BY PRAFUL BIDWAI
THE killing of 20 civilians by the Central Reserve Police Force in Bijapur in central India’s Chhattisgarh will go down as a black mark in the history of Indian counterinsurgency. All evidence suggests that the CRPF gravely mistook a village meeting to plan a seed festival for a Maoist gathering and indiscriminately fired on it.
Among the victims were two 15-year-old boys, a 12-year-old girl, and a professional drum player — hardly fit to be confused for armed Naxalites. Although the CRPF troops’ bullet injuries remain unexplained, and four of those killed allegedly had police records, nothing suggests that Maoists ambushed the troops, who then fired in self-defence.
Even firing in self-defence cannot be indiscriminate. Besides, there’s evidence of sexual assault and mutilation of dead bodies. This suggests collective punishment — which is categorically unacceptable.
Equally deplorable is the butchery’s rationalisation that the CRPF has no "system of segregating" guerrillas from civilians during gunfights, and the Chief Minister, Mr Raman Singh’s argument that Maoists use civilians as human shields, and are responsible for their deaths.
However, the present case appears less an instance of unintended damage than deliberate targeting. The attacking party followed the "fire-first-and-ask-questions-later" approach.
The incident emphasises: the growing disconnect between the people and counterinsurgency troops, who have no comprehension of their language, culture and sensitivities, and whom they often consider inferior.
In Chhattisgarh, Adivasi identities, rooted in an ancient civilisation, remain strong. It is only since the 1980s that it has been exposed to large-scale intrusion by external predatory interests like forest contractors and the mining mafia. The tribals have over the years lost land and access to forests.
The state fails to comprehend this as it pushes destructive mining and industrial projects, thus increasing the Adivasis’ alienation. It hasn’t even invested a fraction of what it spends on the paramilitary forces in addressing Adivasi grievances or helping its counterinsurgency troops understand the roots of tribal alienation amidst which Maoism thrives.
Mr EN Rammohan — a distinguished former Border Security Force chief with much counterinsurgency experience — puts his finger on the nub: "Give land to the tiller and forests back to the tribals. Plus, bring down the vast gap between the rich and the poor… and the Maoists would be on the wane."
In Bijapur, the CRPF was in the first place wrong to open fire. The proper objective of a counterinsurgency operation is not to kill rebels, but to bring them to justice by establishing their culpability for specific crimes, and to isolate them politically from the population.
This civilian butchery has created fear and insecurity among the people. Many are planning to move out of their villages into neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. It will take generations for their scars to heal.
Politically, the incident is a huge victory for the Maoist argument that the Indian state is irredeemably anti-people and brutal. Democracy is a mere façade. It must be overthrown through an armed revolution.
The only way to redeem this situation is to award exemplary punishment to those responsible for the killings. India has paid a heavy price for not bringing the culprits of past counterinsurgency excesses to book.
Take the Chittisingpura massacre of 2000, in which 36 Sikhs were killed. Indian military forces killed five innocent locals at Pathribal in Anantnag district, claiming they were the culprits. Their bodies were dressed up in military uniforms and set on fire in an extraordinarily shoddy cover-up attempt. Officers were decorated and monetarily rewarded for this heinous crime. They compounded their offence by substituting the victims’ DNA samples with fake ones.
The incident still rankles in Kashmir. Yet, nobody has been put on trial for it — although the Supreme Court has strongly refuted the Army’s misguided invocation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to reject that demand.
The latest Chhattisgarh killings raise serious questions about the anti-Maoist campaign under way in nine states. It has come in for scathing criticism from an expert group of the Planning Commission.
The Group holds: "The methods chosen by the government to deal with the Maoist phenomenon [have] increased the people’s distrust of the police and consequent unrest. Protest against police harassment is itself a major instance of unrest frequently leading to further violence by the police… which in effect triggers a second round of the spiral."
In many parts of India, the state has been captured by the rich or become dysfunctional and predatory upon the people. Notes the expert group: "One of the attractions of the Naxalite movement is that it does provide protection to the weak against the powerful.. One doesn’t have to romanticise the Maoists to recognise this.
Green Hunt only pays lip service to the official "two-pronged" approach of "development" and "law-and-order", or simultaneously redressing popular grievances and using force. In practice, it overwhelmingly relies on brute force without recognising that the insurgency feeds on Adivasi dispossession and brutalisation.
Internal Security Threat
The official premise that Maoism is India’s "greatest internal security threat" is profoundly mistaken. The Maoists aren’t about to capture power or destroy India’s unity. They pose a civil law-and-order problem, which should be tackled by normal police methods — good intelligence-gathering, crime control, painstaking evidence collection, and prosecution of those instigating or practising violence.
By contrast, social cohesion is gravely threatened by the communal Right, including the Bharatiya Janata Party and its associates, some of whom have embraced terrorism, but against whom the Indian state doesn’t act.
The state must heed the counsel of counterinsurgency experts like Mr Robert Thompson. "Hardly if ever has a counterinsurgency campaign been won strictly by waging war. Military action has an important role in overcoming guerrillas, but the philosophy espoused by the guerrillas must also be defeated and this requires a well-reasoned combination of political reform, civic action and education of the population."
As Mr Rammohan puts it, a counterinsurgency operation must be "scrupulously legal". This is a precondition for its popular acceptance, and also for the state’s legitimacy. When will India’s rulers learn this?