Abandoning the Moral High Ground to the Maoists

You don’t need much more proof that the Indian government’s strategy against left-wing insurgents is failing than the tally announced by home minister P Chidambaram yesterday: “317 members of the security forces and 217 rebels died in Maoist-related violence in 2009.”

The strategy against left-wing insurgency has been almost entirely military, with little effort made to comprehensively address underlying grievances. And yet, even on the narrow calculus of casualties, the state is still losing. Not only is it failing to protect civilians caught in the crossfire, but it is also failing to protect its own frontline troops. Such a scenario must have a devastating impact on the morale of these forces, making them more desperate and more likely to engage in excessive force – which, in turn, pushes more civilians into the arms of the insurgents and gives credence to Maoist claims that the state is waging a brutal and illegitimate war against the poor.

What is most striking about this conflict is the ease with which the Maoists and their affiliates have been able to seize the moral high-ground, despite their often brutal tactics (just this weekend, further evidence of the sort of summary justice they indulge in). Amid the flood of recent reports on this issue, it is good to find a reminder that villagers in these areas are as much threatened by the devastation caused by the insurgents as they are by the marauding bands of pro-government militias.

From Tehelka:

An Adivasi boy pointed out the buildings to us — this was the forest department office, this an anganwadi (creche), here stood the school, here, a police outpost. Three years ago, he said, they were destroyed by the Maoists. Three hundred children studied there till Class 8. The nearest school now, he said, was at least 40 km away. Expectedly, not many children go that far. Elsewhere, felled electricity poles blocked our paths.

Ask the leader of the Maoist squad in charge of the area about the destroyed schools and we hear a reply often heard before: “The police were using the school building as a shelter”. She had no defence when asked about the children who used to study there. If the area was under our control, the Maoist leader continues, people would have been running their own schools. Anyone who has travelled within Maoist territory will recognise these empty, practised lines. “When the time comes” — a future that eclipses the present.

But, after making that point, the rest of the article is overwhelmed by the stories of violence perpetrated by the government-sponsored Salwa Judum. Tunki Venkatesh, a resident of Palachalam village:

When the Judum entered the village, they gathered 30 people from different houses. Over the next four hours, they tied them up separately and beat them. The Judum suspected them of either being Naxals or Naxal sympathisers. They kept accusing them of feeding Naxals, of giving them shelter and obeying their orders.

The Judum made the three men walk for 10 hours to the nearest police station. My sister gathered 15 other women from the village and followed them back to the station. They saw the Judum take the three men into the station. For hours, they maintained a vigil outside. At some point in the night, the Judum slipped the men out of the station and took them to a clearing near the village bus stand. They were forced to strip and change into Naxal uniforms. The Judum tied them up to different trees and shot them dead. Enough villagers were around to see them conduct this exercise.

The government has described the Salwa Judum as an unprompted uprising by locals against the Maoists in their area. Even if that were true, the government needs to realise that they represent as much of a threat to its legitimacy and its hopes of controlling the situation as the outlawed Maoists.

The home minister blames the state authorities of not acting effectively against the Maoist threat – of living in “a state of denial”. But without proper coordination from the Central government, backed by comprehensive programmes of development, action against corrupt officials, prevention of brutality by security forces, and economic policies that do not threaten the very existence of villagers and the land they live on, then it’s hard to imagine the casualty figures for 2010 looking any better than those for 2009.

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