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Naxalite Wars
Of Lions & Donkeys

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
Benjamin Franklin

An apocryphal story attributed to a conversation between two German Generals during the First World War (versions of the narrative are sometimes located in the Crimean War more than half a century earlier) has one of them commenting, "The English soldiers fight like lions". To this, the other responds, "True. But like lions led by donkeys."

As thousands of State Police and Central Paramilitary Force (CPMF) personnel are flung, without visible plan or purpose, into an escalating ‘war’ – notwithstanding any euphemisms particular politicians may prefer – against the Maoists, it becomes increasingly urgent to determine which species India’s strategic leadership is drawn from. Suspicions of some link to the genus asinus surely cannot be altogether disregarded, if the public discourse has any coherent linkage to strategic thinking on the issue. The wilder among imaginations have thrown their weight behind visions of high resolution imagery and aerial operations by the Indian Air Force, backed by the Army on the ground. Happily, however, Air and military operations, at least, have been unambiguously struck down both by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram. However, the idea of ‘surgical strikes’ executed by combined teams of ‘Special Forces’ drawn from the States and the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs), in densely forested Maoist ‘heartland’ areas, are yet to be divested of their seduction. The Centre and various States continue to conjure up grandiose campaigns targeting the Maoists in a ‘coordinated’ and ‘massive’ offensive across the worst affected areas in the country. Perhaps taking a page out of American ‘successes’ in Afghanistan and Pakistani ‘successes’ in Swat, there has been much ill-advised kite flying about an attack on the Maoist ‘central guerrilla area’ in the Abujhmadh Forest in Chhattisgarh, backed by sci-fi visions of high resolution aerial, satellite and thermal imagery and air support for ground (police and paramilitary) troops. That Pakistan and USA, with the massive ‘collateral damage’ they routinely inflict on civilian populations, have little, if anything, to teach India on counter-insurgency, is largely missed by advocates of such ‘techno-warfare’. Incidentally, the IAF has repeatedly sought permission to shoot at the Maoists ‘in self-defence’, as its helicopters fly transport and surveillance sorties over affected areas, and public statements by Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Home Minister Chidambaram suggest "that is the policy", though formal permission is yet to be granted. This is a slippery slope, and, while offensive air operations against the Maoists have explicitly been ruled out, the IAF is reportedly preparing for a still-undefined ‘expanded role’ in the fight in the Naxal ‘strongholds’.

In the meantime, there has been loud and continuous tom-tomming of the ‘massive operations’ ‘shortly’ to be launched by the Centre, in coordination with the States. Leaks to the media have emanated steadily from a multiplicity of agencies, and it is abundantly clear that any operations that are now to be launched will come as no surprise whatsoever to the Maoists. Indeed, while some signs of disarray, especially between State and Central Forces, are visible, there is evidence that the Maoists have been systematically preparing for the ‘imminent’ onslaught for months, and have, indeed, already initiated their operations to thwart and circumvent the state’s strategy. Worse, the state’s ‘strategy’ has been progressively diluted, as it becomes obvious – as it has, indeed, been for years now – that the quantum of Forces required for the kind of sweeping offensive operations across six states, which had been envisaged earlier, are simply not available. Abruptly, sources suggest, that the operations have been reinvented as a focused campaign in just six Districts! These are expected to be clustered principally around Abujhmadh in the Bastar Division of Chhattisgarh and overflowing into the neighbouring Gadchiroli District of Maharashtra. What impact this will have on the Maoists, who, by the Home Minister’s own admission, are now active in as many as 223 Districts across 20 States, should be more than obvious. Crucially, if overwhelming force is, in fact, concentrated in these narrow areas, after an initial and bloody campaign that will cost the lives of many Security Force (SF) personnel in ambushes, landmine and improvised explosive device (IED) blasts in the dense jungles and poorly connected approaches, as well as significant ‘collateral’ casualties in areas where civilian populations intersect seamlessly with Maoist formations, the Maoists can be expected to simply and quickly ‘walk away’ from the fight. While holding territory has definitive advantages, it is of no extraordinary significance in the overall Maoist strategy. Even for those unfamiliar with Maoist strategy and tactics, this should have been evident, after Lalgarh. While the media spoke of ‘liberated areas’ and an imminent ‘showdown’ between the ‘entrenched’ Maoists and the state Forces that were eventually deployed, K.P.S. Gill wrote of the inevitable trajectory:

"…the slow buildup over… months of state denial, appeasement and progressive error; paralysis in the face of rising Maoist violence; and the final, almost effortless resolution, as the rebels simply melted away in the face of the first evidence of determined use of force."

