April 07, 2010

Tackling the Maoist problem, confidently: Sitaram Yechury

The transcript of an interview with Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury done by Karan Thapar for the programme Devil's Advocate, on the West Bengal government's handling of the Maoist situation. Broadcast on Sunday, November 8, on CNN-IBN, it is being re-run on Monday.

Karan Thapar: Is your government in West Bengal serious about tackling the Maoists?
SITARAM YECHURY: Very serious.
Karan Thapar: In which case, how do you account for the pusillanimous deal that you’ve done with Kishanjee to secure the release of Atindranath Dutta? Both The Indian Express and The Hindu report that your police forces were surrounding and closing in on the Maoists when inexplicably the government called them off. Your government, at a critical moment, threw in the towel?
YECHURY: No, that’s not the fact of the matter. In fact, the people whose release was obtained were actually, if you look at the photographs — which the same papers have published — were middle-aged, hapless tribal women, and not hardened Maoists, for which any deal has been done.
Karan Thapar: I’ll come to the people who were released in a moment, but first come back to my opening point. Two newspapers, which your government has not contradicted so far, have said that in fact your forces had surrounded the Maoists at a time, when suddenly and inexplicably, they were called off?
YECHURY: See, no government will contradict or affirm when operations of this nature are going on. The media can speculate.
Karan Thapar: But this is an embarrassing revelation.
YECHURY: It’s no revelation, it’s just speculation.
Karan Thapar: It’s not speculation. Top police officers confirm that they had surrounded the Maoist squad that had abducted Atindranath Dutta. Then they got a call from Kolkata to call off the operation.
YECHURY: Who? Who are those top police officers? The fact of the matter is that many a time in such operations we’ve seen such red herrings being put forward, and the media also, honestly, need to cooperate in dealing with such dangers.
Karan Thapar: The media also need to expose the government. When senior police officers are going out of their way to tell the press that the government was in a position to surround the Maoists before the Chief Minister called it off, that’s embarrassing.
YECHURY: Who’re these officers?
Karan Thapar: Officers don't give their names as they are worried about their jobs, but they’re revealing, like whistle-blowers, the truth.
YECHURY: No. Why is it that only these two newspapers have done it? In case there are other officers who’ve been going around and giving such information, then why other media [outlets] have not picked it up?
Karan Thapar: Okay. That's your ground: why haven’t more newspapers reported this, therefore I don’t believe it? It’s a dubious explanation but I will accept it and I won't argue with it.
YECHURY: It's not dubious at all.
Karan Thapar: For the simple reason that your government has not contradicted what the two newspapers have said, the police officers are not contradicting it, that’s why it stands?
YECHURY: There’s no need for contradiction. The logic is, you do not contradict such things when operations are on. That's precisely what we told…
Karan Thapar: Let’s go beyond the operations. Let’s move a step beyond. It's not just that you are perceived to have thrown in the towel, what is even worse is the message that you sent out to the Maoists. That every time they are under pressure all they have to do is kidnap a government official, the government will buckle and that will lead to a blaze of publicity.
YECHURY: That Chief Minister has said it very, very clearly, and he said that it was only in this particular case. This is not going to happen again.
Karan Thapar: But there’s no guarantee that it won't happen again. There was no need to for it to happen here, therefore it can happen again.
YECHURY: There was a need because these were hapless tribal women — taken, kidnapped virtually to be used as shields. This is what — we rescued them.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to that issue then. This is the second time you are raising this claim that this was done to secure the release of what you called hapless tribal women.
YECHURY: Of course, the same newspapers you pointed published photographs of them.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to those people then. These Maoists sympathisers, the Chief Minister says, it doesn't matter that they were released because the charges against them were minor misdemeanours, and secondly he says they would anyway have been granted bail in 15 days. Both those points are not true: they were actually charged with waging war against the state and attempted murder — a far more serious charge than he admits. And secondly, bail was no means likely. So the Chief Minister is misrepresenting the situation.
