Sukma Attack: Meeting the Maoist Challenge

How to tackle the growing menace of Naxalites?

The Maoists have once again sprung an ambush successfully and inflicted heavy casualties on CRPF personnel, once again near Sukma in Chhattisgarh. Besides the loss of life and damage to property, incidents of this kind vitiate the investment climate and hamper socio-economic development. Lack of the latter is the primary cause of the people’s disenchantment with the government and the reason they can be lured to join the cause.

In May 2006, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had described the Maoist/ Naxalite insurgency as India’s most serious internal security challenge. Maoist incidents, which have accounted for almost 60 per cent of terrorism-related violence in India over the past decade, include intimidation, killings of innocent civilians, reprisal killings, abductions and kidnappings, extortion, IED blasts and the destruction of government and private property, and that of grass-roots level political institutions. In many of the areas of their influence, the Maoists have been collecting taxes and dispensing instant and brutal justice through kangaroo courts. Through their sheer capacity to cause violence, the Naxalites extort huge sums of money from a wide variety of sources: the corporate sector, mine owners, forest and public works contractors, individual businessmen, rich landlords and corrupt government officials.

Maoist attacks on the security forces and the symbols of state power are characterised by meticulous planning, systematic preparation, near surgical execution and a high degree of coordination. On several occasions in the past, the rebels have achieved considerable success in launching synchronised attacks on multiple targets involving large numbers of cadres. For the Maoists, besides waging a protracted people’s war with the ultimate objective of capturing or seizing political power, participating in a peace process and negotiations is a ‘tactic’, and is considered ‘war by other means’.

The response of various state governments and the Centre has often, if not always, been reactive and has been found to be lagging behind the Maoists. While the Maoists have been expanding to newer areas, gaining ground, consolidating themselves and have been steadily enhancing their military capabilities, the approach of the state governments has often been that of fire-fighting, not engaging the Maoists pro-actively so as to eliminate them. The reasons for this apathetic approach are, firstly, that Naxal terrorism is not an emotive issue at the national level like the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K); secondly, there is still some confusion whether the Naxalites are terrorists or not as they have a ‘social justice’ tag attached to them; and, lastly, an impression has gained currency that the Naxal menace is not “as bad as the media makes it out to be.”

Coordination between the police and intelligence agencies of various affected states has been generally unsatisfactory. The intelligence process – the acquisition, compilation, collation, analysis, synthesis and dissemination of intelligence – has not been adequately mastered. The Naxalites are continuing to spread their tentacles and it is crucial that intelligence about their activities, arms and equipment, training, sources of funding and future operations is shared on a daily basis so that it trickles down in near real-time conditions to the functional level. A great deal more needs to be done if the states are to coordinate anti-Maoist operations across their borders.

State police forces as well as the Central armed police forces (CAPFs) like the CRPF need to be better equipped and a lot better trained to successfully combat the serious threat posed by the Naxalites. At present they lack the Army’s organisational structure and cohesiveness, the Army’s institutionalised operational experience and ethos and its high standards of junior leadership, qualities that are mandatory if the Naxalites have to be defeated on their own turf. The SOPs must be refined and strictly followed.

Calling in the Army to tackle the rising tide of Maoist violence will be a grave mistake for a number of reasons. The Army is already deployed on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and on parts of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with Tibet. It is also deployed in large numbers for counter-insurgency and internal security duties in J&K and the north-eastern states. These prolonged commitments are hampering the Army’s preparedness for conventional conflict, gradually but perceptibly affecting morale and wearing down its equipment and transport fleet. Calling on the Army to commit additional troops for anti-Naxalite operations would be a retrograde step in the long run.

What the Army can do and has been doing for some time now is to provide advanced training to the state police forces and the CAPFs to enable them to acquire the necessary skills. The Army can “train the trainers” of the CAPFs at its training establishments so that they go back and train their respective forces. The Army can also send its instructors on deputation to the training academies of the state police forces and the CAPFs to train their personnel. Some police personnel could be trained by utilising the spare capacity of the Regimental Training Centres of the Army such as the Punjab Regiment Centre, Ramgarh, the Bihar Regiment Centre, Danapur and the Grenadiers Regiment Centre, Jabalpur.

In addition to the support that it can extend for training, the Army, and the air force, can provide some technical equipment to improve reconnaissance and surveillance. One UAV detachment has reportedly been deployed in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. The Centre also provides “air support essentially for transport of security forces, evacuation and air dropping of food and medicines”. Chhattisgarh has established a school of counter-insurgency warfare headed by a former Army Brigadier who had earlier headed the Army’s Counter-insurgency and Jungle Warfare School, Vairangete, Mizoram. The Army can help other state governments to establish similar training academies.

The Maoist threat presents a clear and present danger. It can be ignored or neglected only at great peril to India’s national security interests. So far the national response has been inadequate, both at the policy formulation and execution levels. To cope with this serious threat, the country needs a well-deliberated and finely calibrated response strategy with matching operational doctrines and the necessary civil and military resources. Only a skilfully coordinated response between the Centre and the states, with all concerned agencies pooling in their resources to achieve synergy in execution, will achieve the desired results. Above all else, a comprehensive socio-economic strategy must be evolved to treat the root causes of this malaise that is gnawing away at the nation’s innards, along with a skilfully drawn up plan for perception management.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.)