Jammu & Kashmir and Chhattisgarh are almost 2,100 km apart, but both the states have faced the brunt of long-drawn insurgency. However, unlike J&K, where the mobile phone network has been successfully used to track down militants, large parts of Chhattisgarh and other Naxal-hit states have so far reported few such successes. Now the Centre is planning to address this lacuna in its anti-Naxal strategy by installing about 3,000 mobile towers across nine states, in areas that have hitherto remained outside any mobile network coverage.
According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) sources, the project will “offer operational advantage to the security forces who find it hard to locate Naxals in the forested areas of around 80 districts”.
The proposal is aimed at replicating the success of a similar experiment in J&K. In 2003, when the Centre decided to introduce mobile phone service in J&K, the move was initially resisted by security forces and intelligence agencies. They warned that cell phones would help militants trigger bomb blasts and coordinate terror attacks.
Though the militants did use cell phones to plan attacks, it soon began to prove counterproductive for them. “Most of the militants were eliminated after their cell phones were tracked and their conversations recorded,” says a Srinagar-based counter-insurgency expert. “The technology, you can say, ultimately worked in our benefit.”
Not more than 100 militants are active today — a significant drop since 2003 when they numbered in the thousands.
More recently, in 2011, cell phones led the security forces to militants like Abdullah Uni of the Laskhar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Hamad of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), both of whom were killed in separate encounters. In 2012, monitoring of the cell phone network led to the arrest of Abdul Rashid Shigan, a policeman who also ran a self-styled two-man group that had attacked the security forces 13 times. Another surprising case was that of the SIM cards planted in 2010 by intelligence agencies among LeT ranks, which were later recovered by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) from the militants killed during the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.
If the MHA’s proposal to extend the coverage of the mobile phone network in nine Naxal-hit states is fully implemented, it will cost around 3,000 crore, say sources. Most of the 2,200 locations identified by the home ministry for installation of mobile towers are in Jharkhand (782), Chhattisgarh (497), Odisha (253) and Andhra Pradesh (227). The rest are in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
“Out of all the proposed 2,200 locations, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has already installed mobile towers at 363,” Killi Kruparani, the Union minister of state for communications and information technology, recently told Parliament. In Chhattisgarh alone, the BSNL has already commissioned 351 new mobile towers.
“The current process is a continuation of 11th Five Year Plan, through which 673 mobile towers were installed in Naxal-affected districts,” say MHA sources. “Villages or hamlets with a population of 2,000 or more and no mobile coverage in such areas were considered for installation of towers under the USOF (Universal Service Obligation Fund) of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.”
Most villages in poor and remote Naxal-affected areas have remained outside the mobile network because they offer little opportunity of generating revenues for private operators. But after top Maoist leader Kishenji was killed in November 2011 and cell phone intercepts proved crucial in the encounter, the lesson was driven home that better mobile coverage could yield positive dividends in counter-insurgency efforts. It was only after this that over 500 mobile towers were installed in Naxal-affected states.
Going by the number of mobile towers destroyed by the Naxals in recent years, it is evident that they see mobile phone coverage in the regions where they operate as a threat. Locals can use mobile phones to pass on information about the Naxals’ movements and help the security forces take timely action. According to one estimate, the Naxals blasted 38 towers in 2008, 66 in 2009, 70 in 2010 and 71 in 2011. So it’s no surprise that the MHA seeks to harness the mobile phone network in its efforts to counter Naxal violence.
According to sources, lately there has been some streamlining in the system of monitoring communications over the cell phone network and the Internet. A Central Monitoring System was recently set up at the cost of about Rs 400 crore. It gives both Central and state investigative agencies a single point of access to call records, text messages and emails as well as the geographical location of mobile phones and computers linked to the Internet. If more Naxal-affected areas are brought under the mobile phone network, there would be a greater chance of gathering actionable intelligence on the activities and movements of the Naxals.
However, even as the authorities gear up to take on the Naxals, some activists question the plan to use cell phones as a “tool” in counterinsurgency rather than as means to bridge the “communication gap” between impoverished Adivasis and the rest of the country. “The government, and in fact, no one, has been able to deal with the development paradigm vis-à-vis Naxalism in central India and using such a huge infrastructure only to track down Maoists would be a waste of money,” says Suhas Chakma of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights.
Agrees Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist and founder of CGNet-Swara — a mobile based news service. “There is a complete breakdown of communication between Adivasi India and mainstream India. Mobile phones can be used to bridge that gap,” he says. “But if they are used only for counter-insurgency operations, then I’m not sure how useful that will be.”
Having spent more than seven years in Chhattisgarh and watching the Maoist movement closely, Choudhary points out that the Adivasis in Chhattisgarh find it extremely difficult to have their voices heard by the rest of the country. “Not just bureaucrats and politicians, but also most journalists reporting from the state do not understand the tribal language, Gondi,” he says. “So when people try to report from the tribal areas, they mostly end up talking to those who know some Hindi or English. So the Adivasis’ own voice fails to get reflected in the reportage.”
Choudhary refers to the experience of CGNet-Swara as an example of how mobile phones can be an empowering tool for Adivasis in remote areas. Tribal villagers and activists in remote parts of Chhattisgarh call up the news service using mobile phones and get their “reports” recorded. The villagers can also access news from the portal via mobile phones.
“In Chhattisgarh, only 0.7 percent of the population has access to the Internet. CGNet-Swara is like Facebook for Adivasis who do not have access to computers or the Internet, but can use mobile phones,” says Choudhary.
So if more areas are brought under the cell phone network, it would make initiatives like CGNet-Swara more effective. That would be in addition to the intelligence spin-offs for the security forces.