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Stop the battle, start the war

india Updated: Apr 19, 2009 22:35 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times
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Episode 1: The first soldier died and three of his comrades lay dying when a grenade was hurled at them as they carefully picked their way through the jungles. The jittery, stunned unit was ambushed within minutes. Twelve more soldiers were cut to pieces, and their automatic rifles taken away by the Maoist guerrillas, who then melted away into the jungles. Dead: 13 soldiers.

Episode 2: The first soldier died from guerrilla fire as the unit carefully picked its way through the jungles. The unit had walked into an ambush. A three-hour battle raged with the guerrillas, who then melted away into the jungles. Dead: 10 soldiers.

Both these massacres were reported on April 12, ambushes now depressingly familiar in a country that has seen the deaths of nearly 50 paramilitary soldiers in less than 10 days. The soldiers who died in episode 2 perished in a forest in the heart of India in a Chhattisgarh district called Dantewada; the heart, too, of India’s so-called ‘liberated zone’ now in the thrall of Maoist guerrillas we called Naxals.

Episode 1, for all its familiary, wasn’t in India. It played out in a forested river valley on the other side of the world in southeastern Peru, home to one of the world’s most notorious Maoist insurgencies, the ‘Sendero Luminoso’ (Spanish for Shining Path), massively depleted but alive, despite a precipitous decline in the 1990s.

With 165 of India’s 600-odd districts across six states now officially declared “Naxal affected”, which means they have borne some kind of Maoist violence, it is tempting to proffer the viewpoint — as some experts do — that India is losing so many battles that it is inexorably being eaten away by the Maoists.

But India has not yet begun its war. The problem: we don’t realise this.

Naxals are driven by the inequities heaped on the people in the liberated zone — in part, certainly; for the rest they are just a murderous mob — while India was busy with its great economic leap. Indeed, much of the fuel for that leap has come from the mines, rivers and land of the red corridor, often to the detriment of the impoverished locals. They, frankly, are not the subjects of our democracy, living as they do in an unseen feudal/tribal twilight world beyond the horizons of modern India.

From the Iberians who harassed the imperial Roman army before the birth of Christ to the Marathas who harried the Mughals in medieval times to Che Guevara who romanticised the Cuban revolution of the 1950s, guerrillas have always thrived in societies with such split personalities, inequities and a strong culture of intellectuals. India, where we ignore wretchedness like no other people, is fertile ground for the guerrilla, who wins local support by living among the ignored and implementing social reform. Thus has emerged the red corridor.

China’s Chairman Mao Zeodong, who gave shape to the extreme ideology that now drives our Naxals, once said: “A revolution’s need for a base area… is just like an individual’s need for a buttocks. If an individual didn’t have a buttocks, he… would have to run around or stand around all the time”.

Things certainly appear grim today. As hundreds of helicopters carrying politicians clatter in the skies over the 15th general election, it is unconscionable that India cannot pour in specialised helicopter-borne troops to go in hot pursuit of the Maoists who leisurely get away carting away arms and their dead after gun-battles that last as long as half a day.

And as you read in this newspaper on Sunday the families of dead paramilitary soldiers and policemen, mostly from poor, distant villages, must somehow figure out how to carry on. Neither do television cameras visit them nor do they get comfort from the country their men die for. Because this is no war, just another of India’s many battles.

Yet, it would be a mistake to believe that the Maoists could win the war, that they might somehow do to us what the Taliban are doing in Pakistan.

It is instructive to look at Peru — a country a third the size of India (but only 28 million people) — where by the early 1990s, the Maoist insurgency reached the kind of peak the Naxals dream of. About 10,000 strong, the Shining Path brought Peru to the brink of collapse, setting off car bombs in the capital Lima: 70,000 people died in the fighting.

The Shining Path unravelled rapidly after 1992, when its feared leader, Abimael Guzman, was captured in a flat in Lima. The unravelling was borne on two things: war-like military action using crack troops and equipment, and rapid economic growth after Guzman’s arrest.

Last year, I travelled through the Peruvian Andes, a dry, poor area that was once the stronghold of the Maoists. Though poverty is still widespread, you can see the state’s war efforts: concrete pavements in the poorest villages, the rapid spread of electricity and smooth mountain roads maintained by workers so well equipped that an Indian can only marvel.

Peru’s war is rolling along; the Shining Path is still killing soldiers. But it is now a relatively straightforward terrorist movement of no more than 600, fuelled by drug running. The Maoists lost the war.

It is time India stops its careless battles in the red corridor and starts fighting the war.