War on Maoists
The Indian government must at once stop the military operation against its own citizens in the tribal heartland and open unconditional talks with the Maoists.
THE much-dramatised public exchange of telephone numbers between Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader Kishenji and their sparring over a 72-hour or 72-day ceasefire would have been amusing if it did not involve a grim life-and-death issue for millions of wretchedly poor and underprivileged people in India’s heartland. They face the full heat of Operation Green Hunt, the biggest-ever military-style mobilisation launched by the security forces in the central-eastern tribal belt. Until recently, such large-scale deployment was confined to Kashmir and the northeastern region.
The operation, involving over 40,000 paramilitary troops and policemen armed with weapons ranging from night-vision-capable automatic rifles to helicopter gunships, supposedly aims in its first phase to clear parts of Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra of the Maoists. By all accounts, it will last indefinitely – until the tribal belt is fully “sanitised” and the naxalites are militarily defeated.
The Centre is coordinating, planning and directing Green Hunt – unlike in the past, when State governments led such operations. In a disturbingly strong signal, a brigade headquarters of the Indian Army is being established in Chhattisgarh, the most turbulent part of the tribal heartland.
Shamefully, a debate has broken out within the security establishment over the rules of engagement for the special Indian Air Force counter-insurgency force called GARUDS, which will man the helicopters to be deployed initially in logistical operations. The bone of contention is the circumstances under which they would be allowed to retaliate in case they are attacked. This is the first time that the defence services, which are meant to guard the nation’s borders, might be asked to target civilians in India’s heartland.
According to numerous credible, well-documented reports, 30 to 40 tribal people are being killed each week in the Adivasi belt. Some 200,000 people have fled their homes. This number does not include the 50,000 who were driven out by Salwa Judum, the militia sponsored, armed and funded by the Chhattisgarh government in 2008-09. The bulk of the 50,000 cannot return home and have taken refuge in Andhra Pradesh and in forests close to the border. In addition to the paramilitary forces, the tribal people are being attacked indiscriminately by private militias or Special Police Officers (SPOs), who enjoy state support, as well as by Maoist guerillas. The testimonies of some of the victims, backed by eyewitness reports, speak of the deliberate targeting of non-combatant civilians by the police and the private thugs they support. Rape and sexual violence are rampant in Bastar and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. The civilians killed greatly outnumber the Maoists shot dead – perhaps by a factor of 10.
WAR AGAINST PEOPLE
The awe-inspiring scale of the operation, its sweep, and the lethality of the force deployed add up to a frightening reality: the Indian state is waging war upon its own people in the name of fighting the Maoists. This is not a case of collateral damage, or unintended use of force against civilians in the course of military operations targeting combatants.
It is the deliberate killing of civilians suspected to harbour naxalites or to be sympathetic to them. This is wholly unacceptable and unbecoming of a state that even minimally claims to be a civilised democracy.
The Maoists, for their part, have stepped up their attacks on vulnerable and poorly armed sections of State police forces, as in Silda in West Bengal – supposedly in retaliation to Operation Green Hunt, according to Kishenji. This seems calculated to provoke further state violence against innocent civilians. Nothing can justify such cold-blooded killing. The politics of revenge, violent retribution, and mayhem practised by Maoist squads is unacceptable.
The Maoists claim to be defending the livelihoods of dirt-poor tribal people who face displacement and dispossession thanks to destructive “development” projects. But there is often no connection between the Maoists and people’s grass-roots struggles. There is reason to believe that some Maoist groups have developed a stake in extortion and violence. How united the CPI(Maoist) is, and whether there is a consensus within it over its present tactics, is unclear.
However, three things are plain. One, in its four-decade-long history, the naxalite movement has achieved very little for poor people in the form of better living conditions, higher wages or protection from harassment by state functionaries. Barring an increase in the price of tendu leaves (in which beedis are rolled), it is hard to name a major achievement.
Two, at the same time naxalite activity has expanded, especially in the central and eastern tribal belt, because the state has failed to alleviate extreme poverty, prevent starvation deaths and near-starvation levels of undernourishment or provide even a modicum of elementary health care. For instance, in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh, where Dr Binayak Sen ran his voluntary clinic, there are no other health- care facilities in a 30-kilometre radius. And Dhamtari is not the State’s most backward district. The failing state has little to offer by way of public services, including minimal employment and food provision, safe drinking water, elementary education, agricultural credit, bare social security support, and even law and order.
More than half the population in tribal India – compared with 30 per cent of Indians as a whole – has a body-mass index lower than 18.5 (normal range, 18.5 to 25), which indicates serious undernourishment. With more than 40 per cent of its population being underfed and stunted, tribal India qualifies to be categorised as permanently famine-affected under World Health Organisation norms.
The Adivasi belt’s abysmal poverty has been aggravated by recklessly promoted large-scale mining and industrial projects, Special Economic Zones and even universities (for example, Vedanta University in Orissa), which uproot people and rob them of land under the colonial, draconian Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Business groups such as Posco, Mittal and Vedanta, known for their aggressive methods and high-level government contacts, are acquiring tens of thousands of acres, far in excess of their legitimate needs. This, and the severing of people’s links with forests, on which they have been traditionally dependent, has created acute destitution. The state’s development failure is total.
Third, the state has lost legitimacy in tribal India. It is laughable to claim that its project of militarily overpowering the Maoists has popular support. Its police force is inefficient, corrupt, trigger-happy and anti-poor. The State represents little more than predatory, rape-and-run industrial groups, besides super-corrupt Ministers (like Madhu Koda who allegedly amassed wealth equivalent to a fourth of Jharkhand’s tax revenue in three years). It is no accident that the Centre has intervened to assert its full coercive power in an area that contains much of India’s immense mineral and forest wealth, now under transfer to private capital.
It is easy enough to condemn both the Maoists and the state for their violence. But a clear distinction must be made between the two. The state is meant to be answerable to the people and the Constitution. The Maoists are not. The Constitution prohibits the arbitrary use of force or restrictions on individual liberties by the state. It is futile to argue that the state is at war, that “war is hell”, and therefore that excesses are inevitable and hence acceptable. A democratic state cannot be at war with its own people. Even where it undertakes military operations against insurgent groups, which have declared war on it, it must respect the principles of just war – both the justice of necessity of war in the first place, and justice in the conduct of war.
Operation Green Hunt fails on both criteria. It is eminently logical to treat Maoist violence as crimes amenable to normal police methods – not as warrant for war, with large-scale civilian casualties. In any case, no civilised society can permit the targeting of non-combatant civilians, use of indiscriminate force or cruel, inhuman and degrading means like torture, without risking the mutation of the state into a rogue.
This is exactly what is happening under Operation Green Hunt. This is wholly unconscionable and unacceptable – just as condemnable as Israel’s occupation of Palestine by near-barbaric means, or Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the killing of 100,000 Iraqis in the United States-led war and occupation. If the operation continues, the civilian death toll is liable to rise from several hundred to several thousand a year, as had happened in Argentina and Peru, where 50,000 to 100,000 people “disappeared” in decades-long counter-insurgency operations.
That is why Operation Green Hunt must be immediately called off. The Centre should open a sincere dialogue with the Maoists and scrupulously resist the temptation to use duplicitous means to gain advantage over them. This happened in Andhra Pradesh when the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government used the talks in 2004 to track down the Maoists’ hideouts, and in breach of its commitment, attacked them. If the talks fail, then the Maoist question should be tackled by good, civilised police methods, and above all, by reversing state failure. This entails massive development programmes and provision of public services to regain the people’s confidence. That would be the best way of isolating the naxalites.