In a bichromatic black-and-white world, it would be easy to tell the good guys from the bad. But in a world layered over with disinformation, propaganda and shades of nuance, where even cinematic superheroes are wracked by self-doubt over their resort to violence and the mean streak it provokes in them, it is increasingly proving difficult to draw a distinctive line in the sand and separate the good guys from the bad.
The conflicting accounts of the tragic circumstances in which 18 tribal people – 10 of them minors – were gunned down by the CRPF on the night of 28-29 June in Sakerguda in Chhattisgarh have compounded this already difficult task even further.
And that lack of clarity is, over the long run, slowly chipping away at any moral legitimacy that the government may justifiably claim in its operations against Maoists, and the security forces – who put their lives on the line everytime they undertake an operation – can invoke in defence of their occasional use of excessive force.
The CRPF claims – and Union Home Minister P Chidambaram backs them up – that one of three patrol parties that were on their way in the dead of the night to Silgerh, where a group of Maoists were allegedly about to gather, chanced upon a group of villagers at Sakerguda. The CRPF further claims that the villagers opened fire on them without provocation, in response to which they returned fire. It was dark, and given the difficulty in telling innocent villagers from die-hard Maoists, some villagers too were killed in the “encounter”, the CRPF acknowledges.
And, yes, 10 of the dead were minors, the youngest of whom was 12. One of them was a 15-year-old girl.
Even so, the CRPF claims, they’re the good guys.
“Are we a ragtag army or an irresponsible militia?” asks CRPF Director-General K Vijay Kumar. “We are a responsible counter-insurgency force. We went there with the local police with a job to do. If, by bad luck, innocents were also hurt, it is a matter of regret.”
But the villagers of Sakerguda, and social activists speaking on their behalf, have a vastly different narrative of the events of that night. They claim that a group of innocent villagers were seated in the open that night, drawing up details of an upcoming festival and apportioning land-tilling responsibilities. At that time, security forces surrounded the village and opened unprovoked fire.
The attempts to project it as an “armed encounter” and to suggest that the villagers had first opened fire are utter lies, they claim. Their proposition: We’re the good guys. See, even our schoolboys have been killed.
But at least seven of those killed that night were Maoists, claims the CRPF. Other accounts contest that claim, saying they were not Maoists, even if some of them had a criminal record. These contradictions too are hard to reconcile.
Indicatively, Vijay Kumar claims that one of those killed – Markham Suresh – was “involved in the 2007 Dantewada jailbreak”. But Open magazine reports, citing social activist Himanshu Kumar, who ran an ashram in Dantewada district until it was razed down by the state administration three years ago, that Suresh wasn’t a Maoist at all, and that he had been arrested on some trumped-up charge in April 2007. When Maoists attacked the jail, Himanshu Kumar says, Suresh just walked home.
Chidambaram isn’t, therefore, willing to make concessions to the “complete innocence”” of the villagers. He was, he said, “deeply sorry” – but only if a “completely innocent life was lost.” Chidambaram also backed the CRPF steadfastly, complimenting the force on its courage and skill in carrying out a difficult operation.
Yet, even those who acknowledge the stern challenge that the security forces, including the CRPF, face in their war on the Maoists, and who therefore see them as being a force for good, find it difficult to justify the killing of school children that night.
But CRPF chief Vijay Kumar takes a stab at it, through innuendo – by suggesting that at least one of the schoolboys may have been part of the Naxalite youth wing. “The one projected in the media as a schoolboy…. We don’t want to analyse whether he was part of the Bal Sangham. We don’t want to make any insinuations,” he told Tehelka.
Even for those who don’t see the Maoists as “Gandhians with guns”, this sounds like a grating half-alibi for the murder of a schoolboy.
It is, of course, true that Naxalites are not above blowing up schools in the areas that they control; and, yes, they do indoctrinate schoolboys to their accursed cause; and, of course, the Maoists’ record of violence against the security forces too feeds this ceaseless cycle of violence.
But the prospect of winning over tribal communities – who are caught in the crossfire – to your side becomes doubly difficult when security forces, operating without night-vision equipment in a difficult terrain, go shooting in the dark at schoolboys.
In the gripping climax sequence in the film A Few Good Men (watch here), Jack Nicholson, playing the haughty Col Nathan Jessup, offers rookie lawyer Lt Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) an elaborate, ranting defence of the use of disproportionate force by men in uniform in difficult circumstances.
“We live in a world with walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns,” says Jessup. “Who’s gonna do it? You?” he sneers.
Both Chidambaram and the CRPF chief very likely share that same intolerance for those who would ask them to account for lapses in soldierly conduct in the war on the Maoist “bad guys”. If they could summon up the words, they would perhaps rage, like Col Jessup: “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to someone who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide – and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”
The war on the Maoists doesn’t, of course, lend itself to easy solutions – or moral ambivalence. But there is also a larger battle being waged – for the hearts and minds of the tribal communities, who find themselves unfortunate victims in the crossfire. And that battle is lost every time an ill-prepared, ill-equipped security force guns down schoolboys in an “encounter” – and weaves elaborate alibis to justify it.
It’s one of those ugly moments when it becomes difficult to tell the “good guys” from the “bad”.