Security forces will need to retool their strategy to ensure that innocent lives are not lost in anti-Maoist ops, reports Vicky Nanjappa
The killing of 19 persons alleged to be Maoists in Sarkeguda in Chhattisgarh on June 29 in a major operation by the Central Reserve Police Force has sparked off a major controversy, with villagers crying foul and calling the entire operation a fake one in which innocents were killed.
According to the claim by the CRPF, in the 40-hour encounter, 19 Maoists, including a 15-year-old girl named Kumari Kaka and 10 others in the age group of 15 to 28 were killed. Security forces maintain that among the 19 were hardcore Naxals including those who masterminded the Dantewada jail break in 2007.
An officer involved in the operations told rediff.com that Naxals thrive on the sympathy of villagers which is one of the main reasons why the movement has been successful. Naturally, the villagers, who have often been seen as sympathisers of the Naxal movement, are bound to tell their version of the story. The fact, however, remains that the forces do not kill innocents unnecessarily. This entire operation had been planned for nearly a year and only on specific information did the forces move in., he pointed out.
In an operation of this nature, it is very difficult to pinpoint the mastermind as he is never alone. Although they may claim that they live for a social cause and show a lot of bravado, they do put innocent lives at stake. Women, innocent villagers and even children are used as human shields by them. The security forces did not go on a rampage and kill innocents, a source said.
A retired official who was involved in Naxal-related operations says it would be interesting to see what the outcome of the judicial probe into the incident would be. The security forces are battling a very tough opposition which does not come out in the open and fight. They use children and innocents as cover, and when the latter come in the line of fire in an encounter they use it to dish up more sympathy.
There are various levels of shields, from locals in villages to members of the family who are used as cover. In this particular incident, too, that would have been the case, the source said.
The use of innocents and children as human shields is a new trend in this movement. After the killings of top Maoist leaders Azad and Kishenji in encounters, the top Maoist leadership was shaken and hence the new strategy to guard their leaders. They would not mind putting 10 children and an equal number of innocents on the line in a bid to protect their leader, and this is exactly what happened in the latest encounter as well, he added.
Moreover, this strategy has another favourable fallout, too, for the Maoists. The death of innocent villagers in security operations also serves to spark off hatred for the police and State. In some cases it was seen that the Naxals have forcibly taken shelter in the houses of villagers, putting them in the direct line of fire.
The villagers of Sarkeguda have, however, been claiming that there were no Naxals among the 19 killed. Further, they complain that no government official visited their homes nor was an autopsy conducted, which is contrary to the claim of Prashanth Agarwal, superintendent of police in Bijapur who says a post-mortem was conducted. The villagers who cremated the bodies however claimed that there was no sign of a post-mortem and have sought a probe into the matter.
Sources in the force maintain that the men they were after were hardcore Naxalites. Mahesh, Nagesh, Suresh and Somulu who were wanted for various crimes. They were part of the top rung and were crucial for the security forces.
But, according to the villagers, Nagesh was a 17-year-old student whose body had been disfigured in the encounter. Madkam Nagesh is said to be drummer who played for children during the festivals. Somulu, who hails from Andhra Pradesh, was a farmer while Bichham, according to the villagers, is an 18-year-old orphan.
The villagers point out that the tag of hardcore Naxalites doesn't sit easily on the victims as there were no criminal cases against them in the jurisdictional police station. However, the CRPF says that when a centralised agency takes over, it is not necessary to go after persons with records in the jurisdictional limits.
"They have committed crimes in other parts of the country and our duty is to nab or neutralise them irrespective of the jurisdiction in which they are hiding. If a crime is committed in Bihar and these Naxals hide in Chhattisgarh this does not give them immunity. It is only natural that these persons will commit a crime and move on to another place," the sources pointed out.
Security forces, however, realise that in the days to come they will encounter more incidents of Naxals using innocent villagers as human shields to protect themselves. Experts say that while mistakes do happen during a major encounter at times, they will need to retool their strategy to ensure that innocent lives are not lost as it will only end up putting a question mark on the entire operation.
However, they also add that it is not as though the agencies were not trying. Even during the latest operation they tried their best to coax the villagers to stay away or at least help them, but they do not seem to relent and continue to shield the hardcore Naxals.
It is a desperate situation the agencies face and when it comes down to an operation of this nature the fact remains that shielding a criminal wanted by law is also a crime, they point out.