Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh says the time for talks with Maoists is over. He is both right and wrong. Right, because the latest ambush of the Congress convoy is an inflection point that usually closes the state’s options in an insurgency. And wrong, because the time for talks in an internal conflict is never over. There is no final solution to any violent conflict in a democracy other than through talks, and a final accommodation. There is no such thing as a final military solution, just as there is no such thing, ever, as a victorious insurgency.
Raman Singh should, therefore, have rephrased his statement as something like, there will eventually be a time for talks, but it is not now. India’s history of armed rebellions tells us that they follow a pattern, a bell curve that we have talked about in the past (‘The buck starts here’, National Interest, IE, April 10, 2010, goo.gl/0SNjN). Rising rebellions are met with stronger state response till a point is reached when they are convinced that they can’t win, no matter how heady the odd success in some ambush. That is the peak of the bell curve. That is where they become amenable to a negotiated settlement. Amnesties, rehabilitation and a share in power then follow. The bell curve declines steeply. The latest attack tells us the Maoists are far from reaching that point. Whatever the history, and howsoever genuine the grievances, nothing justifies taking up arms in a constitutional democracy. A constitutional state does not launch a war on its own people. Nor can it finish it on its own. That call is to be ultimately made by the rebels. But the state has to use force to convince them first, and then show the flexibility to de-escalate, forgive and accommodate. It is now a successful doctrine, proved in the Northeast and Punjab. In each case, ultimately, the soft power of a flexible, big-hearted state worked. But only when it followed a period of unrelenting, uncompromising use of strength. The Maoists only reminded us earlier this month that they are in no mood for talks right now. But ultimately, they will be, and how soon depends on the resolve and focus that both the affected states and Central government display now.
Left-Wing extremism is not new to India. Early Naxalites were more spread out, from Bengal to Andhra to Punjab. But they operated in smaller bands and also had a more visible middle ground, including labour and youth organisations. In one of India’s most durable insurgencies, Muivah’s NSCN, S stands for socialists. When he and his boys returned after training in Lhasa, they were so heavily indoctrinated, they began burning churches. It is an aside, but they realised soon enough that the mostly devout Nagas did not like that, and quickly made ideological corrections. In my folders from three decades ago, when I was based as a reporter in the Northeast and when many parts of that region could better qualify for the liberated zone title than Bastar now, I still have a copy of the NSCN manifesto, with its cover printed in communist red, but which promises a socialist Nagaland for Christ. There is a durable ceasefire with the NSCN now and Muivah has dropped improbable demands, from sovereignty to revolution, even if scores of Naga students greet him with guitars and we shall overcome whenever he comes to Delhi for a round of talks. But it is a work in progress, with soft power following hard, and not necessarily from a point where anybody could claim victory, but from where the NSCN concluded it was never going to win. You have to take the Maoists there as well.
That requires a much firmer response than we have seen so far. But does it call for unleashing the army and the air force? The answer is no. While the debate over whether the armed forces can be used against our own people, as against Kashmiris or northeastern tribals, is rotten, the fact is the Maoist insurgency has many facets that still keep it within the capacity of the state police and PMFs. First of all, unlike other insurgencies, this is not in a state bordering a hostile neighbour that provides sanctuaries, escape routes and supplies. Second, this rebellion is unique in that its top leadership is almost entirely non-indigenous. Third, unlike the northeastern tribal groups, Maoists are already divided into many factions, under many leaders, held together by a fuzzy ideology rather than ethnic identity. And finally, in all the states and even districts hit by Naxalism, old-fashioned politics thrives. You may love or hate Mahendra Karma. But that he existed in a key political position for our largest political party and had a sizeable following, howsoever divisive and polarising a figure he may have been, puts the Maoist challenge in perspective. That is why it does not call for the classic old counter-insurgency by the army.