This outcome, however, could provide no more than scant and fleeting comfort to the state. While saturation of Forces has been maintained over the past months, this has, in itself, become an issue for further Maoist mobilisation, even as attritional Maoist violence has been restored. If CPMF presence is diluted, the area will, once again, be vulnerable to the Maoists’ disruptive dominance. Even if Lalgarh is effectively secured in perpetuity, the rest of West Bengal – and areas of progressive Maoist consolidation across the country – will provide limitless recurrent opportunities for future theatrics in the ‘people’s war’.

And so it will be in Abujhmadh, in case projected operations are actually initiated. The strategic reality is quite simple. Unless a certain critical mass of Forces can be deployed across all areas of current and potential Maoist violence, all available dispositions of existing Forces will prove irrational. If there is a concentration of state Forces on particular nodes, the Maoists will disperse and intensify operations in other areas; if there is a dispersal of state Forces, these will be subjected to persistent and corrosive attacks at their points of vulnerability, even as there is a steady expansion of areas of Maoist ‘disruptive dominance’.

Astonishingly, much of this seemed apparently incomprehensible to elements within India’s strategic, planning and security communities. Home Secretary G.K. Pillai, certainly one of the better officers in an endemically decaying Indian Administrative Service, declares, with Panglossian optimism, "We hope that within 30 days of security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there." It would, indeed, be quite miraculous if the state could even ‘restore civil administration’ to vast expanses of rural India where the Maoists have no presence whatsoever, but where virtually the entire apparatus of governance has vanished. At least some of these areas are little more than a stone’s throw away from Delhi.

There has, of course, been some subsequent dilution of this ‘war rhetoric’, particularly after the Home Minister, on November 12, correctly dismissed ‘Operation Green Hunt’ as a "pure invention of the media" (though he omitted mention of the significant and continuous leaks from the Home Ministry that had fed distorted public perceptions), declaring that what was to be expected "in the months ahead is merely a more coordinated effort by the state police to reassert control over territory or tracts of land where regrettably the civil administration has lost control. And for that purpose we (the Centre) will assist them in every manner possible, particularly by providing paramilitary forces and sharing of intelligence."

None of the Government’s posturing was, however, lost on the Maoists, who appear to be preparing themselves for a full scale civil war, not only with the State Police and Central Paramilitary Forces, but also with the Army – or as they express it, "the state’s khaki and olive-clad terrorist forces" – and with clear expectations that, when push comes to shove, they may have to deal with the Air Force as well. The now-notorious ‘June 12 document’ released by the Maoist Politburo explicitly notes that, in the political circumstances created by the General Elections of April-May 2009, the state’s ‘repression’, will be "far more brutal, deadly and savage than under any other regime hitherto witnessed." Nevertheless, the Politburo declares:

"Though the enemy is itching to suppress our Party and movement by deploying a huge force in all our areas, he has severe difficulties in implementing this at present; he has plans to increase the number of central forces in the next few years, to set up and train special forces like the Cobras, but in the immediate context it is quite difficult for the Centre to send the forces required by each state to control our movement. Keeping this in mind, we have to further aggravate the situation and create more difficulties to the enemy forces by expanding our guerrilla war to new areas on the one hand and intensifying the mass resistance in the existing areas so as to disperse the enemy forces over a sufficiently wider area; hence the foremost task in every state is to intensify the war in their respective states while in areas of intense enemy repression there is need to expand the area of struggle by proper planning by the concerned committees; tactical counter-offensives should be stepped up and also taken up in new areas so as to divert a section of the enemy forces from attacking our guerrilla bases and organs of political power." (Emphases added).

