Monday, August 29, 2005

Dangers Of Vigilantism

Occasional incidents of mob fury against the Maoists in Chhattisgarh– while they may reflect increasing popular frustration with the 'revolutionaries' – cannot be a substitute for coherent counter-terrorism strategy and tactics.


If vigilante action is an index of the state’s failure to maintain law and order, then events in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh over the past months are a clear demonstration of the twisted nature of policies designed to counter left-wing extremism.

Chhattisgarh is one of the worst Naxal-affected states -- Naxalites are active in eight out of the state’s 16 districts: Bastar, Dantewada, Kanker, Surguja, Jashpur, Koriya, Rajnandgaon, and Kawardha. An anti Naxalite movement, euphemistically called Salva Zudoom (peace initiative), is currently being led by Mahendra Karma, a Congress party leader and Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly.

Sources indicate that as many as 250 villages of the Bastar region have been mobilized under this movement, which commenced in mid-June 2005. Apart from holding relatively large meetings, releasing anti-Maoist posters and pamphlets and maintaining vigils at the local level, the villagers have killed three Maoists. In rapid retaliation against these killings and anti-Maoist demonstrations, the Maoists have killed at least 32 tribals in separate incidents. Ominous indications of the prospects of vigilante action are visible in some of the more prominent of the recent Maoist attacks:

August 9, 2005: Maoists killed two persons related to Mahendra Karma, including one of his brothers, in the Dantewada district.

July 28, 2005: Cadres of the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) attacked the Karemarka and Muder villages and killed seven persons. According to police sources, the attack was in retaliation for a rally on July 24 in which 117 Maoist sympathisers had surrendered.

July 19, 2005: Maoists killed two civilians in the Bijapur village of Dantewada district in retaliation for their participation in anti-Maoist demonstrations in the preceding weeks.

July 16, 2005: Seven villagers and two Maoists were killed and at least 12 villagers sustained injuries during Maoist attacks on six villages in the Dantewada district. Targeting the villagers, who were participating in the Salva Zudoom, over 250 armed-Maoists attacked the Kutru, Ambeli, Pharsgaon, Uskapatnam, Badekarkeli and Chhotekarkeli villages. While two villagers were killed on the spot, the Maoists abducted five others, whose dead bodies were subsequently found in the Sagmeta jungle of Pharasgaon police station jurisdiction. The villagers told the police that at least two Naxalites were also killed in the incident, when the villagers retaliated against the Maoists who had attacked the homes of tribal activists of Salva Zudoom.

June 19, 2005: Naxalites killed eight villagers and wounded at least 100 others near Kotrapal village in Dantewada district for opposing their activities. The incident occurred when people of 45 villages were returning after attending a Salva Zudoom meeting called to oppose the Naxalite movement in their areas. According to available information, approximately 3,000 villagers had gathered at the Taalmendri and Matwada villages where they unanimously resolved to boycott the Naxalites. After villagers held similar meetings in the Kutru, Bedre, Pharsegarh and Jangla police station areas of Dantewada district, Maoists attacked the villagers near Kotrapal. In another related Naxalite attack a day earlier, a civilian of the Nemed village was killed.

The vigilante initiative has reportedly also spread to the Surguja district in the wake of the ‘overwhelming response’ in Bastar. The tribals have articulated their anger against the Maoists in meetings and demonstrations in the Ramnujganj, Kusmumi, Balirampur, Pratappur and Rajpur areas of Surguja Buoyed by what is being claimed as an ‘unprecedented situation’, the Chhattisgarh police have reportedly decided to offer weapons to anti-Naxalite groups and also selectively appoint people involved in the Salva Zudoom action as Special Police Officers. Inspector General of Police (Bastar region), M. W. Ansari, disclosed that people would be provided arms in areas where the police force and government machinery find it difficult to move.

The state government has pledged to provide ‘ideological support’ besides food and medicines to the villagers who have raised the banner of revolt against the Maoists. Chief Minister Raman Singh stated in a media interview, "The tribal uprising is a welcome trend. People are vexed with the Naxal violence. My government will certainly provide security to anyone who opposes the Naxalites." He, however, clarified, further, "But we are not organising this programme."

It is not clear how the government will ‘provide security’ to those who ‘oppose the Naxalites’ in areas ‘where the police force and government machinery find it difficult to move’, but on August 25, the government announced that it had set up a Committee headed by Chief Secretary A.K. Vijayvargiya to provide direct support to the tribal ‘insurrection’. This is the first such Committee set up to support those opposing the Maoists at the local level, and it is expected to look into issues such as logistics, arms and funding. Little attention appears to have been paid to the fact that the decision to ‘empower’ the tribals could lead to even greater violence against them in the region and elsewhere in the state.

