October 4, 2009
Kumawat, the former BSF chief
New Delhi, Oct. 3: One of India’s topmost anti-Naxalite strategists has questioned the Centre’s new “crackdown-first development-later” credo and warned that any use of air power against Maoists could saddle the nation with “Afghanistan and Iraq-like” security liabilities.
“Development must go hand in hand with the fight against Naxalites; deprived people in the heartland cannot be expected to wait on their misery until the government is done with its long-haul campaigns,” Mahendra Kumawat, who retired as director-general of the BSF last month, told The Telegraph today.
“The government is going to lose more hearts and minds to the Maoists if it forges ahead with a strike policy that brings nothing but bloodshed and disruption to people in the affected zones. That is going to multiply our problems, not solve them. I wish the government all the best, but it isn’t going to work.”
The scorch-then-salve policy, advocated for long by hardline think-tanks, has found favour with home minister P. Chidambaram, but it has also alarmed sceptics within the security establishment who believe strictly police solutions are a “counter-productive half measure”. Recently unshackled by retirement, Kumawat may be articulating their concerns.
Kumawat speaks from a decade’s “on ground” experience of dealing with Naxalites in the Andhra-Orissa-Chhattisgarh triangle. Before assuming command of the BSF, he was also chairman of the national anti-Naxalite task force in the Union home ministry during Shivraj Patil’s tenure as internal security boss.
Kumawat wouldn’t take names, but he made it apparent that his experience as head of the national co-ordination desk in North Block did not inspire too much optimism over the anti-Naxalite offensive in the works under Chidambaram.
“We may think nationally but we do not act nationally,” he said. “There is little or no co-ordination between states which are actually as big as countries. West Bengal, for instance, would not share information with Jharkhand. There are debilitating turf battles between various agencies, intelligence is routinely held back or delayed, and most of the intelligence and documentation we have is poor in any case. All that needs to change if the government is to have half a chance of success.”
The retired top cop was critical of the manner in which governments approached the “very alarming” Naxalite challenge, saying: “We don’t prepare well enough. Information is critical and it is not available in the market, it has to be gathered and analysed all the time and over a long period of time. How many of our states have done that? Probably Andhra Pradesh, and they have had some success to show for homework done. But the same cannot be said for the rest. We are ill-prepared.”
Asked whether there was virtue to Chidambaram’s argument that Naxalite-dominated areas first needed to be “cleansed” of their “disruptive dominance” before development initiatives can be effectively mounted, Kumawat said: “Well, the home minister has himself said this will be a long battle, how long are people to wait for the welfare state to come to them? The challenge and the ingenuity of governance lies is doing both at the same time, the security component will have to be built in to development projects, as has been successfully done in parts of the Northeast. It may be tough to do, but that is what governments are about.”
Cautioning against using too hard a hand, Kumawat said: “We are hearing things about the use of the Indian Air Force, but the government should be extremely careful it is only logistical use, nothing else. And even so, the Naxalites are very capable of trapping the air force in ugly situations where they will have no option but to retaliate. Once that begins to happen, there will be the huge risk of collateral damage to populations and further alienation. The Naxalites are clever tacticians, they will engage and scoot, innocent people will get killed, you will have mess on your hands. Look at what the drone attacks are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
He sounded utterly unsurprised by indications emerging from Naxalite circles that they plan a bloody cat-and-mouse with security forces in the weeks and months to come.
“If they are talking of encircling the government rather than getting encircled, it is nothing to scoff at or be smug about. That is classical Maoist tactic — you go looking for them in their strongholds and you find they have melted away, their mobility is an advantage they employ to the hilt,” Kumawat said, adding that this Naxalite tactic, too, bedevils government plans.
“They will melt away, or just merge with populations. An operation, even if it is based on good and specific tip-offs, can end up hurting innocent people and creating greater disaffection against the state.” TT