A senior security advisor in the home ministry, K Vijay Kumar, says security forces alone cannot solve the Naxal problem, emphasises on the need to connect with villagers in affected areas, believes Chhattisgarh is on course to resolving its Maoist problem, and insists the government doesn’t see NGOs as enemies.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: Former prime minister Manmohan Singh called Naxalism the biggest threat to internal security. How does this government see it?
The principal approach has been the same: security and development. And the two go hand-in-hand. Yes, in 2006, Manmohan singh described it as the foremost problem for the country as far as internal security was concerned. However, the situation has been improving. If you need absolute numbers, then from 1,000 killings each year, the figure has come down to 230-140. Significantly, in 2015, the numbers have come down by a further 40%. Forty per cent reduction is generally considered very good development. And if you talk about shrinkage, then from 100 districts (areas affected by Naxalism), it has come down to 15-20. Things are improving, but there could be a few jerks, such as a blast etc. But overall the security force is doing a tremendous, and a rather difficult, job.
The ratio since last year has been that we are losing one (of our men) and taking three from their (Naxals) ranks.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: When you say that the strike rate is 1:3, how many Naxals have been eliminated in the past one year? Despite the successes, do you see any change in the situation on the ground? Are Naxals attracting less number of people now?
(We are losing) less than 60-70 (men) from our side and you can multiply and get the numbers for their side. I may not be very accurate. They are definitely attracting lesser number of people. Recruitment has reduced drastically and, as a result, some of their ranks have been filled in by people from other areas where there is better ‘recruiting soil’. Let me put it this way, 80% of the people recruited in Odisha are from other places such as Chhattisgarh, which is a fertile ground (for Naxalism).
For the past 24 years, Bastar has been virtually under the control (of Naxals), and it is only in the past five-six years that the government has stepped up its efforts. The problem is like the three walls of a triangle — lack of governance, lack of development and lack of security, military and political… All of this creates a vacuum.
The terrain in the region is also very challenging. We have not taken over Bastar, but the situation is improving slowly. Bastar is just one of the six or seven affected districts. Some of the worst affected districts are Sukma, Bijapur, Jagdalpur and Kanker. In these areas, the tribal communities also have to be handled delicately, because they have been indoctrinated by these people (Naxals). Efforts by the government have been stepped up. We have a plan to construct 500 km of road, of which 200 km has been completed around the Sukma region. So things are happening, but they cannot happen at a pace that you and I would like it to happen. Counter-insurgency cannot be a sugarcoated pill dumped down their throats. Things are proceeding at a pace, and the situation is getting better.
RAHUL TRIPATHI: You have been on ground zero. What went wrong during the March 11 incident, when 12 CRPF personnel were killed and two injured, in an ambush in the Bhejji area of Sukma district?
See there is a procedure for an inquiry — part 1 and part 2. Part 1 is simply about the number of people who have died… It is a very crisp and condensed form of looking at the situation. That part is now over. Part 2 is more detailed — whether the incident happened because of omission or commission, whether something which was not supposed to be done was done. All these angles are being looked into.
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Two patrols, each with 60-70 men, were moving on either side of the road. They were going into an area where a road is being planned. The idea was to open up the area. Now, from their (Naxals’) point of view, you are entering their bedroom. Each patrol had been broken down into three smaller patrols, and there was a gap between them. One of the platoons got hit, and some of them started taking cover in the trees. In some previous instances, Naxals have planted explosives in areas where people would normally take cover. But it would be very harsh on my part to say you shouldn’t have taken cover. It all depends on the local situation.
In this case (Sukma), the captains there, they decided to take cover, and that is where they lost an inspector. They took cover… and blast happened in two or three places. The blasts, however, were not so severe as to kill you immediately, but enough to incapacitate you. My guess is that the Naxals wanted to take their (the security forces’) weapons. That is what they did. I think we probably would have done better if we had more canine elements, because they can sense strangers from a 100 yards. Having them as part of our advance team would have helped.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The two-pronged approach to dealing with Naxalism — development and security — has, over the years, become a kind of chicken and egg situation. How do you find a balance between the two? The government says there can be administration in a region only when it is free from Naxals, whereas the forces say that ‘area domination’ can happen only if there is some semblance of administration.
