April 11, 2021
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Vacuous Symbolism

Time to let go of the obsession with helicopters and Army deployment. Time now to get down to the grim task of fighting the Maoists in narrowly targeted, intelligence-led operations.

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Vacuous Symbolism
Simply too much rubbish continues, at present, to pass muster in the highest policy and strategy circles to allow any coherence of response to crystallize... Many ‘strategies’ and ‘solutions’ are no more than slogans, lacking the minimal resource configurations or instrumentalities necessary to secure declared objectives. 

--Counter-insurgency: Some Myths and Principles, June 2, 2010

There is a necessary and great difference between lives sacrificed to secure quantifiable and enduring gain, and lives simply wasted, thrown away, without plan or purpose, to sheer strategic or tactical stupidity.

--Where the Buck Stops, May 28, 2010

...before it struts about airing nonsense about ‘developing’ Rajnandgaon, Kanker, Dantewada, and Bastar, let the state demonstrate its honest intent and, crucially, capacity, to deliver development and good governance in areas unambiguously in its control.

--Catchphrases aren’t Strategies, May 30, 2010

The cold and harsh reality is that such incidents (the Rani Bodli massacre in which 55 SF personnel were killed) will continue to take place with numbing regularity.

--The Ignored Red Lights, March 19, 2007

…for what would be the point of anything, if nothing is remembered?

--Louis Bernieres

Each new day for India’s establishment, it appears, begins with a blank slate, and is then inscribed only with the minutiae of the most recent set of statements, events and manoeuvres. Politicians regurgitate tired platitudes as new ‘agendas’, and the media and ‘civil society’ whip themselves up into a frenzy, examining nuance, gesture and symbol, with as deficient a long-term memory as the illusionists who generate the first falsehood of something new and historical being done. Appearance, evidently, is everything; substance is naught.

So it was at the meeting of Chief Minister’s of the Naxal affected states at New Delhi on July 14, 2010, where the ministry of home affairs (MHA) unveiled a ‘new agenda’ and ‘strategy’ to counter the Maoists and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh threw his weight behind an appeal to "be and also appear to be united and one in our resolve and in execution of our strategies."

There is, unfortunately, little – beyond some vacuous symbolism – that is new in this ‘new strategy’, and as little that will alter conditions on the ground in the struggle against the growing Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) peril. The ‘two-pronged approach’ of taking security and development forward together has been with us as far as memory goes, and has produced neither security nor development in the widening target regions. Among the most significant proposals of its new avatar is the decision to set up a Unified Command (UC) for the four worst affected states – Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal (Bihar appears to have chosen to remain out of this scheme; so much for unity of purpose). It is useful to put on record, here, that the UC structure has had, at best, very mixed results in a number of other theatres of insurgency in the country. It is also, of course, not surprising that everyone has by now forgotten that the idea of a ‘Joint Operational Command’ (JOC) for the then six contiguous Naxal-affected states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, UP, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa (Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand were yet to come into existence) was approved by the Centre as far back as in April 2000. More than a decade later, it is evident that that exercise was a non-starter, and the general feeling, then, was that the JOC was just an excuse to avoid direct responsibility. There is little reason to believe that the proposed Unified Command structure will be any different this time around.

Stung by the rejection of its ill-conceived proposal for Army deployment in anti-Naxal operations, however, the MHA has now managed to smuggle in a retired Major General and a few retired Brigadiers to pepper up its proposed UC framework. This is, however, just wasted symbolism. It is unlikely that the unfortunate officers who are eventually selected for these august positions will have any significant say on policy or strategy, and it is more than likely that they will be resented by the police and paramilitary leaderships who will actually be charged with the design and execution of campaigns, and who will carry the can for operational failures.

