The war against Maoists is going to take up many headlines quite soon. A determined home minister is evidently getting ready to step up the battle in what the prime minister has declared to be the most serious domestic security problem the country has ever faced (hence more serious than either Kashmir or Punjab or the north-east). The action seems likely to be
focused on the heartland states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which Chidambaram visited the other day.
News reports speak of up to 20,000 personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force and the Border Security Force being trained at the Army's counter-insurgency school, in Mizoram, before the assault begins. The signals about the use of the Army itself are not clear; Mr Chidambaram has declared that he will not use the Army, but seems to have asked for the
use of its special forces.
Unmanned drones have been deployed, and Air Force helicopters have been ferrying people and supplies. The Air Force chief has now asked for permission to fire in self-defence, because Maoists seem to be firing at the choppers. There is even talk of attack helicopters being deployed if needed -- though it seems clear that no decision on that has been taken. Still, everything points to the action hotting up.
The country has lived with Maoism since it flared up in West Bengal's Naxalbari in the late 1960s, and even before that in remote parts of Andhra Pradesh in the 1950s. The problem was more or less snuffed out in most of West Bengal (partly with the use of some 45,000 Army troops in the early 1970s), but spread to Bihar and Madhya Pradesh in the 1980s and
1990s, as governments in the states and at the Centre failed to deal with the multifarious challenges thrown up by the insurgency. It was only in the United Progressive Alliance government's first term that the figure was disclosed about some 165 districts (out of the total 600) being Maoist-infested.
Clearly, the problem had escalated through LK Advani's six-year tenure as home minister, casting quite a lot of doubt on his claim to being an 'iron man' (or Loh Purush). And, of course, the problem continued to fester through more than five years of Shivraj Patil's disastrous stewardship. Now, people talk of the problem having spread to 200 districts. But since the entire district is not affected in every case, it is probably more accurate to talk of the area covered by police stations -- the affected
number being about 2,000 out of 14,000 -- or a seventh of the country, involving half a dozen states all the way down to Karnataka. To put that in perspective, only two political parties (the Congress and the Bharatiya janata Party) can claim to have voter support in as large an area. The time for soft options is clearly over.
Still, talk of using the Army and of helicopters firing at citizens (even if they are armed insurgents) would make anyone pause -- no one wants innocent civilians to be hurt in the action, and it is hard to discriminate when you are firing from the air. The last time the Air Force fired on citizens was in the north-east half a century ago, when the encampments of security forces were in danger of being over-run by insurgents in Nagaland and Mizoram. If things have come to such a pass in
the heartland, which has some of the poorest parts of the country, blame the sustained failure of policing as well as of politics and development strategy. Now we have to deal with the consequences, and there are no soft options left. Even then I would not use helicopters or the Army.