Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Naxal challenge to electoral process / Navin B. Chawla

India’s general election is the largest exercise of its kind in the democratic world. Since it fell on me to oversee four out of five phases of the election in 2009, it was also viewed by the country as being my responsibility. This task included every aspect of its planning, including visits to the naxal-affected States in the run-up to the election. With 716 million voters, almost 8,35,000 polling stations and several million officials in service, there was no dearth of problems, all of which had either to have been anticipated or attended to in the shortest period. Time was short. In this case, there were barely 76 days from the announcement of polls to the date of counting of votes.
I do not intend to go into the reasons that have caused the growth of armed insurgency, a protracted war of sorts, that has been waged against the state since the 1960s. Its history is complex and arguments, for and against, continue to be made. Underlying the Maoist philosophy has been its opposition to the very concept of the democratic state. The Maoist view (and which still remains) was that it was a people’s war against an unjust government. Hence, conducting elections was to be opposed by all means available, and which justified the use of extreme violence. Towards this end, anyone who opposed its call for a boycott was a potential target, and which included political parties and candidates, election staff and ordinary voters. My task was to ensure that the election would be conducted on schedule but by avoiding the risk of loss of life or limb using all means available.
Dangers in the Red Corridor
By 2009, naxal-related violence was estimated to have spread up to 180 administrative districts (out of a total of 610 districts in the country), spread over nine States — Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Odisha, Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. It was estimated that there were about 20,000 armed cadres.
The most significant challenge in all this was the open threat by Maoists to prevent or severely disrupt the holding of elections. It was well recognised that in the “Red Corridor” of deeply forested Central India, the Maoist threat was all too real. Much of the infrastructure that we needed, schools and other government buildings to set up poll stations, was badly damaged; several roads, bridges and mobile towers had been blown up. Therefore, the major issues that concerned us were movement, communication and safety.
But our problems were by no means confined to these remote areas; there were a number of urban pockets which provided the Maoists shelter and weapons, and where they were indistinguishable from the population at large. Hence, our canvas was very wide indeed.
From earlier elections, the Maoist’s modus operandi was well known. In order to prevent vehicular movement on arterial roads, they had planted explosive devices, often deep under road surfaces. Aimed against any and all security forces, these lethal elements were implanted sometimes at the time of road laying. Gelatin sticks and explosives, often stolen from sites of mining operations, were strategically hidden under bridges and culverts. Compounding our problems were the huge number of landmines the Maoists had buried under jungle footpaths as well. Further, to specifically deter voters, Maoists have been known to chop off the fingers of the first voter in queues at election booths. All of this made political activity, the very life blood of elections, as hard as possible for political parties. However, the security forces remained their special targets. By killing them, they could also loot their weaponry in order to stock their own requirements.
The early signs were ominous. On April 13, 10 policemen were killed when Maoists attacked a bauxite mine in Koraput district of Odisha, where they also seized explosives. Since I had already begun to undertake detailed reviews in the region, these attacks heralded the naxal warning of their own readiness to thwart the process.
Duty before life
The efforts that went into the setting up of polling stations in these troubled areas necessitated attention to detail. These were carried out in the main by district magistrates/collectors and superintendents of police under the general supervision of the Election Commission. It is not known to the public how difficult these duties are or were for our poll officials. Most often teachers and revenue officials, they had to walk long distances over dangerous terrain (with electronic voting machines) in order to set up their stations. Walking became necessary because transportation by road was infinitely more dangerous. In all these cases, these brave civilian officials put duty before life, and in my mind, remain the true heroes of the election.
Voter insecurity was another issue that had to be looked into, for if they did not feel confident enough to come out to vote, the Maoists would have achieved their aim. Equally important, candidates needed to move around for electioneering. The constantly fluid situation did not make for easy movement as the basic precautions they needed to take were being constantly spelt out to them by the district authorities. This was vital, as timely information and putting in place alternative plans very often helped save many lives. Witness the carnage in Bastar on May 25, 2013, when ignoring basic ground rules cost the lives of a number of Congress leaders and security personnel in Bastar, making it one of the most deadly attacks on the political establishment in recent years as far as Naxal-related violence in India is concerned. The prospect of even a single casualty worried me constantly. Therefore, no detail was too small, no travel too inconvenient and 24 hours not time enough to sort out problems. The Commission’s three indefatigable IAS officers, R. Balakrishnan, J.P. Prakash and Vinod Zutshi, were stretched to the extent possible.
We soon realised that a vital requirement was in having helicopters from the Indian Air Force, thereby reducing the need for long and dangerous jungle treks. Their use would also help send police officials where needed, or rescue electoral staff in case of danger. I also wanted two helicopters to be converted into air ambulances.
The initial response was not too encouraging, but when I explained to the authorities how the use of helicopters would play a key role in saving lives, providing deterrence, and ultimately help in strengthening the democratic process, I was able to get almost everything that I needed. The presence of the machines was a strong psychological reassurance. I also acknowledge the efforts of the brave flight crew as well.
Growing threat
Inspite of the many obstacles, including 17 deaths from Maoist attacks in two States, elections were held on time. There was 55 per cent polling in the first phase and 65 per cent in the second. This was quite a good turnout considering the circumstances, and the press commented on the triumph of ballot over bullet. Yet, there were violent incidents and loss of life. These continued immediately after the election process was over, when on May 21, 16 police personnel including five policewomen were gunned down in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra.
In 2006, the Prime Minister described the naxal threat as the greatest internal security problem that India faced. Between 2006 and 2010, there were an estimated 9,000 incidents in Maoist-dominated States; in the election year of 2009, when there was also an Assembly election in Jharkhand, there were as many as 1,100 incidents.
This internal conflict has deeply affected India’s governance, security, economy and rule of law. In February 2009, the government initiated an Integrated Action Plan. This involves broad and more coordinated operations alongside grass-root economic development projects. However, our track record in understanding this very complex problem has been spasmodic at best. A much more comprehensive, holistic and sustained policy involving across-the-board views particularly within the severely affected States, is long overdue. From the singular point of the conduct of future elections, our reputation as a successful democratic beacon will henceforth depend on the ability of the government to find solutions to this growing problem within our polity.

(Navin B. Chawla, Chief Election Commissioner of India from April 16, 2009 to July 29, 2010, conducted the country’s general election to the 15th Lok Sabha.)


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