Photographs: Seema Pant
Naxalism has spread to 20 of the 28 states of the Indian Union. Last year, Naxal violence claimed 455 lives -- 255 civilians and 200 security personnel. According to the Union home ministry, 3,300 lives have been lost in the violence in the last five years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls it the greatest threat to India's internal security.
The major Naxal-affected states in the country are Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, with Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand witnessing the most Naxal-related killings last year.
40,000 sq kms of Bastar in Chhattisgarh -- Manipur and Nagaland are smaller than the erstwhile Bastar district -- is badly affected, while Naxalism is spread over 21 of Jharkhand's 22 districts.
The man appointed by the Government of India to lead the Centre's response to curb the Maoist menace in the country is a 1975 batch Indian Police Service officer, who was Inspector General, Border Security Force, in Srinagar when the BSF gunned down Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist commander and mastermind of the 2001 Parliament attack, Ghazi Baba, in 2003.
Vijay Raman, the Kerala-born officer who has earlier served in Madhya Pradesh, is Special Director General of the Central Reserve Police Force and Commander of the Anti-Naxal Task Force, the operation dubbed Operation Green Hunt by the media.
The 58-year-old officer coordinates with the director generals of police of the seven Naxal-affected states and the Indian Air Force having powers to enlist its assistance, which he clarifies is only for casualty evacuation at the moment.
In his newly set-up office in a colonial building with a high ceiling and thick walls in Raipur, the genial officer with a somber voice, sat across his large table and spoke to rediff.com's Archana Masih about the challenges of the mammoth responsibility wrested in him, his added role of being a diplomat and how the operation that he stewards is also about wining back a lost people.
What is the role of the central forces in Chhattisgarh? What is your assessment so far?
This is an issue that the state governments should have handled. It is only because the issue has become complicated and acquired certain proportions beyond the control of the state governments that the central government has stepped in.
We have come here to assist the state police. If you go back into history, the problem in Chhattisgarh started in the mid 1980s but the real seriousness was realised in 1999-2000. That is when we stepped in. It is not only a local problem but is spreading into various states and is perhaps more area specific. They (the Naxalites) have chosen certain areas which are inaccessible and where tribals live, to make inroads and entrench themselves.
If you go into the basics about why this problem has arisen, perhaps fundamentally what will stand out is the lack of the reach of the government to the interiors. It may be because of the terrain and forests but the fact of the matter is that perhaps the element of governance has not reached wherever this problem is.
'They have come and filled the administrative and political vacuum'
Photographs: Chindu Sreedharan
Wherever the problem is in different states. Perhaps an exception is West Bengal where they have penetrated areas which are highly populated like Lalgarh. It is in the plains and the town itself has a population of 15,000 to 20,000 people.
Somewhere down the line it is an indication of the failure of the state administration to reach these people. As Indians what are we proud of? That we are a democratic country and democracy in this context means that you have the right to choose.
The question today when we confront the tribals in the remote areas is -- do they have a choice?
Just because we haven't reached out, they (the Naxalites) have come and taken over these places. A vacuum cannot exist, someone comes and fills it up and they (the Naxalites) have done that.
Some of the tribals are equivalent to Aborigines, they don't know what it's all about. They (the Naxalites) have come and filled the administrative and political vacuum and feel that is the end of it. Which is not the case but in that sense it an indication of the failure of the State.
What are you doing to improve things?
Our effort is to ensure that the threat level in that area is reduced so that people of the administrative organs feel free to go and pick up their assignments and deliver. After all we are a welfare State, we are supposed to look after our people.
There is a responsibility on us because after all they are our own citizens. A Naxalite doesn't have a label on his head saying he is a Naxal. We cannot afford to alienate the general public from us.
We have to be very circumspect, very careful, very calibrated in our approach, irrespective of the losses we suffer.
We need to have that sort of approach -- large heartedness with the ability to see what actually is the problem and how we can sort it out.
If there was a military solution to it then it would have been the easiest. But we can't afford it and we should not.
As a democratic country we cannot fire on our own people.
So what strategy has been evolved? It must be at various levels.
Basically what we are looking at is to reach out to whoever it is who is staying there. Go there, make them understand that there is a State, there is an alternative, tell them there is so much money sanctioned for your well being and start doing something for them.
Of course, armed might has to be there behind you. I am not saying that those tribals are Naxalites, they could be absolutely innocent. But there could be people behind them.
By when do you think some results will show?
Let us not expect to see great success overnight. It is not possible. This has been going on for years and years and will take some time.
'Do you think a tribal will not want a better life?'
Photographs: Seema Pant
I am not a developmental man. My brief is to create an environment wherein development agencies do not have an excuse not to go. I will not even say that they can go, they don't have an excuse not to go. So that they can provide them the basic necessity of health care, drinking water, schools etc.
The moment you do all that, people's minds are bound to turn. We have to bring them into the mainstream or take the mainstream to them.
Since the Union home ministry got actively involved in fighting the Naxals last year, what role have the central forces played since June?