Area domination is a bad word actually… What we need is a combination of all these elements. We need to show the flag and say the government of India is here, the government of Chhattisgarh is here, we are around, in case you want to come to us. We need to show them our faces. But then again in showing our faces, there is always a threat. Hundred people go and come back, and four people can sit on a hilltop and disrupt the exercise by just shooting at you.
We need a balance of all this — a bit of long-range patrol, a bit of deep penetrative night movement etc.
The second point is about development. Just because we are not there, that is no excuse to indefinitely keep this area in a vacuum. The best way to fill that vacuum, which is also the internationally accepted way, is to enable the boots, that is chaps like me, who can carry along with them a bit of government. Then there can be a village chief, a ration shop guy, a paramedic, a teacher… I give these people space in my camp. It is called ‘integrative development centre (IDC)’. This is being done by the government. The idea has been tried elsewhere, but I would say that we need to do much more of IDC.
Security forces should never be alone for a long time. What do we do? We go on cleaning up, and we have nothing more to offer, except cleaning up. This cleaning up is very clinical, it looks very good, but it doesn’t have an impact. The impact comes when security, development, governance, all are incorporated. You need an ability to linguistically connect with them, culturally respect them, and make them part of the project. Counter-insurgency is a very, very difficult, complex thing. Handling insurgency is basically a messy affair, and you can only make it less messy from what it already is.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: In the past one year there have been allegations of excesses against security forces, including those of gangrape. Fact- finding missions and researchers, such as Bela Bhatia, visiting the region have been threatened or hounded out. There is an increasing perception that the government wants to create an information vacuum in Bastar.
I have said this over and over again, there are good NGOs, neutral NGOs and then there are not-so-good NGOs. Do we want to embrace them? Yes. We don’t see them as enemies. The problem is that there are extremists on both sides. The NGO extremists and the other kind, who are within our forces. Personally, I can say that if there is a good cop and a good NGO, the partnership would be absolutely fine.
Now, Veerappan cannot be compared to the Maoists, but he used guerrilla tactics. At one point, the public had tilted towards him, and we had to win them over… I see many commonalities. One of the things we faced the most then was that the Special Task Force (STF, which nabbed Veerappan) faced several charges, including that of rape, rioting, arson, loot… you name it. Most heinous sections of the IPC were thrust on them and they had to face inquiries. What happened in the inquiry was that apples and oranges got mixed up, asses and horses were lumped together and the good, bad and ugly had to be merged for the identification parade.
So, people stood there in a line and the so called victims would come and say, ‘No, this man didn’t rape me’. Now, imagine the trauma of the man standing there, who has been put through this just because he is wearing a uniform. So, I think, there needs to be a balance. Since I’m not privy to all the facts, I cannot say anything. But yes, it is unfair to throw out a good NGO. Let them do their work.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: But who defines what is a good NGO and a not-so-good one?
That is a very difficult debate. NGOs have good intentions. Where the government cannot penetrate into, an NGO should, and hence they get together for a common cause. I’m only talking about those who, in the guise of an NGO, have a private agenda. They then try and justify negative things, including the killing of policemen. That’s unacceptable. Then there are some balanced people as well who are condemning violence by the police, State etc. And there’s this third kind of NGO, that may be accused of being planted by the government, that only says good things and talks rubbish about the other guy. That’s what I meant. I didn’t mean to generalise.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: Which other states, besides Chhattisgarh, contribute to the Maoist problem?
I’m focusing on Chhattisgarh, but besides it, Odisha, Jharkhand are the two states which contribute the maximum to the LWE (Left Wing Extremism) problem. Also, the Bihar-Jharkhand border. West Bengal was one of the worst states, but things changed dramatically since the removal of Kishenji (The Maoist leader was killed in 2011).
