An entire company of the Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF) was ambushed by Maoists at Chintalnar, a remote outpost situated deep in the forests of south Bastar (Dantewada): in all more than 76 (of 81) soldiers were martyred, making yesterday’s violence the greatest defeat and massacre ever that the Naxalites (as Maoists in India are more commonly known) have inflicted on India’s armed forces. The local MLA, who was barely twenty kilometers away in his hometown Sukama at the time, called to say that all modes of transportation (including his own)- bullock carts, jeeps, tractors, taxis, trolleys, trucks- are being requisitioned to transport bodies to the police camp situated at a distance of barely three kilometers (about a mile and a half).
A Tale of Two Camps
At times like this, it’s easy to pontificate, more so when one is at a fairly comfortable distance: most editorialists agree that the massacre was primarily due to “intelligence failure”. It would seem that this failure is chronic. The two biggest Maoist attacks on armed forces in the state of Chhattisgarh have taken place in the immediate proximity of police camps:
(1) At Errabore (2006), more than hundred Naxalites entered the camp premises at night and conducted a 3-hour long bloodbath on the tribal ‘refugees’ (as the then state home minister termed inmates) while the armed forces entrusted with their security had very safely locked themselves up inside the thana (police station);
(2) At Chintalnar (2010), about 1000 Naxalites, all reportedly trained members of a Maoist military unit (dalam), not only ambushed the armed forces as the latter were returning from patrol duty to the police camp and made off with their ammunitions but before doing so, they had also found ample time to systematically lay down an intricate network of landmines all around the camp perimeter. The mines, as it turned out, claimed more lives than the actual shooting as soldiers fleeing to the sanctuary of the camp stepped on- and thus triggered- them. Even the anti-mine vehicle was blown to smithereens.
It is perplexing, to say the least, that our armed forces more often than not don’t have a clue about what’s happening in their own backyards. No wonder, they are sitting ducks for the Maoists, who seem to have become, well, almost invisible (if not invincible). This cloak of invisibility, no doubt, is partly due to Fear: for the battle-ravaged tribals of Bastar, to tell on the Maoists is to invite death. And yet, if this Fear of the Maoists is to be countered & overcome, then putting the tribals under a greater Fear of the Armed Forces, as Operation Green Hunt seems to have done, cannot be the solution.
The only way to overcome Fear, I believe, is by Faith.
To put it differently, you can’t have good intelligence unless the locals tell you things they otherwise would not. Caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea- the Maoists on the one hand, and the paramilitary forces on the other- the tribals of south Bastar prefer to remain silent. To remedy that, it is essential for the armed forces- and for the state that sends them- to win their faith. And, frankly, there is very little proof of that happening.
What's in a name?
Late last month, some villagers from Narayanpur met me. They were afraid. According to them, several soldiers of the Border Security Force (BSF) had entered their area & were carrying out ‘combing’ operations. During one such operation, one of the soldiers stopped a passing woman. He asked her name. When she answered ‘Dukhbai’, he took out his already loaded AK-47 rifle, and shot her at pointblank range. It turns out that the soldier had been given a list of names of Naxalite-supporters to comb-out, and ‘Dukhbai’ was one of them. What the soldier didn’t- couldn’t- know is that ‘Dukhbai’ is an extremely common name among tribals. (‘Dukh’ means sad, and tribals believe that a person so named would ward-off sadness all her life.)
Intelligence failure, therefore, is not only claiming the lives of our soldiers, but also of several hundreds- if not thousands- of innocent tribals.
License to Kill
Mr. Mahendra Karma, the leader of Salwa Judum, believes that recruiting more Special Police Officers (SPOs) from among the locals would enable better intelligence gathering since the SPOs understand the people, and know the terrain. His reasoning has been adopted by the state government. In fact, one of the reasons cited for the debacle at Chintalnar is that the CRPF soldiers were not accompanied by SPOs (although at least two personnel from the state police were with them) at the time of the ambush.
With due respect, it doesn’t quite work out like that. The SPOs have, more often than not, used their ‘license to kill’ to settle personal scores, and engage in extortion. Personal motives- a grudge, an age-old family rivalry, greed- underlie most ‘fake encounters’, in which innocent persons are routinely killed, then clothed in Naxalite uniform along with other ‘incriminating’ material to justify the killings. Institutions like the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram founded by the eminent Gandhian Ms. Nirmala Deshpande, which has been working for & with tribals in remote far-off areas of Dantewada, are bulldozed when they endeavor to seek justice for them: they are branded as ‘enemies of the state’.
I am acutely aware that any criticism of the armed forces at a time like this would be construed as anti-national and pro-Naxal. That is not my intention. I sincerely believe that the only reason why the Congress failed to form its government in the state in 2003 and 2008 is because of the Naxalites, or more precisely, their active prevention of a free and fair election in Bastar, possibly at the behest of the BJP leadership. So, my dislike of the Maoists- many of who are, I believe, using violence inherent to Maoist doctrine primarily as a means to stuff their pockets with money- is both personal as well as political. They are enemies, alright, who deserve to be taken out by whatever means necessary, including an all-out war. But it must be a Just War, and more importantly, it must be Won. I intend to address both these issues.
A Just War
Even though the Naxalites entertain no such notion- in this sense, Deng’s slogan “it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white/ as long as it catches mice”, which heralded capitalism into communist China, is, at least in its pragmatism, ironically Maoist- the fact is that as a democratic state bound by a Constitution, we must not only subscribe to, but also rigorously enforce the ideas of jus ad bellum (when it is right to go to war) and jus in bellum (what is right in war).
There is no doubt in my mind that this is the right time to go to war with the Maoists; if we do not retaliate, and retaliate effectively, it might just be too late. But the war that we fight must be just. It must, at all costs, not involve the unnecessary, unjustifiable displacement and killings of civilians, more so when the civilians in question are innocent tribals. Those of the armed forces who are found to be guilty of this most basic human rights violation- in this case, the right of a tribal to live (as opposed to being shot dead because of her name)- should not be wrongly protected; they must be brought to book. For if they are not, then there is no way the war can be won. The tribals not only need to know which side they are on (right now, they can at best be described as ‘neutral’); they also need to believe that their side is right.
The two issues, therefore, are directly linked. For us to win the war, we must necessarily fight the just war. That is the only way we can win the Faith of the tribals.
For without this Faith, intelligence failures like Errabore and Chintalnar will continue.