Brigadier Basant Kumar Ponwar, the army's counter-Naxalite expert and director of Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College, tells R Krishna Das that this is the right time to destroy the rebels militarily and dismantle their network.
The Union government has imposed a ban on Naxalites. How effective will this be in tackling the problem?
Very effective. Now, there will be one rule across the country that will help the states reeling under the problem to coordinate better. Now, Naxalites have been bracketed with terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Tayiba. This will help the army (if required) to take action against Naxalites.
Chhattisgarh and a few other states had earlier banned Naxalites and their frontal organisations. But this did not yield results.
In Chhattisgarh, the Special Public Security Act helped authorities take action against the rebels' sympathisers. The Naxalite movement cannot be seen only as an armed movement. A number of intellectuals, including experts from different fields, are associated with them. They may not be directly involved in operations but they help Naxalites one way or the other. Chhattisgarh was fighting alone as Naxalites used to slip into other states after committing crimes.
You have been insisting that the government should not fall for the Naxalites' offer of peace talks.
Yes. The offer of peace talks by Naxalites is a gimmick. They come out with such a formula when they are cordoned off or face pressure by security personnel.
By offering peace talks, the rebels buy time to re-group and get away to neighbouring states. They applied the formula in West Bengal to help their leaders cross from Lalgarh to Jharkhand once security operations slowed.
What actually went wrong in Lalgarh?
The Lalgarh episode is part of the Naxalite ideology as they want to create 'liberated' zones. Today it is Lalgarh and tomorrow it will be 'Ramgarh' if lapses on the part of the authorities continue. Naxalites are now targeting Koraput to create another 'Lalgarh'.
Do you mean more 'Lalgarhs' are in the offing?
Absolutely. More Lalgarhs are in the offing if we don't establish authority in remote and interior areas where Naxalites have established themselves. The rebels have been warning of creating more and more 'liberated' zones. We need to address the issue with strategy and seriousness.
Was the Lalgarh episode a failure of security personnel?
Had police and security personnel patrolled the area regularly, Naxalites could not have established their base in the village. Even in the operation to flush out Naxalites, no strategy was fashioned.
Security personnel could have laid siege to a 20-sq-km area to eliminate the Naxalites holed up there by launching attacks from inner and outer cordons. For this operation, only four-five companies of security personnel were required. Co-ordination by seniors was also required in the
operation as the left hand was not aware what the right hand was doing.
There was also fear among police personnel. There was not a single landmine blast in the Lalgarh area but security personnel cited the excuse that the area had been dotted with landmines to avoid entering the region.
How serious is the Naxalite problem in the country?
The Prime Minister had termed the Naxalite problem the biggest internal security threat. I support the statement. In 2004, 55 districts were Naxal-infested. This has now increased to 231.
Will recent developments in Nepal have any impact on the Naxal movement in India?
It is ideology that links Naxalites of Nepal and India. Occasionally, when there is ceasefire in one region, arms are supplied to the other war zone. But Naxalites are very weak. Their entire operation is underground. A response mechanism should be put in place with 'grid deployment' and 'constant dynamic deployment' of security forces.
Should security forces now go on the offensive against Naxalites?
It is high time to destroy the Naxalites' arms and completely dismantle their terror network. Security personnel should fan out across the rebels' dens and deliver the knockout punch. The government should pump in more
forces skilled in guerrilla warfare and neutralise them forever. For this, they require better weapons and the best possible leadership.
In West Bengal, villagers are standing by Naxalites, while in Chhattisgarh, they have raised arms against them. How do you see this?
The people's movement against Naxalites in Chhattisgarh - the Salwa Judum - stands as an example in the country.
Other Naxal-infested states should follow it as Naxalites came under heavy pressure after the Salwa Judum started. The centre of gravity in any warfare is support of local population. In West Bengal, the population was with Naxalites. In Chhattisgarh, the rebels stand exposed before the people, who are now up in arms against them.