For all its strutting about as an emerging Great Power India is increasingly perceived as a "flailing state" –floundering, uncoordinated, elephantine, inept. If any further evidence was needed, it has been amply provided in the past weeks since the Chintalnar massacre of April 6, 2010. The boastful incoherence of the centre’s anti-Maoist ‘strategies’ has been entirely dispersed, subsiding, instead, into what one opposition leader described as a posture of ‘injured martyrdom’.
Unsurprisingly, pure cacophony has followed once again after the most recent major Maoist outrage, the killing of 44 persons – 16 Security Forces (SF) personnel and 28 civilians – at Chingavaram in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, on May 17, 2010. Carrion feeders in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) now circle around the increasingly hapless union home minister, P. Chidambaram, even as the opposition brings out its knives. That none of the nation’s luminaries has a single constructive idea to offer, beyond the vacuous slogans – ‘developmental solution’ and ‘political solution’, ‘two-pronged’ and ‘multi-pronged’ approaches – while others scream for the deployment of the Army and the Air Force, can only consolidate the reputation for articulate incompetence that the best and the brightest in India’s Parliament, government and ‘civil society’ have rightly acquired.
While the media and the political establishment bring a hysterical focus on the Maoists and the state’s sorry ‘strategies’ only in the wake of the most dramatic incidents, the reality of Maoist violence has been altogether relentless. 468 persons have already been killed in Maoist violence this year (ICM data till May 23, 2010), including 167 SF personnel and 193 civilians. The year has already witnessed 22 major incidents (each accounting for three or more fatalities). Seven of these have recorded fatalities in the double digits:
- May 17: The CPI-Maoist cadres killed 44 persons (16 SF personnel and 28 civilians) when they blew up a bus by triggering an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) on a black-top road at Chingavaram near Sukma in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. Four civilians and two Special Police Officers (SPOs) were also injured. There were around 32 civilians and 18 SPOs in the bus.
- May 8: The combined forces of Orissa Police’s Special Operations Group, Andhra Pradesh’s Greyhounds and the Border Security Force (BSF) killed at least 10 cadres of the CPI-Maoist in the Gumandi forest near Podapadar village under Narayanpatna Police Station area in Koraput district.
- April 6: 75 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and one State Policeman were killed in an attack by the CPI-Maoist in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. The incident took place near Chintalnad -Tarmetla village in the district when a CRPF patrol party was returning from a road opening duty in the Naxalite-infested Mukrana forest between 6 to 7 am. The team had been camping in interiors of Tarmetla forest for the last three days as part of a combing operation.
- April 4: Eleven personnel of the anti-Maoist Special Operation Group (SOG) were killed and eight others were seriously injured when cadres of the CPI-Maoist triggered a landmine blast targeting a mini bus carrying the SOG personnel at Tanginiguda on the Govindpalli ghat road in Koraput district of Orissa. Sources said a brief exchange of fire took place between the SOG personnel and the Maoists near the blast site. Reports said there were 19 persons in the vehicle. The SOG personnel were on a mission to sanitise the Maoist-prone Govindpalli ghat road so that Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel camping at Govindpalli in Malkangiri district could move from there to Koraput.
- February 17: At least 12 villagers, including three women and one child, were killed when nearly 150 heavily-armed cadres of the CPI-Maoist attacked Phulwariya village in Jamui district of Bihar. Four of a family was charred to death while others were shot dead. Those killed were Kora tribals and the attack was in retaliation of the alleged killing of eight Maoists by the Koras on January 31 at the instigation of one Lakhan Kora, suspected by the Maoists of being a Police informer. The Maoists triggered explosions and also set 30 houses ablaze. The whereabouts of Lakhan are not known. While the Police say he survived the attack, this could not be confirmed from local sources.
