Abduction of Chhatisgarh IAS officer by Maoists: Take a different route

Nandini Sundar, who has been campaigning for peace talks between the government and Maoists since 2005, writes:

Take a different route
Bitterness. When I started receiving calls that Alex Paul Menon, the collector of Sukma, had been kidnapped, that was my over-riding feeling. Bitterness and a cold anger. Menon is one of the best collectors I have met, and doing what he could to make life better for the people of his district, even in the face of an overall counter-insurgency policy designed for the opposite. Though kidnapped by the Maoists, Menon joins the ranks of several other hostages who have paid the price for their efforts to bring about peace.

Take for instance, my co-petitioner in the Supreme Court in the Salwa Judum matter, Kartam Joga, an elected representative who believes in democratic means. He has been held hostage by the Chhattisgarh government since August 2010, in jail on a variety of trumped up charges. Podiyam Panda, the former sarpanch of Chintagufa, who was singlehandedly responsible for getting seven Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men released in an earlier hostage crisis, and who ensured that through the worst times the school in his village was not blasted and continued to function, is now accused of over a dozen heinous crimes. It is men like Menon, Joga and Panda, who can broker peace at an everyday level, and yet these are precisely the men who are being turned into hostages by ruthless revolutionaries and an equally ruthless security establishment, both of whom see nothing beyond the use of military force.

Maj Gen (retd) GD Bakshi’s plea in the Supreme Court that prisoners should not be released in a hostage crisis because the security forces risked their lives to arrest Maoists is, at best, a very partial truth. In truth, the vast majority of people in the jails of central India arrested as “Maoists” are ordinary adivasis, who have been incarcerated on flimsy grounds and whose families cannot muster the amounts needed to pay lawyers or file for bail. The government and judiciary should take urgent steps to release them, not because of the Maoists, but because it is what the Constitution demands. The Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh, now synonymous with a Maoist front, started off as a legitimate movement for adivasi land rights. Yet, the State’s preferred response was to side with the oppressors and file cases against its leaders.

Manish Kunjam, CPI leader in Sukma and I met Menon in his office in January. I had just come back from Tadmetla, where the CBI was investigating attacks on villages by Special Police Officers (SPOs) in March 2011. While the villagers were incredibly brave in testifying, despite the intimidating presence of security forces, frustration is inevitably building up. People have no hope of legal redress because the State refuses - despite many directions from the Supreme Court - to recognise the crimes that were committed by the security forces and their proxies. Far from disbanding the SPOs after the Supreme Court declared their use unconstitutional in 2011, the Chhattisgarh government has renamed them an “armed auxiliary force’, and given them better guns and more money. Emboldened by this, in February, the SPOs even attacked the CBI team. The superintendent of police who tried to stop them was physically manhandled by his own SPOs.

Manish and I said how, in this kind of context, “development” through the “integrated action plan” (IAP) was beside the point. Moreover, it was doomed to fail in the interior villages, because none of the sarpanches lived in the villages, and the money was being spent on paper.  Menon said he was interested in some basic changes - especially agricultural improvement - not because it would win hearts and minds, but simply because it was the right thing to do, and his duty as a collector. He described how, in his first posting in Bijapur, he had slipped away and attended a Maoist meeting incognito, but could no longer do so,  because after Vineel Krishna had been kidnapped, the government had issued instructions to all its officers not to travel alone. We agreed that by kidnapping officials, the Maoists are doing the villagers no favour, because there is no one to monitor whether schools are being restored in the villages or anganwadis are functioning, even if the teachers agree to go.

However, it is not as if the top security establishment is keen to restore normalcy — they have been resisting peace talks by killing off Maoist leaders, and for two years, stalling any discussion of a rehabilitation plan for Dantewada in the Supreme Court. The IAP then becomes not only irrelevant, but also appears a form of low intensity counterinsurgency. This, in turn, has hardened the Maoist attitude towards what villagers are allowed to access from government. While schools, handpumps, anganwadis and PDS are allowed, the Maoists do not want the villagers to accept any other funds from government, including compensation, unless it comes with criminal prosecution of Salwa Judum leaders. They argue that this would be tantamount to accepting blood money. The villagers themselves want both the state and the Maoists, since they bring benefits of different kinds: they want National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) but not the police and forest guards.

Where does that leave people like us, who are struggling for justice under the Constitution? The Centre’s first statement is not encouraging, with its offer to send more troops. They can send all the paramilitary forces they want, to die as cannon fodder.  There are also plenty of half-starved adivasis waiting to be killed. Perhaps some mediators will come forward, but at best, this will be piecemeal. Rather, since the CRPF claims that the kidnappings are an indication of their success in putting the Maoists on the back foot, such incidents are bound to increase. As against the government’s two pronged strategy of security and development, therefore, I would suggest a three pronged strategy — peace talks, reparations and genuine devolution of control over resources. Only then will our collective bitterness begin to thaw.  Under the ice, there is always clear water.


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