India: A Deadly Year

The Naxals are getting more lethal. So the Asian Center for Human Rights (ACHR), a Delhi-based think tank, concludes in its latest report. According to their estimate, at least 384 people were killed in the Naxalite conflict from January to September of this year.

A series of high profile attacks in recent months bear testimony. A massive landmine blast a month ago nearly killed former Andra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Janardhan Reddy and his wife near a rural village; three members of his escort didn't make it back. In the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, the epicenter of Naxalite activity, 24 police officers were killed in July. Fifteen more security personnel (including Special Police Officers) also died in an August 29 ambush close to a district police station.

Of the 384 fatalities, the breakdown was: 129 civilians, 162 government security personnel, and 93 "alleged" guerillas -- alleged because the state has been known to include "fake encounters" with non-Naxalites. The report stressed that Chhattisgarh remains a hotbed of violence "as a direct consequence of the counter-insurgency Salwa Judum campaign." About 54 percent of the killings (208) occurred in the central state, followed by Andra Pradesh (59), Jharkand (44) and Bihar (28).

Salwa Judum, which ironically translates to "peace movement," was introduced by opposition officials in Chhattisgarh. In remote areas where police are shorthanded, it has introduced Special Police Officers (SPOs), usually young villagers given on the spot training and hastily issued weapons. Critics, and they are many, insist the state government has in fact sanctioned vigilante groups that operate with impunity. The result, they say, has been a torrent of extrajudicial killings, rape, and rampant criminality.

Over black coffee in the lobby of a Delhi hotel, ACHR Director Suhas Chakma told me the Naxalite movement was on the fringes until Salwa Judum began two and a half years ago. He said that when the government started relocating thousands of tribals to roadside camps as part of the program, it gave the Naxals, nominally committed to fighting for India's most disadvantaged group, the attention they had lacked for years. The advent of SPOs and their misdeeds have only compounded the government's mistake. "How can you have ill-trained people with few skills combat an insurgency when security forces have failed," said Chakma.

Not surprisingly, the tribals remain both "the puppets and the victims," caught in the middle. Chakma noted that if you oppose the state you can try and flee, but if you support the insurgents, and stay in the bush, there is no place to hide. Those accused to be cooperating with the rebels have been summarily executed by SPOs, though many are no doubt forced to shelter them at gunpoint. On the other hand, the Naxals have killed tribals they judge to be state informants.

The Naxals are waging their war on the platform of land reform for tribals that would lead to equal distribution of millions of acres of state-held property (and protect it from multinational business interests). In theory, if some degree of reforms are carried out by the government, they might lose their self-styled status as a viable alternative. But such measures are so far from happening, Chakma said, that he doesn't see any solution in sight. Naxalite supporters, for their part, say this is because the government is in bed with foreign companies for mining and factory lucrative contracts.

"The state does not exist as far as being able to do long-term (development) projects" in the tribal areas, Chakma said, meaning many more tribals are sure to die in the interim.