Centre raises new Bastar Battalion to fight Naxals. Is it a bad idea?
In August 2005, a group of reporters from Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, including this one, went into the forests of Polampalli, Bastar, to interview a prominent Naxal commander named Bhupati.
Before answering our questions, Bhupati played a tape that sent chills down our spines. It was a recording of messages exchanged by police officers over wireless sets: "Some journalists are going to meet the Maoists in the forest. Encounter them wherever you find them," one of the policemen was heard instructing his colleagues.
We were astounded, not only at what we had heard but also at how easily the Naxal insurgents could intercept wireless conversations of the police. When we were done making conjectures about it, Bhupati revealed the secret: they had informants inside the police.
The incident came flashing back into memory after the Union home ministry announced it had started the process of raising a new paramilitary battalion to take on the red guerrillas in Bastar. Comprising entirely of local tribespeople, it has been christened the Bastar Battalion. However, questions remain about the new troop, not least whether it can escape infiltration by the Maoists.
Also, the new battalion is shadowed by the Salwa Judum disaster. At the height of Salwa Judum, the police had recruited thousands of villagers as Special Police Officers. Most of the recruits were said to have been those who provided food and shelter to the rebels or acted as their guides in the forests.
The police strategists thought the SPOs would prove to be valuable assets since they knew the area well. Nothing of the sort happened, however. The SPOs soon went wayward and indulged in rampant killings, robbery and other crimes. Although political machinations played a significant part in the failure of Salwa Judum, security experts feel it turned into a nightmare because the police sought to pitch tribals against members of their own community. Far from quelling violence, Salwa Judum only added to the mayhem.
Is a new battalion really needed?
Bastar resembles a war zone. There is a cantonment virtually every 10-20 km, each guarded by soldiers standing behind security pickets fortified by sandbags. Try stopping your vehicle near any of these cantonments and the soldier on guard will instantaneously turn his gun towards you; any "wrong step" on your part and the trigger could be pressed.
Nearly 60,000 security personnel are currently deployed in Bastar. There are 25 battalions of CRPF, five battalions of ITBP, four battalions of SSB and 18 battalions of Chhattisgarh Sashastra Bal.
There's no definitive data on the number of Naxals operating in Bastar. The home ministry believes their number could be around 50,000. Senior police officials involved in anti-Naxal operations say a bulk of these insurgents are actually sympathisers and the number of hardcore ultras is much lower. If this is indeed the case, what then is the need for a new battalion?
CRPF spokesperson Prasanna Kumar said, "A total of 720 jawans will be recruited from Narayanpur, Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma districts. Such battalions paid dividends in dealing with terrorism in Punjab and Naxalism in Andhra Pradesh. We are raising a battalion of local youth as these people are familiar with the local geography, language and culture. They can find out Naxal hideouts with ease and identify Maoists among villagers. The police force would like to benefit from this local factor."
Asked about the possibility of Maoists infiltrating the Bastar Battalion, Kumar replied, "The process of getting a government job is rigorous. The candidates are required to furnish all necessary documents that are then verified. We will take extra precautions in this regard."
"The youths will be getting a monthly salary of Rs 25-30 thousand. Why would they like to join hands with Maoists then?" he added.
Social activists aren't convinced, though. Lakhan Singh, state president of Lok Swatantrya Sangathan, said, "Salwa Judum was banned after the PUCL filed a petition in the Supreme Court. Salwa Judum members were given a free hand to engage in all sorts of criminal activities. The government wants to play the same trick in the name of providing jobs for the youth. The local youngsters will be pushed at the forefront of this bloody battle and the police will use them as a shield. We are closely monitoring this process and we may challenge it in court."