Over the next few months, tens of thousands of security forces will use AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and mortar fire in their push to clear out Maoists from vast swathes of forest land in central India.
But it’s another battle that will determine the success of the operation — one for the hearts and minds of the poor villagers of the area, most of them tribals.
Today, every third district in the country has some Naxal presence. Last year, more civilians and security personnel died in the Naxal-affected states than in militancy in Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast put together.
P Chidambaram’s induction as home minister last year brought clarity to the Centre’s two-pronged strategy of police action and development. He figured the Maoists weren’t going to allow development, so he would first need to push them away. The armed offensive, Union home secretary GK Pillai insists, is only one part of the strategy. The other is to deliver quick and heavy doses of governance to the people.
State governments have been told to keep personnel and equipment ready to move in once the security forces are able to restore civil administration in a district. There are plans to spend Rs 7,300 crore under different schemes on social and physical infrastructure over a three-year period.
“Winning the hearts and minds of the villagers… is the only insurance against them backing the Maoists again,” says a home ministry official.
K Durga Prasad, additional director general of police in Andhra Pradesh, the only state to have scripted an anti-Naxal success story, agrees. “In Andhra, other agencies have also moved in, which has made government development work felt by the people,” says this official, who played a key role in raising the state’s anti-Naxal commando force, the Grey Hounds.
The home ministry is not waiting for the armed battle to end to start its war on psyche. Recently, it launched a counter-propaganda campaign targeting the romanticised image of the ultras in cities. It has put out advertisements in the Naxal-affected states and in Delhi, highlighting the cruel face of the Maoists.
Far away from Delhi, a Central Reserve Police commander in Chhattisgarh says the counter-propaganda did raise the morale of the forces too. “Earlier, the Maoists were the only ones getting heard in the media — as if we were wrong,” he says. Now he is surer.