By Rithika Nair
On 28 June 2012, a combined team of the Chattisgarh Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) surrounded a meeting of villagers in Bijapur, Chattisgarh. Absence of accurate information and an immediate media hype produced several versions of what might have occurred there. Allegedly, the encounter resulted in the death of twenty villagers, and caused injury to six police officers. Some reports stated that those killed were armed Maoist guerrillas, and the injuries sustained by the police officers were made by low-velocity shot-guns, not by the long-range Kalashnikovs favoured by government forces. Others argued that the dead were unarmed villagers and children. A “magisterial inquiry” has been ordered into the shootings, but is yet to publicise any concrete findings.
This was not a chance event, but the repeat of an all too familiar pattern of the counterinsurgency tactics adopted by the Government of India in a civil war that seems to be escalating in the jungles of eastern India. The paramilitary counterinsurgency is killing Maoists, but is also targeting civilians. This was the primary concern when the government commenced its “search and comb” operation, which the media provocatively titled “Operation Green Hunt”. It was also witnessed in the occasional headline that regretted the death of a village lad or his father suspected of being Maoists accomplices at the hands of the police, and the more routine mass killings, such as the one at Bijapur, which ended with implications from both sides, deaths on both ends, and no conclusive verdict or prosecution. As it ashed the insurgents, it created the bitter but fertile space for the rise of many more.
The Central Government has deployed the Indian Reserve Battalion, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Border Security Force, and the CRPF (the country’s largest paramilitary force with a strength of 280,000 personnel as estimated by the International Institute for Strategic Studies), along with Special Police Officers (ex-Maoist recruits and trained local villagers) and other units contributed by the State Governments, in the violence affected areas of central and eastern India. This also included the Salwa Judum (peace mission), a controversial vigilante anti-Maoist group. The debate continues between whether the state set up the Salwa Judum, or supported the movement as it grew. Their brutal tactics, including indiscriminate firing, kidnapping, and killing, left them no better than the insurgents in the eyes of the villagers.
So controversial has been the origin, and so lawless their actions that in July 2011, in the Nandini Sundar and Ors. vs. State of Chattisgarh case the SC eventually declared the Salwa Judum to be an unconstitutional body. The SC ordered the immediate repeal of Special Police Officers (SPOs), banned the distribution of fire arms and prevented the funding and organization of Salwa Judum and other such vigilante groups.
However, outlawing the Salwa Judum and SPOs has in no way dimmed the violence of the counterinsurgency. Two months after the SC’s verdict, the Chattisgarh State Government passed the Chattisgarh Auxilliary Armed Police Force Act which legalized the positions of SPOs and authorized an auxiliary armed force to assist the security forces to deal with Maoist violence.
Binayak Sen, one of the foremost advocates of tribal rights, had compared the paramilitary counterinsurgency to a genocidal situation. Civilians caught between this battle of power, do not know who is protecting them – as they witness neighbours and families ruthlessly killed by both sides. The government’s attempt at winning the hearts and minds of the civilians is immediately lost here because there is no right, no wrong, no offense, no defense; only the remnants of an ideology, and the constant churning of blood as occurred in Bijapur this June.
The Ministry of Rural Development and the Planning Commission have alternatively embarked on a mission that would cater to the welfare of the tribal population. The Integrated Action Plan (2010) and the recent Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fund (2011) have been some such efforts. However, the progress of these efforts has not been constant.
Construction of a road in Palamu, Jharkhand, that would connect the village of Lidki to the urban parts of the state, came to a stall last month due to the irregularities in the quality of the work, and the lack of funds. The foundation stone for a bridge over the Gurupriya River in Odisha was laid twelve years ago. The bridge would have connected tribal villages with the state’s mainland. However, the centre has not taken strong action to continue this effort, and constructors now refuse to work there due to fear of Maoist violence. Moreover, the constant divergence of opinion between the Centre and the State Governments has further stalled development efforts. Earlier this year, the Central Government asked the Ministry of Rural Development to suspended aid funds to Panchayats in Odisha, where leaders were elected unopposed, until fresh elections were contested. The State Government of Odisha and Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Rural Development ignored this order, and went ahead with their plans of partnering with the Panchayat heads to implement development works. Recently, Mr. Ramesh attributed the delay in the implementation of the Integrated Action Plan to not being thought out carefully. He stated that the same amount of funds (Rs. 30 crore) is handed out to all 82 Integrated Action Plan districts. Of these, 25 of the most acutely affected regions are given the same fiscal benefits, as the other regions. He said that such regions should be treated with more caution and more funds. He also emphasized the lack of political involvement of local representative bodies, whose presence and guidance is crucial to local development work. Such stags in the development progress and the regular Maoist attempts to destroy these efforts, has left the government taking one step forward, to retreat three steps back.
It is necessary to mention that the Maoists have been indisiminate and ruthless in their rebel tactics. They have blown up a bus killing 24 civilians, destroyed rail-tracks, roads, and schools, as well as dispassionately massacred 76 CRPF soldiers in April 2010. The Maoists have followed no rules and no discretion in their insurgency. However the government seems to be following their footsteps. The violations committed by the police and other such armed forces have breached the constitutional laws of the country – including the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Actwhich specifically safeguards the rights and independence of the tribal people and forest dwellers. Therefore, unless the government is practicing an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth routine – which is leaving all the villagers blind and toothless – the question remains as to how the it is justifying its campaign.
The paramilitary counterinsurgency is rife with human rights violations. These repeated actions obfuscate the country’s internal accountability and responsibility towards its citizens questioning the very core of the polity that the government is fighting so hard to defend.
Note: The American Field Manual on Counterinsurgency defines an insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict”; whilst a “counterinsurgency is military, paramilitary, economic, social, psychological and civil actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.”
Rithika Nair is a human rights researcher in New Delhi. Her primary areas of interest are child rights, children involved in and affected by armed conflict, and peace and conflict studies. She has a post-graduate degree in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is completing a post-graduate diploma in International Humanitarian Law from the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University, Hyderabad.