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Chhattisgarh is what happens to India’s democracy when few are watching

An internal report by the CRPF blamed ‘the lack of intelligence, poor leadership on the ground, low morale and a lack of adequate training’ for the Sukma attack in Chhattisgarh.

opinion Updated: Sep 05, 2017 12:08 IST
Sushil Aaron
At least 25 CRPF jawans were killed in a Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district in April.
At least 25 CRPF jawans were killed in a Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district in April. (PTI File Photo)

Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh has recently pledged to free the central Indian state of Maoism before 2022. There’s little mention on how this is going to be achieved, but based on the past one can anticipate that this would entail the injection of more armed capacity in the state — as usually happens after high-profile incidents or when new strategies are announced. To take an example from earlier this year: Maoists ambushed a CRPF battalion at Sukma in April killing 25 paramilitary personnel. There were reports subsequently that the government was bracing for its “biggest anti-Naxal operation” that included plans to deploy a fresh squad of 2,000 CoBRA commandos in and around Sukma who “will specifically be used to increase the kill ratio of the forces and deliver a heavy blow to the Naxals”, according to an official.

It is not clear how successful such efforts will ultimately be. An internal report by the CRPF blamed “the lack of intelligence, poor leadership on the ground, low morale and a lack of adequate training” for the Sukma attack. This assessment aligns with experts who say that the CRPF has struggled “for years” with the lack of intelligence in the state and that the local police must do more to tackle the insurgency.

While security agencies see their failings as essentially technical deficits which can be fixed by more funding and gadgetry, the reasons for intelligence shortcomings are more complicated. The fact is that the security forces continue to profoundly lack the trust, goodwill and standing amongst the Adivasi populations of Chhattisgarh, because years of fighting the Maoist insurgency has seen a high civilian toll and an alarming erosion of democratic institutions. Counterinsurgencies that operate amid a disaffected population take that much longer to succeed, if at all. The first task for governments, therefore, is to get their understanding of the conflict right than pursue militarist methods which exact a heavy human cost and largely yield stalemates rather than “ending” insurgency.

Policymakers interested in a more rounded look at the situation can do no better than consult Nandini Sundar’s compelling book The Burning Forest: India’ War in Bastar. Sundar’s work as an anthropologist overturns the official one-dimensional view of the insurgency, which represents it as merely the fault of Maoists and human rights activists while glossing over the state’s own role in fomenting conflict. Based on 26 years of research and travel in the region and drawing on conversations with a range of interlocutors, Sundar’s book offers a more complex history of Chhattisgarh than what mainstream India is exposed to.

By way of quick introduction: The region of Bastar is home to several gondi speaking Adivasi groups, OBCs and Dalits. Adivasis have seen their mineral-rich forests and land appropriated over time; their way of life threatened by different state-making projects — first by the British who wanted timber and then by independent India which sought to build dams, power projects and mines. The region is known for its “tribals” but political and economic power is actually concentrated in the hands of non-Adivasi immigrants who moved in since the 1950s i.e. “traders and businessmen from Rajasthan, UP, Bihar and Punjab, those working in Bailadilla mines and lower state bureaucracy and Bengali refugees from the 1971 war” settled in the forests of Koraput and Bastar.

Maoists from Andhra Pradesh developed a base in the region since the 1980s using a combination of advocacy and violence to ensure better wages for Adivasis, land for those who needed it and relief from harassment by government officials and police. In a milieu where Adivasis were humiliated and derided for being “dirty” and “uncivilised”, Maoists were able to build state-like structures through their armed squads (dalams) and sanghams (village level workers), settling disputes, exerting pressure on teachers and health workers to provide services and ensuring shopkeepers didn’t cheat villagers. Maoists extracted tribute from contractors and traders but selectively allowed projects and business to continue and because they enjoyed support of Adivasis they became a part of the local ecology of power.

The situation evolved quickly after Chhattisgarh became a new state in 2000. Mining was liberalised in 2003 amid the global commodity boom, land was grabbed from poor villagers by fraudulent and coercive means, roads and highways expanded to ferry minerals, and the state began a campaign to take back control of the Maoist strongholds of Bastar and Dantewada – where resistance to land acquisition was pronounced – often setting off atrocities against adivasis.

In 2005, the state government started arming civilians and formed a militia called Salwa Judum comprising non-Adivasi youth and Adivasis disaffected by Maoist excesses — who were turned into ‘special police officers’ (SPOs) to ostensibly fight Maoists. The Judum unleashed a reign of terror on civilians marked by murder, rape and the burning and looting of hundreds of villages. The state pursued a policy of “strategic hamletting” which was used by the Americans in Vietnam, the British in Malaya etc whereby civilians were forced to leave villages and moved to camps in order to isolate them from insurgents.

Sundar powerfully relates the experience of adivasis who lived in dread of Judum raids. Their only option was to escape to the forest only to come back to find their homes destroyed and those they knew killed and (or) raped. The Judum burned houses to force people into camps and deny provisions to Maoists. In their turn, Maoists would booby trap the houses to prevent Judum looting them and so the latter found it more expedient to burn the houses. Thousands were arrested. Those who could not resist any more moved to the camps. Around 100,000 fled to neighbouring states, particularly Andhra Pradesh. Maoists retaliated by killing Judum leaders and those they suspected of cooperating with the state.

