Having killed 76 paramilitary troops in April, Maoists have killed 30 more in a bus explosion in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh. Some cabinet ministers want aerial bombing of Dantewada’s jungles to kill Maoists. This will kill civilians and strengthen the Maoists. The problem is not military, and has no military solutions. Home minister Chidambaram says he wants the air force not for bombing but surveillance and logistics. This too is a quasi-military approach, short-sighted and doomed to failure.
Maoists have flourished in several states but been routed in Andhra Pradesh. AP achieved success not through military force but a well-trained and politically empowered police, plus intelligent politics. A similar model crushed Sikh terrorism in Punjab. It needs replication in all Maoist-hit states.
Initially, the then AP chief minister Rajasekhara Reddy tried negotiating with the Maoists but found they were merely buying time. So he formulated a new strategy using the full administration, not the police alone. First, the police got additional staff, superior training, arms, vehicles and communications, as in Punjab. Second, the government built an intensive network of roads in the jungles of the four worst-affected northern districts. Trying to control a jungle belt with a few roads is a death trap, as shown in Dantewada.
In AP, the new road network was used to set up not just new police stations but the full range of government offices and services. This included irrigation, schools and health clinics, and welfare services (cheap rice, employment schemes). Earlier, when Maoists ruled supreme, most government staff had run away, leaving a vacuum filled by the Naxalites. To reoccupy that vacuum, Reddy provided the full range of government services. This gave locals the confidence that the state government was here to fight to the finish. Only then could the police recruit informers, infiltrate Maoists groups, and winkle them out.
In the 1990s, MLAs dared not visit Maoist-hit constituencies for fear of death. But Reddy’s strategy reduced Maoist incidents from 576 in 2005 to 62 in 2009, Maoist killings from 211 to 17, and police deaths from 25 to zero. GDP improved – from 8% to 32% per year in Adilabad, Karimnagar, Warangal and Khammam, the worst-affected districts. This disproved activist claims that people were better off under Maoists.
Why is this strategy not replicated in Chhattisgarh? The key problem is jurisdictional. The central government controls military and paramilitary forces. The state government controls the police. Since the police have failed in Chhattisgarh, and since another Rajasekhara Reddy cannot be implanted there, Chidambaram has brought in central troops. But this is the wrong solution.
In AP, Maoist-affected areas already had many roads, and the jungles were not too thick. But Dantewada has impenetrable jungles and few roads. Sending forces into such territory is a recipe for disaster. Chhattisgarh overall is a tribal belt with few roads, dense jungles and few government offices. Unlike AP, the entire state lacks infrastructure and government services. The Maoists often occupy an administrative vacuum.
Covering the whole state with good infrastructure and services will take time. Meanwhile, Dantewada needs a short-term solution. This district is a long way from the state capital of Raipur, and the few roads in between are not fully government-controlled.
The solution, surely, is to move north from Andhra Pradesh into Dantewada. This is far better than trying to move south from Raipur, or bringing in paramilitary forces. The mining hub of Bailadilla in Dantewada is weakly linked to Raipur but can be strongly linked to AP, which already has the know-how for such a task. But this approach faces political hurdles. BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh will not allow Dantewada to be pacified by police and road-builders from Congress-ruled AP.
A tripartite solution is needed. The Centre and two states must agree on a joint action plan. The Centre must provide most of the funding for the Dantewada operation, including the cost of roads and telecom.
Police and administrative staff from Chhattisgarh should go to Andhra Pradesh for training and intelligence gathering, and then stage a joint operation moving north into Dantewada. If this plan succeeds, Maoists will move into the next jungle district. They will have to be squeezed out district by district, and their complete elimination will take years.
Some experts say the real answer is to have elected, well-funded panchayats in tribal areas and stop alienation of tribal land. These are desirable aims, but the Maoists will not allow parallel centres of power and money to come up via panchayats. The Maoists must first be beaten by force, followed by the establishment of infrastructure and government services to fill the resulting vacuum. Other reforms can follow later.