We have become activated because there were a lot of elections etc -- I think the cut off date should be January 1 when we have become operational. And mind you, most of these forces don't belong to this place and if you go into Chhattisgarh, at every 15, 20 kms you'll get a different dialect. Communicating with the local people is a major problem and my boys are not yet equipped for that.
To win confidence, if you can speak to an aggrieved person in his own language, it means a lot. We need to evolve that sort of thing and that will take time and at the same time one of the initiative the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) has taken is that the government has sanctioned a Mahila battalion. We ensured that some women from these areas are recruited. They appeared for the test and we've selected 58 girls.
Yes, we got them in our own bus to the examination centre, we brought these girls from Dantewada, Bilaspur, Bijapur. We were apprehensive that if the Naxalites come to know they are appearing for the test but you will be surprised only three girls did not turn up. We contacted these three girls and they cited some personal reasons. We believe if we take care of the womenfolk the family is taken care of. The very fact that these girls dared makes me very hopeful.
After a year's training, we will give them a choice, if they want to come and serve here, they can. Ideally I'd like them to go some place else, take their family so that they can also see the world outside and then let them (family members) come back and talk rather than them (the girls) becoming a sandwich between the various forces.
In spite of what one hears in the media, the situation has not gone out of control. I am very optimistic.
With all the development taking place outside, do you think a tribal will not want a better life? And the better life is not a corrupted life whatever one may be seeing in the media, Indian society has not degenerated, it is still very stable. There are still tremendous amounts of control that the family exercises.
'This is not a surgical operation'
Photographs: Parth Sanyal/Reuters
I want to be very clear about what we mean by operation. It is not a surgical operation. The very term operation means going in with guns, we need the gun for our own protection. We are not taking it out to use it against them, we're taking it for our own protection.
Every time a boy steps out of a camp, he does not expect that he will require to fire. But he should have the assurance to defend himself should he be fired upon. So we need to broaden the definition of the operation and not keep it to the paramilitary or police.
The operation is to win them over. We just want to show this is the might of the State but we're not going to use it against you unless we are absolutely cornered.
In what ways have you assisted the state police so far?
It is not only the state police. Recently in Gadchiroli (in Maharashtra), the collector and SP (superintendent of police)went to a remote village and organised a mela where it was conveyed to the local people that these are the schemes for you that you were not aware of. Don't you think in the evening when he goes back home won't he think about those schemes?
What kind of help did you provide here?
Protection. God forbid if something was to happen there then it would be a fiasco.
If I use your term 'operation' and plan an 'operation' in a particular area, what we do now is that on day one we only hold civic programmes. We go to the village, take our own rations, camp there and even feed the people, try to get friendly with the children.
On the first day we're just trying to get normal with them. On the second day, we may be going out on the basis of some input but we keep the base in that village and don't become drain on the village but be a source of sustenance.
Does this comprise only the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force)?
With the local police. It has to be with the local police. We need their help in the language, knowledge of the terrain, the various tribal configurations.
I'll give you an instance, there are weekly markets where people come trekking for 10, 12 kms to buy things. After the haat (market) was over, my commandant let them use his vehicle to the nearest road free of cost and people were grateful they did not have to carry their sacks on their head. Their trekking was saved, so this way you create some goodwill and it pays.
I was in Jharkhand recently and after such operations, the villagers started identifying pro-Naxalite elements from amongst them and started giving them public punishment. These are encouraging signs. It hasn't developed into a movement but it can, it has the potential and it may.
'We will not attack from the air'
Photographs: Seema Pant
At the moment, it is only for casualty evacuations. Not only ours but also the public caught the crossfire. Their charter (the IAF's) at the moment is only that, we are not using them for any assault plan.
In a fierce encounter between militants and security forces, there are going to be ups and downs, a see-saw battle, hypothetically, if the police is on the receiving end and all of a sudden they see a chopper above, the psychological impact on them will be that help is at hand and they will say 'thoda aur josh lagao' ('let's push further') we will use it for that also.
But we will not fire from the air, we will not attack from the air.
We will use it for all psychological impact that we might need in a combat situation, nothing else.
What is the strength of the central forces?
We have adequate (numbers). It is a very dynamic situation. Tomorrow if I need more I can push it from other places. We are not starved for forces.
Ultimately at the end of the day it is a problem that the state police/administration have to face and sort out.
A day will come when we will withdraw, we cannot stay here permanently.
But you are here for the long haul?
Not very long, but it will take time. We have to stabilise the situation because the type of Constitutional arrangement we have, the federal polity, the state's role etc that ultimately the state has to stand up like Andhra Pradesh has done. Andhra hasn't asked for our help, it is sorting out its problem itself.
A similar status will have to be reached in all states where we are. In spite of the various political complexions -- Maharashtra has a Congress-NCP government; Chhattisgarh - BJP; Jharkhand - JMM; Orissa - BJD; Bihar JD-U-BJP; West Bengal - CPI-M -- all of the states are on board (in tackling the Maoist problem).
This is the biggest achievement of whatever we are doing. We have been able to cross the political spectrum and bring them together.
Apart from the operational part, my job is also of a diplomat. I have to take everyone along and not hurt them, cajole them, request them. I am required to do all that.