The release of Sukma Collector Alex Paul Menon last week by Maoists may have ended the 12-day long hostage crisis and brought relief to the Chhattisgarh government, but it has once again highlighted the enormity of the Naxal problem which our country faces today.
Not to forget that just before the kidnapping of Sukma Collector, the home-grown rebels had abducted two Italian tourists and a BJD MLA Jhina Hikaka in Odisha, who were released after a series of hectic negotiations between the Maoists and government mediators.
The recent kidnappings and the Naxals’ changing strategy to bargain the release of hostages to get their demands fulfilled is an alarming trend and an indication that Naxalism today poses the gravest threat to the country’s internal security.
So far, the CPI(Maoist) extremists have been targeting policemen and security forces combing in the Naxal-infested zones but this was probably the first time that a high-level administrative officer (Sukma Collector), who was involved in tribal welfare, had been targeted.
This implies that anyone representing the state, including the district collectors, is perpetually at a risk while on duty in these areas. The tragic incidents of kidnapping has once again proven that the Centre-States’ response to the home-grown guerrillas has been ‘inadequate’ and ‘unstructured’, if not slow.
The Centre has time and again invited Maoist rebels to abjure violence and come to the negotiation table for a proper redressal of their grievances. However, Centre’s appeal for peace with Naxals has borne little fruit and the banned ultras have vehemently rejected the truce offer.
Union Home Minister P Chidambaram might be working tirelessly to improve and strengthen the internal security scenario in the country ever since he assumed charge but what has remained unchanged is the fact that the State continues to look at the Naxal menace with single lens.
Moreover, the UPA government’s much-touted two-pronged strategy – one aiming at the all-round development of Naxal-infested regions and the other at ending the deadlock through peaceful manners – has been unstructured and replete with flaws.
The Maoists have, in fact, been using the developed infrastructure in conducting recce of their targeted spots, planting bombs, acquiring sophisticated weaponry - either by looting it or buying them from open arms market, as indicated by the Home Ministry in its assessment report.
The possibility of ‘outside help’ being offered to these banned ultras, leading to the disintegration of the Indian state, cannot also be ruled out completely. The Centre-State coordination needed to handle the crisis situation is still poor as it came to fore in the case of Hikaka’s abduction with the two sides vehemently blaming each other for lack of support.
It’s not that we have not the learnt any lessons from major Naxal-related violence in the past, but the issue clearly needs a rethink and a change in the approach towards home-grown rebels.
There can be several views on handling the Naxal problem – one suggesting the use of armed forces against them and treating them like terrorists; the other calling for a complete withdrawal of armed forces and halt to anti-Maoist offensive in Naxal areas coupled with a renewed push to local development.
The choice clearly lies with the Centre and the state governments and the situation warrants the need for a national policy to deal with the issue since Naxalism is no longer a state-specific problem.
So, what could be a workable solution to end this menace? Will the abduction and subsequent release of Sukma Collector change the ground reality? Will the government slow down and ask the central paramilitary forces to stop the clean-up in Naxal zones? Will the government take responsibility for the atrocities and brutal police torture of Maoists sympathisers and killings in the name of Operation Green Hunt?
In view of Menon’s kidnapping, a large number of Maoist sympathisers and social activists including Dr Binayak Sen, Vice-President of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Himanshu Kumar, GN Saibaba, Vice-President, Revolutionary Democratic Front Of India, and BD Sharma, former SC/ST commissioner, all have demanded an urgent end of militarisation of the Naxal zones as the first step towards solving this problem.
They believe that the withdrawal of armed forces will be welcomed by tribals. Besides, the government should also provide accessibility to social activists and journalists to them. The government representatives must go and listen to the problems faced by the neglected and under-privileged tribals in these areas. The exploitation and harassment of Naxals should stop immediately in all but genuine cases. The government must keep the channels of communication open so as to get a better understanding of their problems.
I also believe the top-to-bottom approach of governance should change now and the bottom level employees should report to the higher bureaucracy about the ground reality and who should be given the ownership of the forest land.
Among other steps, the process for setting up of a Tribal Advisory Council should be initiated and the recommendations made by the Planning Commission for accelerating development in the Naxal areas be implemented at the earliest.
Another significant step could be the coming into effect of a uniform Land Acquisition Act to deal with the cases of unauthorised land displacements and acquisitions by powerful local lords and mining czars in the Naxal belt.
If the Centre is ready to abandon its carrot and stick policy, the tribals will surely lay down arms and go back to farming - this is what the civil society believes or otherwise the Naxals will keep preparing themselves for a bloodier confrontation with the armed forces in future.
The recent kidnappings also suggest that there is still no erosion of ideology among the Naxals otherwise they could have brutally tortured and possibly killed their prized catches. There is also no hidden pattern in the recent kidnappings, which were simply done to put more pressure on the Central-State governments and highlight their plight and the alleged atrocities being committed by the armed forces in those areas.
All this clearly indicates that the Naxals are ready to lay down arms, shun the path of mindless violence and willing to come forward for talks only if the government makes an honest effort and extends an olive branch to them. Unless this happens, the state and the CPI(Maoist) extremists will remain locked in the battle of tactics and counter-tactics.