The Maoist ambush of a joint counter-insurgency task force of the CRPF and the Chhattisgarh Police on 3 April resulted in 22 personnel being killed and 31 wounded apart from the loss of a large quantity of arms and ammunition. The column of 450 personnel was part of a larger search-and-destroy operation launched by 1,700-2,000 personnel organised in counter-insurgency task forces. Inputs from the Special Intelligence Branch indicated the presence of notorious Maoist leader Madvi Hidma and his Battalion Number 1 of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.
The disproportionate casualties suffered in the ambush once again brought the national focus back on the Maoist insurgency — the 21st-century avatar of the Communism-inspired insurgencies that have been waged in various parts of India beginning with Telangana (1946-51). The ambush also highlighted what is wrong with the Indian government’s political and military strategy.
A waning but resilient insurgency
Communism-inspired insurgencies have displayed phenomenal resilience and still appeal to the poorest of the poor who have been deprived of the benefits of welfare in a democratic system. There have been four phases of such insurgencies in India. Telangana insurgency, organised by the Communist Party of India (CPI),began in 1946 as a peasant struggle against the zamindars and was brought under control by 1951. The CPI gave up armed struggle and embraced electoral politics soon thereafter.
In the second phase, the radicals from the CPI broke away in 1964 to form CPI (Marxist). When the CPI-M also embraced electoral politics, the more radical elements – the Maoist faction – began the violent Naxalbari movement in 1967 in West Bengal and it soon spread to a number of states from Kerala to Punjab. The same faction formed the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) on 22 April 1969 and rejected electoral politics. The Naxalbari movement was brought under control by determined efforts of central and state governments.
The Marxist-Leninist-inspired movement remained subdued during 1972-1991. The CPI (M-L) was repeatedly fragmented on ideological grounds, strategies and personality clashes. The Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), which later became Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI), was formed in 1975 in Bengal and spread to Bihar/Jharkhand. In 1980, the CPI (M-L) People’s War, commonly called People’s War Group (PWG), was formed in Andhra Pradesh and also spread to other states. Various other splinter groups gradually merged with these two predominant groups, which led the third phase of violence in the Red Corridor from 1992 to 2004.
The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) was also formed in this phase in 2000. In Mao’s classic phases of revolutionary struggle, this was the “strategic defensive” phase.
On 21 September 2004, the PWG merged with the MCCI to form the CPI (Maoist). The PLGA is its military wing. In the fourth phase, a well-organised coordinated insurgency was waged throughout the entire length of the Red Corridor. The insurgency evolved into the “strategic stalemate” phase and peaked in 2010.
Since then, it has been steadily on the wane towards the lower end of the “strategic stalemate”. The Red Corridor is inhabited by the most deprived predominantly tribal people of India whose apathy is difficult to fathom even by the rest of the ‘have nots’ in India. As the Central Army Commander, when the bulk of the Red Corridor was under my jurisdiction, I visited some of the villages on the fringes of the forests in Jharkhand after 26 years. I used to go for shikar (hunting) in these villages in 1972. It appeared as if time stood still there. The state never endeavoured to extend its development mandate into the forests in the best of times let alone after the insurgency began.
Left-wing extremism (LWE) enjoys the absolute support of the people and is seen to be fighting a people’s war. Its administration and justice system is perceived to be better than the absent State. The movement was never secessionist in nature. The people are primarily concerned with “jal, jungle and jameen”, which they feel are being usurped by the State through its dams, denial of forest rights and invitation to corporates for mining.
A course correction by the State is required both in terms of political strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people, and in operational strategy to eliminate the armed extremists.
A perfect political strategy
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has very clearly spelt out its strategy based on the time-tested model of winning the hearts and minds of people while simultaneously fighting the armed insurgents. “The Government’s approach is to deal with Left Wing Extremism in a holistic manner, in the areas of security, development, ensuring rights and entitlements of local communities, improvement in governance and public perception.”
In consultation with the states, the seriously affected 90 districts in 11 states have been taken up for special attention with regard to planning, implementation and monitoring various interventions.
