By T S Sudhir
One thousand steps back. A retrograde step. That is how a senior IPS officer who cut his teeth fighting naxals in Telangana and Chhattisgarh the last decade and a half reacted to the decision to concede Maoist demands in return for the safe return of Malkangiri collector Vineel Krishna and junior engineer Pabitra Majhi.
“But it was a Hobson’s choice for the government, wasn’t it? ” I argued.
“This was like a game of poker,” he explained. “Where even if you do not have good cards, you pretend as if you have. It is a game of wits. Trust me, they wouldn’t have had the courage to kill Vineel. Because if they did, civil society would have gone and lynched their supporters who are overground. They should have started the process of negotiations and used that as a charade.”
The IAS lobby that mounted pressure on the government to do all it can to get Vineel out safe is in a state of disquiet. Privately, bureaucrats admit the abduction and the capitulation of the government will only make the Maoists more belligerent.
“They have tasted blood now. You cannot say they will not use the same tactic to free someone even more high-profile the next time. But if they had killed Vineel, the consequences would have been disastrous for the government and administrative machinery that works in remote areas.”
Police officers say even while getting the collector out safe and sound, irreparable damage has been done. “The administrative machinery in the entire Red corridor, whether it is the Andhra-Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh belt on both sides of the Godavari or the Andhra-Orissa Border (AOB) area, is already next to non-existent. Now the grievance redressal system will get worse. The MROs and the RDOs have even more of a reason not to venture out. Because no one would want to be another Vineel Krishna.”
It was the goodwill earned by Vineel Krishna that brought the tribals out, to openly appeal for his release in an area where it is not easy to publicly admit that they do not endorse the Maoist view. It is quite possible that a not-so-popular bureaucrat could have triggered a totally different sequence of events.
Another perception that has gained ground is if it was not an IAS officer but a lower level official, the state government would not have agreed to swap. “Kaam karenge to marenge” they say.
The Union Home ministry’s selective leaks that P Chidambaram had advised Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik not to set a precedent by releasing Maoists in exchange hasn’t gone down too well. Did Delhi offer Patnaik an alternate solution, is the question being asked. Was it just a feeble attempt to ensure the Congress can continue to berate BJP over the Kandahar swap and now the Biju Janata Dal, over Malkangiri.
“The capitulation of Delhi and Bhubaneswar has hammered the last nail in the coffin. It is the deathknell for any efforts to develop backward areas,” said an Andhra Pradesh cadre IPS officer. “When you are dealing with the Maoists who do not operate within the law, you have to look beyond the standards of civilised society. A couple of their top men should have been picked up unofficially and that should have used as a bargaining tool with the Maoists during the negotiations.”
Senior officers who have been part of anti-Maoist operations in Andhra Pradesh say it has been advantage Maoists in this episode. “Ganti Prasadam is a key man for them. He is a critical link between top leaders in their central committee. He is not the kind who can be replaced so easily by them and that probably explains why they were keen to have him out of jail.”
A newspaper editorial has this piece of advice to offer to Naveen Patnaik’s police force. “After this experience, Orissa would do well not to adopt the ‘battalion approach’ of deploying a huge number of security force personnel for counter-insurgency operations. Such macho responses are guaranteed to be counter-productive.”
I asked my colleague Alok Pandey who travelled to Malkangiri for this story, if he agreed with this assessment. He told me about Papermetla police station, situated deep inside Malkangiri district. “You reach this police camp, where 35-40 jawans of the India Reserve Battalion are posted, by driving 16 km from Chitrakonda to Gurukrupa river, then taking a boat across the river and then walk 4 km to reach Maliguda, where the camp is located. One of the cops told us sheepishly that their rations are sometimes provided by Maoists or their sympathisers. It seems to be an unwritten code in these parts. Don’t kill us, we won’t kill you. So any talk of a huge counter-insurgency operation is just not there.”
A senior Orissa Police officer, on condition he will not be named, describes the situation as one where the security forces are at the mercy of Maoists and Malaria.
“The camp does not live on bhagwaan ke bharose but Maowadiyon ke bharose. There are hillocks surrounding the camp and if the Maoists so wish, they can just lob grenades and destroy our camp, even in broad daylight. The camp has no power, no safe drinking water and the generator works rarely. Most of the cops suffer from malaria. They are at the mercy of the ferry service controlled by Maoists, to take them across the river. The weapons are locked inside a room and instructions are that they are to be used only in the event of an organised attack.”
My colleague in Orissa, Sampad Mahapatra who has spent a lifetime tracking issues of development and the Maoist surge in these parts, says there is nothing macho about the life these security personnel lead. The story goes that the cops and Maoists both frequent a tea shop in the area. The men in mufti make it a point to keep it cordial, exchange smiles and have tea together. Perhaps here, a smile a day ensures the policeman lives in peace another day.