In any event, far too much is being made out of the bogey of coordination failures and the failure to share intelligence – the ‘lacunae’ the UC is purportedly intended to address. It is significant, in the latter context, that virtually every major arrest of top Maoist leaders in the recent past across the country, and including the arrests as far afield as in Delhi, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, has come as a result of intelligence developed – and freely shared – by the Andhra Pradesh police. As for the operational debacles in the Maoist-dominated forest areas, these are not the result of a failure to share intelligence – they are the consequence of a complete absence of credible and actionable intelligence. The apparent lack of ‘coordination’ in these operational disasters, moreover, is a consequence, essentially, of a lack of capacities on the ground. It is significant that, in the wake of the Chintalnar incident, the MHA has somewhat vindictively sought punitive action against top officers of both the state police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), not for any coordination failures, but for jointly planning an operation that went horribly wrong. There is no suggestion that either was trying to keep the other in the dark on operational issues. Unless the issue of capacities is addressed, creating layer upon layer of meta-institutional arrangements for ‘better coordination’ will achieve nothing beyond a waste of scarce leadership resources.

Further, on the security front, there were some routine announcements of capacity augmentation – 16,000 new Special Police Officers (SPOs), appeals (we have heard them before) to the sates to fill up gigantic vacancies in police ranks, and an allocation of INR eight billion for fortification and upgradation of 400 police stations. The fortification plan is, again, old hat, and the problem here has not been a paucity of funds – the Centre has been liberal in its support for years now – but the under-utilisation or mis-utilisation of such funds, particularly in police stations in the worst affected areas, which are most urgently in need of improvement. 20 additional helicopters are also to be made available to support anti-Maoist operations – but reports indicate these would only be inducted once they have returned from United Nations peace-keeping missions, where they are currently deployed. The cumulative impact of these measures, whenever they are fully implemented, would be no more than marginal.

The idea of expanding the list of 35 worst affected ‘focus districts’ under ‘integrated security and development’ has also been proposed. The ‘integrated security and development plan’, originally covering 32 districts has, however, been around for more than five years, and has already recorded significant expenditures, but little success. Not one of the earmarked districts can boast a turnaround on either security or development parameters as a result of this programme.

Indeed, the entire developmental aspect of this pseudo-strategy is linked to extremely uncertain capacities of implementation. It is all very well to talk about ‘comprehensive’ and ‘special’ plans, with their focus on connectivity, health, education and poverty alleviation, but, as the Prime Minister very rightly noted at the Chief Ministers’ meet, "Without adequate and reasonably efficient staff, it would be difficult to implement any strategy or programme for these areas."

The Prime Minster advises the states to set up a group under their respective Chief Secretaries to look at the issue of vacancies and appropriate administrative leadership, and sets a target for filling up a third of existing vacancies in ‘these areas’ within six months. But the problem of "adequate and reasonably efficient staff", it has been noted earlier is far more intractable, and no Chief Secretary and ‘empowered group’ actually has the capacities to overcome entrenched structural obstacles. The Prime Minister’s six month deadline is, in fact, located in the realm of fantasy. It is useful, in an aside, to note, here, that the MHA’s modest plans to accelerate recruitment to the Indian Police Service have already been stymied by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), at least for the current year, despite the acute crisis in this cadre.

The Prime Minister saw fit, further, to note that, "For far too long have our tribal brothers and sisters seen the administration in the form of a rapacious forest guard, a brutal policeman, a greedy patwari." This is certainly somewhat disingenuous. In borrowing what is a common theme in the Left Wing, indeed, civil, critique of the Indian state, the Prime Minister has sought to disarm moderates within this ideological stream – more and more of whom are becoming increasingly voluble in their sympathies for the Maoists – and, at once, divert attention from the far greater oppression that flows from sources so much closer to the fountainhead of national power.

But borrowing small elements of the Maoist critique of the state will hardly work. The petty tyrannies and transgressions of the policeman, the forest guard and the patwari are no more than the least of the manifestations of the systemic oppression – the rapacity, brutality and greed – of India’s political and administrative systems. Systems, it is to be noted, that Prime Minister Singh promised to reform in the very first months of his first term as Prime Minister, but has done little about.

There has been much facile talk about ‘where the buck stops’ in the wake of debacle after debacle over the past months. It must be abundantly clear that the buck does not stop at the lowly forest guard, policeman and patwari. The regime of corruption starts, not at the bottom, but at the very top, among Chief Ministers, ministers and top administrators in the affected states, and the Prime Minister’s political colleagues and top administrators at the Centre. The regime of collusion, of corruption and of the systemic protection of the corrupt at the highest level has gone entirely unchallenged under Prime Minister Singh, and under each of the Chief Minister’s of the afflicted states.

