In Maoist Strongholds, A Decent Official Is Worth A Thousand Paramilitaries

A brilliant article by the South Asia Terrorism Portal lays bear the continued impotence of the government and security forces against Maoist rebels in their key stronghold of Chhattisgarh.

Although fatalities and attacks fell by almost half between 2010 and 2011, there is little justification for the celebration coming out of the Home Ministry in recent weeks.

For a start – the statistics themselves are dodgy:

It was … claimed that 30 Maoists were killed in retaliatory fire after the Police lost three troopers in the initial fire [at Chintalnur on March 14]. Police also claimed of killing 10 Maoists in retaliatory fire after the CRPF lost three men in Maoist attack on June 11, 2011, at Bhejji village in Dantewada. In both cases the SFs failed to recover a single body.

If those police accounts are indeed untrue, it more than halves the number of Maoists actually killed last year (from 70 to 30).

Moreover, as I argued in a recent post, a key reason for reduced clashes and deaths last year is that the security forces have stopped wandering blindly around in the forests looking for a fight – as they did under the ill-considered Operation Green Hunt in early 2010 – rather than any real improvements in policing.

Out of the recorded 13 major incidents in 2011, all but one were initiated by the Maoists and inflicted casualties on the SFs [security forces]. In the previous year, at least eight of 18 such incidents, were initiated by the SFs.

The lack of effective policing is clear from the fact that arrests fell dramatically between 2010 and 2011 – from 264 to 145.

The government should also be worried that the Maoists are increasingly moving into urban areas (blowing up a brand new police station in the town of Geedam), improving their IED skills (they can now suspend them four to five metres in the air from trees and trigger them from 200m away), and have established 500 small-scale arms manufacturing units around the forests.

And while the Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh struggles bravely on with his well-meaning attempts to improve governance as a way to sap support from the Maoists, no one in the local administration has gotten the memo:

Media reports have exposed how, behind the cover of conflict, corrupt officials and politicians have been looting the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, tendu leaf (leaves of Diospyros Melonoxylon) collection, and the elementary education system. Notably, a series of articles titled Graft in Conflict Zone published in The Times of India, observed, for instance: “In Konta, the Dantewada District’s biggest block, as big as the State of Goa, one man has nearly monopolised both the distribution and transport of Public Distribution System rice. For the last five years, he has allegedly diverted a big portion of grain to markets in Odisha and Andhra, selling it illegally, depriving the poor of grain.”

The author also has some harsh words for the idea of outsourcing development to Catholic missionaries – the sort of thing that often goes horribly wrong in rural areas when semi-criminal power structures combine with religious chauvinism (remember the anti-Christian pogroms in Orissa in 2008, which were triggered when the Maoists killed a Hindu nationalist leader).

In short – it’s (still) a mess in Chhattisgarh.

What do we learn from all this? It’s clear that the lesson for the government has been that its security forces are not equipped to tackle the Maoists head-on. Their hopes are now stacked on the idea that development will provide a slower, but ultimately more effective, way of stripping support away from the rebels.

But that is by no means guaranteed. Development and security are not zero-sum games. A lack of development may have helped the Maoists establish themselves in these areas 30 years ago, but it does not follow that a few development initiatives will destroy their organisation. How much development would it take before the government could confidently claim that the people of Chhattisgarh no longer have any grievances for the Maoists to exploit? Building a few roads and a couple of schools is hardly going to turn the forests of Dantewada into downtown Manhatten.

What the state is really lacking are people on the ground who can rival the dedication of the Maoists. At the moment, the Maoist leaders are the only people who can legitimately claim to have devoted their lives to improving those of the people in these forgotten Dandakaranya forests, regardless of what we think of their motives and tactics. The state is paying the price for decades of misrule by its politicians and officials in these areas.

There is an opportunity for the central government in this. With security and development operations going nowhere, the only real leverage the state has left to wield is over those who claim to be its representatives on the ground. New Delhi finds it very difficult to influence the quality of local governance in these remote areas, but god knows, it must be easier than trying to turn thousands of underpaid policemen into a force capable of taking on an entrenched and lethal guerrilla army.

Concerted action against corrupt officials, and their replacement with decent individuals who are properly compensated at a level commensurate with the danger and importance of their job (which would also attract good candidates) – is the only card the state has left to play, and it is one with a proven track record. When the Maoists kidnapped a popular local official in Orissa last year, there was an outcry from villagers and he was later released. That official, R. Vineel Krishna, brought development, such as electricity for isolated villages. But more importantly, he was a rare example of a dedicated government servant, willing to devote himself to the needs of his constituents. He became the face of good governance in the area – a status that could not be usurped or challenged by the Maoists.

Unfortunately, and despite the fact that Mr Krishna has now become an assistant to Jairam Ramesh, the lesson from this episode does not appear to have been fully absorbed by the rural development ministry. It is vital that the government recognises the importance of human assets in the competition for influence in Maoist-controlled areas. A few more Mr Krishnas could be worth several thousand paramilitaries.

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