Tuesday, May 9, 2017

No end in sight for India's bloody Maoist conflict


On 24 April, 2017, 25 men from the paramilitary central reserve police force, India’s main counterinsurgency force in the central Indian war theatre, were killed in a Maoist ambush.  Predictably, the media outrage, the solutions offered by security pundits and the statement issued by the Maoists had a strong sense of déjà vu. 76 men from another battalion of the CRPF had been ambushed and killed in this very stretch of Sukma district near Tadmetla in Chhattisgarh on April 6, 2010.

In the seven years between then and now, there have been other CRPF deaths – for instance, 12 CRPF men were killed barely a month previously on 11 March 2017; there have been unmarked deaths of Maoist cadres, and above all, there has been a relentless assault on the human rights of adivasi or indigenous villagers across the region.

To give just two examples from the same set of villages where the recent ambush occurred - in March 2011, 300 homes across three villages were burnt by the security forces, 3 men were killed and women raped. This was the second time that these villages were being burnt and displaced; the first time was in 2007, when the state sponsored Salwa Judum vigilante movement was depopulating vast stretches of the district and forcing people into government controlled camps. While the media and government point to the fact that the forces were providing protection for road building, and blame the Maoists for opposing ‘development’, they omit to mention that this road once had several thriving markets and was a major link before the government itself effectively handed it over to the Maoists under Salwa Judum. 15 CRPF camps and 5 police stations have been unable to control a mere 56 km, and have had other consequences. On 2 April 2017, a minor girl was sexually assaulted in her home by CRPF men and then forced to retract her statement after three days in police custody when she was not allowed to meet the women activists who were trying to help her file a complaint.

Across the Bastar region, villagers are living lives of desperate fear under the pressure of sustained combing operations which involve picking up men sleeping in their homes or from the market, claiming that they are Naxalites and later showing them as having surrendered or having been arrested. Government data, however, reveals that of the 1210 people who ‘surrendered’ in Bastar in 2016, only some 3% actually qualified as real Naxalites. Women are often brutally beaten when they try to resist these attacks, and in November 2015 and January 2016, three major incidents of mass gang rape and assault resulted in the National Human Rights Commission finally taking notice. On their part, the Maoists seem to have turned inwards on their peasant base, killing and threatening any potential informers. Given this pincer movement from both the state forces and the Maoists, it is hardly surprising that the forces get no human intelligence about impending ambushes.

Every time there is a major attack, the security establishment talks of the need to maintain standard operating procedures, to send in more boots on the ground, fill vacancies in the state police forces and so on. This time, the Maoists made off with AK-47s, Under-Barrel Grenade Launchers, LMGs, INSAS rifles, AKM assault rifles, wireless sets, binoculars, bullet-proof jackets, AK magazines and ammunition, an indication of the kind of weaponry that is being deployed against them, quite apart from mine proof vehicles which lumber scarily through forest roads, unmanned aerial drones and helicopters whose ubiquitous presence in these formerly silent forests has entered into children’s everyday vocabulary.

Every few years, the Minister responsible for internal security announces that the Maoists are on their way out and it is a matter of a mere couple of years; what P. Chidambaram said in 2010, Rajnath Singh is saying now in 2017. Only the party labels have changed, from Congress to BJP. It is true that the Maoist footprint has considerably reduced since their peak in 2008-9, that many senior leaders have been arrested or killed, and public sympathy is waning, but for a movement which celebrates its golden jubilee this year, the objective conditions that give rise to a sense of deprivation and injustice have not changed. In fact, the situation has got much worse for villagers, with schools, health centres, weekly markets, all becoming casualties of the war, and nutritional standards deteriorating sharply, even as the government’s main priority seems to be to build roads. Even if the movement is militarily crushed now, there is no saying that it will not find willing takers again.

The Maoist Movement in Bastar

The Maoists first came to Bastar in 1980 – squads of idealist young men who left their homes intent on reforming the world, and convinced that armed struggle was the only way to fight against what they described as a semi-feudal, semi-capitalist state. The party leadership felt they needed a forest base from which to conduct their struggle in their native Andhra/Telengana.  They set about helping people in their struggle against the forest buraucracy, distributing land, mobilising villagers to build ponds and form collective agricultural work groups, and gradually women filled about 40% of their cadre, escaping from drudgery and patriarchy at home. Over time as the Maoists condolidated their base, they set up an almost parallel state, with all the coercion that establishing any state power implies. They get their weapons from looting the police, and their money through ‘taxes’ levied on traders and companies wanting to operate in the area – not coincidentally, the entire central Indian region is a storehouse of timber and minerals for the rest of the country.

The Salwa Judum started in 2005 as an ostensible  ‘people’s movement’ to counter the Maoists, only succeeded in attracting more recruits to their cause, due to the large scale violence it engaged in. Although the Supreme Court banned the Salwa Judum in 2011, and directed the state to compensate all victims of violence, the state government simply ignored the orders, and instead intensified its counterinsurgency efforts, including attacks on human rights activists.

The Way Forward?

The Indian government has plenty of resources with which to think of an alternative mechanism – a Constitution which provides for the welfare of adivasis or scheduled tribes if only it was implemented,  its own past record http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/05/sight-india-bloody-maoist-conflict-170508120738882.htmlof peace talks in Mizoram with the secessionist Mizo National Front, international examples of negotiated settlements between left wing guerillas and the government, and an active human rights community which has in the past shown a desire to mediate in talks between the government and the Maoists. Even the Supreme Court has invoked the example of the Colombian peace talks while hearing petitions related to ongoing human rights violation. Unfortunately, there is more money to be made in war than in promoting peace.