A bizarre brand of orchestrated public protest has been playing out in urban areas in the conflict-torn Bastar region in Chhattisgarh in recent months. Children as young as ten are being made to miss school to swell the numbers at lurid orgies of Naxal-bashing with macho names like ‘Lalkar rally’ and ‘Dhikkar rally’, which come packaged with risqué commentary by DJs, selfie-taking sessions and vast amounts of food to draw crowds.
These rallies would have been just peculiar, rather than sinister, had it not been for the fact that they are led by the erstwhile leaders of the Salwa Judum. This state-created vigilante army with a chilling record of murder, rape, loot and plunder was dissolved after it was declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2011 but it has since regrouped in various guises, among them “organisations” that apparently sprang up overnight like the Action Group for Integrity and Samjik Ekta Manch. Their leaders now openly speak of creating a second Salwa Judum without arms while mustering armies of protestors waving anti-Naxal placards. Tellingly, small-time politicians and petty contractors trying to ingratiate themselves with the security forces also play a leading role at such rallies and, invariably, there is an obliging media contingent on hand to report the divisive statements and inflated crowd estimates supplied by the ring leaders and to hype these events as a “mass movement” against Maoism.
These rallies are, it seems, a manifestation of “perception management”, the clunky term used by the security establishment to justify a range of actions from the ludicrous to the malign to the brutal, to “wean away” the people from the Maoists in their strongholds. However, not only is this goal failing, perception management in Bastar has, in fact, become another name for unconstitutional vigilantism.
But first, what is perception management? It is well-known that the Maoist movement thrives in places where the government machinery is yet to arrive, far away from block headquarters and motorable roads, whether in the un-surveyed areas of Abuj Madh in Bastar or the forgotten stretches along the Andhra-Odisha border like the “cut-off” area in Malkangiri, where 25,000 people belonging to six gram panchayats are separated from the “mainland” by the Balimela reservoir and can only be reached by a six-hour long boat ride. The Maoists are the only symbol of authority in such areas and the public knows of no other. If the use of force and development interventions are two pillars of the state’s “anti-Naxal policy”, a third is “perception management”, aimed at introducing people in these areas to the friendly face of the state. Unlike psy-ops, it is not meant to be counter propaganda or psychological warfare, but a well-coordinated scheme of activities to bridge the trust deficit between the people and the administration. It is what Maoist theorists call the “social ball” when they liken the state’s approach to tackling Maoism to a juggler juggling four balls.
“The offensive action or the military ball is tossed first. Then immediately the social, economic and political balls are tossed,” runs a quote widely attributed to the slain Maoist Cherukuri Rajkumar, alias Azad. “Once the balls are in the air, all of them have the same significance. The whole process becomes successful only when all the four balls are thrown in the same level of concentration.”
Unfortunately, while the state’s security and developmental approaches, despite all their shortcomings, still retain some semblance of being a national policy and are at least debated upon at national forums, perception management can hardly be called a policy. At its most benign, even if superficial and perfunctory, it has consisted of holding various civic action programmes in Maoist-influenced areas, paid for with money provided by the Centre under security related expenditure (SRE). Typically, this has involved distributing household articles and clothes, conducting medical camps and arranging community festivals. But over the years, over-zealous government officials, especially police officers, have been misusing it and distorting it to include, for example, such overtly propagandist gestures like organising events to tom-tom “mass surrenders”, such as that of 72 claimed Maoist sympathisers in September in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district, or earlier of 122 people in Sukma district.
However, even such stunts pale before the menacing brand of “perception management” currently being executed in Bastar, with the aim, it appears, not of changing hearts and minds but providing a cover for state failures and state excesses, and smothering dissent. With only two weeks left of “Mission 2016”, the Chhattisgarh police’s most recent “action plan” to achieve a “Maovadi-mukt Bastar” (Maoist-free Bastar), it is clear the security establishment has achieved little other than perpetuating an unending cycle of violence. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, there were 190 conflict-related deaths in Bastar this year, a figure that includes Maoists, civilians and security personnel. This is a 65% increase from last year. As many as 124 of these deaths occurred during police encounters, a 138% increase in such deaths over 2015. (While those 124 are officially described as Maoists, it is telling that among those killed were Vimlu and Sonalu of Maldu village of Dantewada district, school-going children with valid identity cards.) Yet, far from being “flushed out”, Maoists are still launching attacks on security forces – such as, in recent weeks, the blasts with improvised explosive devices that caused the death of a sub inspector with the Central Reserve Police Force and injured two others – and as any visit to a Maoist stronghold will show, they still enjoy popular support.