“Maintenance of law and order” is the domain of the state governments with the central government closely monitoring, supplementing and coordinating their efforts. The measures undertaken by the central government include providing the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), sanction of India Reserve (IR) battalions, setting up of Counter Insurgency and Anti-Terrorism (CIAT) schools, modernisation and upgradation of the state police and their intelligence apparatus, reimbursement of security-related expenditure, providing helicopters and UAVs for anti-LWE operations, assistance in training of state police through the Ministry of Defence and police organisations, sharing of intelligence, and facilitating inter-state coordination. The underlying philosophy is to enhance the capacity of the state governments to tackle the Maoist menace in a concerted manner.
I can say without any reservation that the above strategy is perfect to a fault. What then is the problem? It is the poor execution by an inefficient and corrupt political and administrative system. Lack of an efficient physical security system and poor road communications makes large areas inaccessible. Development is contingent on security.
Little has been done in the form of grassroots political empowerment even in areas reasonably secure. In the absence of the State, people have no option but to embrace the administration run by the Maoists. The creation of an autonomous political empowerment system must be considered for the tribal areas. We have the example of the Nagas who have unique political rights.
Despite the insurgency not being secessionist in nature, very few efforts have been made to engage and hold talks with the Maoists. The shadow of power is omnipresent in armed struggles. We have the example of the parent organisations of the Maoists before us. We have engaged with the secessionist Nagas, Mizos and even the Hurriyat. I find no reason as to why the central or the state governments must not engage with the Maoists. Apprehensions of being seen as weak must not brush away political sagacity.
A flawed security strategy
It is often said that in Jammu and Kashmir, the efforts of a well-executed security/military strategy have been neutralised by a flawed political strategy. In the Red Corridor, a perfect political strategy cannot be implemented due to a flawed security strategy. The writ of the State simply does not run in large tracts of the forest areas.
In J&K, 62 Rashtriya Rifles Battalions established a grid of Company Operating Bases to ensure the writ of the State and for counter-terrorism operations. Without a counter-insurgency grid with not more than 30-minute response time, the writ of the State will never run in the Red Corridor.
The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was nominated as the lead counter-insurgency agency in India. However, it has not psychologically and physically measured up to the challenge. The less said about the state police forces the better. Despite the cacophony of nationalism, which is intrinsically linked to national security, we culturally run away from an ethical assessment to initiate reforms. Lack of enforcement of accountability, both by the government and by the security organisations, further compounds the problem. Casualties are linked to “supreme sacrifice” with utter disregard for suicidal tactical lapses due to poor training. No heads roll, and bigger the failure, more are the decorations.
All media reports, accounts of survivors and even Maoist videos on YouTube have highlighted the flawed training and tactics, which manifested the latest massacre in Chhattisgarh:
- No special COBRA patrols or UAVs were utilised to confirm information or rule out a lure/trap before the task forces were launched. COBRA patrols should have located the Maoist force and shadowed it passing back continuous information.
- The large size of the force comprising 1,700-2,000 personnel gave away the surprise.
- Task forces moved without immediate security patrols to the front, flanks and rear. It is illogical for a large task force of 450 personnel to come into the killing zone all together.
- Inability to operate in small teams or even company-size task forces. Mass being used to compensate for class.
- No counter-action in form of a flank attack from the ambushed force or by reserves/other task forces, which were within striking distance of the area. Tendency to break contact and flee.
- Troops dehydrated and exhausted after 8-10 km movement showing poor physical conditioning.
- Movement of task forces road/track bound and predictable.
- Dead bodies of those killed in action and wounded personnel abandoned reflecting poor state of morale, motivation and team cohesion. Some fleeing troops also abandoned their weapons.
- Instead of an inquiry to fix accountability, the hierarchy lauded the operations as near-perfect, forestalling reforms.
The CRPF and the state police forces have to put their house in order. Their training and tactics have to be better than the ragtag Maoists. More than that, their leadership requires a complete overhaul. It is not mass but class that matters in counter insurgency. A counter-insurgency grid of company operating bases must cover the affected areas of the Red Corridor. Unless these reforms are undertaken, a perfect political strategy will come to a naught due to a flawed security strategy.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)