Worse, millions of the poor have been expropriated and displaced in the name of ‘development’ over the past years, but political and administrative greed has ensured that, even where corporates are willing, or where state resources are available and earmarked for this purpose, rehabilitation and fair compensation fail to reach the affected populations.

Crucially, platitudes about the suffering among tribals cannot constitute a strategy of response. Large sums of money are, of course, also being announced for a number of welfare and developmental programmes in these target regions, but these will principally and enormously enthuse the corrupt in the various state capitals. Little of such monies has ever reached intended beneficiaries, and little will reach them out of the new bounties announced.

It is necessary, here, to return to the oft-repeated question: when India’s administration is failing to outreach minimal administrative, developmental, welfare and relief services to vast areas that are fully within its control, and where no significant mass violence is being experienced, how, precisely, are we going to reach into the Maoist heartlands and create Utopia there? And if we cannot rid Delhi of the obscene scales of its corruption, what hope can there be for Dantewada?

Behind all this charade of high policy is a rising collective panic in New Delhi and in the afflicted state capitals. Among its most significant indices is the visible flight of the state from recent areas of vaunting operation. The Zonal Headquarters of the CRPF at Raipur (Chhattisgarh), from where the Centre’s ‘massive and coordinated operations’ were being led under the command of Special Director General Vijay Raman, have abruptly been shifted to Kolkata, according to Raman, "for reasons of safety". Raman was sent to Raipur just ten months ago, in September 2009. It is nothing less than astonishing that the CRPF finds itself unable to sustain its Zonal Headquarters against a Maoist threat in Chhattisgarh’s capital, but is nevertheless entirely willing to deploy thousands of its troopers in the Maoist heartlands.

On October 12, 2009, Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, elaborating on the Government’s ‘clear, hold and develop’ strategy, had boasted in an interview, "We hope that literally within 30 days of Security Forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there." On November 20, 2009, Chhattisgarh’s Director General of Police (DGP), Vishwa Ranjan, then spearheading the high profile Operation Green Hunt, had declared, "Our newest strategy is to win complete control over small areas under Maoist influence, hold them, and not withdraw forces until development in the area is well under way... We will repeat this pattern in other areas, a few at a time, until the enemy has nowhere to go."

DGP Vishwa Ranjan now laments that, in the worst affected Bastar division, "I have 16 battalions of CPMFs (Central Paramilitary Force) – the CRPF, 2 to 3 battalions of SSB (Shashatra Seema Bal) – and 6 of our own (Chhattisgarh Armed Force, CAF) and whatever civil police is there. That is the basic force." That roughly comes to around one policeman per five square kilometres of area. Was this not evident before the misadventure of the Centre’s ‘massive and coordinated operations’ and the Chhattisgarh’s Operation Green Hunt were launched? Before the succession of slaughters the Maoists have inflicted with impunity on the SFs?

Clearly, the fight against the Maoists is not going quite as marvellously as the dreamweavers of the establishment had us believe a few months ago, and the frustration is showing. In a startling shift of ‘strategy’, the government appears to have decided that, if they can’t fight the adversary, they might as well beat up their cheerleaders. The signal for this emanated from the MHA itself, after the Maoists blew up a bus at Chingavaram in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, killing 44, including 28 civilians and 16 SPOs, on May 17, 2010. Home Minister P. Chidambaram had then declared that civil society organizations were "getting in the way of the state's efforts to contain the rebels" and that "It is almost fashionable to be sympathetic to the Maoist cause."

As their appetite for direct engagement with the Maoists diminishes, it has been noticed, senior police officials have become more and more enthusiastic in a relentless, but incoherent and indiscriminate, critique of, and random action against, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), activists, journalists and commentators deemed, in their subjective evaluation, ‘sympathetic’ to the Maoists. Crucially, no sustainable prosecutions have been launched against any such organisations and individuals, and, in the earlier high-profile case of Binayak Sen, the state’s action collapsed for lack of evidence, attracting severe strictures from the Supreme Court. The Maoists do, of course, create numberless front organisations, and many organisations and activists are certainly linked up with them. However, if the state’s agencies fail to distinguish between incitement and advocacy, and between criminal conspiracies and ideological sympathies, their campaigns against these elements will remain just about as successful as their grand schemes for "massive and coordinated" operations have been.

