence that a majority of the Naxal leadership today is from Andhra Pradesh. According to journalist N Venugopal, the roots of this go back to the Telengana Movement of 1946-51, which was abruptly withdrawn by the Communist Party. In the Andhra Second Five-Year Plan (1956), 60 lakh acres of surplus land was identified. Yet by the time the Land Ceiling Act was passed in 1973, and enough concessions had been made to rich landowners, the State said only 17 lakh acres of surplus land was available, and it distributed only four. Land, livelihood and liberation was the clarion call then. Still driven by that unfulfilled aspiration, most leaders today are from the families of the ‘46 – ’51 movement.

‘THIS OPERATION IS A DANGEROUS TRAP,’ SAYS A SECURITY HAWK. ‘YOU ARE LOOKING FOR RAM LAL, YOU’LL END UP KILLING HIS RELATIVES’

EAS Sarma, former Commissioner of Tribal Welfare and former secretary, Expenditure and Economic Affairs, unlocks the real heart of the matter. “I am totally against violence of any kind and a firm believer in democratic process,” says he. “But Left extremism is a secondary issue. How many tribals even know there is a government? Their only experience of the State is the police, contractors, and real estate goons. Besides, the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution grants tribals complete rights over their traditional land and forests and prohibits private companies from mining on their land. This constitutional schedule was upheld by the Samatha judgement of the Supreme Court (1997). If successive governments lived by the spirit of the Constitution and this judgment, tribal discontent would automatically recede.”

Mr Sarma is probably right. Human rights activists have long argued that the real intention of the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh was to capture tribal land — brimming-rich with minerals — and hand it over to private companies. The fact that 600 tribal villages have been evacuated in the last few years gives credence to this theory. If tribals no longer live on that land, the inconvenient Fifth Schedule of the Constitution will not apply.

Given that the Supreme Court directed that the Salwa Judum was to be dismantled, perhaps, Operation Green Hunt is the second lap. In any case, whether for ill-intention, poor execution, or unplanned collateral damage, there is much to fear in the impending operation.

In the meantime, we would all do well to read the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.

%d bloggers like this: