Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Make the war public

May 13th, 2010

Chhattisgarh now finds itself in the same situation as Andhra Pradesh some 20 years ago.

In the extremist-affected areas of Andhra Pradesh in the 90s, landmines were set off by extremists, frequently killing unwary policemen; innocent people were branded as police informants, petty businessmen as exploiters and small-time farmers as class enemies and killed.

Extremists could also impose and collect levies with impunity from the contractors executing works in the interior and forest areas. In towns, business groups and associations were given monthly payment schedules. There was all-round demoralisation and a pervasive sense of insecurity; every political minion and subaltern administrator wanted armed police protection.

Politicians often and on occasion even senior civil servants, bought peace with extremists by appearing to be critical of the police. At least one judge ruled that every case of “encounter death” be registered as a case of murder against the police and investigated.

Self-styled “intellectuals” masquerading as civil society criticised the police force and accused them of “fake encounters”, in turn finding justification for the murder and mayhem caused by the extremists. At the end of it all — after some 4,000 civilians and over 600 policemen and Home Guards had lost their lives — the state managed to get the better of extremists and contain violence.

Are there any lessons for Chhattisgarh in the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh? There seem to be some.

Extremism was recognised in Andhra Pradesh right from the beginning both as a law and order and socio-economic problem, a continuing fight against the remnants of the old Telangana feudalism. A multi-pronged strategy was needed to address it.

Attempts were made by successive governments to bring the extremists to the negotiating table. While one chief minister described them as “patriots” who took to the forest to fight for justice, another not only gave them total amnesty but insisted on the police securing bail for those facing trial even for heinous crimes.

Meantime, urban armchair intellectuals romanticised extremism as a righteous struggle and gave the extremists some respectability. This also gave them enough publicity to gain some support among the unemployed youth.

Through the 80s, almost all government departments and many elected representatives behaved as though Naxalism did not concern them and if at all, that it was the police’s problem. The civil courts, lawyers and media also chose to blame the police.

By 1992, a dozen politicians, including an ex-minister, were killed. There were also scores of abductions and extortions. At this stage everyone woke up to the need for a comprehensive strategy to tackle the problem.

The multi-pronged strategy included both development and counter-insurgency measures:

* A ban was imposed on the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and its front organisations like Radical Students’ Union and Progressive Democratic Students’ Union to check activities like bandhs and to stop fresh recruitment.

* A new legislation, Public Security Act, cut off the nexus between Naxals and their sympathisers in the affected villages.

* Intensive development of interior areas, particularly of roads and communications, was undertaken.

* A solution was sought to the various issues raised by extremists through a special cell functioning in the chief minister’s office.

* Employment was promoted in a big way. There was, in fact, a special focus on employing tribals in good numbers in all government departments, particularly the police, to give them a greater sense of participation in governance.

* Procurement of forest produce was taken away from forest contractors and entrusted with government corporations, thereby cutting off the flow of funds to extremists.

* A rehabilitation policy for those extremists wanting to leave the movement was put into action.

* Perception management, or counter-propaganda, through well-trained cultural troupes was undertaken.

A well thought-out policing strategy was also evolved, the thrust of which was providing safe exit for those wanting to come out, getting the top leadership through intelligence operations, and neutralising the armed dalams through the intelligence-driven specialised Greyhounds force.

Above all, there was a consensus among the political parties that law and order couldn’t wait till all the socio-economic problems were resolved. Both had to go together.

Some of the gruesome offences committed by Naxals and well-orchestrated counter propaganda changed public perception towards extremism to a considerable extent.

Though there were occasional charges of police excesses, there was general improvement in the standards of policing. After a few officers were killed, low-key policing was introduced which proved very effective.

Some of these steps seem relevant to the Chhattisgarh situation. In Chhattisgarh, Maoists have made a major issue of the exploitation of mineral deposits in tribal areas by MNCs and the private sector which has to be immediately addressed. If these projects cannot wait, the government would do well to entrust this job to public sector undertakings, ensuring that all resultant benefits and employment go to local tribals. This would remove a major irritant.

Likewise, beedi leaf picking or bamboo contracts could be taken away from private contractors and entrusted to government corporations with improved wages for tribals. This would serve the tribals well while cutting off the flow of funds to Maoists.

There should be no attempt to privatise policing which in a way Salwa Judum is all about. It is about time this group was wound up. Instead, well-protected, well-officered and numerically strong police stations — with not less than 25 officers and 100 men in each station — need to be established all over the affected areas. These have to be mostly manned by the tribals themselves.

The role of the paramilitary forces should be limited to guarding these police stations and carrying out field operations. Ultimately, it is the civil police that can and should fight the Maoists.

With the example of Andhra Pradesh before them, it shall not take Chhattisgarh more than five or six years to restore peace. But that requires a motivated police force, a bureaucracy committed to the cause of development and, above all, a mature political leadership.

C. Anjaneya Reddy is a former IPS officer

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