Civilians: Caught between the devil and deep sea!

Home Ministry officials will meet authorities of Naxal affected states on July 13 to chalk out SOPs to deal with human shields.

Pankaj Sharma/ZRG

As Home Ministry officials meet authorities of Naxal affected states on July 13 to chalk out Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to deal with human shields, the bitter truth of civilians being caught between the devil and deep sea stares them in the face.

The meeting takes place in the backdrop of key Naxal observers advocating a total revamp of security operations to deal with the issue. Last week 17 alleged Naxal ultras were killed in an encounter with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The BJP ruled state government of Chhattisgarh has set in motion a judicial probe in view of opposition charges that innocent civilians were killed during the encounter.

While the verdict on whether or not all those killed in the latest offensive were Naxals is yet to come, a clear picture on the fate of civilians emanates out of a study of Home Ministry statistics on Naxal violence. A Zee Research Group (ZRG) analysis of Naxal violence during the last four years starting 2009 revealed that (until April 15, 2012) in a total of 6,687 Naxal incidents officially registered, 1856 civilians were killed as against 505 ultras.

The number of incidents covered by the Home Ministry includes actions both by Naxals as also the security forces. Among states, during last year, Chhattisgarh reported killing of 124 civilians which was second worst after Jharkhand which registered the maximum of 149 innocent killings.

The MHA as also security forces have always maintained that they would like to minimize the loss of innocent lives while dealing with ultras. The relatively high civilian casualty has been explained by the government on the ground that the ultras use them as human shields. This is a common tactic used by ultras in conflict situation to keep security forces at bay and somehow the government has not been able to find ways to keep civilians out of the action.

This failure has come in for sharp criticism, especially in view of the latest killings in Chhattisgarh. Social activist and former Bastar collector BD Sharma expressed anger over the government’s method to deal with Naxalism in the country. He said, “It’s sad to see that innocent people are being shot in India’s anti-Naxal operation. The Central government should play the role of a protector and not of a damager.”

In April this year, Sharma was named as one of the interlocutors by Maoists to negotiate in the abduction case of IAS officer and Sukma District Collector Alex Paul Menon.

Endorsing Sharma’s argument, Naxal movement watcher Dr Ali Ahmed at Jamia Millia Islamia University and former colonel in the Indian Army, said, “There is a need to train better officers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to deal with extremists operating from the jungle. Handling extremists in jungle is not CRPF’s cup of tea.”

The CRPF, which functions under the aegis of the Home Ministry, is playing a major role in India’s anti-Naxal movement. Official statistics revealed that a maximum of 2258 anti-Naxal encounters took place during 2009. In the same year, 591 civilians and 219 Naxals were reported killed.

In 2010 and 2011, 2213 and 1755 incidents of gunfight with Naxals were reported, respectively. While 720 and 464 civilians died during 2010 and 2011, the ultras’ toll stood at 172 and 99, respectively. Until April 15 this year, a total of 461 incidents of Naxal violence were reported, in which 81 civilians and 15 Naxalites were killed.

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