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Keep out the armed forces

An intelligent response by the Indian state to Naxalite violence must necessarily be multi-dimensional, dealing with the problem in all its aspects. Long-term strategies to address the socioeconomic roots of the problem must be combined with short-term tactics of firmly combating kidnapping, murder, and targeted violence. However, the suggestion to use the Air Force to counter the threat holds disturbing implications. For a start, it sends out a signal of desperation. The Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik, did well to clarify that the IAF did not intend to carry out any Rambo-style operations against the Maoists. The IAF had only asked the Defence Ministry for permission to open fire in self-defence following the downing of a helicopter during the Chhattisgarh Assembly election last year. The request was to ensure that the IAF could quell fire aimed at its helicopters on relief missions. According to the IAF chief, the Garud Special Forces unit would be present in the helicopters involved in rescue work in areas under the influence of Naxalites, and would defend personnel and equipment against any attack. But there will be no bombing or indiscriminate firing against targets, real or imagined, in the countryside. As a rule, the armed forces ought not to be involved in dealing with internal security issues; and bombing of civilian areas cannot be contemplated by any civilised society.

True, the state is constitutionally and legally empowered to use instruments of violence. But the rules and norms governing such use have to be placed on a higher plane than the standards adopted by extremist forces, which do not hesitate to target innocents. There are times when the state needs to use its inherent powers to intervene quickly and effectively to protect citizens. But every instance of unjust use of violence, including sponsored vigilantism of the Salwa Judum kind, erodes the state’s credibility, legitimacy, and authority. It is a betrayal of the trust reposed in it by the people. Naxalites, and indeed armed extremists of all hues, thrive by provoking state violence and inviting repression not just on themselves but on the civilian population as a whole. The Indian state must not lose sight of the long-term goals of addressing social and economic inequities, and achieving development targets. Providing social opportunity, tackling unemployment, and ensuring sustainable livelihoods are the ways to deal with extremist organisations that seek to alienate the people from the state by taking up these very same issues. The last thing democratic India needs is a spiral of violence, counter-violence, repression, and further extremist provocations.

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