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AT HOME WITH TROUBLE

- The expertise of the home minister should be allowed full play

The home minister, P. Chidambaram, has been bitterly criticized for using his troops as cannon fodder and killing innocents. Respected for his intellect, articulation, his ability to marshal complex facts and to debate, he is also detested for his arrogance and sarcasm. He is not known for negotiation, consultation or compromise. This dents his effectiveness. He says he believes that force and development are necessary together in dealing with Maoists. He has better organized India than ever before for using force. Having been commerce and finance minister he should be able to pursue development. He must be allowed to complete the task he has had for four years as home minister.

In 1955-56, Verrier Elwin’s book, A Philosophy for NEFA — as the Northeast Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh was called — was released. It argued in favour of enabling the tribal population to live with self-respect, with some advantages of modern civilization like healthcare, but with no exploitation by plainsmen. A special cadre of the Central services looked after this part of India and exploitation of the people and wealth of this resource-rich part of India was not permitted. Unlike many other tribal populations in other parts of India, this state has not been available for exploitation. Now it is open to private investment and one hopes that Verrier Elwin’s advice will be implemented in all tribal areas.

The national Council of Applied Economic Research found in a survey that tribal populations were the worst off in human development indicators. Others have found that many tribal people have been displaced more than once, bribed with liquor, their forest lands and sacred hills looted for forest produce and minerals, and their women molested. There was little government effort to build roads, schools, hospitals, and so on.

This context must colour all our judgments about the unrest in tribal lands that make a growing part of the country ungovernable. They are now led by ‘Naxalites’, mostly young urban idealists, many of them well educated and from the middle or upper classes, who have intervened to prevent exploitation of tribal people.

The first priority is to protect their rights to their forest lands and their self-respect and security. As Elwin suggested for NEFA, tribal areas should be administered by officers trained to be respectful of tribal cultures and traditions. Ambushes by Maoist rebels must be fought, taking adequate care that women and children used as ‘human shields’ are not shot. Armed children trained to use guns may well suffer but the effort must be to rehabilitate them.

In the past, when government forces were ambushed and many police personnel killed, there was severe criticism of the home minister, the government and its forces for incompetence. Now when they are better organized to fight back, they become vicious killers. The media must learn the complexities and be convinced of the government’s sincerity in turning over a new leaf with tribal populations.

Sixteen years in government have associated Chidambaram with controversies, many still open. To name some: the 2G spectrum scandal (under investigation); the Aircel-Maxis deal controversy (under investigation); the hoarding of black money abroad (a hitherto unproven allegation); charges of poll fraud (under decision in court). However, he has never been found guilty of any charges. His handling of the Anna Hazare agitation in 2011 messed up the image of the government. But he is clean (unless proven otherwise).

He has been an effective minister in his previous portfolios. As deputy minister and later minister of state in the first Rajiv Gandhi government, he was in charge of personnel, administrative reforms, training, public grievances and pensions, personnel (with internal security) — a later addition. His record in these ministries was innovative and decisive. For example, he initiated the fencing of the border with Pakistan. The national management programme sought better cohesiveness between officers in the government and in industry. As commerce minister, he dramatically changed export and import policies, abolishing artificial aids to exports and sharply bringing down import duties. These were in line with P.V. Narasimha Rao’s ‘big bang’ approach to abolish the licence-quota raj.

As finance minister for four years till 2008, he presided over sustained and high growth of the gross domestic product while keeping economic fundamentals healthy, unlike his successor. His budgets were heartily welcomed by all the chambers of commerce and industry. But some analysts considered his policies overly friendly to industry and the better off. But his tenure did witness a rise in India’s economic standing, record growth and poverty reduction.

As home minister, he brought his intellectual capability to understand complex situations, an effort lacking in his predecessors, L.K. Advani and Shivraj Patil. Both their terms experienced many cross-border attacks but they were unable to develop a framework to prevent them. Chidambaram has seen a decline in such attacks, both because of the steps he has taken in a holistic manner and the change in attitude in Pakistan.

Advani only looked stern and talked tough through these attacks but could do little to stop them. Patil appeared unperturbed through all the attacks and did not initiate actions to counter them.

Chidambaram replaced the hapless Patil as home minister. While cross-border incidents declined, Maoist insurgency accelerated. Chidambaram, in contrast to Advani and Patil, is a strategist and is action-oriented. His focus has been on structure, systems, processes and training for combating terrorism. His stated object is to make these terrorist dominated areas safe for development work. Alongside, he is trying to reorganize intelligence to combat home-grown and foreign terrorism. In this effort he has tried to organize and centralize intelligence, install trained Rapid Action Forces, motivate and lead the paramilitary like the Central Reserve Police Force, to work with better trained state police forces and confront Maoist forces. There were initial setbacks, but the military battles seem to be turning against the Maoists. The government now has a sound strategy, but it is unconvincing to state governments, media and the public. He must stop the Maoist violence but not replace it with state violence. He must now resuscitate Elwin, introduce a new cadre of officers in the administration of tribal areas, ensure that land laws and the rights of tribal people to their lands are implemented, and push other ministries to proceed with development work. A substantial sum should be earmarked for development work in tribal areas and it must be spent honestly and efficiently.

Chidambaram has created the opportunity for active development work in tribal areas. Ministers like Jairam Ramesh in rural development, Kamal Nath in roads and others have initiated development programmes in hitherto unapproachable Maoist areas.

Chidambaram’s record as home minister till now has displayed a certain one-sided clarity of objectives, an ability to conceptualize and implement strategic decisions that was lacking in the earlier decade. His inability to carry state governments, to educate the public, together with the media’s distrust of him have hidden the opportunity he has created. This must be seized. It would be a waste of the experience he has acquired, and his talents, if he were to move from the home ministry now.

Moving him would be tragic. He has his deficiencies but in all his ministerial positions he was superior to many others before and after him. This untalented Congress is bereft of people with his courage, clarity and experience. He must be allowed to capitalize on his achievements while also implementing sympathetic administration and development work in tribal areas.