A tribal force or a forced tribulation-Arvind Sovani
The announcement of an anti-Naxal tribal battalion in Gadchiroli by Maharashtra home minister is little more than a knee-jerk reaction
THREE DAYS after a bus carrying 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel was blown up by Naxals in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, the state home minister announced the setting up of a new anti-Naxal tribal force — a “tribal battalion” recruited by the state reserve police force. Is this new force Maharashtra’s version of the dreaded Salwa Judum, a vigilante force set up in Chhattisgarh in 2006 to combat Naxal violence, which ended up becoming a law unto itself and had to be disbanded?
It won’t, or so can be deduced from Home Minister RR Patil’s statements thus far. This tribal force will have no special powers to arrest, or special immunity from the law like other counter-terror forces in the country — the Salwa Judum or its other avatar, the Koya commandos of neighbouring Chhattisgarh or like the Special Police Officers deployed in J&K.
The home minister’s annoucement during an Assembly debate is therefore much ado about nothing. With no special powers or vision, this seems to be merely a knee-jerk response to the recent attack on the CRPF, in which 12 men lost their lives and 28 were injured. Moreover, the deployment of this new battalion is likely to be time-consuming. As has been the case with many state government responses to increased Naxal violence; by the time it becomes functional, the actual situation on the ground may be very different.
The state already has over 5,000 CRPF jawans in Naxal-ridden Gadchiroli, but the situation on the ground has only become worse. Even this evidence has failed to convince the state that the solution does not lie in sending in more troops or new battalions. In the heart of Gadchiroli, policemen are, in fact, often prisoners in their own police stations. Equally fearful of the Naxals as the people they’re meant to serve, they do not dare venture far from their bases unless in a group. They are often seen to be on the defensive and reason that they do not want to lose their lives in vain, well aware that the state’s response since the 1980s has been reactionary, inconsistent and extremely slow.
A change in the political guard at the top causes changes in personnel and also policy, giving the Naxals the upper edge. For instance, the rise of Naxal violence made the government form a new police contingent called the ‘Aheri Police District’ in 2010, with an aim to divide the police in Gadchiroli into two forces — Gadchiroli and Aheri. A year later, this was scrapped.
Given the fragile security, what this new tribal battalion can do is the real question. Will it just be conducting road-clearing or area-domination exercises, which the C-60 anti-Naxal force is already doing? And even that exercise seems to have become a losing proposition with the district administration and police having virtually lost control over large chunks of Naxal-dominated Maharashtra — blocks like Dhanora, Etapalli, Korchi, Aheri, Bhamragad and Sironcha — bordering with Chhattisgarh.
An inordinately heavy presence of police has yet another drawback. As the conflict between the police and Naxals intensifies, developmental work comes to a halt, further vitiating the atmosphere.
The State urgently needs to see that Naxalism is not so much a law-and-order problem as it is socio-economic. As long as there are villages in the forest with humiliated, suppressed and poor tribals, the State cannot win this war. Initiatives to re-generate incomes — like those taken up by NGOs and voluntary groups — should be encouraged and their example replicated by the State instead. Cashew-growing in remote villages like Damrancha and mango plantations in Manne Rajaram are initiatives worth emulating. Implementing the Forest Rights Act to enable tribals also goes a long way in weakening the hold of Naxals. Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh made an important statement last year. He said ‘bamboo and not bullets will solve the problem in Gadchiroli district’. But is the Maharashtra government listening?
(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)
Arvind Sovani is District co-ordinator, Gadchiroli, Backward region grant fund