Perhaps nothing was more indicative of the paralysis that now plagues any discourse on Maoist violence than the confusion, tentativeness and prevarications that followed Bengal’s train tragedy yesterday. Coming right after ten horrible days that have driven home life’s essential fragility to us as a country — first Dantewada, then the Mangalore air crash — the tragedy of watching bodies being pulled out from under heaps of metal was underlined by the apparent nervousness within the political establishment. While the Bengal police was quick to call the attack the work of Maoists, others were far more cautious; even muted in their response. Even the normally outspoken Home Minister P. Chidambaram was uncharacteristically diffident in his official statement.
Theories propounded ranged from sabotage to explosions, but there seemed to be a deliberate understatement in apportioning either responsibility or motive. The charitable explanation is that governments need not deliver information according to artificially constructed media deadlines. The more worrying possibility is that a combination of petty politics, personality clashes and ideological confusion has queered the pitch for India’s anti-Naxal strategy.
The public rhetoric around the Naxal debate has certainly created the impression of India being a coun try that is fiercely divided over how best to tackle the terror of the ultra-Left. This impression has been falsely reinforced by facile media debates that deliberately seek shrill polarisations and ask the people of India to choose between extremes.
Notwithstanding the fact that the media have chosen to write the narrative in terms of the following conflicts: Chidambaram vs Digvijay Singh; Mamata Banerjee vs Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Arundhati Roy vs the Rest of the World — there is, I suspect, already enough consensus in the court of public opinion to form the basis for a cogent anti-Naxal offensive. In the other words, the absence of a unified policy may have much more to do with competitive party politics — whether between the Left and the Trinamool in Bengal or between different factions of the Congress — than with what the people of India think.
To start with I can tell you what most of us do not want. We do not want the passive inertia of a Shivraj Patil nor do we endorse the rose-tinted romanticism of an Arundhati Roy. Patil’s head-in-the-sand denials created a drift in policy that allowed the Maoists to strengthen militarily and expand their areas of influence. Roy’s brand of starry-eyed rationalisations gave the Maoists a false legitimacy and distorted any crackdown on them as a David- Goliath encounter. I think most of us have zero appetite for the ‘Gandhians with guns’ school of thought.
Equally, and as importantly, we do not want any violations against civilians in the name of anti-insurgency operations. Nor do we support the use of private militia in operations that need to be run by the State. So, to describe, for example, the Salwa Judum as a spontaneous uprising of tribals against Maoists, is to not just insult our intelligence, but also to validate extra-constitutional methods to fight violence. And once you do that you can hardly make a moral argument against the Maoists, who too claim to be fighting for a larger ‘cause’.
Anyone who has closely followed the counter-insurgency history of Kashmir knows what happened when an army of ‘Ikhwanis’ (mostly surrendered militants) was allowed to run riot in the valley. Human rights violations perpetrated by vigilante forces that have the blessings of the State only erode the credibility of the State and create new enemies. So, just sheer common sense — if nothing else — demands a sharper crackdown on groups like the Salwa Judum that are still proclaimed as heroes in some doctrines of battle.
Like in any conflict zone — with the Maoists too— we seek a deft combination of battle strategy and smart politics operating on parallel tracks. When we see civilians under attack or poor jawans forced to be at the frontline of danger, we certainly expect our government to use force — both preventive and offensive — against brutal, senseless terror. Whether this force takes the shape of the paramilitary or the army; whether air support should be deployed to speed up the ferrying of troops and weapons — we may leave to the strategists.
But on principle, it is abhorrent to most of us to see bodybags lined up for cursory farewells, as soldiers become unsung statistics in India’s heart of darkness. And I think many of us want much more than mere lip service to their valour. Nor do we accept the galling rationalisations made by some human rights activists that soldiers are combatants and, thus, some sort of fair game for attack by the Maoists. It is a moral obligation of any strong State to place an honourable value on the life of its soldiers. A soldier’s life cannot be cheaper than yours or mine.
That said, we also seek attempts at long-term political resolutions. We have attempted it, with differing degrees of success, in Manipur, Nagaland and Kashmir. We even opened a dialogue with commanders of the Hizbul Mujahideen a decade ago — when Kashmir’s largest indigenous militant group declared a 10-day ceasefire. So why would we oppose a similar attempt with the Maoists? Issues of mining rights, land acquisition and a failure of governance will also all need to be politically addressed.
And lastly, we seek an end to the politicisation of a conflict that has repeatedly been called India’s biggest internal security threat. At the very least, the issue of Maoist violence has finally moved from the margins of public thought to the centrestage of national debate. For this, many of us credit the home minister even if we disagree with his constantly pulling in civil society activists into the debate.
But after the Bengal tragedy it’s been worrying to observe the first signs of political reticence. It makes you wonder whether India may slip back into what we do best — sitting on our haunches and doing absolutely nothing.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal