INTERVIEW | ‘Manipur issue is basically ethnic clash'

Former CRPF inspector-general K V Madhusudhanan speaks to TNIE about his experiences and challenges faced by India and Kerala
Former CRPF inspector-general K V Madhusudhanan
Former CRPF inspector-general K V Madhusudhanan(Photo | TP Sooraj, EPS)

We have heard that you were a student leader during your college days, well-acquainted with the likes of P K Kunhalikutty, K Sudhakaran and M V Govindan. How did the transition from politics to policing happen?

I was active in politics during my college days. In those days the campus was ruled by KSU. Though I hail from Anthur in Kannur, a Left bastion, I happened to join KSU. I never wanted to make a career out of politics. But, as a true-blooded Kannur guy, I could not stay away from politics (smiles). I knew Kunhalikutty very well; he was an active leader of the MSF at that time. I got acquainted with leaders like Sudhakaran, who was my senior, when I joined Brennen College for MA. I recall, today’s CPM leader A K Balan had led the SFI to victory in the college union election.

On the transition part, I was into NCC those days, and attended several camps. I was selected for the Republic Day parade as well. So, from my student days, I was determined to join one of the uniformed services.

How did you join the CRPF?

I got all-India first rank in my first attempt, and joined the service as a deputy superintendent. My training was at the Internal Security Academy at Mount Abu. Subsequently, I was posted to Assam. I served there for three years — in the thick of agitations — from 1980 to ’83.

What was your mandate?

I was initially attached with the DIG looking after the whole state. Nearly half of the CRPF was deployed in one state at that time. Problems in the northeast were not widely reported in the media in those days. There was a time when I felt I was being part of a force suppressing a movement, which I felt was genuine. Public participation was total, and the agitation was, by and large, non-violent.

Is insurgency still a problem in the northeast?

Insurgency is different. The Assam agitation, which was a popular mass movement, cannot be classified as an insurgency. It was a political issue. People there began to feel politically sidelined. There has always been a need for cheap labour, and people were getting cheap labour from across the border (Bangladesh), something we can see everywhere today. These workers later brought in their families and settled down. They began to get ration cards, and build houses. Assam’s student community — led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta — revolted against that trend.

This reportedly continues even today; people from across the border manage to get official records, even Aadhaar cards. There have been such reports in Kerala as well…

The border (northeast region) is porous. Currently, there might be some semblance of a border. At that point, there was a requirement for cheap labour, so people were coming in. But naturally, when you get space to sit, you naturally want to stretch your legs… That’s what happened in Assam.

Former CRPF inspector-general K V Madhusudhanan
Former CRPF inspector-general K V Madhusudhanan(Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)

You later served in several posts across the northeast…

There was violence in other states such as Manipur and Nagaland. There, you can see what one would classify as insurgency. The agitation or actions were against what represented the country. Their number one target was the armed wing of the government, and then officials, public properties, etc. They, however, did not trouble the people like terrorists. Their target was solely the government’s arms. That’s continuing in some pockets.

Has it come down over time?

Yes, it has come down considerably. People have begun to realise they stand to benefit if they join the mainstream. Communication has also improved. With that, there is a realisation that being part of the mainstream is better. This was not the case during the ’60s and ’70s. Those days; people there were more tribal in their outlook.

What are your views on the current Manipur issue? Is it a religious conflict, or a tribal clash?

It is primarily a tribal clash. In Manipur, the strongest identity people hold is their tribal nature, with religion coming in second, and political affiliation third. Outsiders often can’t discern their religion because their dressing, features, food habits, and behaviours are similar.

The issue is more ethnic. While there are political interests involved, the core issue is economic. In March 2023, the High Court issued an order directing the state government to consider classifying Meiteis as a Scheduled Tribe. A few months before that, the Manipur government had enacted a Land Reform Act that prohibited entrance into reserved forests, which affected the Kukis more. These two actions — the strict implementation of the Land Reform Act and the High Court’s directive — led to anger among the Kukis. The main issue was land. The government clamped down on encroachment of forest land to curb the cultivation of opium, which was being sent to Myanmar. The mafia involved in this trade was also hurt by these land reforms.

If it was an ethnic clash, how did it turn into a Hindus versus Christians issue?

It’s primarily political. Superficially, one might notice the disparity in the number of churches and temples burnt or destroyed in the conflict — hundreds of churches compared to only tens of temples. However, churches in Manipur are typically simple structures with thatched roofs, unlike the more elaborately constructed temples. So, simply put, there are more churches than temples. Statistically, this might lead to a misinterpretation, making it seem like there’s a targeted attack on Christians. That’s not the case.

Another interesting aspect of the northeast is that the BJP now has a surprisingly strong presence there. How did the party manage to achieve that?

The new generation of northeast people are keen to integrate with the mainstream. And joining a mainstream political party — BJP or Congress — is a clear option. Then comes the question of which party. It is a matter of common sense. Had there been Congress at the Centre, I am sure they would have joined the party.

Currently, the northeast people’s aim is development, integration, job opportunities, and things like that. They have lost a lot of precious time.

Up north, is the peace in Kashmir actually a real one?

The feedback I get is that the peace there is real. Ordinary people like shikara-wallahs and tourist guides are employed now. They are earning good money. The tourist flow has gone up ten-fold. Business is booming.

Religion is a sensitive issue. But the identity aspect linked to Pakistan has considerably reduced now. It’s good news.

Could you share some memories of working with the prime ministers’ Special Protection Group (SPG)?

The SPG is a unique organisation. First of all, the organisation has people who are all on deputation from other forces. Nobody can join the SPG; they are chosen from forces of the Centre and states.

People are chosen when they are young but have enough experience. They are given commando training. After that, and multiple rounds of verification, personnel are deployed for sensitive duties. In SPG, not all are chosen to guard the prime minister. Only a select set get picked. I once commanded that small protection group, which moved closely with the PM. I worked with four PMs — P V Narasimha Rao, H D Deve Gowda, I K Gujral, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Do officers get to interact personally with the prime ministers?

Yes, obviously. You become informal with them because he/she is your protectee — like your baby. So you can’t be very formal. Then there has to be no inhibition in talking to or touching the PM; everything is done for the PM’s good. That rapport is built over a period of time.

Any fond memories, like personal interactions?

Yes, of course. But professional propriety wouldn’t allow me to reveal much. But then, there are certain harmless things that I can share. I would start with Mr Gowda. He was uncomfortable in Delhi. He was never part of the Central administration… and language-wise, too. He was a reluctant prime minister. He would invariably talk to me continuously in the car. He would speak to me very gently, and would even share personal matters such as how reluctant he was to move to Delhi, how his wife was crying when he left Karnataka to become prime minister, and things like that.

It took some days for him to realise that he was the prime minister of the country! Soon after taking over, he said, ‘Okay, I will go to Bangalore’. I accompanied him. At that time, he was still occupying the chief minister’s bungalow there. As usual, he wouldn’t say no to any of the visitors. He would keep meeting people.

Later, at 10.30pm, he said, ‘Tomorrow, I would like to go to Sathya Sai Baba’s place, Chamundi temple and, if possible, a marriage in Mysore.’ So the chief secretary and director general of police were looking at each other. They said: ‘Sir, we cannot do anything about your tours now; the SPG has taken over’. I was standing nearby. I sat down with him, and he repeated the programme. I said, ‘Sir, it’s 10.30pm. How can we arrange this?’

‘No, no, I must go,’ he insisted. ‘See, Sathya Sai Baba, in one of his speeches then, had mentioned ‘Prime Minister Deve Gowda’. And then I became prime minister.’

I went to Ashoka Hotel where the SPG director was staying. I woke him up at about 11 pm. I said, ‘Sir, the PM is not returning to Delhi tomorrow morning.’ I told him about the plan, and he woke up everybody in Delhi for the requisite arrangements.

Another occasion I remember is August 15, Independence Day. With great difficulty, he [Gowda] spoke in Hindi, if you recall. I was there with him throughout. Traditionally, the prime minister goes to Rajghat, Shakti Sthal and all those samadhis. We were getting late to reach the Red Fort. People from across the world were watching. So, he rushed. He left his sandals in the car, and literally ran to every samadhi. Whenever he came under the camera’s view, I told him, ‘Sir, now we can walk.’ (laughs)

While serving with Mr Gujral, I recall the then chief minister of Kerala E K Nayanar visiting him. Normally, the PM doesn’t step out to see off chief ministers, Mr Gujral came out of his chamber, all the way to the porch, to see off Mr Nayanar. On being alerted, I rushed to the spot.

Mr Nayanar, who was already seated in his car, got out. Pointing to me, he told the PM, ‘He is also from Kalliasseri.’ And Mr Gujral replied, ‘Oh, one more reason for granting the airport to Kannur.’ Apparently, their discussion was about the Kannur airport.

What about Vajpayee? We have heard you were quite close to him

When I left him (duty), he invited me for breakfast, and his family served it. It was so nice of a prime minister… sitting beside me and having breakfast together.

And Narasimha Rao?

Mr Rao was comparatively more formal. He wouldn’t talk much. He was very brilliant and would go by, I would say, the book. He was that type, nothing out of the way, and not much personal communication. He was serious.

You must have been with Rao during the Babri Masjid demolition. It must have been, both politically and security-wise, a tense situation…

Yes, prior to the demolition on December 6, 1992, a lot of things were happening there. The intelligence bureau chief and others would come in and go. He (Rao) was also taken by surprise, as far as I know. It was a normal Sunday. He was resting in the 3 RCR (Race Course Road) residence. Suddenly, news about the demolition flashed on TV, and his PA, one Pandey, rushed to the PM’s room and informed him (of the development). Normally, the PM doesn’t come to the PA’s room. That day, he did and rang up everybody – [Uttar Pradesh] chief minister and others. By the look of things, he was taken by surprise, though there were allegations that he had given tacit approval. It would be very uncharitable to say so.

One could accuse him of not being proactive in such situations. Otherwise, to the best of my knowledge, he was not at fault. He, however, wouldn’t give too much of an explanation. That was his style. He would use the PR machinery.

Was the lack of proactiveness that you mentioned his general trait, or pertaining to the particular incident?

His general trait; even in politics. For instance, there would be groups of Congress leaders coming from opposition-ruled states and requesting him to unseat the government there. Mr Rao would listen to them patiently, and then give them a disappointing answer: ‘I am not going to do that. They have been elected by the people. Work hard and wait for their term to end.’ And the disappointed leaders would accuse him of inaction and of not being dynamic enough.

It was during Rao’s term the ISRO spying scandal came up. The A Group of the Congress was not happy with K Karunakaran and wanted to remove him. There were rumours that Rao had a hand in connecting Karunakaran with the spy case…

I think that was a piece of imagination. It is true that all the leaders of the UDF had visited the prime minister, and pressured him to remove Karunakaran. Only M V Raghavan didn’t want a change. Naturally, as PM and leader of the party, he couldn’t say no.

You were the first head of CRPF’s anti-Maoist Cobra unit. How different is combating Left-wing extremism, when compared with other terror groups?

They can’t be called terrorists or insurgents. For them, ideology is paramount. The ground for recruitment, however, has two sides — one is ideology, and the other is a combination of poverty, inequality and unemployment. They have a layer of innocent villagers, including women and children, in the forefront. It becomes so difficult for the force to operate under such circumstances. You may recall, about 75 CRPF personnel were ambushed and killed (in Dantewada) on April 6, 2010. There were more than 1,000 people, including ordinary villagers. You initially don’t see anybody with a weapon. It gets really difficult.

How serious is Left-wing extremism in India now? Has anything changed over the past decade?

I believe it is the most dangerous law and order issue before the government of India today. Because of the spread – it is not confined to one or two states anymore; nearly 10 states, starting from Karnataka to the Nepal border…. the red corridor is dangerous.

I am away from the scene, but I hear there is a change. There has to be a two-pronged approach. Development and counter Left-wing operations should happen simultaneously. A lot of money will have to be pumped in to initiate change.

Recently, Maoist presence in Kerala’s forests was reported…

It’s very marginal. They are not getting any support from the people. Kerala should have been a fertile ground with its Left leanings. Yet, it is not happening. The credit goes to the successive governments. There is an even distribution of development in the state. So, nobody feels marginalised. That is the reason why Maoists have stopped at the border.

We often hear officers lament about the sympathy towards Maoists, even as they kill soldiers…

That is perhaps the beauty of democracy. We should not see it negatively. This happens because there is freedom, and freedom of expression. For example, take the Palestinian issue. Of all places, it is in the US where the campuses are witnessing pro-Palestinian movements. It is not the Muslim countries, where monarchies still exist, that are expressing that kind of solidarity. It is the Left-liberals of a capitalist country like America who are expressing sympathy. Such activities will be there in every society where freedom of speech and expression are there.

You had once written in a column that Rajiv Gandhi’s life could have been saved, had security curbs been stringent. Could you explain that?

The SPG does not have a magic wand. It is the security doctrine that works. For example, on that day (May 21, 1991) had the SPG been there, there would have been a system to control access to Rajiv Gandhi. The attackers could reach the reception line, where ideally there should have been just four or five people. The SPG would have ruthlessly ensured that. At the maximum, the PCC president and some other verified leaders or officials would have been allowed close to him.

What about the Agniveer scheme, which is criticised by the opposition?

From the point of view of the government and the interest of the public, it is a good idea. I think it is good for the forces to always have young blood with them. Moreover, youth with this kind of training and exposure will be available to other public and private enterprises.

You resigned from AAP soon after joining. Could you share your reasons?

AAP’s arrival seemed promising, especially in terms of combating corruption. However, within two to three months, I got disillusioned. The worst example is the recent case where the man [Arvind Kejriwal] and the party could only find his wife to lead — a ‘Rabri syndrome’. So, I don’t regret leaving AAP as quickly as I joined.

Do you still have politics?

No, I remain apolitical, and my service training reinforced that stance. Upon leaving, I found greater comfort in being apolitical.

Some perceive you as a Modi supporter because of your views on ED and Agniveer…

Not exactly. My support for certain actions stems from what I believe serves the public interest. Regarding the ED, as the economy grows, so do offences. Political parties often benefit from their association with the business class. Even Left parties do so. Money drives everything, which explains the expanded role of the ED. Personally, I find it reassuring that substantial funds are flowing into the government’s coffers.

What are the serious security issues plaguing Kerala today?

Right now, what concerns me are three things: the unchecked rise of the illegal migrant population in places like Perumbavoor; the goonda raj as reported in Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram; and the drug menace.

Then comes religious extremism. But, unlike those above three, which pose threats to the law and order system immediately, this does not get out of hand overnight. It develops over time and has to be seen, checked and taken care of sensitively.

TNIE team: Kiran Prakash, Cithara Paul, Neeraj Krishna S, Ronnie Kuriakose, Manoj Viswanathan T P Sooraj(photos), Harikrishna B (video)

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