A few years ago, I’d hit ground zero in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar and was driven by CRPF men along a slim metalled road. The 21-km road had only just been constructed under the supervision of gun-wielding security personnel and this stretch had its own milestones.
‘Ma’am, this is what we call ambush point. This is where we lost seven men,’’ said a voice in the dark as we drove down that road where turning on headlights was inadvisable. A little further is where 12 men had been killed in an explosion and just ahead; another milestone: The place where a jawan had died of a heatstroke.
The killing of 25 jawans in Sukma on Monday is a stark reminder of how little has changed. The majority of security personnel I spoke to then did not want to be part of the ‘war’ – the same war New Delhi and its ministers have vowed to fight with renewed vigour after the Monday attack.
The jawans – loyal to their uniform and the country – know the ground reality. They desperately want out of this war theatre because as one of them had said, rather succinctly, “We don’t know who is a Naxal and who is an adivasi.”
In Sukma, the casualty rate was higher because the soldiers couldn’t tell the difference.
For too long now, successive governments have only been pumping in more troops, but is more boots on the ground the way forward? Will the additional troops be able to distinguish a Naxal from a tribal? The UPA government had gone hunting for the Maoists as part of a plan they’d unimaginatively codenamed Operation Green Hunt. The CRPF didn’t know who they were hunting for then; and years later as Sukma has shown, they still don’t know.
The men in khaki are well trained. They carry the best automatic weapons, even sleep with loaded guns resting on their chest; but they are drawn from distant Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu and know neither the terrain nor the language.
A few days at ground zero had made it plainly clear that the Centre’s paramilitary was trying to do what the local police should have done, but they were either demotivated or too scared or sympathetic of the tribals.
Many local police officers have families in the villages of Sukma and Bijapur, and know that if the locals veer towards the Naxals, it is because they want food, clothing, education, health facilities and legitimate rights over the land that is theirs. This is what the state and the Centre need to understand. You cannot deprive the adivasis their due, their minerals, and their land rights through MoU after MoU with mining companies. Importantly, you cannot divide the tribals through vigilante groups.
The state received the best intelligence it could have hoped to get through Alex Paul Menon, one of the district collectors who was taken hostage by the Naxals in Sukma in 2012. In the 13 days he spent in their custody, Menon had long conversations with his kidnappers. Of the over 100 armed rebels he had a chance to interact with, 70% told him they had taken to arms in reaction to the Salwa Judum.
Home minister Rajnath Singh has vowed that the Sukma attack will be avenged. As he crafts the response, he needs to ask his team what efforts, if any, have been made to wean the tribal from the Naxal. What, if anything, has been done to make the tribal the principal stakeholder? The war ahead lies in the answers. It is imperative for the paramilitary forces to know who they are hunting, or they’ll continue to be hunted.
Be fair and just by the tribals – that’s the only starting point for the present and the future.