YECHURY: If that’s the case, you’ve to ask the State government, I don't know any such details.
Karan Thapar: So you’re backing off now.
YECHURY: No, I’m not backing off. I don't think that is an issue at all.
Karan Thapar: You made it the issue.
YECHURY: The issue is, these people were used as shields, they continue to be used as shields in order to procure whatever demands the Maoists want.
Karan Thapar: Can I, for the sake of the audience, clarify the issue? I’m going to quote FIR No. 137/2009 and FIR No. 78/2009 of September 3. These 22 Maoist sympathisers were accused with waging war against the Centre and the State and also attempt to murder. Secondly, and this is equally important, the public prosecutor, Chandicharan Mahapatra, had on two separate occasions refused bail. He said he was against bail and he said he has strong evidence and suddenly he then had to change his position because your government forced him to.
YECHURY: Why should the public prosecutor change positions?
Karan Thapar: Because they come under pressure from your government. The government wished to withdraw the case.
YECHURY: I’ve been charged with sedition, acting against the state, on a large number of incidents when I was in student politics. So this is not something unnatural and you know ‘attempt to murder,’ ‘acting against state,’ ‘dacoity’…
Karan Thapar: But these are not minor misdemeanours, as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said.
YECHURY: This is the nature and manner how the police works. For a student demonstration you charge me with dacoity?
Karan Thapar: This is not a student demonstration. These are people who are accused of waging war against the state.
YECHURY: I’m giving you that illustration only to prove the point that they are ways in which the Indian police acts under the Indian Penal Code.
Karan Thapar: In which case, please explain to me, why the defence lawyer, the one man whose interest is to act on behalf of these 22 Maoists, he said when the bail was granted: "Even I was surprised the district court granted them bail." The only reason it happened is because your government inexplicably and suddenly wished to withdraw charges.
YECHURY: Again you’re jumping to conclusions without any basis. If the defence lawyer makes that statement, from there to conclude that the government put pressure and therefore this was done, I think you’re letting your imagination take hold of you.
Karan Thapar: It's a fanciful defence you’ve put up. Let the audience hear it and judge for themselves whether what you’re saying is credible or less than credible.
YECHURY: Yes, please.
Karan Thapar: Meanwhile, the problem with the attitude of the Marxist government of Bengal to the Maoists goes much further back than what happened last month. West Midnapore police records show that since 2002 — that is seven years ago — over 170 people have been killed by Maoist death squads. Sixty-six per cent of those are in fact CPI(M) cadres, and yet not one Maoist operative has been shot dead and no one of significance has been captured. Your government has given them a free hand.
YECHURY: That’s not true at all. Please remember, if you want to talk about this relationship between the Marxists and the Maoists, it goes back not only to 2002 but it goes way back to 1967-1969.
Karan Thapar: That was the first Naxalbari…
YECHURY: Please, let the public also know, because this is a charge that is being hurled — and a very unfounded charge — about our fight against Maoists. We’re the ones who have lost the maximum number of people in the fight against the Maoists.
Karan Thapar: I’m not denying that. I’m saying you have done nothing about the recent recurrence.
YECHURY: Please remember that Naxalbari is a village in West Bengal from where this ultra-Left deviation took place, and for 30 years they could not come back to West Bengal only because of the fight we had put up, but…
Karan Thapar: But since 2002, when they have returned, you’ve not put up a fight. I’m asking you why you’ve been so pusillanimous since 2002.
YECHURY: I’m not pusillanimous at all. It’s because they’re imported into West Bengal by our political opponents — they were brought in by our political opponents in order to be used against us.
Karan Thapar: But why did you buckle?
YECHURY: Why? It was a political battle that they wanted to wage using the Maoists and they gave them shelter, they gave them patronage and they were brought in from across the border.
Karan Thapar: That’s why they came in. But I’m asking why you didn’t put up a fight to defeat them.
YECHURY: Then listen to this answer fully. All these incidents that are happening now — even now — are happening just along the border of either Orissa or Jharkhand.
