India’s cruelest joke: The Naxal war

July 24th, 2012

“All war is deception,” said Sun Tzu, the Chinese military general and philosopher, around 500 BC. Nothing could more accurately describe the Naxal conflict burning through India’s hinterland today.

It has been some time since I travelled to south Chhattisgarh, the heart of the ultra-Left revolution. There, I toured cities, towns and remote villages. I met key actors: the tribals caught in the crossfire, the chief minister, bureaucrats, the police brass, activists and many a journalist. All, except the rebels themselves.

The single, most-important takeaway was simply this: the Indian government and its agencies on the ground are fighting a nearly invisible enemy. Even though they clearly knows who exactly they should actually be fighting.

This is by no measure a ground-breaking discovery. For well over a decade now, the Indian state has recognised this complexity in its fight against the Naxals. It has admitted the sheer difficulty in distinguishing between an innocent tribal villager and an armed, motivated insurgent.

The problem is, despite years of fighting this bloody fight, the Indian government can do no better today. The storm that has erupted over the killing of 19 persons in Dantewada at the end of June is evidence of this. It has shown once again, with deadly consequences, that the security establishment is operating within a haze; and that once again, it is the people who have had to pay the price for this incompetence.

Across south Chhattisgarh, much of the security forces remain holed up in roadside camps surrounded by rings of barbed wire and sentry posts. These are men and women of exceptional courage, no doubt, but they are as good as aliens on a hostile planet. Those that freely operate outside, the erstwhile Special Police Officers, have built a reputation that few agree with. The highly-trained special forces contingents are few and far between.

The tribal villagers, caught between a government that promises to spend on them (but not without harassment) and a Naxal leadership that promises to keep the government out, often side with the latter. The government’s reach here is precarious, therefore its promises unreliable.

That’s not to say that the Naxal movement has delivered either. Those that have gained access say it is all the same, sometimes even a little worse. But, years of governmental apathy and heavy-handedness must have some manifestation. Also, those who have sided with the government have gained little; they live like virtual prisoners in well-protected camps, away from their forests and often their families, too.

Effectively, therefore, the Indian state, having spent crores of rupees and thousands of lives, has only a semblance of an intelligence network. For the security forces, finding an insurgent is not like looking for a needle in a haystack. Rather, it’s like looking for a specific needle in a sack of sharp needles.

So, all this talk about standard operating procedures (under the direction of the home ministry), procuring mine-proof vehicles, augmenting troop numbers and creating cutting-edge counter-terrorism schools is as good as useless. Unless, of course, collateral damage is the objective.

Instead, the government needs to reach the people. It must listen to them carefully and deliver development. It cannot anymore ignore years of misrule and not correct what it has done wrong. It shouldn’t try and push in big business before bringing in the most basic of services.

But most importantly, it must stop building a security machinery that doesn’t even know its precise target. It has to build trust through governance, to be then able to create a system that delivers reliable intelligence. It needs to gain control over information. After all, there can be no deception without information.

Otherwise, hundreds will continue to die as the Naxals quietly smirk under the shadow of the government’s ineptitude.

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