Ballot over Bullet
India has variously been described as a ‘flailing state’, a ‘functioning anarchy’, a ‘dysfunctional democracy’… and these assessments are not without rational basis. But this very system, under a clear mandate, has demonstrated – again and again – the capacities to deliver the most astonishing results. The startlingly unambiguous electoral mandate to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was not the only remarkable outcome in the momentous General Elections of April-May 2009; the electoral exercise itself was a tribute to the abiding institutional strengths and vibrancy of democracy, and to the Security Forces who provide protective cover to this vast undertaking.
A handful of violent incidents, particularly in the first of the five phases of the election, have coloured perceptions, with some commentators jumping to sweeping, hasty and ill-informed judgments about the "unprecedented use of armed force in a bid to subvert the constitutionally ordained democratic process" and the dubious "fact that the security forces have had to lay down their lives in increasing numbers".
Before any assessment of the threat and reality of violence during the electoral process, and of security responses, is attempted, it is useful to take a bird’s eye view of the enormity of what has been executed. The Indian general elections are, by far, the largest and most complex democratic exercise in the world, involving, on the present occasion, arrangements for as many as 713.77 million voters to cast their votes. This is in excess of the combined population of North and South America (710 million), and just short of the total population of Europe (730 million). This involved the setting up of 834,000 polling stations, and the coordination of the activities of 2,046 Election Observers, 140,000 ‘micro-observers’ and 4,690,000 polling staff deployed in polling stations, and an ‘equal number of staff and officers’ used in various ‘election related capacities’. 8,070 candidates were contesting the 543 Parliamentary constituencies, even as another 473 Assembly constituencies went to the polls in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Sikkim. With a 57 per cent voter turnout in the Parliamentary elections, nearly 407 million voters actually cast their ballots, across the most extraordinarily diverse – and often difficult – geographical, cultural and security terrain. 12 election personnel, for instance, trekked 45 kilometers through knee-deep snow to reach two polling stations, serving just 37 voters, at a height of 13,700 feet in the Zanskar Sub-division of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).
This was an election, moreover, that was held under an enveloping atmosphere of threat. After the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, and the intervening months of persistent reports of heightened infiltration of terrorists across the Line of Control in J&K, the possibility of escalating Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist violence was high in intelligence assessments. This was intensified further by a call for the boycott of elections from the ‘hardline’ faction of the separatist Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, as well as by the Pakistan based and backed United Jihad Council (UJC), which enumerates virtually all major Islamist terrorist groups operating in J&K (and across the country) among its members. The UJC chief, who also heads the Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen, issued the call for the boycott and threatened that "anyone who casts a ballot will be considered a traitor."
At the same time, the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist, aka the Naxalites) also issued a call for a poll boycott across areas of their influence and activity, threatening political leaders, workers and voters with reprisals if they failed to comply. The Maoist Information Bulletin of April 10, 2009, thus quoted Party Spokesman ‘Azad’ as declaring an "active boycott where we prevent the candidates from carrying out their campaigns in the villages and smaller urban centres in our areas. We warn the parties not to venture out into our areas and when they do not heed our warnings, we stop their campaign, beat them up if they are notorious elements, burn their vehicles, conduct people’s courts… We also carry out counter-offensive actions against the police and central forces who are used by the reactionary rulers to enforce elections at gun-point."
In India’s troubled Northeast, however, most insurgent groups remained silent on the election issue this time around, though the National Socialist Council of Nagalim – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in Nagaland did declare that it had "nothing to do with the Indian elections". Nevertheless, Assam had witnessed a succession of explosions in the months preceding the elections, including the Guwahati blasts on April 6, which killed 10. Unrelenting violence in Manipur, afflicted by multiple insurgencies, accounted for as many as 196 fatalities between January and May 11, 2009.
The run-up to the elections saw a number of dramatic incidents of violence in the Maoist ‘red corridor’ areas, prominently including the ambush of a Central Reserve Police Force and State Police party at Minpa in District Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, by a group of several hundred naxalites on April 10, 2009. 10 SF personnel were killed in the attack. The bodies of three Maoist cadres were also recovered, while several others are believed to have been removed by the comrades in retreat. Again, on April 12, several hundred Maoists attacked an explosives store at NALCO at Damanjodi, District Koraput, Orissa, killing 10 Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel, while the bodies of four Maoist cadres were recovered.
