The description of Darbha Ghati — where Chhattisgarh’s Congress unit got butchered — as ambush point, took me back to a journey I’d made last year in another part of the state. I’d hit ground zero in Bijapur — also part of Bastar and I was being driven by CRPF men along a slim metalled road. The 21 kms 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 slim road where turning on headlights was completely 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 heat stroke.
The majority of security personnel I spoke to 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 losing Mahendra Karma and state Congress president, Nand Kumar Patel. They desperately want to be out of this war theatre because as one of them said, “We don’t know who is a Naxal and who is an adivasi.” Here, in the jungles of Bijapur, or Sukma or Narayanpur, the state is near absent and the Centre has one response — pump in more troops. And so it did, after the May 25 attack on the Congress cavalcade.
But are more boots on the ground response the answer? Will the additional troops be able to distinguish a Naxal from a tribal? Will it help these men — part of a plan, unimaginatively codenamed Operation Greenhunt — understand who the enemy is, who they need to train their guns against? Wait, they don’t even know who they are hunting.
The men in khaki are well trained. They carry the best automatic weapons; even sleep with loaded guns resting on their chest, but these men, drawn from distant Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu neither know the terrain nor the language. A few days spent in ground zero had made it plainly clear — the Centre’s paramilitary is trying to do what the local police should be doing, but they are demotivated, 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, healthcare 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, their land rights through MoU after MoU with mining companies. Also, you can’t hope to divide the tribals through vigilante groups as the Salwa Judum tried to.
The State received the best intelligence it could have hoped to get through Alex Paul Menon, one of its district collectors, who was taken hostage by the Naxals a year ago. In the 13 days he spent in custody, Menon had long conversations with his Naxal kidnappers. Of the over 100 armed rebels he had a chance to interact with, as many as 70% told him they had taken to arms in reaction to Salwa Judum. That was a year ago but the lesson was clearly not put to any use, for Chhattisgarh, instead of undoing the damage, is still continuing arming civilians. It is just not using the Salwa Judum nomenclature.
Now we are hearing of plans to take the war into the Naxal camp. We are also hearing of surgical strikes and enhanced air force missions, but let us come back to the plain truth — the Naxals live amidst the tribals. What have the state and central governments done to wean the tribal from the Naxal? What indeed, have the governments done to craft a policy around the basic principle of making the tribal the stakeholder? The tribals have only been divided into the hunter and the hunted. It is imperative now for the state to reflect and not demand another offensive, another war.
But if that is what they will do — because firefight is all they can do — I suggest they leave their air-conditioned rooms in Raipur and New Delhi and talk to the paramilitary forces. They will tell you that they are living a dog’s life and are being hunted by day and night, because they’ve been forced into an inhospitable war where they don’t know who they are battling and who they have been forced to declare war against. Be fair and just by the tribals — that’s the only starting point for the present and the future.