Kutem Siku, a sarpanch in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, was buried alive by the Maoists after being convicted in a Kangaroo court on February 25. Siku had previously guided a team of state government officials to his village for enumeration of farmers. An elected head of a local self-government institution, he paid with his life for having performed his duty.
Contrast this with the recent developments in Odisha in the elections to the post of sarpanch and Panchayat samiti members. At least 32 sarpanch and 43 Panchayat samiti members, backed by the extremists, have been elected unopposed in the Maoist-affected districts. Through a systematic process of threats and coercion, Maoists have ensured that local level administration slips out of the hands of the state agencies. By all means and till the next elections, these Maoist-backed politicians would do their best to further extremist agenda.
The home ministry wanted the polls to be countermanded or at least funding stopped to such panchayats. The rural development ministry, pursuing a development formula and promoting mainstream political activity in the Maoist-affected areas, however, thinks that such steps are unnecessary. Tight monitoring of the activities of these self-government bodies would ensure compliance, the ministry argues. Fact, however, remains that such false sense of optimism sends a wrong message to people like Siku, to say the least.
A hype has replaced another as the government attempts to deal with the Maoist threat. Gone are the days of Operation Green Hunt. With Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh at the helm, the government now attempts to ensure adequate resources to change the development landscape of the Maoist-affected regions. The minister feels political activity in these areas would create a new set of leadership, which would build up an effective resistance to extremist activities. However, a look at the other conflict theatres would have been sufficient to dilute Ramesh’s power of argument.
Extremist domination over political processes — be it in the erstwhile restive northeast India or the militancy affected Jammu & Kashmir — is a fact of life. Not so long ago, in insurgency-affected Assam, candidates flocked to get support of militant outfits before the elections. Politicians with suitcase full of currency notes were arrested from militant dens. In Nagaland, the insurgents ensured that politicians supporting their cause are elected to the state assemblies. Once elected, such politicians, far from becoming the harbingers of governance and development, excelled in watering down counter-insurgency measures of the state. There is no reason to believe that the Maoist-backed candidates would be any different.
Our experience in the northeast should provide further indications that pouring money into areas that are still under the grip of extremism have rarely achieved any purpose. Extremist-affected areas resemble bottomless pits. Any amount of resources poured into them disappear without a trace. A policy of ending the sense of alienation in the northeast through the power of money profusely benefited the extremist-bureaucrat-contractor nexus and not the common man.
The rural development ministry’s activities are in full swing in Jharkhand and West Bengal. While Saranda development plan now forms the new benchmark for the government initiatives in Maoist-affected areas, Ramesh has complimented Mamata Banerjee’s efforts to restart the political activity in the Maoist-affected Jangalmahal area. The fact remains that such activities have followed successful security operations. Operation Monsoon in August 2011 that cleared Saranda forests in Jharkhand of Maoist presence was the precursor to the Saranda plan. Similarly, death of Maoist leader Kishenji in November 2011 ensured stabilisation of the situation in West Midnapore district. Only after that the Trinamool Congress workers were able to venture into the area.
The moot question, thus, is not whether conflict-ridden areas should be developed or not, but whether they can be developed, as long as they remain under the influence of the extremists? Will development initiatives, with potentially damaging impact on the Maoist influence, be allowed to take off by the extremists? Won’t a single attack, if not a series, prove to be a decisive setback for the entire development project, thereby deepening the suspicion of the population in the capacity of the government? And thus, won’t it be rational for the government to secure a semblance of order before pouring money into such areas? There is, thus, a need to cut the hype and revisit the current strategies. We owe this to people like Siku.
This article was published in Express Buzz and reprinted with permission.