The principal strategic challenge in any conflict comprises four elements: a realistic and accurate assessment of the threat; an objective assessment of the resources for an adequate, if not overwhelming, response (including institutional, financial, manpower and technological components); the acquisition of these resources within timeframes imposed by the conflict; and the sagacious deployment of these resources to secure the objectives of a coherent and clearly defined strategy.
--"Trapped in the Past", India Today, September 25, 2008
Of the four elements of a strategic response to the ongoing Maoist insurgency across wide areas in India, it has long been the case that not even one was in place. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, of course, repeatedly emphasised the urgency of the Maoist threat ever since his authoritative statement on terrorism in general and Naxalism (Left Wing Extremism, LWE) in particular, at the Chief Minister’s Conference on April 15, 2005. Regrettably, every time the Prime Minister spoke in the past, his assessment was almost immediately contradicted by his own then-home minister, Shivraj Patil (and by other cabinet colleagues), who was inclined to systematically underplay the threat, and to muddle issues by speaking of the Maoists as "our brothers and sisters" and "our children", and by insisting that the Maoist problem was ‘political’ or ‘developmental’ and not a ‘law and order issue’.
This manifest incoherence of perspective at the centre appears now to be a thing of the past. A new realism is visible in political assessments and, while addressing the Directors General of Police (DGP) Conference on September 15, the Prime Minister not only reiterated his contention that LWE was the ‘gravest internal security threat’ confronting India, he went on to candidly admit, "We have not achieved as much success as we would have liked in containing this menace. It is a matter of concern that despite our efforts, the level of violence in the affected states continues to rise."
Significantly, while speaking in the Rajya Sabha on July 15, the union minister for home affairs (MHA) P. Chidambaram had conceded that the government had failed to tackle the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) with the seriousness they deserve and had also failed to assess the threat posed by the LWE. Crucially, while inaugurating the DGP’s Conference on September 14, Chidambaram had indicated that the Naxalites had "their pockets of influence" in as many as 20 states across the country, with over 2,000 Police Station jurisdictions in 223 districts "partially or substantially affected by the menace." Observing that the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) was the "most potent of the Naxal (LWE) groups, with a presence in 17 states and a 90 per cent share in Naxal violence", the home minister noted, further:
Recent decisions taken by its Politburo indicate that the CPI-Maoist is determined to expand its activities into newer areas, on the one hand, and intensify its ‘mass resistance’ in the existing areas, on the other. Violence, the most visible aspect of Naxal menace, has been consistently witnessed in about 400 Police station areas of around 90 districts in 13 of these states. Last year, a total of 1,591 incidents of Naxalite violence resulting in 721 killings, were reported from 399 Police station areas of 87 districts of 13 states. This year (2009) 1,405 incidents of Naxal violence resulting in 580 killings have already been reported (upto August 27) from 355 police stations in 78 districts in 11 states.
The home minister also noted that the CPI-Maoist had also "improved upon its military wares and operational tactics":
With increasing sophistication in fabrication and deployment of Improvised Explosive Devices, it has inflicted more casualties on the Security Forces (SFs). As many as 80 SF personnel were killed in 53 landmine-based attacks by the CPI-Maoist in 2008. 123 SF personnel have lost their lives so far in 61 landmine-based Maoist actions this year. Altogether, 231 SF personnel were killed in Naxal violence in 2008 while 250 SF personnel have lost their lives this year.
On September 16, the union home secretary G.K. Pillai, went further to inform the Parliament's Standing Committee on Home Affairs that the Naxalites were ‘calling the shots’ across nearly 40,000 square kilometres of Indian territory – mainly in parts of the dense forest area in Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand – where the government had ‘virtually no control’.
It is regrettable, however, that the Prime Minister found it necessary to continue to parrot the meaningless, though politically correct, formulation that the Maoist threat "cannot be treated simply as a law and order problem". This cliché has had a long and paralysing impact on policy, strategy and SF responses, without, in any way, adding to the state’s capabilities in dealing with the Maoists, or in augmenting the spectrum of available policy alternatives. The ‘root causes’ formulation is sterile – development is not something that can be ordered off a menu card, and there is no set of policies that can ‘wipe every tear from every eye’ in India, within any time-frame that has relevance to counter-insurgency (CI). Crucially, no country in the world has every ‘out-developed’ an ongoing insurgency. In any event, development, public welfare and grievance redressal are fundamental responsibilities of governance; they do not arise because of the threat of insurgent violence. And finally, unless the state establishes dominance over its territories, it cannot implement the various other ‘solutions’ it may imagine. As one commentator noted in a different context, "you can argue about whether security is 10 per cent of the problem or 90 per cent of the problem, but it’s the first 10 per cent or the first 90 per cent." Without order, and without a concomitant security of life and property, there can be no freedom, no rights and no development. Unless this clarity of understanding and purpose is secured, a coherence of response will remain elusive.
A consensual threat assessment would not, however, automatically yield the remaining elements of a coherent CI response. For one thing, the Centre’s assessment is not necessarily shared by leaderships in all the afflicted states, most of whom remain mired in ‘root causes’ reasoning, and variously averse to any effective SF reform or action. Worse, the cumulative deficits of decades of neglect of internal security, the intelligence apparatus, and structures of governance means that India simply does not have the capacities to launch the comprehensive operations that are required to deal effectively with the Maoist threat – even if it is universally recognized in its real dimensions. While steps towards capacity augmentation have been initiated at the Centre at a pace that is, perhaps, unprecedented in the Indian bureaucracy, these are nowhere close to bridging the yawning gaps that have consolidated themselves over more than half a century of callous disregard. Some of the states have also begun processes of capacity restoration after decades of uncomprehending somnolence, but the gains remain marginal.
The impact of these various measures is, consequently and at best, incremental. Nowhere are state capacities even approaching the critical mass that is necessary to create the "situation of victory" that could neutralize the rampaging ‘disruptive dominance’ currently exercised by the Maoists.
This, however, is not deterring various states and the centre from imagining grandiose campaigns in the ‘Maoist heartland’. There has been much ill-advised kite flying about an attack on the Maoist ‘central guerrilla area’ in the Abujhmadh Forest in Chhattisgarh, backed by sci-fi visions of high resolution aerial, satellite and thermal imagery and air power backup. There has been talk of an ‘imminent’ and coordinated anti-Maoist ‘offensive’ across the four worst affected states since July this year, with the rumoured deadline (fortuitously) pushed back month after month.
It must be abundantly clear that, given the current availability and disposition of forces, no decisive victory can be achieved over the Maoists, and any such campaigns would, at best, be an exercise in political posturing, serving no sustainable CI objective.
This does not, of course, mean that such campaigns will not be attempted. There is now considerable political and media pressure to ‘do something’. The result can only be ruinous. It has, for instance, been repeatedly emphasised that the force deployments in Chhattisgarh are irrational, and cannot support effective offensive operations against the Maoists. Some marginal increments of force, including the deployment of ‘elite’ Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA) units, has, however, encouraged the ill-conceived adventurism that resulted in the death of six SF personnel, including two Deputy Commandants, on September 18, in the Palachalma forest area of the Dantewada region of south Chhattisgarh. Senior Police sources, of course, claim this as a unique success, the culmination of an operation that has been ongoing for the past one month. This operation was "more focused" than any in the past, they say, and areas that were earlier regarded as inaccessible had been entered. A training camp and arms manufacturing unit had been destroyed. The Maoists had been "restricted to smaller areas". Though just 10 bodies have been recovered, communication intercepts suggest that 32 Maoists were killed. And the Maoists have conceded, in communications chatter, that this is one of their ‘worst reverses’ in the state.
It is useful to note, however, that, while the intelligence on the target was clearly reliable and specific – resulting in the SFs hitting the camp very effectively – there was clearly insufficient intelligence on the wider ground situation, and far from adequate force to hold the rebels down. The Maoist response was quick, and the SF parties were attacked while withdrawing – and this will prove to be a pattern in future operations as well. Crucially, no permanent security presence has been established in the area through this operation, and the Maoists will shortly restore there dominance in the area.
It is an error to be consumed by the ‘numbers game’ of kills and counter-kills, unless these yield a clear and enduring restoration of the state’s authority in the region; unless, in other words, these are an integral element in a comprehensive CI strategy. The documented disaster at Lalgarh is another case in point, demonstrating the futility of flailing about, without plan or purpose, with whatever force is available, and without having created the "situation of victory".
In this, the state can learn a lesson from its enemy. The Naxalite movement of the 1967-73 phase was inspired by the Maoist notion that "a single spark can light a prairie fire." The leaders of the ‘spring thunder’ at Naxalbari believed that the ‘revolutionary situation’ was so ripe that it would require only a handful of incidents of demonstrative violence to inspire a massive uprising that would sweep aside the detritus of the collapsing ancien régime. In the event, however, the ancien regime proved far more robust than they imagined, and the ‘revolutionary situation’ somewhat unripe. The errors of the earlier movement have been closely studied by the new generation of Maoists, and its ‘Left adventurism’ has been explicitly rejected in favour of the ‘protracted war’ model, which relies on a gradual and deliberate process of political, military and cultural consolidation, that recognizes the superior power of the target systems, but seeks to gradually whittle it away at the peripheries, to slowly approach the core.
Unfortunately, the state and its agencies are still to internalise the lessons of the past, and to understand the dangers of under-preparation and partial perspectives. Even the most significant successes against the Maoists have been strategically incomplete, and replete with unintended consequences. It is useful to recall that, in the end-1990s and early 2000s, it was the squeeze in the Telengana heartland in Andhra Pradesh, without any corresponding strategy of containment, which resulted in a tremendous acceleration of Maoist mobilisation and expansion across Andhra Pradesh, and beyond its borders, into the neighbouring states, including the benighted Chhattisgarh. In the next and more successful phase after 2005, the Maoist power in Andhra has been utterly decimated – but has grown exponentially across India in what is, at least in part, a strategic response to the imperatives of survival.
The current anti-Naxalite operations, reflecting little by way of plan or purpose, are at best a faith in demonstrative violence, based on the hope that this will cow down the enemy. This is not a calculus of war; it is sheer fantasy. Even as colossal deficits in leadership, manpower, training, technology and CI orientation persist in the SFs – both central and state – operations are being intensified. The consequence can only be that more SF personnel will lose their lives, and the gains will remain dubious. This is more the case, since CI campaigns are being initiated with a great measure of publicity, or preceded by substantial information ‘leaks’, and the press – and consequently and obviously the Maoists – appear to be aware of every projected initiative well before it crystallizes on the ground.
Of course, a few months down the line, slanted interpretations of evolving campaigns could give grounds for declaring a great success. When no coherent objectives are defined, the outcome is irrelevant. As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."
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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