Karan Thapar: So? Those are non-sequitors. The point is, they’re happening in West Bengal and you’re not taking action.
YECHURY: I’m sure you remember a person called Veerappan? For 20 years he ruled the jungles in the States of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Could you catch him?
Karan Thapar: So you are going to emulate the incompetence of the Karnataka government? That’s actually your explanation: you’re as incompetent as the Karnataka government.
YECHURY: No, please be rational. My explanation is, unless the forces of all the three States work together it’s not possible. That is how Veerappan was caught and this is what is required now.
Karan Thapar: Let me come back to the central point by looking at the situation as it has developed most recently since November when a mine attack on the convoy of the Chief Minister started the present troubles and the Maoists began to exploit the tribal protest. Instead of tackling the situation, your government stood by, did nothing, and allowed the crisis to develop.
YECHURY: Who told you?
Karan Thapar: I’ve got the facts. Should I quote the facts?
YECHURY: Who told you this? Since that time what has been happening? You’re deliberately missing the major point, that is: the political opponents to the Left Front are the ones patronising, bringing Maoists in and protecting them, and they’re sitting in the Central government. You’re not talking of that at all.
Karan Thapar: I’m not denying that there are political opponents who are patronising the Maoists and bringing them in. The point I am questioning, and you can't answer, is why aren't you tackling the Maoists?
YECHURY: We’re tackling the Maoists. Their main leader [Chhatradhar Mahato] is arrested.
Karan Thapar: He’s not a Maoist, he is of PCPA — there is a distinction. He said so himself.
YECHURY: Who told you? Why are you advocating for them?
Karan Thapar: Let's come back to the fact of how you handle the PCPA, which is clear proof of how pusillanimous you’ve been. In November…
YECHURY: Now you’ve come to the conclusion that there is clear proof.
Karan Thapar: Okay, let me give you the proof. In November, the PCPA demanded that police posts and police camps be shut down. You shut down 13 camps on November 27 and two camps on December 1. Both of those happened on deadlines set by the PCPA — they demanded and you gave in.
YECHURY: No, I am sorry. The operations that are being conducted jointly both by the Central and the State forces — if you want to discuss the details of those operations no State is ever going to give it to you.
Karan Thapar: It's interesting that you bring that up.
YECHURY: The answer is that operations are on, their chief person is arrested and these operations will continue. Don't you worry — you may wish that the Maoists will continue with their violence, but that’s not going to happen.
Karan Thapar: Let me tell you why the answer you gave is actually sleight of hand. You say joint operations are under way, but the truth is…
YECHURY: Why do you pre-judge? You ask a question but please don't pre-judge.
Karan Thapar: The truth is that when it became imperative that you had to act, instead of sending the police you sent in your party cadres. It was only in June this year, when Home Minister P. Chidambaram rang up and virtually bullied Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, that the police were sent in.
YECHURY: Who told you all this? This is absolute fabrication: that the Home Minister called the Chief Minister and only then the action took place. The Central forces were sent to West Bengal at the request of the Chief Minister.
Karan Thapar: In June, not earlier? You waited from November, when the trouble began, till June to request the police forces.
YECHURY: Again a fabrication. Since November onwards when these requests were made the forces, we were told, [were] actually engaged elsewhere and it took time for the Central government to re-marshal their forces and send them to [West] Bengal. That is the fact of the matter.
Karan Thapar: Even if for argument's sake I accept that answer, I want to point out to the audience what happened to the Cobra forces that were sent in. For four months, according to The Indian Express, they’ve been camping in Lalgarh and they’ve been barely used half a dozen times and do you know the reason why? Because your State government won't make intelligence available to them. Without intelligence they can't act.
YECHURY: Please talk to those commandants, if they will talk to you — and I hope they don't when operations are on.
Karan Thapar: They’re talking to the Indian Express. Tuesday’s Indian Express has a huge story on the subject and your government has not denied it.
YECHURY: No government in battle is going to accept or deny.
Karan Thapar: No government denies a story that it can't deny — that’s the problem.