But then, what are we complaining about when some generals kept insisting they won’t go to fight the Maoists? One, that nobody had even asked them to do so as yet. So why send out such a word of reassurance to the Maoists? Why not let them keep worrying that one day, you will also be going after them? Why do you tell the Maoists that they can rule the army out as a threat? And frankly, while this war will be fought quite adequately by the police and paramilitary forces, they will need tactical and logistical back-up from the army and the air force to tilt the balance.
No new insurgency can be fought using a manual written for another one in the past. The army realised that, when the tactics they had borrowed from British Field Marshal Gerald Templer’s Malayan success (General Sir Frank Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping being their standard text) failed so disastrously in Nagaland and Mizoram. It was one thing to move tribals from their native hamlets into protected villages along the roads or near army camps, thereby emptying the rebels’ catchment in an alien land like Malaya. But to do it to your own people, even in the ’60s and ’70s, when media and activists were nearly non-existent, was never going to work. It is regrettable that many decades later, the idea of Salwa Judum was also inspired by the same outdated Malayan model. Of course, there was more local politics here, and much more of native versus native. But Salwa Judum was doomed to fail because in the 21st century, against your own people, it was tactically, morally and politically too flawed to succeed.
There is another crucial factor that sets this insurgency apart from any other in the past. It is the tactics used by the Maoists, which are utterly contrary to guerilla warfare. These Maoists do not operate in tiny bands, carrying out hit-and-run harassment attacks. They stalk large bodies of troops until they reach a pre-designated killing ground, and then overwhelm them with much larger numbers and firepower. No Indian force, army, paramilitary or police, has ever been challenged by an internal security threat where the adversary is much more numerous. Of course, the Maoists are a fraction of the forces’ strength. But they move their resources systematically for a chosen ambush and then strike with sufficient numerical advantage to pulverise the encircled defenders. This is a tactical innovation. The new manual to counter this is yet to be written.
This will need help from the army and the air force. Helicopters, including gunships, supplies and reinforcements (PMF units would do), have to be positioned at crucial stations, so the moment a patrol is ambushed and pinned down (which, by definition, will have to be in daylight), these can be rushed in to tip the balance, and carry out hot pursuit. The Maoists have revealed brilliant new tactics, but they have fallen in love with it and should be made to pay. Once you do so, they will be forced to change these tactics and you could turn a new leaf. It goes without saying that the IAF will also have to ensure quick and efficient casualty evacuation, whatever the risks. From Siachen to Kargil, they have never been risk-averse. So why this diffidence in Dandakaranya? Let just one of these ambushes go wrong for the Maoists, and you see the turnaround on the ground. Then keep the negotiators ready.
Postscript: I finish writing this in some haste so as not to be late to speak at the release of my old friend Lt Gen (retd) V.K. Tubby Nayar’s memoir, From Fatigues to Civvies: Memoirs of a Paratrooper. In 1981, when I went to the Northeast as this paper’s reporter there, he commanded 8 Mountain Division, based at Zakhama (near Kohima), then probably the largest division in the army, and its 11 brigades (at their peak) were fighting the Naga and Manipuri insurgencies. Tubby has the longest and the most diverse experience of fighting insurgencies, having led, as a young major, the first column (of his own battalion, 5 Paras), which was heli-lifted to the southern tip of Mizoram to fight its way into Aizawl after the rebels had taken over in early 1966. He retired as western army commander. And it is a rich memoir from somebody who so deeply loves the army, and his country. I’ve been fortunate that he shared so much of his knowledge, experience and affection with me through these decades. And our friendship has endured, though, as he notes in his memoir, we haven’t met quite as often lately as we should have. I am grateful to him for the many mentions he has given me, though not necessarily all in agreement. A ceremonial Naga dao (machete) he presented to me in Zakhama in 1981 is still one of my prized possessions. So please do pick up a copy (Manohar, Rs 1, 395). Tubby Nayar, at a sprightly 81 now (he still came to see me driving his own Santro), is one of the most honourable Indians you can find, in fatigues or civvies.