Friday, July 03, 2009

KPS Gill reports on Lalgarh for The Telegraph

The suspension of common sense and the astonishing embrace of nonsense
KPS Gill reports on Lalgarh for The Telegraph, Armed with the experience that tackled Punjab militancy
Truth about Lalgarh1

KPS Gill at Bhadutala in West Midnapore on June 27.

K.P.S Gill, dubbed ‘Supercop’ for bringing the Punjab militancy to its knees, reached Calcutta on June 26 on the invitation of The Telegraph to assess the Lalgarh operation against the backdrop of his strategic and tactical experience in the field. Gill spent the day in Calcutta, doing “extended homework” on Lalgarh. “Till now, I have been watching the situation from afar. Now I will be following the developments more closely,” he said before interacting with some people in the city familiar with the Lalgarh operation. The next morning, when the security forces were trying to recapture Ramgarh that fell later in the day, Gill proceeded to Lalgarh. As Gill’s vehicle entered Midnapore town, police personnel waved the vehicle down and asked him to follow them to the police superintendent’s office. Gill was called in with a request to stay away from Lalgarh but soon the session became a full-fledged discussion with a steady stream of officers walking up to him, saluting him and sharing their experiences with him. The administration told Gill that he would be escorted back to Calcutta after lunch because of his Z-plus security tag and because the roads were heavily mined. However, setting out for lunch, Gill made a detour and travelled towards Lalgarh, interacting with several people on the way.
Eventually, at a check post, Gill ran into a wall of police and paramilitary personnel. By then, the veteran who once sent shivers down extremist belts had collected enough information to fulfil his assignment for The Telegraph.

As I briefly toured West Midnapore district during the police action in Lalgarh (I was prevented from going into the affected area on “security” grounds), the most dramatic lessons of the crisis, through all its phases — the slow build-up over seven months of state denial, appeasement and progressive error; paralysis in the face of rising Maoist violence; and the final, almost effortless resolution, as the rebels simply melted away in the face of the first evidence of determined use of force — were abundantly clear to me: the complete absence of historical memory in the institutions of the state, and the need for each administration to repeatedly reinvent the wheel.

The West Bengal government is not the first to go through this fruitless cycle; or the first to allow immeasurable harm to be inflicted on its citizens as a result of what is nothing more than the suspension of common sense. Right from my days in Assam, I have seen this cycle afflict virtually every administration confronted with the threat of terrorism across the country — even in theatres of eventual and exceptional counter-terrorism success.

After visiting Midnapore and talking to various people, including police officers, I learned that the operations essentially comprised marching into areas supposedly infested by Naxalites. In the early 1970s, when the Naxalites started setting up cells in the district that I was then heading in Assam, we had relied on building up intelligence so as to pinpoint the hideouts of the Naxalite leadership. I recall that we had identified 85 such places, and when we raided these places, we were able to arrest 74 Naxalites, virtually breaking the back of the movement in the state.

In the current situation, the operations are not intelligence-based but only aimed at area dominance. This is a strikingly inferior response to intelligence-based operations. I still remember a remark made by the last British inspector-general of Assam in an inspection note at the Sonari police station, that “one proper arrest is equivalent to six months of patrolling by a company of policemen”. This, incidentally, had been written shortly after a movement launched by the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (well known for the Dum Dum-Basirhat raid in West Bengal) had been put down by Assam Police.

The government and its agencies go into a state of denial during initial manifestations of extremist violence and terrorism — and “initial” here may mean years and decades. Administrative inaction is couched in a wide range of alibis; agencies connected with the state and the “intelligentsia” add to this by putting forward “solutions” which serve as apologetics for anti-state forces. The debate is taken over by these knee-jerk, inchoate “political” and “developmental” solutions and by the “root cause” argument: that extremism is the result of national issues like poverty and injustice rather than being driven by any ideological motive.

Indeed, the Marxist leadership in West Bengal has been exceptionally imaginative in the invention of false histories, claiming that the Naxalite movement of the 1967-75 phase was defeated by their government’s administrative and land reforms that cut away the Naxalite recruitment base (the CPM-led Left Front incidentally came to power in 1977). Anyone who is even superficially familiar with the history of that phase would, however, immediately recall that the Naxalites were crushed — indeed, brutally crushed — by the Congress government of Siddhartha Shankar Ray. If at all reforms had a salutary impact, it was only after the capacities of the rebels had been comprehensively neutralised by relentless police action.

As the Maoists now restore progressive ascendancy in parts of the state, however, such nonsense continues to be given wide publicity, not only by ill-informed “intellectuals”, but, astonishingly, by the Marxist party leadership as well, even as the real magnitude of the threat is denied, and the basics of policing and wide deficits in police and intelligence capacities are ignored.

I have seen this, again and again, in theatre after theatre. The state and police paralysis witnessed at Lalgarh was, for instance, much in evidence in the early phases of the Khalistani movement in Punjab. Among the hundreds of incidents illustrating the collapse of administration, perhaps the most humiliating was the February 1984 episode, when six fully armed policemen were dragged into the Golden Temple by militants. The response — 24 hours later — came from senior police officials who begged Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to release the men and hand over their weapons.

After protracted negotiations, the dead body of one policeman was handed over, and five policemen were released. Their weapons were never returned. No action was ever taken on the murder of the policeman.

Andhra Pradesh has now become a model of effective police response to Naxalism, but few recall the decades of Maoist dominance in wide areas of this state, and the apologetics that were advanced in favour of the extremists in the highest echelons of government. Then chief minister N.T. Rama Rao, for instance, described the Naxalites as “true patriots”; he and his successors, across party lines, found it expedient (as the Trinamul Congress recently has), to form opportunistic electoral alliances with the Naxalites — to the inevitable advantage of the rebels.

Those who now celebrate the prowess of the Greyhounds forget that this force was created as far back as in 1989, and it is only under unambiguous political mandate after 2005 that an enormously empowered Andhra Pradesh police and this special force have been able to inflict near-comprehensive defeat on the Maoists in the state.

Political leaders in West Bengal must see through their own platitudes and falsifications to comprehend the core of state infirmity that constitutes the foundations of the Maoist power. The absurd alibis that have been advanced to evade the necessity of response must be abandoned at the earliest, and not after the sheer quantum of the loss of innocent lives — as has been the case in other theatres — simply forces the state to respond.

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