YECHURY: They shouldn't. Because we don't want to keep giving hints, like the media very admirably told the terrorists in Mumbai, how the people were being landed from helicopters so that they could kill them. Thank you very much, no government is going to discuss these matters.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to a bigger, wider problem that’s crippling your government's ability to tackle the Maoists. You’ve deliberately over the years degraded your police force. Let me give you the facts. From a police-to-population ratio of a 102 to 1,00,000 it slumped to just 92 to 1,00,000 in the present year. In comparison to the national average, your figure is 27 per cent below the national average of 125. Your police force is being degraded steadily, that's why you can't tackle the Maoists?
YECHURY: No, first of all you ask the question, but don't pre-judge what the answer or conclusion is. If the number of police [personnel] in West Bengal may be less than the national average...
Karan Thapar: Much less than the national average, it’s 27 per cent less.
YECHURY: Precisely because we don't use the police against the people who’re demanding…
Karan Thapar: Then how’re you going to tackle the Maoists today?
YECHURY: Let me tell you how we’ll tackle it. We’ll tackle it with specialised forces and they’re in operation. They’ll tackle it.
Karan Thapar: Let me then come to that particular issue, I’m going to point out the crippling deficiencies in your so-called forces. You have a 28 per cent deficiency in your civil police, you have a 17 per cent deficiency in your armed police and an astonishing 35 per cent deficiency in the leadership of your armed police.
YECHURY: Deficiency from what?
Karan Thapar: I’ll tell you. This is the percentage by which you are below the required norm.
YECHURY: Mr. Thapar, what is the required norm for the country and how much below are we? That’s the issue for the country as a whole. The country is much below what’s required. The United Nations has recommended how many police force should be for how much population — we’re much, much below that as a country.
Karan Thapar: But can West Bengal afford to be much below the national figure?
YECHURY: Below what? 125 to 92? I must say this is part of the policy of the government, which we are proud of. We don't use police to go on lathi-charging, go on attacking popular movements. But you will have a specialised force. And don't be disappointed, this problem will be tackled.
Karan Thapar: So you say. But the CAG reports for 2002 to 2005 show that several times in those five years 90 per cent of the funds made available to the Government of West Bengal for police modernisation were returned unspent.
YECHURY: I don't know if you know how the CAG works.
Karan Thapar: Blame the CAG now?
YECHURY: No, there’s a procedure, please understand our country and how our government functions. There are preliminary questionnaires, they’re replied to and after the reply investigations take place, then the final report comes. Final reports have not come now.
Karan Thapar: You’ve given me several explanations. You said that in fact your government doesn’t use the police to lathi-charge; you have said the CAG’s reports have mischief in them.
YECHURY: No, don't mislead your viewers.
Karan Thapar: I’m not misleading the viewers.
YECHURY: I said there is a system at work and it takes place in many phases.
Karan Thapar: Let me put this to you, whether you blame the system or your attitude, how do you account for the fact that Kishanjee is able to give daily press conferences to newspapers and TV? He’s able to ring your allies A.B. Bardhan and Kshiti Goswami, and yet you are not able to capture him?
YECHURY: I don't know whom he is calling.
Karan Thapar: A.B. Bardhan and Goswami have admitted it.
YECHURY: Let them. But the point is…
Karan Thapar: That you can't capture him. That's the point. Why?
YECHURY: That's precisely why. Because of the manner of the technology today, and the alacrity of the media — they’ll go to Ferozshah Kotla to see the Shiv Sena dig up the pitch but they’ll not inform…
Karan Thapar: Then answer this. Manik Sarkar in Tripura, a far poorer State, was able to put down a much more virulent insurgency. Yet, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, with all the resources of West Bengal, is unable to tackle the Maoists. Doesn’t this show his government is incompetent?
YECHURY: No, let me tell you again, don't pre-judge. The Maoist crisis will be put down and you’ll be disappointed.
Karan Thapar: All right. I hope you're right. It was a pleasure talking to you.

The Hindu, November 9, 2009

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