An operation is underway in Central India, but no one really knows what it is. Variously described as a media myth, a comprehensive hearts and minds strategy, and an all-out offensive by paramilitary forces and the state forces along the borders of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, Operation Green Hunt has become a shoebox of news clippings, police reports, public demonstrations and armed encounters.
Depending on the definition, Green Hunt either began in July 2009, September 2009 or November 2009. Speaking off record, senior policemen confirmed that the intensification of “search and comb” operations in Chhattisgarh began as early as July last year. In September 2009 the press reported on the progress of “Operation Green Hunt”: a massive 3 day joint operation in which the central CoBRA force and state police battled Naxal forces in Dantewada.
By November, the press was regularly reporting on the planning and progress of Green Hunt, prompting Home Minister, P. Chidambaram to term the operation a “media invention.” Since then, the security apparatus has scrupulously avoided all mention of Green Hunt.
Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra for instance, was termed “Police Week.” The change in nomenclature could be prompted by a realisation that the battle between the state and the Naxals is unlikely to end anytime soon. Speaking on background, police sources confirm that the conflict shall take the form of “a prolonged, open-ended engagement” rather than a short, fierce “operation.”
There is also little clarity on the extent of troop deployment, the composition of the forces and the chain of command between central paramilitary forces and the state police. Privately, sources in the security apparatus admit that part of the confusion is by design rather than by default to control the information available to Naxal commanders. At present, the only information independently confirmed by The Hindu relates to the Bastar Zone, a 40,000 square kilometre area in Chhattisgarh that lies at heart of the battle. Sources state that 7 additional battalions of central forces have been moved in the area, bringing the strength of central forces in Bastar to a total 20 battalions including troops from the CRPF, ITBP, BSF and SSB. Taken alongside the 6,000 policemen deployed in Bastar, the size of the total fighting force in the zone is about 20,000 troops.
“The first step was to secure the roads. Ninety to ninety five per cent of casualties of security forces occur on the roads.” said T.J. Longkumer, Inspector General of Police, Bastar in an interview to this reporter. “We have started road security operations and indentified ambush prone areas.” It is the next step that is proving controversial. “Forces shall actively enter villages and nab naxal elements,” he added. Longkumer insists that search operations are conducted only on the basis of concrete intelligence and that all possible care is taken to minimise the death of innocents. However, information emerging from villages in the interior suggests otherwise.
Figures provided by the police suggest that a majority of police operations have targeted “Sanghams” with 499 sangham members arrested in 2009 – up from 214 in 2007. Sanghams refer to village level bodies installed by the Naxals in areas under their control. Sangham members are considered to be sympathetic to the Naxal cause, but it is important to note that sangham members are not necessarily armed. While the number of Naxals killed has also increased to 113 in 2009, as compared to 66 in 2008, and the number of civilian deaths attributed to Naxal violence has reduced from 143 in 2008 to 116 in 2009, Chhattisgarh does not keep any record of civilians killed by the security forces. Police sources cite this as validation of the state’s efforts to minimise civilian casualties, but sceptics see this as tautology where all those killed by the police are retrospectively termed Naxals.
Two PILs pending in the Supreme Court since 2007 have highlighted precisely this problem, asking for an inquiry into killings, rapes and murders since 2005. They have provided an initial list of over 500 people killed, and subsequently pointed to discrepancies in the police version and the FIRs filed. Initially, the bodies were not even counted; now they are recorded as Naxalites killed in encounters. The NHRC, which investigated a small sample of the killings on the orders of the Court, noted with respect to the sangham members: “These villagers were specifically targeted when Salwa Judum was on the rise. The enquiry team has come across instances where some of these villagers were even killed (no criminal cases were, however, either reported or registered). Though the State has taken action against SPOs in some cases for violations like murder and attempt to murder, but these cases do not pertain to the violence let loose on innocent villagers during operations against Naxalites.”
Despite the gravity and urgency of the situation, there has been no hearing of this case for over a year now, because a suitable ‘non-miscellaneous’ day has not been available. Not surprisingly, allegations of unlawful killing continue to dog the state authorities. A writ petition filed in the Supreme Court last year implicates the Chhattisgarh police in the deaths of a total of 12 villagers in Gachanpalli and Gompad villages as part of “sanitisation” operations in September last year. As reported previously in The Hindu, the Chhattisgarh police have assumed control over at least four of the 13 petitioners, and have actively prevented them from meeting their lawyer. Witnesses to the Gompad incident have accused the police of killing innocents at random.
On the other side, on January 21 2010 local newspapers reported the killing of two “police informers”, one a 16 to 18 year old tribal youth, in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district. Police sources cited in the story attributed the killing to the Eastern Bastar Division Committee of the Naxals. At a press conference in Raipur, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram stated that the two youth were killed as they wanted to join the Indian Army.
As the battle-lines between the Naxals and the State shift with every jungle encounter, adivasis across the zone of operations are forced to assume a series of fluid identities contingent on the force in power on a given day.
In a police operation with no clear name, timeline or goal, fought against a guerrilla force that rarely wears uniforms, the adivasis are learning that each side extracts a heavy price for supporting the other.
[This was first published in The Hindu on 6 February 2010.]