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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Hard lessons of Salwa Judum

It is with a sense of disquiet that I read an article in The New Indian Express earlier this week about a government of Kerala plan to recruit tribal youngsters to pre-empt Maoist activity. These youngsters are to be designated home guards and used as informers. The article cited several commentators expressing concern that the government’s plan runs the danger of eventually raising an abomination like Salwa Judum, the millstone of Chhattisgarh’s maladministration since 2005.

This is as good a reason as any to revisit the grey areas of conflict, where command and control often degenerates into wilful chaos. When necessary solutions are dominated by final solutions.

In Chhattisgarh, tribal was used to intimidate, injure and kill tribal with complicity of the government as a ploy to deny Maoists shelter and recruits. For several years Salwa Judum operated alongside police and paramilitaries like Central Reserve Police Force and various Indian Reserve Battalions, which committed atrocities in their own right.

Besides rapes, beatings, killings of tribal folk and destruction of their homes, food stock and farm animals in an orgy of self-righteousness that counts among the most grievous human rights violations in modern Indian history, the strategy deliberately displaced tens of thousands of non-combatants. Cumulatively, it destroyed tribal society in a manner that will take a generation or more to repair. (Moreover, Maoism remains, and thrives.)

It did not lead to any United Nations resolution to condemn it; or cancellation of visits to India by heads of states, as by several such to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting beginning 15 November. Or calls for boycott of Chhattisgarh, or India. Alas, expediency is axiomatic, not human rights.

At any rate, Salwa Judum is hardly a template to cherish. The Supreme Court of India has twice censured Salwa Judum and its patron, the government of Chhattisgarh. Governments of several Maoist-affected states, most notably Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra and West Bengal, none noted for civilized police and administrative etiquette, chose to pull back from implementing a Salwa Judum-like template. The decisions carried by thin majority, but they nevertheless carried.

Even Andhra Pradesh, which to combat Maoists has freely used a mix of police training and modernization, real and staged encounters, brutal interrogation, and attractive surrender policy, primarily infiltrated the heart of the rebellion with guile, cultivating rebels and non-combatants alike. It led to an implosion of the rebellion, down several notches from burn-filled explosions. Of course the area reclaimed by government isn’t exactly being serenaded with governance and development. Deep voids still exist that can birth future rebellion, further fuelled by temporary administrative dislocation caused by the tortuous birth of Telangana and Seemandhra from Andhra Pradesh. But there is at least a system in place that encourages engagement, even if imperfectly, over treating the disadvantaged—target group for rebels and the state alike—as expendables.

This is where matters get murkier.

While Maoists shine a harsh light on India’s massive failure of governance and socio-economic development, Maoist leadership does not entirely comprise angels. Armed rebellion facilitates a default heavy handedness.

These self-confessed avenging angels have routinely scripted their own atrocities that range from dictating the life of a village to intimidation and summary executions, to killing non-combatants in private and public transport, including trains. The ranks of aggrieved continue to transform into cadres, but press-ganged militia is common. Instances of recruiting minors for indoctrination, working as informants and couriers, and with a view to graduate them into active rebellion, are far from unknown. Suggestions and admonition by human rights organizations are mostly dismissed by Maoist leadership on grounds of justifiable cause.

But while corruption of human rights is ideology-agnostic, it does not give license to a government for the people to generate tactics that decimate the people. It does not give license to the rebel either, but that is not the government’s business. What matters is that the gauge of governance will always be more sharply regarded than the rulebook of the rebel.

The case in Kerala is admittedly embryonic. While it is in the stated geography of Maoist expansion, especially around tri-junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, rebel effort is currently hamstrung by loss of personnel brought on by ramped up anti-Maoist operations, and increasingly better coordination between the police of various states.

The government of Kerala will likely find that a better way to safeguard against rebel ingress is not to create a network that runs the danger of morphing into a monster, but ensuring governance that precludes rebellion.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

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Updated: 15 Nov 2013, 01:23 AM IST
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