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The Maoist Threat

Omkar Goswami


Between 6 and 7 in the morning of Tuesday, 6 April, the Maoists sprung an ambush on 80-odd people of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Chhattisgarh state police who were returning to their barracks after a night’s combing operations in the Tarametla jungles,. It was a devastating display of firepower capability by the Maoists in their own terrain. According to reports, entrenched in hillocks on both sides of the trail, they first blew up the lead vehicle of the convoy. In the chaos that followed, they gunned down 76 of the 80 cops, at the cost of eight of their own. In less than an hour, it was all over — with the Maoists taking all the government issued guns and ammunition to boot. When the reinforcements arrived, they found only three guns left at the site.

A month or so before the massacre, the Maoists had promised to show Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram who ruled the roost in the remote villages and forests. On 6 April, near Chintalnar village, they proved it in no uncertain terms.

The Dantewada massacre raises critical questions: “Guns versus butter: What works when? Do guns work at all?”. Unfortunately, there are no clear answers.

If we were to take the pro-people, or ‘butter’, side, it is best to begin with a brief portraiture of Dantewada district from the 2001 Census. It is mostly forested, with an area of 10,239 square kilometres. In 2001, it had a reported population of 719,065, comprising 145,272 households. 66 per cent of the population were tribals. Dantewada was the least literate district in India, with a literacy rate of a mere 30 per cent — implying that three out of ten people could at best claim to vaguely signing their names. It was the poorest district of Chhattisgarh and 12th poorest in India in terms of a households ownership and access to basic assets and amenities. I can give you more depressing data. But it isn’t necessary. Dantewada belongs to the wretched of the earth.

But that’s not all. Like many districts Chhattisgarh, Dantewada has been pathetically governed by the Congress and the BJP alike — and this is so since independence. There is neither development work that can empower its people, nor any credible governance at the district-level. This area has seen decades of dis-entitlement and exploitation, both of the adivasis and the forests. There is rampant corruption. And in more recent times, the state government led by Raman Singh, has been promoting Salwa Judum (or ‘peace march’) — a cutely anaesthetised term for arming people, local thugs and henchmen of contractors to eradicate the Maoists.

Can butter work? In theory, yes. But the tragic fact is that there is absolutely no governance structure in Dantewada that can properly implement any development programme worth the name. In fact, there is no governance structure at all. So, the butter advocates can say what they wish about the need for education, healthcare, social infrastructure, rural employment and the like. All of which is correct; but none of which can be implemented in today’s Dantewada.

It is also important to understand what happens when a district gets comprehensively taken over by the Maoists or any armed radical movement. A new administration emerges that runs the area: it collects substantial revenues from the timber mafia, mining dons and other contractors; it levies taxes and duties where it can; it purchases or robs weapons and ammunition; it widens its operations by training people as fighters or informants; and it operates in its terrain of choice. The Maoists are now the economically, politically and militarily powerful rulers of Dantewada, and mere promise of butter — that too from an utterly distrusted administration — will not help in the least in getting them to turn in their arms, and renounce violence for development.

So, it has to be a combination of guns and butter. That’s much easier to pen in an English language weekly than to actually implement in the forests of Chhattisgarh. Despite all their training, the CRPF are operating in alien territory; and the less said of the capability of local cops, the better. The Maoists will lure the government’s forces to deeper forests; choose their times and areas of ambush; use their superior network of informants; and kill as and when they want to make a point. I don’t see the incapable police force of Chhattisgarh doing any anti-terrorism of consequence. And I don’t think that Delhi has the appetite for too much ‘extreme force’ with ‘collateral damage’ — even if it could make such force work.

We can neither stomach a bloody no-holds barred fight; nor start putting a genuinely committed administration in place that begins to govern for a change. That’s why the Maoists are winning. It’s sad but true.


Published: Business World, April 2010


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