May 14, 2021
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Fighting The Maoists With Mantras

Two dramatic attacks in rapid succession in the Malkangiri district of Orissa – on June 29 and again on July 16, 2008 – demonstrated the utter irrationality of force deployment in anti-Maoist operations in much of India

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Fighting The Maoists With Mantras
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Fighting The Maoists With Mantras

…for what would be the point of anything, if nothing is remembered?

-- Louis Bernieres

Two dramatic attacks in rapid succession in the Malkangiri district of Orissa – on June 29 and again on July 16, 2008 – have demonstrated the utter irrationality of force deployment in anti-Maoist operations in much of India. In the first of these, 38 troopers, including 36 from the elite Greyhounds Force from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, were killed in an attack on a boat in the Balimela Reservoir; in the second, 17 Orissa police personnel, including six drawn from the state’s Special Operations Group (SOG), died in an explosion while travelling in a ‘mine proof’ vehicle during a ‘combing operation’.

Distressing as they may be, there was nothing new in the incidents in Malkangiri – other than elements of tactical detail. Dozens of comparable attacks across the Maoist belt have preceded these latest incidents, with police, special force and paramilitary contingents routinely isolated and ambushed or overrun by Maoist cadres and militia. Yet, a historical amnesia, a near-complete absence of institutional memory, appears to afflict the Indian security establishment, despite the country’s vast experience in counter-insurgency campaigns. 

The result is, senior force commanders continue to throw small contingents of men – particularly highly trained special and central paramilitary forces – into areas of Maoist dominance, with little backup or possibility of reinforcement, poor linkages, and difficult terrain, in the apparent conviction that superior training and individual fighting skills are sufficient to prevail in any situation. This ‘Rambo model’ – apparently conceived by forces’ leaderships in the security of far-away headquarters – has resulted in an unending succession of devastating debacles, in which isolated detachments have been trapped and decimated.

Often located in makeshift camps and deployed in an unequal battle with entrenched Maoists, forward unit commanders are required to constantly reinvent the wheel, learning ‘on the job’, and falling prey to the same tactics that have been employed in operation after operation by the Naxalites in theatres across the country. Such practices impose tremendous costs in wasted resources, wasted efforts, but most significantly, wasted lives, and yet, the security establishment seems incapable of deriving rational protocols, tactics and strategies from an enormous pool of experience, and of implementing these across Forces on the ground.

Indeed, it would seem that there is nothing that answers to the title of ‘strategic community’ in India. Specifically, in the armies of bureaucracies in the union and state home ministries, in the top echelons of the ‘elite’ Indian Police Service (IPS), in the command centres of the proliferating para-military forces there appears to be no institutional arrangement effectively charged with studying the multiplicity of India’s internal security challenges, the varied strategies and tactics adopted in the past, and their relative efficacy – or lack thereof.

The difficulty is that we think in mantras – and the mantra of the day, as far as ‘anti-Naxalite’ operations go, is now the ‘Andhra Pradesh model’. This would be excellent – Andhra Pradesh has, indeed, secured astonishing successes against what was, just three years back, a rampaging Maoist movement in the state. By the end of the Chandrababu Naidu regime, the Maoists were active in all 23 of the state’s districts. By the time the ill-advised ‘peace process’ with the successor Y.S.R. Reddy regime collapsed in end-2004, they had consolidated their position further, and quickly ran amok across the state. 

By the end of 2007, however, they barely registered a marginal presence in five districts along the Andhra-Orissa and Andhra Chhattisgarh border – Khammam, Karimnagar, Warangal, Visakhapatnam and Vizianagaram – essentially by way of quick cross-border strikes in the densely forested and hilly terrain of the Dandakaranya belt, followed by rapid withdrawals into poorly policed territory in Orissa or Chhattisgarh.

But ask any police officer, senior bureaucrat in the security establishment, or political leader (outside a handful from Andhra Pradesh who are aware of the realities of the counter-insurgency effort in the state) what the ‘Andhra Pradesh model’ is, and he will simply respond ‘Greyhounds’. The idea appears to be that all it takes is a small group of highly trained commandos – acting in virtual isolation – to ‘neutralize’ Maoists in areas where they have established significant dominance.

This, however, is nonsense. Pitching the Greyhounds – or any other ‘elite’ force – into unfamiliar terrain, without a comprehensive support network and critical intelligence is, as the June 29 incident demonstrated, simply to set them up as targets. Indeed, the limited capacities of specialised forces to secure dramatic results in unfamiliar terrain has been repeatedly and clearly demonstrated, as in the case of the deployment of the top counter-terrorist National Security Guard (NSG) in Bihar after the Jehanabad jailbreak in November 2005. Some 280 personnel of the NSG were airlifted and deployed in the areas around Jehanabad on November 16, 2005, two days after the jailbreak, in pursuit of the raiders. Within a week of fruitless ‘raids’ and ‘combing operations’, the units were withdrawn, with the union ministry of home affairs (MHA) declaring, "Deploying paramilitary forces won’t help, since local police are unable to gather any workable evidence on Naxals operating in as many as 36 districts out of total 42 districts (of Bihar)."

But this has not prevented such irrational deployments, in the absence of ‘workable evidence’, in other theatres. The Greyhounds – as well as other paramilitary, armed Police and Special Forces – are repeatedly sent out for operations in unfamiliar terrain, without an adequate support structure and, more importantly, operational intelligence.

What is misunderstood in the uninformed version of the ‘Andhra Pradesh model’ is that, while the Greyhounds have been a vital element in the counter-insurgency response in the state, they do not exhaust it. Indeed, absent the comprehensive transformation of the police establishment in the state, a ‘special force’ of this nature would have achieved little, beyond random and probably inaccurate ‘kills’ – even as it would have become a preferred and extraordinarily vulnerable target of retaliatory attacks by the Maoists.

It is crucial, consequently, to understand, at least in outline, what the ‘Andhra Pradesh model’ actually is, and where the Greyhounds fit into it.

First, the Greyhounds themselves are not a story of any ‘quick and easy’ success. The Greyhounds were raised far back in 1989 and, despite significant and continuous successes (and numerous early failures), the turning point in Andhra Pradesh came only in 2007.

The counter-insurgency response in the state was crafted on a thorough understanding of the Maoist ‘protracted war’ model, and a comprehensive and consistent strategy has been progressively implemented since 1997. Significantly, while the Greyhounds operate as the elite spearhead in operations, the operational capacities of the entire Police Force have been dramatically augmented. All young directly recruited officers in the state, from Assistant Sub-Inspectors (ASIs) to IPS probationers, undergo training at the Greyhound training centres – including field craft, night operations, battle inoculation and jungle survival. All such trainees accompany the Greyhounds on operations. The Greyhounds themselves serve a tenure of just three years, and then are posted into the district Guard, enormously augmented the fighting capacities of district Police Forces.

Moreover, a special force of young officers and men has been created in each district, and district training centres have been established to ensure high levels of capability and motivation.

Crucially, a comprehensive plan for area domination has been implemented, including the fortification of every Police Station and post in the state. The norms that have been established for buildings, protective walls, guarding, lighting, weaponry and manpower for each Police Station and post in Andhra Pradesh are probably unmatched in any other part of the country. There has, moreover, been enormous investment in the modernisation of weapons, communications, transport and support technologies available to each Police Station and Post. The result has been the dispersal of effective response capacities across the state, with higher concentrations and capacities in what were once the Maoist ‘heartland’ areas. Each Police Station and post, moreover, has not been locked into a defensive posture, but was given the mandate to search out and engage with Maoist cadres wherever they were active.

There has also been an enormous augmentation of intelligence capacities at all levels, with tremendous coordination between the Intelligence and Operations wings (the Greyhounds, of course, also have their own intelligence set-up).

