Scorched Earth Tactics Return To Chhattisgarh

Eric Randolph | March 23, 2011 at 15:21

The Hindu correspondent, Aman Sethi, has an important article in today's paper on the recent police operations which took place in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh, the predominantly tribal area at the heart of the conflict between the state and Maoist rebels.

The testimonies he collected allege that a five-day police and paramilitary operation starting on 11 March resulted in three dead villagers, three dead security officers and 300 homes being burned to the ground. It suggests the continuation of the sort of scorched-earth terror tactics for which the Chhattisgarh security forces have become infamous since they began operations against the Maoists in 2005.

I saw the effect of these operations for myself when I travelled to the area recently (more on this in a later post). Trauma and fear pervades everyday life for these tribal communities. Whenever an outsider appears on the outskirts of a village, everyone prepares to flee. Only when they recognised our guide did they calm down.

The district collector has stated that a committee will be formed to look into the latest allegations. Police officials have been reluctant to comment. They had initially stated that 37 Maoists were killed during the operations, but this was flatly denied by a spokesman for the rebels. They claim to have lost only one man, section commander Muchaki Ganga, during a prolonged firefight with the police midway through the operations.

The police have consistently denied allegations of police brutality. From a recent interview I conducted with the director-general of Chhattisgarh Police, Vishwa Ranjan: I can't operate without information. You cannot carry out violence in such an extremely homogenous society as that of the tribals without alienating all of them.

He admitted that there had been stray cases of excesses committed by the security forces which had been investigated, but he preferred to focus on the so-called civil rights activists which he saw as nothing more than a propaganda actually represent an urban network for the Maoist insurgents.

However, the police have raised serious suspicions by refusing access to journalists following the recent attacks. Aman Sethi reports that he was turned away by a group of gun-toting special police officers and had to sneak in through the forests.

An ongoing case in the Supreme Court has collected testimonies implicating the state's security forces in the deaths of 537 people, including 33 children, as well as 99 rapes and the destruction of at least 2,825 houses. These testimonies relate only to the period between 2005 and 2007, when the violence was at its peak. The difficulty of reporting in this remote region means the figures cannot be exactly accurate – and the real numbers could be far higher. A large number of attacks have occurred since then as well and, it would appear, are continuing.

In its early phase, the violence was fuelled by the formation of an anti-Maoist movement called the Salwa Judum, set up in 2005 by local elites keen to regain control of the region and its resources. The Judum quickly gained the backing and support of the police and the government, but by arming local tribals and seeking to divide communities, it triggered a spiral of brutal violence.

The Judum held processions through the forests, forcibly relocating people to camps under police control. Evidence in the Supreme Court case states that 47,238 people were moved to the camps. The numbers have been steadily reduced to around 25,000 according to the Chhattisgarh government, spread across 23 camps. The majority of those remaining had joined the Salwa Judum and now fear reprisals from the Maoists and their fellow villagers if they return to their homes.

Interestingly, those in the camps are as desperate for investigations to take place as the villagers facing police attacks. Anthropologist Nandini Sundar, who is leading the Supreme Court case against the Chhattisgarh government, visited some of the camps in October. They want peace talks and an independent monitoring committee, she said. They accept that mistakes have been made and they just want a resolution to all the violence. These were the government's own people asking me for help.

Although the Judum itself is no longer an active force in the region (thanks largely to the horrific reputation it had acquired), many of its members were simply co-opted into the security forces as special police officers, a poorly trained group which supplements the 25,000 paramilitary forces and 10,000 state police operating in the Maoist areas of the state.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered the Chhattisgarh government to provide compensation to all victims of violence. These orders have been effectively ignored, with the government arguing that there is already compensation available for any villager who makes a claim. They fail to see that making that claim means approaching the very authorities accused of committing the violence in the first place.

What interests me most is what possible rationale is being presented for these tactics behind closed doors. Setting aside the moral question for a moment, from a purely operational sense this must be one of the most poorly conceived counter-insurgency strategies imaginable, seemingly designed with the sole aim of terrorising the local population into joining the insurgents, while simultaneously eroding the legitimacy of the government and police. Simply hoping that they can block all journalistic access to the area cannot possibly be the strategy. Can it?

DG Vishwa Ranjan told me that the general goal was area domination, defined as carrying out enough frequent movements that the Naxals don't want to stay in any one area for long. Disruptive patrols have a purpose, especially when followed up by the establishment of effective forward operating posts and the introduction of welfare and government services. But the police are nowhere near being able to provide development in these areas, even after six years of operations, and when disruptive patrols come at the cost of increasing support for the enemy and leaving a trail of severe human rights abuses, one has to question whether the security forces really understand the basic tenets of counter-insurgency theory. It is not only horrifying, it is also baffling.