- February 15: At least 24 SF personnel, mostly belonging to the Eastern Frontier Rifles were killed and several others injured when a large group of CPI-Maoist cadres attacked a SF camp at Silda in West Midnapore, West Bengal. The Maoists triggered several blasts before opening fire on the SF personnel. Before leaving, the Maoists looted firearms and set the camp ablaze. One civilian died of splinter injury the next day taking the death toll in the incident to 25.
- January 19: 13 CPI-Maoist cadres and one Salwa Judum (anti-Maoist vigilante group) activist were killed in a firing between Maoists and the Police in the dense Pareshgadh forest area, near Andhra Pradesh border, of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh.
This follows on at least 998 fatalities in 2009 (392 civilians, 312 SF personnel and 294 Maoists), and including at least 88 major incidents.
It is evidently a complete waste of time to go over the contours of a strategic response to the Maoist challenge in India. This has been written about ad nauseam, in SAIR and a wide range of other publications. The counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism (CI-CT) successes of Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh are all the models anyone could conceivably need – if the intellectual honesty, competence and due diligence to study these could, in fact, be tapped within the security policy establishment. It obviously cannot be. It is, consequently, far more productive to document elements of the utter imbecility of the discourse on the subject.
After the Chintalnar incident home minister Chidambaram had observed in Parliament, "If this tragedy is not a wake-up call, then nothing can wake-up this country and this Parliament." Just days later, he was challenged by his own senior party leadership, through Digvijay Singh, for his "intellectual arrogance", for treating the Naxalite problem as a "purely law and order issue" and for "failing to take into consideration the issues that affect the tribals". Reflecting a high measure of paternalistic contempt for a leadership that has remained committed to its cause, in some cases, for over half a century, Digvijay Singh went to describe the Maoists as "misguided ideologues". Having presided over one of India’s most backward and benighted States, Madhya Pradesh, as Chief Minister for two complete tenures, Digvijay Singh advocates ‘development’ as a panacea to neutralize the Maoists. His colleague, Mani Shankar Aiyar, declares him "one lakh per cent right" in his criticism of Chidambaram.
Among those brave souls who are setting out to ‘develop’ the dark recesses of Abujhmadh, or of the Bastar division, the very heart of the Maoist insurgency, or those who have proclaimed their intention to ‘clear, hold and develop’ these areas, there is none who can explain why the six districts of Chhattisgarh which are categorized "marginally affected" and the four, categorized "not affected" by Maoist activities remain backward and destitute. If the Chhattisgarh State Government, or the mighty Indian State, can, in fact, develop, or ‘seize, hold and develop’, the unconnected, uncharted jungles of the Bastar Division, what prevents them from bringing prosperity, justice and good governance to the territories well within their control?
It is significant, here, that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first drew attention to the enormity of the threat of Left Wing Extremism as far back as in November 2004, and has since repeatedly warned that this is now the single greatest threat to the country’s security. Yet, nearly six years later, there is no coherence in national threat assessment and no consensus on response. Indeed, in all these years, the Prime Minister has not even been able to secure a consensus on this issue within his Cabinet – though, fortunately, the embarrassing public contradictions by his own home minister have become a thing of the past since Shivraj Patil’s departure.
India and her Parliament are not asleep. They are simply confused and deluded. The strategic and tactical discourse has been carried out, overwhelmingly, at a wishful plane, entirely divorced from the realities of the ground. The most powerful arguments advanced are not for consistent and effective response, but in favour of inaction, vacillation and perpetual deferral.
One leading intellectual, for instance, proposes the thesis of the ‘bell curve of insurgencies’, and insists that "There is no reason why the Maoist insurgency will not follow that same pattern." In other words, it is ‘natural’ that violence will escalate to a point, but then it will, equally naturally, and irrespective of state responses, wither away. The strategic lesson, apparently, is that, whatever we may choose – and the spectrum of choice includes doing nothing – the outcome will remain quite the same. Moreover, since it is not the children of the elites who are dying in the rising trajectory of the ‘bell curve’, one may assume that the mounting loss of life imposes no significant moral obligation on the state and its leadership. [Such sanguinity of perspective was notably absent in media commentary in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks (26/11), when the wealthy died at the Taj and Oberoi-Trident].