These contrasting perspectives arise out of the subjective experience of the Indian state in a vastly contradictory context. To the high official at Delhi, insulated behind layers of security, juggling battalions of Forces, allocating random hundreds of crores of rupees with a squiggle of the pen, pronouncing on the future of entire regions and populations on a moment’s consideration, the experience of the state remains one of great power. The Maoist, on the other hand, intentionally encounters the state at the points of its greatest infirmity. Maoist strategies and tactics are, moreover, uniquely tailored to exploit and augment these infirmities, stepping into a widening vacuum of governance and systematically expanding its boundaries through a slow process of attrition to establish a ‘disruptive dominance’ that prevents the state’s agencies from delivering even on the rudiments of governance, development and welfare.

In this, the Maoist approach is complex and, while it certainly uses extreme violence to great effect, is not exhausted by it. As the programme and constitution of the erstwhile People’s War Group’s (PWG’s) People’s Guerrilla Army (PGA) declares, "The PGA firmly opposes the pure military outlook which is divorced from the masses, and adventurism. It will function adhering to the mass line." The ‘mass line’ explicitly rejects the ‘Left adventurism’ often attributed to the earlier Naxalite movement of the 1967-73 phase, and insists that the military aspects of the revolution are contingent on mass mobilisation: "…we see not only weapons but also people. Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive." Crucially, as it builds up its mass base through ‘secret organisations’ as well as over-ground ‘united front’ activities, the strategy of protracted conflict, as one group of commentators note, "postpones the decisive battle and calibrates its challenges to a calculus of risks – until the balance of power has shifted overwhelmingly to the side of the revolutionary forces."

The balance of power. That is the key, the variable the Maoist seeks to gradually, painstakingly, transform. The Maoist is under no illusion, today, that he is an equal to the state and to its armed might. The CPI-Maoist document on Strategy & Tactics notes, nevertheless,

"However strong the enemy’s military power may be and however weak the people’s military power, by basing ourselves on the vast backward countryside – the weakest position of the enemy – and relying on the vast masses of the peasantry… and creatively following the flexible strategy and tactics of guerrilla struggle and the protracted people’s war – as a full meal is eaten up mouthful by mouthful, exactly in the same way – by applying the best part of our army… against different single parts of the enemy forces and following the policy and tactics of sudden attack and annihilation, it is absolutely possible to defeat the enemy forces and achieve victory for the people in single battles. It is thus possible to increase the people’s armed forces, attain supremacy over the enemy’s forces and defeat the enemy decisively." (Emphasis added)

It is crucial, in confronting this strategy, not to fall into the trap of focusing inordinately on ‘kills’. For years, now, the Maoists have had a far greater capacity for violence than they have actually demonstrated. In vast areas of their activity, they deliberately choose to calibrate violence at low levels, or to avoid armed violence altogether, in order to build their mass base. On the other hand, the state has often looked upon the problem overwhelmingly in terms of fatality rates – and this lies at the core of current and increasingly panicked assessments. With fatalities in Maoist-related violence in 2009 expected to rise beyond a thousand by the end of the year (at least 749 had already been killed as of October 6, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal data), Home Minister Chidambaram has rightly observed that the CPI-Maoist had "improved upon its military wares and operational tactics" and, further,

"Recent decisions taken by its Politburo [this refers to the June 12 document] indicate that the CPI-Maoist is determined to expand its activities into newer areas, on the one hand, and intensify its 'mass resistance' in the existing areas, on the other. Violence, the most visible aspect of Naxal menace, has been consistently witnessed in about 400 Police station areas of around 90 Districts in 13 States… With increasing sophistication in fabrication and deployment of Improvised Explosive Devices, it has inflicted more casualties on the Security Forces..."

With more and more SF personnel and civilians being killed, there is inevitable and increasing pressure to rack up higher numbers of Maoist kills through ‘comprehensive operations’, as currently envisaged. Given current state capacities and levels of preparedness, as well as the Maoist strategy of "applying the best part of our army… against different single parts of the enemy forces", however, any excessive emphasis on simply ‘neutralizing’ Maoists can only result in enormous inefficiencies in the use of force – in other words, large numbers of civilians and SF personnel killed – without establishing any enduring gains. The existing ‘balance of power’ cannot support operational dominance of the Maoists, even as the Maoists acquire increasing capacities to inflict their disruptive dominance over widening areas.

The envisaged ‘massive operations’, reflecting little by way of plan or purpose, consequently, are at best a faith in demonstrative violence, based on the hope that this will cow down the enemy. This is not a calculus of war; it is sheer fantasy. Even as colossal deficits in leadership, manpower, training, technology and counter-insurgency orientation persist in the SFs – both Central and State – operations are being intensified. The consequence can only be that more SF personnel will lose their lives, and the gains will remain dubious.

It is crucial to review the relevant state capacities in this context. First, police-population ratios for the whole country stood at a bare 125 per 100,000 in early 2008. According to the Prime Minister’s statement at the Conference of Directors General of Police on September 15, 2009, this has now risen to about 145 per 100,000 – still abysmally low, compared to required ratios for peacetime policing at well over 200, and ranging, in some western countries, at over 500 per 100,000. This is, moreover, a primitive, ill-trained and ill-equipped Force, and, in most States, has little capacity or orientation to deal with a full-blown insurgency. Worse, these numbers reflect sanctioned strengths, and not the actual strength available on the ground. Thus, there was more than a 14 percent deficit against total sanctioned strength in 2008. The situation in the States worst affected by Naxalism is infinitely worse. Bihar has a Police-population ratio of just 60, and a deficit of over 33 percent against sanctioned strength. Orissa has a sanctioned ratio of 97, and a deficit of nearly 19 percent. In Jharkhand, the ratio is 136/100,000, and the deficit is 21 percent; Chhattisgarh has 128/100,000 and a deficit of 26 per cent; Andhra Pradesh, 96/100,000 and a deficit of 11 percent; West Bengal, 92 per 100,000, and a deficit of 25 percent.

The crisis of leadership is worse. At the cutting edge ranks of Deputy Superintendent of Police to Senior Superintendent of Police, deficits in Andhra stand at 19 percent; in Bihar at 35 percent; in Chhattisgarh at 28 percent; in Jharkhand at 51 percent; in Orissa at 34 percent; and in West Bengal at 25 percent. In the ‘fighting leadership’ at the ranks of Assistant Sub-Inspector to Inspector, deficits in Andhra are at 15 percent; Bihar: 39 percent; Chhattisgarh: 41 percent; Jharkhand: 18 percent; Orissa, 34 percent; and West Bengal 30 percent. Crucially, sanctioned strengths in most leadership ranks are severely inadequate, and will become progressively so as recruitment to the lower ranks accelerates. The overall system does not appear to be geared to respond to these predicaments. In the worst case, for instance, Orissa has a current sanctioned strength of as many as 207 officers in the IPS ranks, but has just 84 officers currently available. The State had requested the Centre to allocate a trifling eight IPS officers from the graduating batch of 2009; the Centre allocated just four – a number that will be significantly exceeded by those retiring this year, and against the current deficit of as many as 123 officers. The State Government is, of course, doing its own substantial bit to add to the chaos. The State Services Examination for entry into the Police at the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police has not been held since 1976! 48 posts in the IPS ranks are reserved for promotees from the State cadre – not a single officer is currently available for these reserved posts. Manpower deficits are, of course, infinitely compounded by extreme shortfalls in technical, technological and training variables, by irrational deployment of Forces, and by persistently imprudent political interventions. The outcome is that current capacities of Police Forces in the afflicted States are simply insufficient to design an effective response to the Maoist challenge.

The Centre pretends to come ‘to the rescue’ with its ‘battalion approach’, and there is much talk of ‘massive deployment’ of CPMFs. The reality is sobering. Prior to the much advertised current ‘mobilisation’ the total allocation of CPMFs in the Maoist affected areas was a mere 37 battalions, yielding a total of just 14,800 men in the field. There is now talk of 70 battalions being sent to these areas – though it is not clear whether this will be an additional 70 or an augmentation of current Force to this number. We would, in other words, have either 70 or 107 battalions allocated under the Centre’s projected operational plans, that is, 28,000 or 42,800 CPMF personnel, as the case may be, for six worst affected States with a total area of 1.86 million square kilometers and a total population of over 446 million. This is like trying to irrigate the desert with dewdrops.

Of course, the Centre’s operational strategy would seek to concentrate this Force in areas of specific Maoist dominance, to ‘recover’ these areas, and then ‘bring them under civil administration’. But the Maoist would simply refuse to confront the state in its areas of strength, and the state cannot, given existing capacities, maintain permanent saturation in the ‘recovered’ areas. Where state’s deployments are heavy, the Maoists will simply walk away, as they did in Lalgarh. Where state Forces are dispersed or their presence is eventually diluted, they will be selectively targeted in a campaign of attrition.

From any realistic perspective, the current ‘intensive operations’ are, consequently, doomed. But how can you judge an operation that has no manifest strategic objective? That is the magic here. Recall the purposeless massing of troops under Operation Parakram, launched on December 16, 2001, after the Pakistan-backed terrorist attack on India’s Parliament. 680 soldiers were killed, without a single shot being fired, by the time Operation Parakram was, inexplicably, called off on October 16, 2002, with the unsupported claim that its undefined "objectives" had been achieved. So, indeed, will be the case with the current anti-Naxalite mobilization. As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."

Crucially, the other bogus ‘strategy’ – bringing ‘development’ and ‘civil administration’ to areas currently under Maoist disruptive dominance – also has no possible future for comparable reasons. There has been a long-standing myth that India suffers from ‘too much governance’; that its ‘bloated bureaucracy’ needs to be ‘rationalised’, drastically reduced. This is another bit of the most extraordinarily contrafactual nonsense that has taken firm root in the Indian imagination. The reality is, India’s administrative capacities are collapsing, not just qualitatively – because of the rising incompetence and corruption of the system – but even in terms of minimal quantitative variables. Thus USA, with its belief that "the best government governs least" has as many as 889 Federal Government employees per 100,000 population. India’s Central Government employs just 295 per 100,000, and a large proportion of these are flogged out to a number of public sector enterprises and units entirely unconnected with core governance. The Railways, for instance, is the largest single Central Government employer, accounting for over 42 percent of the total pool. If Railway employees were to be excluded from the strength of Central Government Employees, this would leave us with a ratio of just 171 Central Government employees per 100,000. Moving on to State and Local Government employees, we find that, in the US, these account for another 6,314 per 100,000; in sharp contrast, Uttar Pradesh has 352; Bihar, 472; Orissa, 1,007; Chhattisgarh, 1,067; Maharashtra, 1,223; Punjab, 1,383; Gujarat, 1,694. Worse, in India, the overwhelming proportion of Government employees is in the lower cadres, class III and IV, as against the 'thinking' element of the state in higher echelons. Even in the latter category, qualitative profiles, including modern and administrative skills, training and technological competence are severely limited. Crucially, there is no plan or programme, given current resource configurations, that can address the cumulative developmental deficits in India in any timeframe that is relevant to counter-insurgency goals.

Given current state capacities, it must be clear, no proposed strategy can offer the possibility of a decisive victory, or even enduring gains, against the Maoists, and current pronouncements are intended, at best, to project a political posture, and, at worst, to massage the political vanity of particular leaders.

Clarity of purpose, the objective – and not merely the visible impact of the use of force – is integral to the success, and even the potential of any strategy or plan. While there is evidence of some crystallization of will and an emerging consensus within the national leadership, this is still periodically undermined by ill-conceived qualification. Take, for instance, the nonsense spouted from the highest offices in the land about the Maoists being ‘our people’. Is the law of the land only to be applied to foreigners? Are the thieves and bandits, the rapists and murderers languishing in India’s jails not ‘our people’? Should they, on this ground, be exempted from responsibility for their transgressions? What provision of Constitution, law or morality confers impunity on the Maoists because they are ‘our people’?

But even as we regurgitate, ad nauseum, the vapid rhetoric of ‘developmental solutions’, ‘our people’, ‘our children’, ‘our brothers and sisters’, there is an unconstrained and excessive rhetoric of the use of force. Special Forces are, for instance, being fashioned in the image of all manner of predatory beast – cobras, jaguars, hounds (the Greyhounds are, perhaps, the most benign of these images, the species being notable more for speed than for aggression). But is this the image of the state we want to project – to our people, to our enemies, and to the world?

Two things are abundantly clear here. The first is that, given existing capacities, current strategies have little possibility of inflicting decisive reversals on the Maoists. The second is that the Maoists have to be fought and defeated. India’s strategic leadership has not displayed the wisdom to reconcile these realities, and to focus on the urgent tasks of capacity building at a pace and a scale that this conflict demands.

(Published "Disruptive Dominance", in Defence & Security of India, Volume 2, Issue 2, November 2009, pp. 14-21)





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