Another remarkable element of the state’s ‘strategic response’ has been the fudging of data. As noted earlier, the MHA appears to be suppressing data relating to fatalities, with Maoist related fatalities in 2009 pushed down from an initial 1,125 to 908. Again, starved of real achievements in its counter-insurgency (CI) initiatives, the MHA appears to be assiduously manufacturing numbers relating to police strength in the country. On September 16, 2009, the Prime Minister had stated that the police-population ratio for the country was 145 per 100,000. The MHA is now claiming a ratio of 160 per 100,000. The National Crime Records Bureau, which compiles national data annually, indicated that the ratio was just 128 per 100,000, as on December 31, 2008.

If the MHA’s current claims are correct, the ratio has been raised from 145 to 160 in just nine months, and from 128 to 160 in 18 months. For a population of 1.2 billion, this indicates recruitment of an additional 180,000 policemen in nine months and 384,000 policemen in 18 months – without factoring replacement of personnel retiring or otherwise lost. A further provision of roughly five per cent of the total strength of 1.13 million in 2008, to account for replacement and population augmentation, would imply an additional recruitment of 56,500 police personnel per annum. While detailed data on actual recruitment in the states is not available to SAIR, partial information available, both relating to recruitment and capacities for training, indicates that it would be fairly reasonable to conclude that the Government’s claims on current police-population ratios are vastly exaggerated.

Amidst all this, the real achievement of anti-Maoist operations has been lost. The top leadership of the rebels has been systematically decimated over the past years. According to one estimate, some 23 of 49 members of the Maoist Central Committee and Politburo have now been neutralised – arrested, killed or surrendered – with Cherukuri Rajkumar aka Azad, the party’s spokesman and member of both the Central Committee and Politburo, killed on July 2, 2010, at Sarkepally in the Adilabad district by the Andhra Pradesh police, the latest among these. The top Maoist leader, Mupalla Laxman Rao aka Ganapathy has acknowledged the impact of these focused intelligence based operations, stating,

…it is a fact that we lost some senior leaders at the state and central level in the past four or five years. Some leaders were secretly arrested and murdered in the most cowardly manner. Many other leaders were arrested and placed behind bars in the recent past in Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Haryana and other states. The loss of leadership will have a grave impact on the party and Indian revolution as a whole.

These losses are not, however, irreversible. After decades of indifference, there is a new ferment in the universities, rapidly expanding the potential for raising a fresh intellectual cadre and leadership. Sympathetic NGOs and front organizations are already recruiting and deploying such potential leaders in a range of overground activities, and it is inevitable that a significant number of these will filter through to the underground leadership.

Nevertheless, undeniable successes against the Maoist leadership remain the achievement of a quiet and relentless operation by a tiny intelligence community, with its spearhead in the Andhra Pradesh Special Intelligence Branch.

And yet, the entire policy discourse continues to be dominated by the obsession with battalions and helicopters and Army deployment, or by the empty rhetoric of unattainable developmental and political solutions. Apart from general exhortations to the states to ‘strengthen their intelligence capabilities’, there is little focus on the centrality of an intelligence-led campaign of attrition against the top Maoist leadership that could secure the internal collapse of the movement in very real time. Lest this appears too simplistic or easy, it is necessary to qualify that creating the quality and quantum of intelligence assets to secure such ends is an extraordinarily difficult task – but it is far more attainable than the current flailing about to ‘clear and hold’ or ‘dominate’ the vast territories over which the Maoists have established disruptive dominance; or chasing the tail of every petty squad or militia member over these regions. With the rapid expansion of Maoist overground and underground activities, the opportunities for intelligence penetration are substantial, and are ignored to the state’s abiding detriment.

After all the boastful nonsense of the past year, it is now time to get down to the grim task of fighting the Maoists, of decimating them in the ones and twos, in narrowly targeted, intelligence-led operations. Unless this becomes the core of the state response, we will continue to flounder aimlessly from one debacle to another, with our grand policy pronouncements providing the only element of disputable comic relief in an enduring tragedy.

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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