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The Maoists are Winning
Ajai Sahni*

Once again, the Maoists have engineered a mass slaughter, this time at Darbha in Chhattisgarh, killing 27, among them, Mahendra Karma, the architect of Salwa Judum, who was under Z-plus protection. The reaction has been somewhat more shrill in the present case, as compared to preceding excesses, including the greater Chintalnar massacre which killed 76 security force (SF) personnel, because the Darbha attack killed politicians, and is being projected as a 'direct assault on democracy'. It is not clear how the killing of large numbers of SF personnel is less of a 'direct attack' on the democracy that they stake their lives to protect; but such distinctions are perhaps best understood by those who have a more subtle appreciation of democratic theory.

Nevertheless, the greater agitation would be reassuring, if one could believe, as many commentators have stated, that the Darbha incident will be a 'turning point' in the national approach to counter-insurgency; that, finally, after decades of incoherence, prevarication and periodic cycles of political opportunism, consensus on dealing with the Maoists is near at hand. The Minister of State for Home, R.P.N. Singh, standing in for Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who chose not to disturb his vacation in the US, has assured us that "there will be more active operations" and that the Government would "relook" at its Naxal policy. Home Secretary R.K. Singh has declared that coordinated and joint operations will soon be launched in Chhattisgarh and neighbouring States. In the exercise of its hoary and revered 'battalion approach' to crisis management, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) has announced that all of two battalions of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) are soon to be dispatched, to reinforce the 28 presently deployed in Chhattisgarh. The Prime Minister has reiterated his 'determination' to fight the Maoists. Various leaders from different political formations have, diversely, declared that the time has come to 'crush' the Maoists. Demands for the deployment of the Army and Air Force are rife.

Appearances notwithstanding, none of this is particularly reassuring. But before examining the reasons for this, it is useful to look at some essentials of the Darbha incident. Various investigations have been instituted, and it is not the intention, here, to second guess these. However, the magnitude of the failure that preceded the attack is abundantly clear. Virtually every aspect of state, security and administrative function collapsed, and the most rudimentary of established procedures were ignored, virtually gifting the Maoists with the opportunity to engineer this devastating strike.

As usual, cries of 'intelligence failure', including the Chief Minister Raman Singh's accusation that the Centre provided 'no timely input', have been matched by the Centre's assertions that due warning of escalating Maoist threat in the area had been given. But those who speak of 'intelligence failure' lack all understanding of the sheer disintegration of the system. The constant demand for 'specific information' from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) misunderstands both the nature of insurgent organisation and violence, as well as the reality of the IB's existing capacities and mandate. The IB has an actual strength of 18,975 personnel (against a sanction of 26,867) including all support and secondary staff, and an unspoken mandate that covers everything under the sun. No more than a few score personnel would be fully committed to monitoring the Maoist movement across the worst afflicted States, spanning nearly 500,000 square kilometres (excluding affected areas in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh) and a population of well over half a billion. State intelligence agencies add limited capacities to this rudimentary capability, as do technical surveillance operations managed by the Air Force from faraway Hyderabad and the more distant National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) at Delhi. The combined intelligence cover in the Maoist heartland of Bastar Divsion is sporadic, inaccurate, generalized and, indeed, often no more than notional. To imagine that real time and actionable preventive intelligence could be available on an incident like Darbha borders on absurdity. Indeed, demands for specific intelligence on impending Maoist attacks are no more than an index of the degree to which India's political leaders are divorced from the ground realities of the theatres of violence, and of the state of their own security apparatus.

Another aspect of the Darbha incident requires attention. The Maoists are boasting about the "dog's death" they have inflicted on Mahendra Karma; spokesman Gudsa Usendi declared, "this historic attack has created a festive atmosphere in entire Bastar region (sic)". Partisan exaggeration notwithstanding, this impact must not be underestimated. The Darbha attack proves that the state cannot protect its own, even as it demonstrated the sheer relentlessness, determination and efficiency with which the Maoists pursue their declared enemies. This will have inevitable impact on Maoist mobilisation and recruitment in the immediate future.

To return to the issue of response; shared anger, agitation and frustration are a matter entirely different from a strategic consensus, and there is already evidence of the quick dissipation of any such emerging consensus. Partisan bickering has begun, as has the tug-of-war between the Centre and States. Many 'experts' have offered their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the Malay, Mizoram, Peruvian and other 'models' as readily available 'solutions', each with their own divergent recommendations. Despite a greater apparent consensus on a more 'hardline' approach, the decrepit debate over 'military', 'developmental', 'social' and 'political' approaches, is already re-emerging.

Crucially, moreover, a broad consensus on a 'hardline' approach does not constitute an actual counterinsurgency strategy; nor does a determination to improve 'coordination and cooperation' between States and with the Centre. Even where the 'law and order' approach and 'military strategies' have been adopted, their character and impact varies widely across theatres. There is no simple choice, with automatic and inevitable consequences to follow. All use of force is not equal. The 'law and order' solution, indeed, comprehends an infinitely wide spectrum of Force dispositions, strategies, tactics, policies and practices, many of them effective, and others entirely counter-productive. The reality, moreover, is that the current and projected availability of counter-insurgency Forces in Chhattisgarh - some 30 battalions of CAPFs (yielding roughly 12,000 personnel on the ground) and 16 battalions of Chhattisgarh Armed Force (CAF, with a higher ratio of operationalization, yielding another 8,000 personnel) - are not even a fraction of what is needed to dominate the Bastar Division (nearly 40,000 square kilometres, of predominantly difficult terrain) leave alone all afflicted areas in the State.

As for the 'coordination' bogey, it is useful to recall that the Andhra Pradesh Police resolved the State's Naxalite problem with little help from other States, and no more than the usual financial support for security expenditure and Police modernisation from the Centre. On the other hand, Chhattisgarh had 'cooperated' most enthusiastically with the Centre when then Home Minister P. Chidambaram launched his 'massive and coordinated' operations across the Maoist affected States. The consequence was the death of hundreds of SF personnel, culminating in the slaughter at Chintalnar, and no enduring gains to show for these wasted lives.

Current state capacities cannot be reconciled with any coherent CI strategy against the Maoists - be it 'clear, hold and develop', 'area domination', 'intelligence based surgical strikes', or any other current formulation, including the nonsense about developmental and political solutions. The present enthusiasm for the 'military solution', 'massive' deployments, hi-tech wars, and 'intensified operations' will, likely, soon dissipate. It can only be hoped that hasty and ill-conceived political adventures don't put more lives at unnecessary risk in the interim, as they have done in the past.

(The author is an expert on counter-terrorism and serves as the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi).

(Published: Asian Age, June 2, 2013)





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