On Saturday, when many of us were relaxing over the weekend break with our families, a young District Collector was interacting with poor and deprived villagers, trying to bring about small changes for the better in their lives. Alex Paul Menon, the District Collector of Sukma in Chattisgarh was interrupted in his task by Maoist guerrillas, who, disguised as rural folk, suddenly opened fire, killing the two security guards protecting him. Within minutes Alex had been whisked away into the thick jungles without leaving a trace or threat note.
But they will revert. It is a lucrative new business that Maoists have embarked upon, besides extortion from businessmen. They kidnap officials at will and coerce the administration in six Maoist-affected states to capitulate. The Red terrorists are well aware that the states are ill equipped to provide foolproof security to the thousands of idealistic young officers, NGO workers, teachers, health care workers and other government officials who are working in backward zones of the country in a hostile environment.
We have one policeman for every 750 citizens. But a large portion of that police force is involved in VIP policing so what we really have is one policemen for every 1,000-1,200 citizens. Even if Alex knew that he was under threat, which he must have given the high level of Maoist activity in his area, he could have done very little. He did have the option of barricading himself in his office and push files, like many others do. He could have led the next 7-8 years of his life doing that, turning a blind eye to the backwardness around him, ignoring illegal activity and then got posted for the next five years to the state capital, and subsequently to New Delhi, lived in a posh bungalow, play golf, and lead a charmed life.
But Alex is young. He is idealistic. He wants to bring a change. Just like the young IPS officer Narendra Kumar Singh who was killed a month ago by the mining mafia in Madhya Pradesh; a young man who thought he could make a difference. The nexus between the mining mafia and Naxals is a well-established fact. Barely 200 kilometres from where Alex was kidnapped two days ago, a young MLA Jhina Hikaka is languishing in the captivity of Naxals in Odisha for a month. Maoists are demanding the release of 29 ‘activists’ and Maoists as ransom for the MLA. Two Italians were abducted by Naxals in Odisha in March too.
Patient and deliberate negotiations are the only way to secure the release of abducted officials. Hostage negotiation is a tricky business, and the government has no easy choices. The government wants to negotiate but the Maoists want it to capitulate. One section of the media will say that negotiating and releasing offenders in exchange for abducted officials is bending to the agenda of lawbreakers. But a government seen as not even trying to save the life of its top district official is bound to demoralise other officials working in hostile areas.
In the six states most affected by Maoist violence, the state administrations are unable to tackle the situation without assistance from the Centre. Paramilitary forces, which should be employed for small durations to help the state police, are now in a state of permanent deployment. Caught between sullen villagers who resent their presence and Maoists who have the fire-power, knowledge of local terrain, and even political protection, paramilitary personnel often end up fortifying their camps, nervously biding their time. As seen in Punjab and J&K, while the central forces can provide the support, what eventually works is action on the ground by state police forces. There is no alternative but for the states to focus on building the quantity and quality of their police forces.
As per the Home Ministry, 3,240 civilians and security forces were killed last year in Maoist violence — compared to 496 in J&K and 1,034 in the North-East. While both these border regions have an element of external aggression which threatens India’s national security, the country is just about waking up to the fact that Maoist violence is the single biggest internal security threat facing the country. The Prime Minister has been repeating this since 2004, but neither the Centre nor the states have taken serious steps to combat this debilitating menace.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash