By Firdaus Ahmed
An army brigade has been deployed for its jungle warfare training to Chhattisgarh for the second round. Reportedly it is located closer to the forested area than the brigade that had trained there earlier. With another such deployment, troops would edge closer to the Maoist ‘liberated zone’ as by then there would be enough troops familiar with the terrain and the challenge. The decision to give a free rein to them to ‘liberate’ the tribals held ‘hostage’ by Maoists in the forests can be easily taken.
From the preliminary moves underway it is apparent that the option is open, subject to the army’s readiness. Though the army is not in favour since its engagement in Kashmir continues, leaving no troops to spare. The army deployment for training purposes is an internal variant of ‘coercive diplomacy’ – it is to goad the Maoists on to the table.
In the interim the window for talks is closing. The Maoists interlocutor, Azad, was shot last year. The new state government in Kolkata has resumed operations successfully in claiming the Maoist leader, Kishenji, after a short ceasefire. Fresh thinking on breaking the status quo is called for. Operations to open up ‘no go’ areas do not seem imminent. The paramilitary is doing a reasonable job of keeping the areas needed for extraction of minerals open, but at a non-trivial cost in lives. The companies accessing difficult areas are arriving at an arrangement with the Maoists. Maoists have been contained in their hold outs. The only ones suffering are the already marginalized tribal communities within and in the adjacent region.
In the meanwhile, the government has extended its tried and tested policy of dole to the region, empowering its administrators already burdened with the usual development load with another 25 crore Rupees per district. This may well end up with contractors, who will pay out some to the Maoists as protection money. Glacial operations are set to be indefinitely extended. This is good enough for security managers perhaps; but not so for tribal communities. They have been squeezed between Maoists and the state supported SPOs. The Supreme Court judgment on the SPOs has been undercut by the Chhattisgarh state enacting a law institutionalizing their employment.
Then, can the tribal communities be saved? The military option, in case mere military posturing fails, has precedent. The clearing of the Lakhipather reserve forests off the ULFA in late 1990 and Operation Sarp Vinash in Surankot in Poonch district are examples, which involved the army setting up a firm base and then moving in. In both cases the quarry had fled by the time the army closed the cordon. For Maoists to flee into neighbouring areas within time in case of military operations is possible. This will leave the resident village communities open to the attention of the SPOs, Koya Commondos etc, inevitably part of the vanguard of the operation. In case the Moaists are indeed trapped, with the military learning lessons from earlier operations, their plight will be worse. Pre-empting operations would also benefit the state and the military since jungle operations are known to consume troops and time, witness the operations of the IPKF in late eighties.
An idea is to apply the ‘Nagaland model’ to conflict resolution in Central India. In Nagaland the ceasefire is into its fourteenth year, even as talks continue. Loosely applied regulations enable the armed groups to coexist with the security forces. A parallel government of the no-longer-underground is in place that ‘taxes’ people. The good part is that the two sides are not shooting at each other. The resulting peace has proved addictive and chances of reversion to internal conflict are receding. The talks have been buoyed lately by ideas such as a ‘non-territorial’ or ‘supra state’ solution to the major holdup, Nagalim.
Maoists stand to make gains in legitimacy, visibility and power. This may tempt them down the democratic route. This is worth conceding for the state in exchange for protecting Indian citizens: their life and liberties and restoring a dignified life to the people. The state’s policies will get better implemented, with areas opened for development. The major gain, as in Nagaland, would be in backtracking being precluded by either side. It would make them lose out strategically in terms of losing support among the people, who would prefer that peace acquire roots. Peace would then be self-sustaining.
Over the past three years, there has been a lot of ‘talk about talks’. The problems of this strategy are that with a dwindling leadership, the insurgent groups break up. While easier to tackle, bringing the violence to end becomes problematic. The stated intent of the Home Minister needs translation into action. The Nagaland model exists. The promise of development will be easier to deliver. The elimination of the top Maoist leader, Kishenji, provides an opportunity for acting from a position of strength. Seizing it would certainly spare India’s tribal communities becoming a site for yet another unending counter-insurgency.
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