There are at least some suggestions that Salva Zudoom is, in fact, a political exercise aimed at boosting the dwindling support base of the Congress among the tribals, a crucial vote bank in the state. While it won all the three seats in the Dantewada district (including Karma’s seat in the Dantewada constituency), the party lost all nine seats in the Bastar and Kanker districts during the 2004 state elections. Mahendra Karma, a tribal from Faraspal, is also struggling to emerge from the shadows of Ajit Jogi, the now beleaguered former Chief Minister and Congress leader. Karma’s recent comment that "it would take only three years to defeat them (the Naxals)" because of "people’s power" is a significant indicator of the strong electoral factor involved – the state is scheduled for elections in three years.

For all its hype, the Salva Zudoom exercise is restricted to only some 250 of the 3,766 villages in the Bastar region. Indeed, most of the activities and violence are restricted to the Dantewada district, Karma’s bastion. Nor, indeed, have these actions in any measure forced the Maoists into a retreat. The Naxalites have, in fact, retaliated violently and continue to respond poorly to announcements of the government’s surrender and rehabilitation policy announced on June 25, 2005.

Chhattisgarh falls under the Maoists’ 'Dandakaranya Special Zone Committee' (which covers Bastar, Kanker and Dantewada in Chhattisgarh; Chandrapur, Gadchiroli and Bhandara in Maharashtra; Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh and parts of northern Andhra Pradesh). The Maoists reportedly function in this area through 18 Guerrilla Squads (Dalams) under four ‘divisional committees’ – South Bastar (5 Dalams), North Bastar (4 Dalams), Bhandara-Balaghat (4 Dalams) and Gadchiroli (5 Dalams). The Maoists in Bastar region and elsewhere in the state run virtual parallel governments in many areas, holding Jan Adalats (‘People's Courts’) to settle both civil and criminal disputes, imposing penalties that range from simple fines to mutilation and death.

In November 2004, the state’s then Home Minister Brij Mohan Aggarwal had stated in New Delhi, that there were about 2,000 Naxalites active in the region. Current Home Minister Ramvichar Netam informed the state Legislative Assembly on July 12, 2005, that Chhattisgarh witnessed 697 Maoist-related incidents between January 1, 2004 and June 24, 2005, in which 93 civilians, 37 police personnel and 20 Maoists died. According to Netam, Dantewada district bordering Andhra Pradesh witnessed 287 incidents while the Bastar district recorded 160 and Kanker 127. According to the Institute for Conflict Management’s data, fatalities in Chhattisgarh related to Maoist activities have already mounted to 66 in 2005, with Dantewada the worst affected:

The Bastar region comprises the tribal-dominated districts of Dantewada, Bastar and Kanker, and is one of the poorest areas in the country in terms of economic development and various social indicators. Tribal resentment against the Naxalites has crystallized around the perception that the rebels have become a stumbling block to the limited developmental efforts in the region.

The Maoists, for instance, have long opposed the construction of roads to villages in the area, fearing that these would bring the Police to their doorstep. Naxalite activity has also affected the plucking of tendu leaves (used in the manufacture of bidis, Indian cigars) precisely when the state had begun to improve revenue from the production of better quality tendu leaves. The Naxalites have also put a ban on weekly markets, the main source of income and goods for the tribals, causing great hardship to the people.

While public anger at Naxalite activity is understandable, the state’s policies are not. Since the creation of the new state (Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in November 2000), the authorities have pursued policies that, at best, can be termed muddled. Little attention has been paid to fundamentals, particularly the relative lack of preparedness of the Police force in terms of equipment, arms, communications, transport and facilities, and the abysmal performance of institutions of civil governance in Naxalite-affected areas.

Nor has there been a focus on the support structures of the Naxalite groups, their financial operations, augmentation of arms supplies, and linkages across state borders. Bastar is, in fact, emerging as a ‘Base Area’ for the unification of the Maoist movement and direction of operations across multiple state boundaries. Police sources indicate that virtually the entire leadership of the Naxalites in Chattisgarh is drawn from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra; the locals only beef up low-level cadres. Summarizing the ‘spill-over effect’, Chhattisgarh Director General of Police O.P. Rathore remarked, "It's all Andhra Pradesh's problem. In fact, Chhattisgarh's Maoist problem is exported by Andhra Pradesh. They sometimes enter into a truce, sometimes impose a ban and, in the final analysis, Chhattisgarh suffers."

Despite sustained Police and para-military operations in the region, consequently, Naxalite influence and activity appear to be growing. Occasional incidents of mob fury against the Maoists – while they may reflect increasing popular frustration with the ‘revolutionaries’ – cannot be a substitute for coherent counter-terrorism strategy and tactics. Raising armies of vigilantes, equipped by the state, cannot contain the Maoist menace and will invite greater atrocities against large populations. The dangers of fashioning alternate policing institutions are palpable: they represent initiatives outside of and, more often than not, uncontrolled by the state, and carry the risks of compounding, rather than resolving the problems of lawlessness and disorder.

Nihar Nayak is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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