What is missed in all this passionate promotion of paralysis is that, from the localized insurgencies of the past, India has now come to a stage where nearly half the country is afflicted, in different measure, by chronic conflict variables. 223 districts, according to the home minister’s 2009 estimate, are affected, in various degrees, by Maoist activities; another 20 districts by the Pakistan-backed proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir; and some 67 districts by the multiple insurgencies that trouble India’s Northeast. That adds up to 310 districts out of a total of 636. In addition, terrorist attacks have targeted urban centres across the length and breadth of the country. Though individual movements may rise and fall, evidently, there is no ‘bell curve’ here – rather, a steadily rising trajectory of disorders.
Another widely articulated sentiment is the contention that rising Maoist violence and mass killings are ‘acts of desperation’. Attempts have been made to reinforce this position by a number of media plants suggesting that the Maoists are on the verge of a split because of ‘ideological differences’ and wrangles over jurisdiction and the sharing of booty. The unsettling reality is, the dramatic Maoist attacks witnessed over the past months are far from the ‘acts of desperation’ the more vacuous among our political leaders would have us believe. These are manifestations of the strategic confidence and tactical capability of the rebels, on the one hand, and of strategic and operational infirmity of the state’s Forces, on the other. As the Maoists expand and consolidate areas of activity and influence, these attacks will become more frequent and lethal, pushing the already over-extended capacities of the security establishment towards a breaking point.
In the wake of the Chintalnar incident, the home minister informed Parliament – and through it, the nation – that he was "not afraid of the Maoists". [For different reasons, neither, frankly, am I; Chidambaram is extraordinarily well protected; I doubt if the Maoists will waste a bullet on me.] But ask the CPMF companies flung about randomly into the dense jungles of the Maoist heartlands; ask the ill-equipped, ill-trained Policemen, huddled in unprotected Police Stations and Posts, wondering, each moment of each day, whether it is their turn to be overrun; ask the tiny contingents that are sent out for ‘area domination’ into territories they know little or nothing of, and whose ends they cannot imagine, leave alone dominate; and the answer you will uniformly get is, yes, we are afraid; very afraid.
And that is what matters. The Policeman, today, is marked out by his uniform, not as a symbol of the state’s authority, or as an agent of its power, but a hapless and preferred target of Maoist violence. When he is killed, this is not because a necessary ‘cost of war’ is to be rendered; it is, more often than not, a life simply thrown away to strategic and tactical stupidity. There is, as has repeatedly been noted, no calculus of victory here; only empty posturing and irresponsible individual ambition.
Who are these people who call themselves the state’s strategists? Who holds them to account? How are the same cycles of operational failure repeated again and again without correctives? How can the same vacuous, failed, rhetoric exhaust the policy discourse for endless years and decades?
The core of India’s problems is simple dishonesty, falsification, dereliction. How can there be a consensus on assessments and strategies when the first response to stress is a fudging of facts? Take, for example, data on Maoist-related fatalities. According to Institute for Conflict Management data, based on open source monitoring, there had been at least 998 Maoist-related fatalities in 2009. Past records have shown that ICM figures on fatalities are consistently lower than eventually disclosed official data – and this is to be expected; open source coverage is not as comprehensive, and most frequently misses out a number of secondary fatalities (the injured who die, often days after recorded incidents, in hospital). The MHA’s January 2010 ‘monthly report card’ noted 1,125 Maoist related fatalities in 2009; and this would be consistent with expectations. Surprisingly, however, MHA’s Annual Report 2009-10 inexplicably brings this figure down to 908!
