The commissioning of the 241st battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the ‘Bastariya Battalion’, has provoked some ill-informed commentary. The battalion, comprised exclusively of tribal recruits from the Bastar region with a strength of 534 personnel, including 189 women, is to be deployed for counter-Maoist operations in the afflicted areas of the Bastar division – among the last few surviving regions where the Maoists retain significant influence and operational capacities.
Misconceived parallels are now being drawn between the Bastariya Battallion and the unprincipled state-backed vigilante Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh. The Salwa Judum was a disastrous misadventure, and it is natural that any efforts to raise a ‘tribal force’ to operate in Chhattisgarh – in the very areas where the Salwa Judum committed its worst excesses – would provoke some misgivings.
The Salwa Judum, it has been noted elsewhere, was “a disgraceful chapter of state opportunism, abdication of responsibility and breakdown.” Its consequences were disastrous for the state, for the people, and for the security forces, as Salwa Judum lawlessness delegitimised the state, fed augmenting Maoist recruitment, displaced a vast tribal population – of which significant proportions are still living in makeshift camps – and escalated violence to unprecedented levels.
Crucially, while supported and armed by the state, the movement was controlled by partisan political leaders, and there was no formal institutional structure to maintain direction or discipline.
Virtually untrained, armed with outdated surplus weapons from police armouries, ignorant of the consequences of what they were being pushed into, Salwa Judum cadres were goaded to confront the better armed, trained and motivated Maoists in regions where the state police and even paramilitary forces did not, at that time, dare to venture.
The appalling consequences were quickly manifested, resulting in competitive brutalities on both sides (the Maoists did not hold back, as this movement was recognised as a potentially devastating popular mobilisation in favour of the state). It was the hapless tribal population that was trampled over in this battle of elephants.
No Connection With History
The CRPF’s Bastariya Battalion has no conceivable connection with this history. For one, it is a regular battalion of the Central Armed Police Force, fully trained, well equipped, bound by its rule and disciplinary norms that are far more stringent than those that generally bind state police forces, and firmly under the force’s chain of command.
With women representing a third of the battalion’s strength, this can only have a restraining, perhaps even civilising influence on its actions and operations. Crucially, the experience of theatres of insurgency across the country – indeed across the world – has been that local forces are best equipped (where properly trained, directed and deployed) to deal with such conflicts.
Their operational efficiency tends to be greater, but, most importantly, their understanding of local cultures and relative integration with local populations ensures that their actions are more narrowly targeted and discriminatory, giving them an advantage over any ‘outside’ force.
Mao Zedong had rightly noted, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” The dictum applies with equal force to the counter-insurgent.
Tribal Against Tribal?
The argument is now being advanced in certain circles, that the deployment of the Bastariya Battalion “will pit tribal against tribal.” Interestingly, such reasoning comes from the very quarters that were earlier talking about the inequities of inflicting an ‘outside force’ on the local population, and demanding the withdrawal of all Central forces.
This is, at best, well intentioned nonsense; at worst, intentional obstruction by Maoist front organisations, sympathisers, or useful idiots.
The Maoists are engaged in an armed rebellion against the state. The state is required to deploy an armed response (in addition to whatever other initiatives may be possible, including ‘developmental’ and the inchoate and ever-undefined ‘political’). The state’s forces will either be comprised of ‘outsiders’ or ‘insiders’, locals or personnel drawn from other parts of the country. It can hardly be argued that neither is acceptable, and the weight of past experience suggests that locals are best.
Indeed, the often-disparaged District Reserve Guard, which absorbed many of the Salwa Judum cadres in order to circumvent the orders of the Supreme Court banning the recruitment and deployment of tribal Special Police Officers (SPOs), has been extraordinarily successful, especially when small contingents have operated in tandem with CAPF units.
The tragedy of Salwa Judum was not that it used tribals or pitted tribal against tribal, but rather that it unleashed a lawless force under no proper discipline or legal constraint.
Risk to Families of Bastariya Battalion Cadres
There is, of course, one problem that will need to be effectively addressed. The Maoists are likely to target, and some reports suggest already have targeted, the family members of Bastariya Battalion personnel.
This is a problem with local forces’ recruitment in all theatres of insurgency – Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and the multiple insurgencies of India’s Northeast – have seen similar pressures on local police personnel. This is a problem that will need to be confronted and addressed, but not one that is unique to Bastar or its tribals.
(The writer is founding member and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. He can be reached @Ajai_Sahni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)