India: This War Can’t Be Won by Mines and Bullets

Whether Operation Green Hunt actually exists or is, as P. Chidambaram insists, a figment of the media’s imagination, Monday’s deadly Maoist attack on a bus in Dantewada suggests it is the hunted that are doing most of the hunting.

Over the past six weeks, the Maoists in Chhattisgarh have killed more than 90 policemen or jawans from the CRPF or local constabulary.  The 76 men killed in Chintalnar in April represent, perhaps, the highest casualty figure sustained by state forces in a single incident in a war anywhere in the world in years.  Apart from the six villagers executed on Sunday after a kangaroo ‘peoples court’ found them guilty of being “informers”, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) killed 15 civilians in their attack on the bus, injuring scores more.

In the latest incident, the primary target was probably the group of Special Police Officers (SPOs) who were travelling on the roof of the bus.  But even so, the fact that the bus was full of civilian passengers would have been obvious to the Maoist commanders whose spotters were apparently tracking the SPOs.  That they chose to go ahead and detonate the land mine or IED by remote control knowing a large number of non-combatants would die should be a lesson for anyone who harbours illusions about the Maoists and their project.

When I had the opportunity to put some questions in writing to Azad, spokesman of the Maoists, in March, I was keen to push him on whether or not his party believed it had an obligation to conform to international humanitarian law.  This is the body of rules which regulates armed conflict.  The targeting of civilians and the killing of captives, for example, is expressly forbidden.  As a format, written questions and answers do not allow the interviewer to pose counter-questions.  Given this limitation, I anticipated the answer Azad would give on the question of the laws of war — that his fighters were not obliged to follow them because the government itself was not doing so — and suggested this was tantamount to admitting the Maoist party subscribes to the same political culture and moral universe as the state it condemns.  This suggestion of mine was met with silence but the attack on the bus is answer enough.  The Maoists are not Gandhians with guns.

Consolation and Excuses

The authorities can console themselves by saying the latest attack shows the “growing desperation” of the Maoists, or that the targeting of civilians by them will be their undoing.  But the fact is that by any metric of warfare, they are the ones who seem to have the upper hand.  And they have it not because Indian democracy is robust enough to allow for a debate on the rights and wrongs of official policy or for PILs to be filed in the Supreme Court but because the CRPF, local police and SPOs on whom the Chhattisgarh government and the Centre rely lack training, discipline, equipment, mobility and motivation.  Instead of squarely facing this problem, Mr. Chidambaram and his colleagues in the Home Ministry are busy pointing fingers at others or bemoaning the lack of a “mandate” to fight the Maoists.

More than “social activists”, it is the government that ought to be concerned about the fact that many of the “successes” notched up by the security forces in Chhattisgarh have turned out to be bogus.  For example, most of the dozen odd naxals supposedly killed in a fierce encounter last fall near Gompad were innocent villagers, some of them elderly.

There is both a moral and a military issue at stake here.  Killing innocent people is wrong but it is also militarily foolish.  Passing off ordinary villagers as Maoist combatants and faking entries in official log books may help the security forces present an inflated account of their success but will make actual victory on the ground even more difficult.  On Tuesday, the Home Minister reiterated the importance of the so-called “two-pronged strategy” to deal with naxalism: “One prong is police action, and the other prong is development”.  Unfortunately, neither prong is being followed very effectively.  Indeed, the fact that there is today in Chhattisgarh an inversion of the supposed hunt is precisely because the state and central governments have made a mess of both policing and development.  Thanks to a disastrous counterinsurgency strategy, several hundred innocent villagers have been killed, thousands of dwellings destroyed and tens of thousands of Adivasis displaced.  In Gompad last year, the SPOs cut off the fingers of a two-year old boy, Suresh.  The Hindu published his photograph on October 20, 2009.  Not one word of condemnation or remorse was heard from Mr. Chidambaram or his Ministry.

Far from weakening the Maoists as its supporters claimed it would, the Salwa Judum vigilante movement which both New Delhi and Raipur patronised for years has strengthened the insurgents.  This is precisely what the petitioners who filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in 2007 against the vigilantes had warned would happen.

In a recent RAND Corporation report, How Insurgencies End: Key Indicators, Tipping Points, and Strategy, Ben Connable and Martin Libicki conclude their survey of 89 past and present insurgencies by noting that ‘anocracies’ are the one form of government least likely to prevail over an insurgent force.  Democracies do best and dictatorships sometimes prevail through sheer repression but the anocracies do worst.  An anocracy is a phony democracy, which is good at neither proper democratic methods nor full-fledged autocracy.  Its institutions are weak, offering little possibility for the government to isolate an insurgency from the people in whose name the fight is being waged.  But the need to preserve the façade of democracy also means the full panoply of repressive measures — air strikes, mass arrests, censorship — is not available either.

India may be an imperfect democracy but I do not believe it is an anocracy.  And yet, one could argue that state practice in Dantewada and other parts of India is anocratic.  Based on the RAND data, then, it is safe to assume the Maoists are not going to be defeated any time soon.  The choice we face is to democratise or autocratise the state’s response and the wider machinery of governance.  Those who want to autocratise favour a dramatic escalation of the war, the rapid deployment of large numbers of security personnel, the use of air strikes.  They are also intolerant of dissent and are quick to label any criticism of official policy as ‘support for Maoism’.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are coming under intense pressure from this faction but they know the problem will grow exponentially if the government goes autocratic.  And yet, they lack the confidence to democratise.  What would democratisation as a counter-insurgency strategy look like?  First, this requires strict adherence to the laws of war.  No one can question the state’s right to fight those who take up arms against it.  But non-combatants must never be targeted, let alone allowed to get in harm’s way.  This would also mean ending the practice of billeting jawans in school buildings and other civilian infrastructure or hitching rides on civilian transport.  India may not have signed the Geneva Convention additional protocol on internal armed conflict but Common Article 3 of the four conventions to which India is a party — not to speak of the Indian Constitution — prohibits violence against those not taking active part in hostilities or against combatants who are in custody.  The reason the laws of war are important is that they provide a measure of protection to both sides, not to speak of civilians.

Second, the Centre should support the plan, currently before the Supreme Court, for the comprehensive rehabilitation of all those displaced by the violence in Dantewada.  Third, the government should seriously consider a mutual ceasefire so as to push the Maoists towards dialogue.  The cessation of hostilities, if extended, would allow the Dantewada rehabilitation plan to be implemented under the overall supervision of the Supreme Court.  Fourth, every manifestation of autocratic behaviour — the farcical public hearings on land acquisition for mining and power projects, the filing of criminal cases against poor Adivasis for minor violations of the Forest Act — has to stop.

Not a War They Can Win

As for the Maoists, they need to realise this is not a war they can win.  The Indian state’s capacity to absorb punishment is far greater than the Maoists’ ability to inflict violence.  Whatever else its lacks, India certainly does not need more soldiers, guns and IEDs.  What it could use is a strong political movement to give voice to the aspirations of ordinary workers, peasants, tribals, women and other marginalised sections.  Mao may have said power flows out of the barrel of the gun.  But he also said to put politics in command.  Alas, in Chhatisgarh today, there is no politics.

Siddharth Varadarajan is a columnist for The Hindu.  This column was published in The Hindu on 20 May 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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