New Delhi: In a moment of rare frankness, the senior Indian Administrative Service official described how, on one of his official trips to rural Maharashtra, he saw a poster printed by Naxalites in the northern Gadchiroli region, making 40 demands of the government.
The fallout: Children at a school in Madded town in Chhattisgarh’s southern Bijapur district. The government blames the Naxalite rebels for blowing up 247 schools in Bastar. Satish Bate / HT
“Would you believe it? I agreed with 39 out of the 40,” he said. “I just disagreed with one: armed rebellion.”
For the first time, spearheaded by home minister P. Chidambaram, the government seems to be recalibrating its thinking on those lines on the 42-year-old Naxalite insurgency, as it prepares a joint national push—thousands of new troops being despatched to states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, among the worst affected by rebel violence.
It seems ready to deal with the truth.
The effect could be a bit like what happened in the Andaman and Nicobar islands following the disastrous 2004 Asian tsunami. Faraway lands, where there was no accountability for government officials, were suddenly swarming with journalists, aid groups and officials, bringing an unprecedented level of national attention and scrutiny.
“I am so glad that finally journalists from Delhi are coming to Bastar,” said Suresh Mahapatra, editor of Dantewada-based newspaper Bastar Impact. “For a quarter-century, after the start of the Naxalite movement here, it has been totally ignored. Now the issues here, and the truth, will be portrayed in a correct way.”
That could be a battle as difficult in this mineral-rich heart of India as the campaign against Naxalites raging in an impossible terrain, in impossible conditions. Because the first casualty in insurgency land was the death of a sense of proportion.
Here is the truth of Bastar: This is not Kashmir. Indeed, paramilitary soldiers and policemen have carried out excesses, and Maoists have regularly done grisly killings. But Chhattisgarh is not a human rights gutter, unlike the blood-soaked prism many often view it through. That is not the most important issue in this conflict.
The real human rights violations in this remote region are crushing poverty, the impossible geography, and an oppressive lack of governance—all of which have contributed to the spiralling of the rebel movement.
And the police are not operating in some la-la-land.
“A few days ago, I went to a police station called Jagarguda, 40km as the crow flies. But there is no road, I walked 59km over two days to reach there from the nearest roadhead,” said Amaresh Mishra, superintendent of police in the rebel hub of Dantewada.
When police have to ferry rations to the Jagarguda police station once every three months, it involves the movement of a 1,000-member caravan that involves a security detail, a tractor full of sand, another with crushed stones, bomb disposal experts, sniffer dogs, cooks. Ambushes are common. Land mines are found frequently—mostly more than 100kg in weight, which no land mine-protected vehicle can survive.
“That’s how we deliver food to our men in Jagarguda,” Mishra said.
On 14 March 2007, Naxalites raided a police camp at Ranibodli village and killed and mutilated 55 policemen in retaliation against the anti-Maoist Salwa Judum movement.
“It was a three-column news item in newspapers, and a ticker ran at the bottom of the TV screen for a few hours,” a senior police officer said in Raipur, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is not a part of India Shining. A person dying in Bombay in an accident gets more publicity.”
Even former home minister Shivraj Patil continued to dismiss the Maoist menace as only a police problem, limited to certain areas of the country.
The government has shrugged off the collapse of governance and the year-after-year non-use of development funds. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s stinging reports on insurgency-affected states were ignored by the legislature. Authorities rejected accusations of human rights violations by security forces, though several had taken place, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
“Last year, one day at 4am, the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) ordered everyone out and to one side. Then something happened, and there was shooting. A woman and a small child died,” said Nakka Bhima, a 60-year-old labourer in Cherpal village. “Once they took away a boy called Punen Ram, he was made to wear a green dress like Naxalites, and they were about to kill him. Somehow they backed off.”
Then, there are the activists, who slam the security forces but look the other way when Maoist rebels indulge in widespread violence—they hack off the heads of police and civilians, shoot people in the head in execution-style point-blank killings and mutilate bodies.
“The Naxalites cut the heads of eight people right before my eyes—I was hiding there, there in that small ditch,” farmer Kannam S. Raj, 45, said, pointing towards a clearing in the rural hub of Gangalur in southern Bijapur district. “They killed one here. They hacked two people here. They killed two here.”
Then Raj turns to his friend and whispers about the reporter: “He is a big officer from Delhi. They have started coming to Bastar now.”