Army last resort in rebel fight: Antony

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By SUJAN DUTTA in Delhi
  • Published 28.10.09
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New Delhi, Oct. 28: Defence minister A.K. Antony is always emphatic in his rejections. There were two from him today: one unqualified and categorical, the other with a but-and-an-if.

“I can tell you categorically that there was and there is no question of (Indian) military involvement (in Iraq or Afghanistan) now or in future,” he shot back when pointed out that a top US Army general had said during war games this week that “I would be comfortable going with the Indian Army anywhere, anytime”.

Indian and US army mechanised forces are currently engaged in an exercise named “Yudh Abhyas” (preparing for war) at Babina near Jhansi.

In the same breath, almost, Antony rejected cabinet colleague Mamata Banerjee’s demand for an immediate deployment of the army in Lalgarh but said the Centre had intensified its monitoring of measures against Maoists.

The army was to be used only as “a last, last, last resort”. The army can only be called to aid the civil authority after a state government has requested.

In Bengal, despite the rejection of Mamata’s request, the issue of using the army against Naxalites is still open in the ruling CPM but not as favoured by its partners in the Left Front government.

CPM state secretariat member Benoy Konar had said in Calcutta on September 25: “Let the Centre decide and put the proposal before the state. But there is little scope for debate on this issue among us. The Maoists are operating as a regular army and they can be dealt with effectively by an army response.”

That was before the Maoists had abducted police officer Atindranath Dutta and the PCPA picketed the Rajdhani Express — both events hammering into Writers’ Buildings and North Block that security forces in Lalgarh have a long way to go. Antony said: “The government is aware of the seriousness of the Naxalite threat.” He even used the word “alarming” once but indicated that the Centre felt it had not yet crossed the threshold beyond which New Delhi would have to push the army into the troubled zones.

Antony’s re-statement today of not deploying army boots on the ground in the offensive against Naxalites reflects the views of the armed forces top brass. The Indian Air Force is already involved in the offensive and is set to create a task force for the purpose.

With heavy deployments in Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast, the army top brass are worried about being over-stretched if called to do duty in the hinterland.

But the defence minister has left the question open on what the Centre would do if the Bengal — or any other state — government were to formally request for army assistance.

“Law and order is the responsibility of the state governments and we are there only to give support. Whether in Bengal or any other area, our view is that employing armed forces for internal security is the last resort,” he said.

Antony was replying after being asked for his response to Mamata Banerjee’s request to the Union home minister P. Chidambaram in Delhi on Tuesday. The Trinamul leader and railway minister said she had told the home minister: “Don’t use the assistance of the state government to combat Maoists. Only use the army for the task.”

Contrasting with Antony’s qualified statement on using the army in internal security “only as a last resort” was his categorical denial of the suggestion that Indian troops may operate alongside US forces in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The question arose because of the largest army exercise now on with troops, tanks and armoured vehicles.