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Where the Buck Stops

A rapid succession of major attacks on Security Forces (SFs) by Maoists has forced the Centre into a visible retreat in its ‘massive and coordinated’ operations across the worst afflicted States. While there were clear operational and leadership failures leading up to these tragedies, these were, in fact, the inevitable consequence of strategic infirmities. The Centre, and separately, the Chhatisgarh Police, had launched unsustainable operations to ‘clear, hold and develop’, and to ‘dominate’ vast territories, without providing even a fraction of the Forces and resources necessary to meet these objectives. Essentially, given the tiny numbers available, their dispersal across vast affected areas, the impossibility of rapid reinforcement, the absence of fortification, the absence of adequate training and orientation, and the paucity of intelligence, disasters were simply waiting to happen. These operations were completely misconceived from the very outset, in terms of available capacities and the contours of the challenge. Unless local capacities for intelligence and operations are enormously augmented, this can go nowhere, and a lot of lives are going to be lost to no useful purpose.

There are some who have adopted a martial posture to declare, with much bravado, that, in a war, such casualties are inevitable. This is incorrect. 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.

A ‘strategy’ that is not backed with proportionate Forces and resources is a lethal illusion, a political slogan that places fighting men at unnecessary risk, without any possible calculus of success. The ‘battalion approach’ that still dominates the Centre’s responses is a completely failed paradigm, and has no relevance for current or future counter-insurgency operations.

The Centre’s biggest problem, at present, is that it has projected this conflict as the Centre’s problem. However, as K.P.S. Gill has noted, the Home Minister of India cannot be the country’s Field Marshal. The centralization of responses and of response capabilities militates against the very nature of the Indian state, and also against the nature of the challenge that the Maoists currently pose. The principal responsibility for dealing with the Maoists remains that of the States, and the first responders, the local Police Stations, have to be strengthened and equipped to deal with the task on their own. The best the Centre can do is to aid the States in acquiring the necessary capabilities and capacities – aid that is already quite generously available.

Unfortunately, the current discourse has increasingly shifted all responsibility to the Centre – the Home Ministry’s own postures and projections are overwhelmingly to blame for this – even as the States jealously cling to the constitutional position that law and order is a State subject. Most States are even failing to efficiently or fully utilize the financial resources provided for Police modernization and capacity building. As for Police reforms, these have entirely been forgotten by all. Indeed, the presence of Central Forces, and the Centre’s public postures over the past year, have become a convenient alibi for most States to do little or nothing about the problem themselves. Under the circumstances, nothing lasting can be achieved.

As the death toll mounts, calls for deployment of the Army (and, in certain more hysterical quarters, the Air Force) have become shrill. Such an idea, however, can only be disastrous. The Indian Army is already over-extended in internal and external security duties, and has no ‘surplus capacities’ to deploy in Maoist areas. Once again, the debate remains trapped in the general, with no one specifying how many battalions of the Army are actually available for deployment in the areas of Maoist violence, what their strategic and tactical objectives would be, and how long such deployments would last. This is a protracted conflict, and it must be clear that, if the Army was, indeed, to be deployed, this would have to be a long-term and massive deployment – something the Army can ill afford at present. Deployments in internal security duties also result in a severe erosion of the Army’s conventional capabilities over time.

On the other hand, sending small contingents of the Army will have the same consequences as sending small contingents of other Forces – these will be isolated, ambushed and overwhelmed, with disastrous consequences.

Crucially, moreover, there are structural disadvantages to Army deployment (as with deployment of central paramilitary forces). These are outside Forces, lacking familiarity with local language, culture and terrain. Further, any dedicated CI Force has no natural interactions with local populations beyond its limited mandate. Local Police Stations and Posts, on the other hand, however degraded their current capacities, have numberless and daily interactions with the public, and these can be tapped, with a degree of retraining, reorientation, and resource enhancement, to create the intelligence flows necessary to design effective operations. Operational capabilities located within the State Police networks offer the greatest potential for CI success.

Effective CI models are to be found in the successful campaigns in Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh. Conflict with the Maoists is a protracted war that will require sustained efforts for capacity building, intelligence augmentation, targeted operations, and the sensitive management of populations. Consistently ignoring these imperatives over years, and going into hysterics about Army deployment and a range of other non-solutions after every major attack can lead to nothing but an endless repetition of the disasters that the state has invited on itself till now.

( Published in indianexpress, May 28, 2010)





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