To beat a terrorist…

Encouraging tribal militia’s to take on the Maoists directly is not a sensible way of going about things

In the penultimate scene of many a Bollywood potboiler, a well-meaning policeman tells the hero, who has the villain on the mat and is about to press the trigger, not to take the law into his own hands. This is one Bollywood cliché that is eminently sensible. So while it is all very well for the media to celebrate Salwa Judum, a tribal militia that has begun to take the fight to the Naxalites that have long held sway in some Indian states, its emergence is more evidence of government inaction than popular resolve.

There is no doubt that in the absence of any coherent policy to counter Naxalite/Maoist terrorism across the country, movements like Salwa Judum will leave the terrorists with a fight on their hands. But such movements cannot really succeed in defeating the terrorists unless they adopt more sophisticated weapons and tactics and also improve their organisational structure. As a fighting force, the Maoists may not pose a serious challenge to even some of India’s paramilitary forces, but they are far better well-equipped, trained and experienced to engage Salwa Judum. It appears that politicians in Chattisgarh have taken it upon themselves to further upgrade the tribal militia’s capabilities. That would be mistake.

In principle, maintenance of law and order is the government’s responsibility. It cannot outsource back to the citizens what citizens outsourced to it in the first place.

There is also a practical reason to avoid creating armed militias — they develop institutional interests of their own and can take the place of the enemy once the original enemy itself is vanquished. It is naive to think that a society, especially one outside the mainstream, will be able to swords into ploughshares on its own, or that the government will be able to persuade it to do so. Tribal militias may show effective results in the short-term. But in the longer term, they are likely to become part of a larger problem.

Tribals and people in the countryside are driven to ‘support’ Naxalites either because they are coerced or out of contempt for the corrupt local police forces. Politicians support Naxalite groups because of electoral calculations. Salwa Judum proves the lie that Naxalism has popular support among the masses. It should therefore provide political space for anyone who is serious about defeating the low-grade terrorism that characterises Naxalism. The appropriate response for the Indian government — if Mr Shivraj Patil would only be the Home Minister that he is supposed to be — is to take the lead provided by its courageous citizens and put its eminently capable security forces on the job. It’s their job, after all.

4 thoughts on “To beat a terrorist…”

  1. “…maintenance of law and order is the government’s responsibility.”

    It is one thing to have responsibility; it’s another to use it. The only responsibility our politicians would like to have is a mandate to fill their pockets with loose change – in the range of crores of rupees.

    I’d say let the tribals defend themselves after decades of slaughter in Naxalites hands, in the name of revolution – the least anyone could do to them is to provide them with training and arms.

  2. Aptly put, Nitin. The nightmare that the US faces from Mujahideen it spawned in the 1980s is instructive enough on why the government should not create a tribal militia – politicians and babus will very well abandon the militia – if and when it takes on the Naxals and defeats them. And that will create a new problem.

    One thing that still surprises me is how little noise the media, the opposition make on the bunny we have for Home Minister in Shivraj Patil.

  3. Reminds me a bit of how right-wing paramilitary groups formed in Colombia to deal with Marxist guerrillas. It wasn’t long before the paramilitary groups became almost as much of a destabilizing force in the country as those they fought against (or in some cases, merely claimed to fight against).

  4. I think it’s stretch to compare Indian tribal villagers fight back Naxalites without any help from the apparent government to Mujahidden fighting the occupying foreign Russians or the paramilitary joining the fight against the drug lords of Columbia after their own military was stumbling in the drug fight.

    I actually think it would be more in line with Punjab, in later 80s, where villagers formed village defense forces to fight back indiscriminate terrorist killings at the time. It worked then. The guy who put in place successfully without transforming Punjab into a lawless state, K.P.S Gill, is still doing well. By talking to him and others like him, I am sure armed tribal villagers can better protect themselves against murdering revolutionaries.

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