The Indian State is at war, except it does not seem to be aware of it. How else can one explain the level of preparedness that statutory law and order forces in Naxal-infested areas of the country find themselves in every time they are under attack? It has not been a fortnight since JMM leader Sunil Kumar Mahato and three others were gunned down by Naxal terrorists in Jharkhand that we find 55 policemen killed by the same forces in a pre-dawn raid in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh. According to Home Minister Shivraj Patil, the death count from Naxal attacks in Chhattisgarh has increased by 57.22 per cent during 2006, with the past 22 months witnessing at least 676 dead. So for Mr Patil to expect us to take comfort in the fact that Naxal-related incidents across the country has dipped by 6.5 per cent in 2006 is to be far too optimistic. (The minister is silent about the levels of intensity of each incident.)
But what defies belief is the way our armed forces — whether border security or state police personnel — are prepared against a long-standing menace that seems to pick its targets with increasing ease. The latest massacre drives home a serious point: apart from the advantages that the Naxals have over the State’s security forces in terms of waging guerrilla warfare, the asymmetry is glaring even in the department of the arms and training available to both sides. Clearly, this has arisen not because the Indian State at the Centre and in the states cannot afford better — and in many cases, suitable — weaponry and training, but because it still tends to see the Naxal menace as an irritant rather than a serious problem. Instead of taking the war to the terrorists, we have skewed policies and disjointed coordination. The case of implementing a dodgy strategy is especially pertinent in the Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh, where the Salwa Judum (Peace Mission) has been operational since June 2005. Essentially, the mission entails locals taking up arms, with government support, to fight the Naxals. While the plan sounds good on paper, two things have made the mission boomerang. One, by arming the locals, one has a distinct feeling that responsibilities have been shifted — from the State to the locals. The fact that 34 of those killed in Thursday’s attack were local tribal youth recruited as Special Police Officers (SPOs) tells a story. Two, part of the Salwa Judum’s strategy has been to relocate villagers into camps, making them sitting ducks for Naxals.
While the question of what leads people to Naxalism can be discussed till the cows come home, what is immediately required is boots on the ground. The Naxals are waging war against the Indian State and its representatives. Isn’t it high time that the Indian State treats Naxal violence as something more than a law and order problem?