The first phase of Salwa Judum lasted from 2005 to 2007. There was a lull in 2008 when people began returning home. But Maoists killed 38 Greyhound commandos in June and ambushed the convoy of West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in November that year. Security forces retaliated brutally against civilians and in 2009, the Centre launched Operation Green Hunt as a war against Maoists in several states, involving combing operations by the police, CRPF and other paramilitary forces. 2009-10 were “the bloodiest years in Chhattisgarh”. From 2011 to 2013 there were some major human rights violations that generated public attention – and villagers were beginning to muster the courage to testify in courts. By 2016, however, the third phase of the intensification of the war” was on continuing the cycle of violence and counter-violence.

Burning Forest points out that alongside outright violence the State was also focused on subverting democratic institutions to manage the narrative and suppress the bad news. Newspapers linked to mining interests did not cover atrocities against Adivasis, journalists compromised by governmental favours did not either and even the State legislature failed to take up human rights issues. The Adivasis had no say about the form of development that was thrust on them nor were they allowed to tell their own story.

What is worse, when scholars and civil society petitioned the courts, the Union and state government did all they could to thwart the judicial process. In 2007 Nandini Sundar, historian Ramachandra Guha and former civil servant EAS Sarma filed a PIL petition seeking an “appropriate remedy” to act on systematic human rights violations and an end to the practice of arming civilians. The Chhattisgarh government’s strategy was to “reduce the case to politics and to divest it of any legal principles.” It essentially claimed “that the petitioners were fronts for Maoists and that the state’s actions were justified because of Maoist attacks”. Mukul Rohatgi, the former attorney general, then appearing for Chhattisgarh, called Ashok Desai – Sundar’s counsel and a former attorney general himself – a Maoist at one point. Senior police officials showed journalists fake pictures of Sundar posing with armed Maoist women cadres.

In 2008, Chief Justice Balakrishnan tasked the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) – which had earlier refused to heed appeals from civil society actors – to appoint a fact-finding committee. The NHRC chose to appoint a committee composed almost entirely of police personnel; it did not take the help of civil society organisations who volunteered to accompany them, facilitate depositions etc. The NHRC team stayed in a police mess, employed Salwa Judum leaders as translators and went around in villages in convoys accompanied by police. All this unnerved villagers and yet many testified. In cases the “Salwa Judum cut off all rations and road access to the villagers in retribution for testifying against them.” Some villagers who had returned from Andhra Pradesh to testify were beaten up and their houses set on fire.

In the end, the NHRC went along mostly with the police version of events but it “could not but expose some of the horror” — and recommended rehabilitating villagers, compensating them for losses of houses and belongings, preparing a list of missing persons, evacuating security forces from schools and filing FIRs on all complaints. In 2011, the Supreme Court directed the state to disband Salwa Judum and disarm all SPOs and it ordered an investigation into all human rights violations. The judgement did not, however, provide for a monitoring committee.

The litigation has gone through other phases since. The Chhattisgarh government has failed to comply with NHRC recommendations and the Court’s orders. The SPOs were quietly integrated into ‘Armed Auxiliary Forces’. All investigations into past excesses are still incomplete. A CBI team sent in 2012 to investigate violations at Tadmetla was attacked by SPOs and had to be rescued by the CRPF, which was also fired at during the process. Sundar writes that “the sense of confidence and impunity these lengthy investigations have given the security forces has emboldened them to undertake a new wave of killings on a daily and weekly basis.”

Sundar chronicles state depredations against adivasis but does not flinch from criticising Maoists, including their brutalities, ambushes of security forces, the risk Naxal violence poses to Adivasis, the punishments meted out to suspected collaborators, the bombing of schools security forces stay in and the attacks on ambulances ferrying villagers. She is critical of their calls for election boycott, their failure to appreciate the need to work both “inside and outside elected bodies” and their disdain for NGOs working on rehabilitation or providing legal aid.

What Burning Forest demonstrates is that all the elements for the continuation of conflict in Chhattisgarh remain in place — from the non-Adivasi political leadership and economic interests which are insensitive to the rights of Adivasis, the acquisition of land through unfair methods, a middle class that wants growth regardless of the cost to indigenous people and the environment, a Maoist movement that sees violence as an inevitable tool to protect adivasis from exploitative forces and an counterinsurgency approach that takes a huge toll on villagers because it cannot distinguish between insurgents and rebels. The CRPF and other forces are also paying a heavy price and many personnel are just eager to leave as this report points out. In the midst of this the State has no capacity for development. Urban official infrastructure has expanded while villages “remain without basics like schools, electricity and health centres.”

Sundar’s book is an exceptional expose of the scandal of rural governance in India, a chronicle of State excesses, an anthropologist’s view about how conflicts perpetuate themselves and an account of how India’s democracy is degraded when few are watching. Policymakers ought to take away one the key lesson from it that there really are no military solutions to social conflicts. Paramilitaries like the CRPF can contain Maoists but it is ultimately not their job to address the issue of gross political inequalities in Chhattisgarh, which are the root cause of conflict in the state. If insurgency has to end, the past must be accounted for and Adivasis have to be beneficiaries of development and not its victims. Managing and resolving conflict also depend on the government’s ability to listen to voices that disagree with its approaches. Failing this, the insurgency is set to continue long into the future.

(The writer tweets @SushilAaron)