In this context, it needs to be asked: how will rallies, even if they are “breaking news” in urban centres, “wean away” people from the Maoists? How does it help to drum up sentiment against Maoists in places like Raipur and Jagdalpur, hundreds of kilometres away from Maoist strongholds? What meaning do such events have for a poor tribal woman living in the constant fear of both the Maoist and police alike in, say, the village of Kummakoeleng?
However, it is not easy to ask such questions in Bastar, because the “perception makers” are not merely exhibitionists but megalomaniacs as well. Any criticism, whether muted or forceful, is greeted with actions ranging from intimidation to violence. From the pelting of stones on journalist Malini Subramaniam’s house to the threatening of lawyers belonging to the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), to the processions against social activist Bela Bhatia and the vandalising of the office of local Communist Party of India leader Manish Kunjam, the juggernaut of vigilantism in Bastar appears to be invincible. What is equally striking is that the vigilantes do not comment on any of the genuine scandals plaguing this region. They have not, in recent memory, uttered a word or organised a single demonstration against the awarding of contracts for public works by district officials to favoured contractors at rates inflated by about 10-20%. (No wonder a lot of civil contractors are active members of such vigilante groups.) Nor have they spoken up about the ongoing violations of the forest rights of the adivasis of Bastar. For that matter, they have never substantively critiqued Maoist violence. That their role is to smother the voices of those who have spoken up against police excesses is evident from the extent to which their ire is directed against civil right activists, whom they paint as Maoist sympathisers.
Simultaneously, the vigilantes also promoting armed violence in rural areas. They are setting up “Tangiya (axe) gangs” in interior villages against Maoists, a strategy that effectively amounts to pitting traditionally armed villagers against Maoists with sophisticated arms. The objective is to build a perception that that the “people” have risen against what Maoists call a people’s struggle. Shamnath Baghel of Nama village, for whose murder Delhi University sociology professor Nandini Sundar and others were accused by the police last month (which several civil society members and academics have said was open intimidation from the police), was a member of a “Tangiya” gang. The fact that senior police officials casually mentioned his membership of such an outfit while discussing the case with journalists showed a telling complacency about the existence of private armies arrogating to themselves the state’s prerogative of protecting its citizens.
Indeed, the lines between the police and the vigilantes are so blurred that they barely exist. Even before the academics and others were charged with murder last month (the Supreme Court intervened to prevent their arrest in a patently concocted case), there was the extraordinary, unprecedented spectacle of uniformed police personnel burning effigies of Sunder, Bhatia, Subramaniam, Kunjam and others in October. The fact that Subramaniam, members of JagLAG and others were forced to leave Bastar in the absence of any assurances of police protection, shows how complicit the police was in their persecution. It reneged on its duty to protect these citizens. Indeed, the former superintendent of police of Sukma district, D. Shravan, has admitted on record: “…we facilitate the Samajik Ekta Manch”. Why would police lend support to an extra legal outfit except as part of a campaign of perception management?
Both at last year’s ‘Dhikkar Rally’ and the more recent ‘Lalkar Rally’ organised in September this year, senior police officials were present. It is clear the scale of mobilisation involved in these events, with their organisers claiming to have mustered crowds of 50,000 and one lakh, requires generous funding. Where do those funds come from? Does the security establishment supply them or does the police turn a blind eye while the vigilantes extort money from the public? Whatever the answer, the creation of extra-legal groups and the encouragement of their blatantly illegal activities in an insurgency prone area is neither ethical nor desirable. Manipulating perception is a very professional job. A lack of a conceptual framework only serves to create a Frankensteinian monster and that is more of a problem, legally and ethically, than any insurgency can ever be.