Battleground Chhattisgarh: chinks in the armour

The December 1 Maoist attack should serve as a call for revision of our security setup

yogesh

Yogesh Rajput | December 13, 2014




Two days after 14 CRPF personnel were killed in a Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh on December 1, the government at the centre formed a high-level committee to review the standard operating procedure (SOP) to fine-tune its anti-Naxal strategy. Forming of committees and inquiry panels after such incidents is customary in political schemes but proves to be of less use and reveals even lesser. Nonetheless, the formation of the committee has some import, as it tends to hint at the problems in the strategic map of our anti-Naxal strategy.

Whether the problems are in the nature of minor hitches that just need some fine-tuning or are actually bigger than previously thought, a call for serious revision of our security setup can be argued for. “Given the strength of deployment of CRPF personnel and the vast size of the Red Corridor, two strategies can possibly be used. The first is to deploy small units in dispersal while the other is to deploy large units in concentration. In the former, the force does not possess a stronghold anywhere while in the latter the force builds one strong fort,” says Ajai Sahni, counter-terrorism expert and executive director of Institute for Conflict Management. He, however, adds that none of the two might actually work in Chhattisgarh unless there is rational deployment of personnel. “The CRPF has been present in Chhattisgarh for 15 years. But the units keep replacing each other without any transfer of knowledge. So, every new unit has to start afresh in understanding the dynamics of the conflict zone.”

During the December 1 attack the troop movement had structural flaws. “In counter-insurgency operations, some setbacks will take place. The reason being Maoists know the terrain better, have public support and present an element of surprise. But, the forces need to learn from each such incident and improvise. One lesson to learn is to avoid moving in areas that have high ground on either sides. At least one of the high grounds should be taken by a unit and the troops should move in proper tactical formation. Usually, one scout moves in a manner to provide cover to others. However, here (in the recent ambush) even commanding officers were killed. There seems to be some problem at the technical level,” says Brig (Rtd) Rumel Dahiya, deputy director general, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Total lack of coordination between the centre and state, too, needs to be fixed in time. The manner in which the 14 CRPF personnel were ambushed raises questions about the missing intelligence inputs on Maoist movements. “The Chhattisgarh police lends only token support to paramilitary forces,” says former BSF chief Prakash Singh.

Whatever the centre-led committee decides on the next plan of action, it would have to clearly demarcate the roles and responsibilities of both local police and paramilitary forces. This becomes crucial as the debate rages over shifting powers to the local police for leading such operations. For Prakash Singh, an optimal strategy for counter-insurgency in Chhattisgarh can only be achieved by the state police and not by an “outsider”. “The battle eventually has to be fought by the local police. They know the people, they know the terrain and they have the intelligence inputs. A man from another state may be an excellent soldier but he would always be a stranger here (in the Maoist-dominated area).”

But can police be trained on a par with paramilitary forces and deliver results as well? The Andhra Pradesh police serves as the answer. In 1989, it raised a special commando unit, Greyhounds. Keeping in view the tactics used by Naxalites, the commando unit was trained in guerilla warfare for about two years to confront the enemy in his own style. Even operating in a small strength of around 3,000 personnel, the Greyhounds wiped out a major portion of left wing extremism in the next few years. “In Andhra Pradesh, the police had taken a defensive approach. That is not to say that they were not in the fight, but that for two years they re-trained their troops, fortified their walls, organised a constructive strategy and then combated the situation. It was a strategic withdrawal with intent to fight,” says Sahni.

The not-so-good results in Maoist-dominated areas by CRPF might also be attributed to lack of strong leadership in the force. In the early 1990s, veteran IPS officer KPS Gill successfully crushed the Khalistan insurgency. Gill used to frequently travel within the state and assess the situation at the ground and direct personnel on the operation strategies. Chhattisgarh, too, is in dire need of a such a leader. “Senior police officers sitting in their respective headquarters are least bothered to visit Maoist-dominated areas while juniors are just doing their jobs for the sake of it,” says Singh.

The centre has failed to take cues from achievements made by other states in countering insurgency. The left wing extremist organisations in Tripura in the mid-1990s started posing a serious threat to civic life, with the state administration coming to a virtual halt. The Manik Sarkar government was quick enough to restore civic amenities by reaching out to the tribals, as the security forces successfully dominated the area. “There is no political will in Chhattisgarh as the area does not have any significant electoral impact. But the government does not realise that the loss to the exchequer for every single life lost is colossal. For every jawan dying on duty, the force has to pay compensation to his family members and recruit someone else in place of the deceased,” says Dr Sahni.

The government change, too, has failed to infuse life in counter-insurgency operations in Chhattisgarh. “The problem with the UPA government was that it was never clear about the policy it had to undertake to tackle the Maoist situation. There was a continuous tug of war. Former home minister P Chidambaram was working on the hardline while Congress leader Digvijay Singh opposed the offensive approach. There was confusion at the ground level and field commanders were not clear how offensive they were supposed to go. The attitude was like, do something; it might not be enough but just enough to offer riddance. Now with the new government coming into power, for some reason the policy is again not very clear. Maybe, it is because the PM is conducting routine visits to ally countries and has not been able to give enough time to the issue of internal security. Hence, there is no breath of fresh air,” says Prakash Singh.

The CRPF website states it has the “basic role of striking reserve to assist the state/union territories in police operations to maintain law and order and contain insurgency. Its role is that of a catalyst in maintaining law & order, and returns to barracks once this objective is achieved”. Working in Chhattisgarh for over a decade, the CRPF no longer seems to be serving the role of a reserve force.

Inadequacies of the security forces aside, Sahni says, the fight against Maoists has not even begun. “In Chhattisgarh, one can find a CRPF camp in an isolated place with 60-odd personnel inside and surrounded by a barbed wire. If an enemy unit of 200 attacks the camp, our forces would not be in a position to suppress them. However, the enemy is still not attacking. This shows how weak they are.”

The story appeared in December 16-31, 2014, issue

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