Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Strategy Needed to Combat Naxalism

by Inder Malhotra

AT the recent day-long conference of state chief ministers devoted entirely to the Naxalite menace, there was no mistaking Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh’s deep and sincere agony over the persistence of this admittedly “biggest single” internal security threat to India. But at the end of the day the country was no wiser about what, if anything, the Union and the state governments are likely to do to make their hitherto ineffectual response to the spreading challenge, more vigorous and result-oriented than has been the case so far. There was doubtless talk of strengthening intelligence, encouraging the state governments to organise dedicated task forces modeled on Andhra Pradesh’s ‘greyhounds,’ raised during the time the Telugu Desam leader, Mr Chandrababu Naidu was in power, and so on. But this was little different from what has been said before, indeed year after year.

As it happened the discussion on Naxalism, though scheduled earlier, took place a few days after the stunning jailbreak in Chattisgarh, yet again masterminded by the Naxalites, which added to the embarrassment of all concerned, if only because the mass escape of nearly 300 prisoners, including 100 Naxalites in one of the worst-affected areas, was clearly pre-planned and executed seamlessly. The collusion between the Naxalite activists and the jail staff was also obvious. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s own description of the event was so chilling that it needs to be quoted at some length.

There were, according to him, only three warders to deal with the huge prison population at that time. He did not mention where the remaining nearly a dozen members of the jail staff had disappeared and why. All he said was, “Inadequate, ill-equipped, ill-trained, poorly motivated personnel cannot take on Naxal extremists who are increasingly better equipped and organised.” If this is the stark reality on the ground, then shouldn’t have something been done to rectify the horrendous state of affairs long ago? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t remedial action begin this instant so that there might be some impact of it at least a couple of years later, for that is the minimum lead time needed by even the most dynamic elements in the government?

After every Naxalite outrage, there is the usual brisk official announcement, “Security has been beefed up; a massive manhunt has been launched.” Hardly any of the culprits is ever apprehended, but never mind, officials must follow the routine, however laughable. In the present case of mass escape from the Dantewala jail in Chattisgarh, however, things took a different course. Rather than rush reinforcements to the surrounding forests to round up the Naxalites, the state government announced that its “combing operations” would begin three days later! Consequently, the Naxals, instead of fleeing, lingered on in the vicinity to ambush the force that came to apprehend them and killed at least 12 policemen. If this is not a casual approach to an extremely well-organised and increasingly ominous challenge, what else is it?

According to someone who has spent a lifetime serving the country in the arena of internal security, combating Naxalism calls for innovative strategic thinking and tactical surprise. But all one gets instead is a string of cliches, which just would not do. The government and its experts must think, and so should the Parliament because it is not absolved from the responsibility of safeguarding the country. Unfortunately, the parliamentary life is practically paralysed, thanks primarily to the implacable hatred between the two mainstream parties, the Congress that leads the ruling United Progressive Alliance and the Bhartiya Janata Party, the principal Opposition party. The saffron party constantly taunts the Congress for being “soft on terrorism” and for having “thoughtlessly repeated POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act),” without enacting any fresh law in its place. The Congress repays it in kind, blaming the BJP for the attack of Parliament even though POTA was very much on the statute book.

No wonder, the much-needed national debate never takes place on two crucial issues that the Prime Minister raised – not for the first time – at last week’s conclave. One, though extremely noxious, the Naxalite threat is different from other brands of terrorism afflicting this country inasmuch as it is completely devoid of any religious or ethnic connotations. It is based on both ideology and despair, bred by poverty and deprivation that is not just grinding but dehumanizing.

The government and indeed the country have every right to crow about the 9 per cent rate of growth. But it cannot be overlooked that this growth has taken place during the period when in the UN list of human development index, India has fallen two places - from 126th place to 128th. It is this that explains the tragedy that each year the Naxalites are able to widen both their recruitment base and areas of activity. The trickle-down effect has evidently meant nothing.

In 2003, the previous government had selected 55 Naxal-infested districts for accelerating economic and social development there. But rather than launching an imaginative scheme with its unique socio-economic needs, the Union government, in the best bureaucratic tradition, merged the new scheme with the Backward District Initiative (BDI) that is run by the Planning Commission under Rashtriya Sam Vikas Yojna (RSVY) that embraces two other projects of a different nature. In the resultant alphabetical profusion and administrative confusion, almost all the so-called special schemes have suffered.

The second major issue that found a mention yet again is, in some respects, the heart of the matter. As one of the worst victims of terrorism of various brands and hues, India has the dubious distinction of not having a federal agency to combat terrorism. Consequently, some states start talking peace with the Naxals while some others, using organisations like Salwa Judam, outsource the fight against them, with catastrophic consequences. Attempts by both, the Vajpayee-led NDA government and the UPA to set up such a federal agency have failed because state chief ministers are jealous about “state rights.” National security thus becomes a victim of the “compulsions of coalition politics.”

It does represent a slight movement that this time around, the conference authorised the Cabinet Secretary to head a special Central Task Force on Naxalism – either as part of an existing organisation such as the Border Security Force or the Central Reserve Police Force or independently. But the authority of the CTF would be limited to “assisting and coordinating with” the state task forces to be raised with the Union’s financial assistance. In any case, only a few chief ministers have accepted the idea of a central task force. Others continue to harp on state rights. Why cannot the central government request these CMs to take on the responsibility for deciding how to combat terrorism countrywide and devise their plans accordingly?

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