The result has been a complete dominance of the entire territory of the state, and this is the operational context within which the Greyhounds function.

The Greyhounds are a tightly-knit force of extraordinarily well-trained fighters, but to believe that they can perform miracles in regions where policing and reliable intelligence is virtually non-existent is to entirely misunderstand the nature of both Maoist and counter-insurgency tactics and strategy. Indeed, it is only in a country and culture where the lives of the nation’s fighting men are valued cheaply, that such a force can so casually and randomly be deployed in areas of such vulnerability as presently exists in Malkangiri.

The lesson of the ‘Andhra Pradesh model’, crudely put, is that you cannot have a first class counter-insurgency response in a third class Police force. The capacities of the entire force must be raised, before elite units can secure tangible and lasting results.

It is more than evident that the capacities of the Orissa Police are grossly deficient, a fact now openly acknowledged by the state’s Director General of Police. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, in the wake of the July 16 landmine incident, has promised a ‘comprehensive strategy’ to defeat the Maoists. But he had done no less after the Nayagarh Armoury raid in February 2008, when he had outlined a ‘ten point’ strategy, and promised that all Police Stations would be fortified, five additional India Reserve Battalions would be raised, and the SOG would be ‘strengthened’. There is no evidence of any movement on these promises between February and July. 

Indeed, it is useful to recall the continuity of politic rhetoric and promises since the first Maoist swarming attack in Orissa (which was the first such attack in the country), at the armoury at Koraput, on February 6, 2004, after which the Orissa government had drafted an ‘action plan’, including capacity augmentation across the state police force. As always, implementation has remained fitful and utterly inadequate. Unlike the situation in the past, financial constraints are not a significant part of the problem today. 

Indeed, utilisation of central Police Modernisation Funds (PMF) has been poor in the state, at just 51.37 per cent in 2005-06. While a state-wise breakup for 2006-07 is not yet available, MHA data indicates that utilisation of PMF for all affected states was just 63.71 per cent – and it is improbable that Orissa’s performance will be above this average. 

There has also been a complete failure to address the problem of endemic deficits in sanctioned police strengths at all levels. There is a particular crisis at leadership level, with just 98 out of a sanctioned strength of 159 officers in the top IPS cadre currently in position – reflecting a deficit of as much as 38.4 per cent. In February 2008, Chief Minister Patnaik had boasted that as many as 98 Police Stations and 20 armouries had been fortified in the state, and fortification of the rest would be ‘completed soon’. With a total of 465 Police Stations in the state, it remains to be seen what ‘soon’ really means in the lexicon of Orissa’s bureaucracy. 

Crucially, sanctioned strengths on all parameters, which were defined in terms of peacetime policing requirements in the 1980s, are today, no more than a small fraction of what is currently needed – but there appears to have been no comprehensive assessment of present needs. All projected ‘action plans’ and ‘comprehensive strategies’ remain couched in incremental terms, seeking principally to cover existing deficits, or to marginally and selectively augment sanctioned capacities.

Indeed, it appears that the state’s political executive and bureaucracies do not have the basic administrative capacities and competence to do what is manifestly necessary, within a timeframe that is meaningful to counter-insurgency warfighting. They evidently lack, moreover, even a basic understanding of Maoist strategy and tactics, and of the structural imperatives of counter-insurgency. What is worse, they refuse to confront realities or to learn from experience. Orissa’s leadership has continued to overwhelmingly emphasise ‘developmental initiatives’ (despite a hideous record of implementation) as a panacea for Naxalite mobilisation, and was among the last bastions of advocacy for a ‘negotiated solution’ to the Maoist insurgency. In effect, it appears that the Orissa leadership is virtually uneducable.

Learning processes in the Orissa establishment would, perhaps, be jogged into a higher gear if the leaderships in the political, administrative and police executive were seen more often at the frontlines, where they so cavalierly send security personnel to their deaths. 

Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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