In a ‘vulnerability mapping’ exercise carried out by the Election Commission, in association with the Ministry of Home Affairs and concerned security agencies, a total of 86,782 villages/hamlets were identified as sensitive. Crucially, as many as 373,861 persons were ‘booked’ under various preventive laws prior to elections. 79 Parliamentary constituencies were identified as Naxalite affected, and 118,604 sensitive polling stations were provided with augmented SF cover. The areas worst affected by Maoist activity were all clubbed together in the first phase of the election, preceded by ‘area stabilisation’ exercises before the polling date. The Polling time was changed to between 7 am and 3 pm in 15 Parliamentary and 66 Assembly segments in Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar and Maharashtra, "to enable daylight evacuation of the polling personnel and poll materials." 47 polling stations in Bihar and 88 in Chhattisgarh were relocated to ‘safer areas’ because of the perceived threat of Maoist violence. An estimated 75,000 personnel of the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) were assigned to a rolling deployment across different constituencies over the five phases of the election.
There were, of course, some apparent missteps, particularly in the first phase. The ‘area stabilisation’ objective in Maoist-affected areas could only have been met by a massive saturation of Force, and there is some evidence that this was lacking. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, an additional 160 companies of CPMFs were deployed during the current elections, as compared to as many as 300 companies during the Assembly Elections of November 2008. In Jharkhand, as against a State Government demand for 220 companies, just 96 were deployed. In Bihar, against a requisition for 260 companies, 130 were made available. These allocations are, of course, in addition to the State Police and State Armed Police contingents that were allocated for election duties.
Violence in the first phase, across the Maoist belt, was, perhaps consequently, significant. A total of 19 persons (9 civilians and 10 SF personnel) were killed, even as violent incidents were recorded in 86 polling stations. The worst incidents included a landmine blast at Chatra in Jharkhand, which killed seven Border Security Force (BSF) personnel and two civilians; and another explosion in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, in which six persons, including five members of a reserve poll party, travelling without security, were killed (the Maoists subsequently claimed to have mistaken them for a security contingent). But just 71 polling stations of the 76,000 identified as vulnerable were, in fact, affected by any measure of Maoist violence in Phase I.
There was a clear corrective applied in subsequent phases. Phase II in West Bengal, for instance, saw the deployment of 220 companies of CPMFs – the highest for any State. Specifically, about 81 CPMF companies and some 10,000 State Policemen were deployed in West Midnapore alone, where the Maoist bastion of Lalgarh is located. Similarly, 45 companies were deployed in the troubled Kandhamal District of Orissa, which had seen protracted Maoist and communal violence in 2008. In any event, Phase II saw eight fatalities (six SF and two civilians); in Phase III, three civilians were killed; in Phase IV, five civilians; and in Phase V, two civilians. Many of these fatalities resulted from political violence or personal vendettas unrelated to the enduring insurgencies in the country.
The levels of violence were, by no means, ‘unprecedented’ or ‘increasing’. Indeed, only the complete absence of historical memory can explain such assessments. A total of 37 persons were killed through the five phases of elections in 2009, 23 of them by Maoists or in Police firing. The remaining were killed in accidents or individual incidents. In the 2004 elections, as many as 48 persons had been killed during the elections. The run-up to the 2004 elections had also seen several incidents of extremist violence, prominently including the attack on an election rally being addressed by Mehbooba Mufti in J&K, which killed 11; and the landmine attack by the then Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in the West Singhbhum District of Jharkhand, which killed 26 Policemen.
And the 2004 elections were not exceptionally bloody by Indian standards. The terror in Punjab has now largely receded from public memory, but when the feckless Chandrashekhar Government tried to force the terror-wracked State to join the 1991 General Elections and simultaneously hold elections to its Assembly, the terrorists, enormously encouraged by months of preceding appeasement, exploded int violence. The campaign of liquidation that followed claimed the lives of as many as 27 candidates, and in the June 7, 1991, train massacre, 74 passengers were slaughtered. Unrelenting violence through pre-election phase eventually resulted in the elections being aborted on June 21, 2009.
The sheer intensity of the election experience in the remote and disturbed areas of the country is difficult for most to imagine. K.P.S. Gill provides a particularly evocative account of an electoral exercise in the Chhattisgarh Assembly Elections, 2003, that was ‘far from unique’:
Few in India have recognized or even understood the enormous effort and sacrifice that has gone into the preservation of the ‘symbols and gestures’ of Constitutional Democracy… A contingent of the Punjab Police (PP) was deployed in Chattisgarh for 22 days on polling duties, with a large proportion of these in the Bastar area, including four of the areas worst affected by Naxalite violence: Jagdalpur, Kanker, Bijapur and Dantewada. One party of 50 PP personnel, accompanied by one local policeman, started from Bijapur to go through forests to reach a place called Sundra, to prepare a helipad so that electoral officials and materials could be brought in. This short journey was to be completed in two stages, with an overnight stop at Sagmeta. They moved from Bijapur at 07:00, and by 10:00, they were in the thick of the forest. They were greeted by as many as 19 landmine blasts, coupled with heavy firing. The commandos retaliated and used area weapons – 2-inch mortars, GF rifles (grenade launchers), Light Machine Guns and ALRs. They found that all the existing forest trails were mined, so they marched cross country, cutting a path through the forest and reached Sagmeta, just 15 kilometres from Bijapur, at 17:00, completing the journey in over 10 hours. At Sagmeta, from 23:00 to 05:00 the next morning, there was a pitched battle between the police party and the Naxalites who were surrounding them from all sides. They then received information that the route to Sundra was heavily mined. The party consequently stayed on at Sagmeta for another day. Firing on the party started again at 2200 and continued till 0500 the next morning. A helicopter was eventually pressed into service, and lifted one party – about half a platoon – who secured the ground at Sundra. The remaining policemen were then airlifted to create and secure the helipad. They came under heavy fire from the Naxalites through the night at Sundra as well. For those who have not faced fire, it is difficult to understand the enormous courage and character that it would have taken this small contingent, as they confronted a faceless enemy, although unused to the terrain, being in the area for the first time… despite the fact that they took casualties, they managed to set up the polling station, and polling did take place… After polling was over, the party returned, once again under heavy fire throughout the night…
India’s General Elections are an exercise of continental proportions, and a security and administrative system that can conduct these regularly and – absent exceptional political incompetence or mischief – with relatively low levels of violence, given the enormously troubled conditions that prevail across wide areas of the country, has undoubted muscle to it. How, then, do these sinews fail to work against the protracted ‘small wars’ that have disrupted governance and life across a multiplicity of theatres across the country? Why can the efficiency of security operations during elections not be replicated in the country’s fight against terrorism and insurgency?
The answer lies, partly, in the perversity of politics, and partly in the insufficiency of capacities to do always what it is possible to do occasionally.
The first of these is too well known to demand significant repetition here. For decades, policing and security have been political footballs, kicked about with little concern for consequence or national interest. The result has been a sustained perversion of security systems, compounded by enduring neglect. This brings us to the second issue: the impact has been the cumulative diminution of capacities relative to rising demands of a growing and restive population, of external mischief, and of the increasing technical, technological and tactical sophistication of anti-state groupings.
Despite the endemic capacity deficits, during an election, it is possible to protect identifiable loci for a short duration. These loci are clearly defined – principally, the polling stations, polling officials and candidates – and this protection is required only till the election process ends at a particular location; anything that happens thereafter has no significant bearing on the integrity of the election process. It is, consequently, possible – though not easy – to organize a moving carnival of security personnel from one area to another to secure the necessary saturation of Force from phase to phase. It is, indeed, the imperative of securing such transient saturation with limited availability of Force that has resulted in a progressive protraction of the election process over the decades – culminating in the five-phase month-long election of 2009.
The same levels of saturation and alert cannot, however, be maintained for long, and cannot be extended to all potential targets of terrorism, insurgency or sub-conventional warfare – certainly within the current capacities and configurations of the Indian internal security apparatus. Intelligence assets, moreover, are spread too thin – in terms of material and human resources, as well as technical and technological aids – to ensure the prior identification of all potential loci of terrorist or insurgent threat or attack. Vast areas of the country, to put it simply, are located in security blackholes, and come to be dominated by disruptive, insurgent and terrorist elements.
The experience of security management during the current elections clearly demonstrates the capabilities of India’s security apparatus, under appropriate mandate, and with clear objectives. The challenge of policy, now, is to determine and establish the mandate, the objectives, and, crucially, the capacities that are necessary to secure the same measure of effectiveness at all times, and across the country.
(Published in Defence and Security of India)
Volume 1, Issue 6, June 2009, pp. 40-46.