On Monday, an armed cadre of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) ambushed a Central Reserve Police Force contingent in Sukma district, Chhattisgarh, killing 26 personnel. This was the worst such attack on security forces in the state in seven years and raises serious questions about the situation in Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi region, where for more than two decades now Maoist militants have been engaged in a fierce conflict with the authorities.

Given the scale of the attack, both the central and state governments were expected to look into what went wrong and propose solutions. Only, the central government decided that controlling the media narrative would be a more worthwhile use of its time.

Absurd whataboutery

A day after the ambush, the Union government went on an offensive – not against the militants who carried out the attack – but against unidentified “human rights activists”. M Venkaiah Naidu, the minister for information and broadcasting accused activists of maintaining a “baffling silence” over the attack.

“I am constrained to infer that such motivated acts of violence are being resorted to with tacit support from the so-called human rights advocates,” Naidu said, without bothering to explain who these activists were or how he had inferred that they supported the attack.

It’s difficult to ignore the fact that Naidu’s Bharatiya Janata Party controls both the Union government as well as the state of Chhattisgarh. The government is responsible for maintaining law and order and ensuring the safety of the citizens of Bastar as well as the CRPF personnel posted in the area.

Moreover, this attack did not come out of the blue. An upswing in violence had been clear for sometime now. Just last month, there was a Communist Party of India (Maoist) attack in Bhejji, Chhattisgarh, in which 12 CRPF men were killed. In fact, more security personnel have been already killed in Chhattisgarh this year than the annual average over the past five years. With eight months in the year left to go, 2017 is shaping up to be a bad year for the Bastar conflict.

Twelve CRPF men were killed in the Bhejji attack in March. Image credit: IANS
Twelve CRPF men were killed in the Bhejji attack in March. Image credit: IANS

Administrative inaction

In spite of these flashing warning signs, little was done by the administration. For two months, the CRPF has been without a full-time head – an astonishing situation given the organisation’s key role in conflicts across India, from Kashmir to Bastar. Mistakes made in Bhejji in March were repeated, leading to the attack on Monday. Both attacks took place in the same district and in both cases, targets were CRPF men guarding road building parties. The CRPF suffers from a chronic lack of equipment and gear – a situation that has changed little in the past few years.

A day after an attack of this magnitude, the people of India need to be told why these issues were not fixed and what the government is doing to scale down the conflict. Rather than lay out a roadmap for resolving the problems in Bastar, the Union government believes the next step it should take is “build strong public opinion…against human rights activists”.

Managing the narrative

That the Union government, rather than administering the country, is taking time out to release a press statement that attempts to point out alleged “double standards” by unnamed “human rights activists” is an alarming dereliction of duty. Whataboutery about the role of unnamed activists is a blatant attempt to manage the narrative rather than deal with the issues at hand.

The BJP seems to believe its ploy of using the “anti-national” dog whistle will be enough to divert attention away from its failures in governance. This is not new. In 2016, the BJP had channelled all its energies to proving that certain students of Jawaharlal Nehru University were guilty of committing sedition. The actual case was hollow – until now the Delhi Police have been unable to even draw up a chargesheet in the matter. However, the brouhaha did help the BJP politically, by establishing nationalistic sentiment as a major political issue even as more concrete matters such as livelihoods or nutrition took a back seat.

At least some in the media seem to have fallen for this ploy. Times Now, one of India’s most watched English-language news channels, somehow managed to blame the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University for the Sukma attack rather than the governments actually responsible for administering Bastar.

The BJP might have made jingoism its automated response when faced with roadblocks, but as conflict breaks out all over India – Kashmir, gau rakshak attacks, Bastar – this strategy might soon start to wear thin.