MUZAMIL JALEEL: There was some talk of recruiting Kashmiri militants who have surrendered and posting them to Chhattisgarh, and vice versa for tribals who have surrendered in Chhattisgarh. Is there such a policy?
There is a two-pronged policy. One is to use their (men who surrender) terrain knowledge, language abilities and cultural affinity in the same area, because it serves as a value addition to our operations, like in the case of the Ladakh Scouts in the Army. The second is to integrate them into national forces such as the CRPF and BSF. Once they are in, unless there is a commitment that they will work in the same state, it is understood that they will work anywhere. There are many Kashmiris working in West Bengal and the Northeast. It is not a deliberate policy to export. It is a national policy of deployment.
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MUZAMIL JALEEL: There are conflicting views on the use of pellet guns. What is your position on it?
See any gun is not good. It is a violent instrument. It has been authorised by law for some agencies to put out violence. Now the pellet gun comes in different sizes. To hit a pigeon, you use a pellet gun of size 1. The smaller the number of the pellet, the bigger the size. Number 8 means it is a very small pellet. Pellet Number 1 is bigger. The pellet gun is considered sub-lethal, a lesser evil, vis-a-vis a 7.52 gun and an AK-47.
Also, the man using it is not a sniper. He is a constable, who is on the move. Everything is dynamic. Now if the pellet gun hits your feet, then its job is done. But if it has caught you somewhere else, it is very bad then. I am only trying to explain the ballistic angle of it, and on why the decision to use it was made. It was not made whimsically. There was a rationale behind it, but the consequences have been quite different from what was expected. There could have been many reasons for it. In a crowd, where this man (a security force personnel) is moving and retreating, the shot may not be accurate. Now to immediately condemn everybody as untrained is incorrect. There needs to be a balance.
So, I am asking for two contrarian things. I am asking for a gun which can be non-lethal and effective at the same time. Also, if the crowd is aware that it is not going to be lethal, then what kind of mob dispersal will there be? I am not talking about Kashmir per se, I am talking about general mechanics of crowd handling, and the philosophy of mob dispersal.
VANDITA MISHRA: But pellet guns are not used outside Kashmir?
No, no. That is not a correct perception at all. Pellet guns, in terms of intensity, over a period of time have been used in Kashmir. But they have been used elsewhere also. I have used them myself in Madurai and other places as well. It is not as if pellet guns were not there, but we did not have enough of them.
Pellet guns were chosen in the hope that they will be less dangerous, and there will be lesser casualties. We need to refine it further and look at what is being used in other countries. We need to see what better things make mobs disperse in a better manner in other countries. Also, mob behaviour is different in different countries, and we need to take that into account as well.
AMRITH LAL: There have been reports of Maoist sightings in the trijunction of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Is there a presence?
Any trijunction is a beautiful halt and residence for these people, because typically the presence of a government ends a little away from this belt. Life is tough there, it’s not a picnic. But these guys find a way to survive because they are resolute. They have a cause, an ideology and they want to fight for it. They are fighters when you push them.
The trijunction has been a potential area for them for the past 10 years. Now that they are feeling the pressure in Bastar, they want a new sanctuary. The geography of the trijunction region is favourable for them.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: What is your view on the JNU controversy and students being charged with sedition?
I would not like to comment on it because I don’t know much about the case.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: In Andhra Pradesh, the situation was as bad as it is now in Chhattisgarh. What did Andhra do that Chhattisgarh did not?
It is very unfair to compare the two. In Andhra, they had certain integrated development actions. Chhattisgarh is doing that as well. What Andhra did in 2001, Chhattisgarh is actually repeating it now.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: You were in Kashmir in 1998, leading the 49 battalion of the BSF. If you look at Kashmir now, it is in the same place where it was then.
I would not like to slip into that area. I had a good stint in Kashmir. We had a huge force then and it was a challenging time. Now I am not studying it so thoroughly, so it will be unfair to comment on it.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: Can you tell us about your new role as an author?
I am very scared to join the writing community. I had partners, I am a very hesitant writer.