Again, speaking at the All India Conference of Directors and Inspectors General of Police at Delhi on September 16, 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated that the Police-population ratio for the country was 145 per 100,000. This is a figure that has been rattling around since a report of the Bureau of Police Research & Development (BPR&D: Data on Police Organisations in India) was published in June 2006, and is selectively projected whenever the Government wants to demonstrate its ‘achievements’. The far more reliable annual compendium, Crime in India, published by the National Crime Records Bureau is given the go-by. NCRB’s latest report, Crime in India – 2008, however, records that the Police-population ratio for the whole country stands at just 128 per 100,000, marginally up from 125 per 100,000 in 2007. The MHA may, of course, have even more recent data, but it is improbable, given the numbers of recruitments known, that a single year could have pushed the ratio up from 128 to 145. Significantly, BPR&D data for 2007 claims a Police-population ratio of 153 per 100,000.
How can two departments of the same MHA fail to reconcile their data on so fundamental an index? Who is feeding falsehoods and fabricated figures to the highest offices of the land? How can a country not even get its basic statistics right?
Another aspect of the current crisis is the Centre’s own postures. In this, Chidambaram has, for the past year, simply been setting himself up for a fall, projecting the MHA as the core respondent to the challenge of Naxalism, and providing an alibi to the State’s to abdicate responsibility. Inevitably, as disaster strikes – again and again – the MHA now finds itself isolated and blamed for every failure, and sets about complaining about an ‘incomplete mandate’. The reality is, it is the States that will have to take up their constitutional responsibility for law and order management, and not the MHA that is to be conferred a ‘wider mandate’. It was State Governments, within the existing constitutional, administrative and policing provisions, in Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh, who defeated raging insurgencies. There is no reason, other than the failure of will and intellect, why this cannot be done in current theatres of Maoist depredation. The Centre’s role is to support the efforts of the states, and must so remain.
Then again, the MHA has apparently gone cross-eyed with frustration. Confronted with the shambles of their ‘clear, hold and develop’ and ‘area domination’ strategies, and their ‘massive coordinated operations’ across the worst Maoist afflicted states, the mandarins at North Block appear to be "looking left, shooting right". As ‘civil rights activists’ invent the oxymoron "Gandhians with guns" to describe the Maoists, and with Maoist depredations escalating, the home minister declared that civil rights groups were "getting in the way of the state’s efforts to contain the rebels." His ministry, noting that "Some Maoist leaders have been directly contacting certain NGOs/intellectuals to propagate their ideology," warned that supporters of the ‘Maoist ideology’ could face up to 10 years in prison.
There is, of course, a very real problem here. The Maoists set up front organizations deliberately intended to exploit the interstices of democratic freedoms and rights to undermine the state, and also exploit a range of ‘useful idiots’ – and there are many eager innocents available – to propagate their cause. Where there is clear evidence of criminal collusion or of incitement to offence, the state must, of course, launch strong, evidence-based prosecutions – not the embarrassing legal travesties that have marked some actions against ‘sympathisers’ in the past. If, however, mere advocacy is now to be punished, consistent application of this policy may well require the home minister to send at least some of his own cabinet and party colleagues to jail. There is, moreover, something farcical here, as if the state, unable to beat the opposing team in the field, decides to vent its ire against their cheerleaders – hardly the most sagacious course of action in any contest.
The Prime Minister, on May 24, 2010, once again reiterated his government’s determination "to squarely tackle the threat of terrorism and ideological extremism", and claimed that he had "on earlier occasions outlined our approach to tackling Naxalism." There is, however, simply too much garbage in the policy discourse today for any coherent CI policy or strategy to be shaped or implemented. In such an environment, escalating operations and thoughtless deployments will only result in augmenting fatalities, particularly among the SFs. The mere claim to an "approach to tackling Naxalism" can no longer pass muster. If effective CI policies and strategies are to be designed within the currently degraded system of institutions and capacities at the centre and in the states, India’s leaders will have to discover a far greater clarity of assessment, purpose and intent than is currently evident.
Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management and Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine