Taking On Naxals In Chhattisgarh: An Insider’s Account
In 2009, when I assumed charge as Union Home Secretary, left-wing extremism, or Naxalism as it is popularly known, had been the most serious internal security situation in India for the last five years. But the most pressing internal security situation was actually not in Chhattisgarh, but in Lalgarh, West Bengal, where the state government at the time had abdicated its primary role and allowed the Naxals or Maoists complete sway in hundreds of square kilometres in an area not very far from Kolkata, the state capital.
The police station at Lalgarh had been shut down and almost all vestiges of state control had disappeared. The Government of India had to send in three battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force to restore a semblance of law and order. Over the next two years, the ‘Lalgarh Experiment’ – which had been tom-tommed by the Maoists as a precursor of what was to happen in the rest of India – lay in a shambles.
Chhattisgarh was the state most severely affected by the left-wing extremist movement. Even today, the writ of the state government hardly runs in hundreds of square kilometres.
I will not go into the history of the Naxal movement, on which tomes have been written.
This was a self-inflicted wound inflicted indigenously, without any external support, primarily due to poor governance and exploitation of the weaker communities by the dominant elites.
Not Enough Forces to Check Maoists
It was no longer a simple law-and-order situation, which could be tackled by just inducting more central police forces into the state. Maoist violence had been low in the preceding decade, as the state had ceded its functions over large areas to them. They were busy consolidating their positions and didn’t see the need to strike at the state.
The inadequacy of the forces could be seen in the fact that the seven left-wing extremism-affected states had just 33 battalions of central police forces while Jammu & Kashmir, at one-tenth the area, had 90 battalions, apart from the army.
A lot of discussion took place on the deployment of the army in these left-wing extremism-affected states, but in the end, it was rightly decided that the better course of action would be to use the central police forces.
These would undergo an orientation training of six weeks with army units before being deployed. We were facing a serious insurgency situation calling for troops prepared to fight a jungle warfare over a protracted period of time.
Inducting central police forces urgently was necessary also to boost the morale of the state police forces who were struggling to hold ground. Looking at the overall availability of the central police forces – which would have to be inducted by withdrawing forces from J&K and North-Eastern states in a phased manner – it was also decided that these would be used in a concentrated grid fashion and we would consolidate in areas where we had the advantage of logistics and infrastructure, and go after the Maoist strongholds later, once we were in a better position.
There was the added problem of state police forces being limited to their state jurisdictions, while the Maoist forces had no such restrictions and could slip across state boundaries when the pressure became intense.
Turning The Tide
Of the additional forces deployed, the bulk was in Chhattisgarh. The change in strategy also meant that the combined forces had to slowly dominate areas under the influence of the Maoists both during the day and at night. Another major problem was coping with the Maoists’ use of improvised explosive devices.
Chhattisgarh had a dynamic chief minister who understood the seriousness of the left-wing extremism problem. That was not the position with some other chief ministers who gave it a low priority.
We could not succeed fully unless all states were on board with the strategy and tactics.
There were some serious setbacks in 2010, especially at Chintalnar, where an entire company of the CRPF got wiped out and all their weapons were seized. Slowly, the tide turned and the violence which peaked at the start of the decade, as we went on the offensive, has been slowly coming down.
The strategy of simultaneous offensive operations and economic development has slowly started paying dividends.
Roads have improved, communication facilities have improved and some outstanding work by young and dynamic district collectors has helped.
The scheme of giving Rs 30 crore to each district every year – to be operated by the district collector, the district superintendents of police and the district forest officer – to meet needs that were understood locally, was a game changer.
Work Remains To Be Done
Yet, the weaknesses in the district administration and shortage of officers in key areas like health, education, police and other welfare departments is a worry. The tardy implementation of the Tribal Land Rights Act and provisions of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution (Administration and Control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes) are still matters of concern and need to be vigorously enforced. A good grievance-redressal mechanism to resolve the common citizen’s small issues will be a game changer in this area.
We must not forget that a bulk of the main armed group of Maoists is still intact, and can be a threat at any time in the next few years. However, if development continues and basic facilities begin to be provided by governments, the grip of the Maoists over the bulk of the people will wear away and more will join the mainstream of development, which must ultimately must be oriented to better the lives of the people in the region.
(The article was originally published in the BloombergQuint)