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Counter-insurgency Some Myths and Principles

Presentation at the
40th All India Police Science Congress
June 2, 2010

After the Chintalnar incident in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram had observed in Parliament, "If this tragedy is not a wake-up call, then nothing can wake-up this country and this Parliament." Just days later, he was challenged by his own senior party leadership, through Digvijay Singh, for his "intellectual arrogance", for treating the Naxalite problem as a "purely law and order issue" and for "failing to take into consideration the issues that affect the tribals". Singh also described the Maoists as "misguided ideologues". His colleague, Mani Shankar Aiyar, declared that Singh was "one lakh per cent right" in his criticism of Chidambaram.

It is significant, here, that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first drew attention to the enormity of the threat of Left Wing Extremism as far back as in November 2004, and has since repeatedly warned that this is now the single greatest threat to the country’s security. Yet, nearly six years later, there is no coherence in national threat assessment and no consensus on response. Indeed, in all these years, the Prime Minister has not even been able to secure a consensus on this issue within his Cabinet – though, fortunately, the embarrassing public contradictions by his own Home Minister have become a thing of the past since Shivraj Patil’s departure.

India and her Parliament are not asleep. They are simply confused and oftentimes deluded. The strategic and tactical discourse has been carried out, overwhelmingly, at a theoretical, or even wishful, plane, entirely divorced from the realities of the ground. The most powerful arguments advanced are not for consistent and effective response, but in favour of inaction, vacillation and perpetual deferral. One leading intellectual has evolved the thesis of the ‘bell curve of insurgencies’, and insists that "There is no reason why the Maoist insurgency will not follow that same pattern." In other words, it is ‘natural’ that violence will escalate to a point, but then it will, equally naturally, and irrespective of state responses, wither away. The strategic lesson, apparently, is that, whatever we may choose – and the spectrum of choice includes doing nothing – the outcome will remain quite the same. Moreover, since it is not the children of the elites who are dying in the rising trajectory of the ‘bell curve’, one may assume that the mounting loss of life imposes no significant moral obligation on the state and its leadership. [Such sanguinity of perspective was notably absent in media commentary in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks (26/11), when the wealthy died at the Taj and Oberoi-Trident].

A variant of this theme was articulated by another prominent prophet of our times in a private conversation. Noting the destiny of Turkey under Kemal Attaturk, he argued that, once the situation deteriorates beyond a point, the ‘system’ will ‘naturally’ throw up a leader who will wrench it out of crisis. That no such Attaturk arose in 1757 or in 1857 in the face of the British subversion and conquest, or through the preceding centuries, when successive hordes swept down across the Hindu Kush to conquer a subcontinent, was evidently irrelevant to this argument (as is so much of the history of the collapse of nations and societies). Pakistan has actively been waiting for its own Kemal Attaturk (General Pervez Musharraf projected some pretensions to the title, but where is he now?) for more than half a century, but that, again, cannot shake the faith of this particular prophet in his received wisdom. All India needs to do, thus, is to watch the situation go from bad to worse, and then the messiah will come.

What is missed in all this passionate promotion of paralysis is that, from the localized insurgencies of the past, India has now come to a stage where nearly half the country is afflicted, in different measure, by chronic conflict variables. 223 Districts, according to the Home Minister’s 2009 estimate, are affected, in various degrees, by Maoist activities; another 20 Districts by the Pakistan-backed proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir; and some 67 Districts by the multiple insurgencies that trouble India’s Northeast. That adds up to 310 Districts out of a total of 636. In addition, terrorist attacks have targeted urban centres across the length and breadth of the country. Though individual movements may rise and fall, evidently, there is no ‘bell curve’ here – rather, a steadily rising trajectory of disorders.

In the meanwhile the state’s capacities are stretched to unbearable limits – police-population ratios, the rising stresses in paramilitary and military forces, the crisis of leadership across the board, are issues that have been repeatedly emphasised. Successive Governments have done grievous harm to the country’s internal security apparatus over the past more than half a century, creating enormous and cumulative deficits, leaving behind an institutional decay and disarray that now afflicts every limb and organ of the system.

If effective counter-insurgency (CI) policy and strategy is to be designed within this degraded system of institutions and capacities, its core leaders and principal respondents will have to discover a greater clarity of assessment, purpose and intent than is currently evident. Simply too much rubbish continues, at present, to pass muster in the highest policy and strategy circles to allow any coherence of response to crystallize. India’s establishment debate continues to offer broad apologetics for extreme and indiscriminate violence, legitimizing insurgency and extremism and, in turn, undermining and paralyzing state responses. A bulk of these arguments flow from faith, not fact, relying on a range of contemporary politically correct myths, false sociologies and hollow tautologies, and are not the outcome of any consistent study of CI experience. Many ‘strategies’ and ‘solutions’ are no more than slogans, lacking the minimal resource configurations or instrumentalities necessary to secure declared objectives. There is little, and sometimes no, attention paid to the nuts and bolts of what is available, a coherent strategy into which these capacities are woven, and how this is to be implemented.

It is useful to examine at least the most powerful among these shibboleths.

The ‘Developmental Solution’

Perhaps the most pervasive is the ‘developmental solution’ to insurgency. There is a great deal of completely facile talk of how development is ‘necessary’ to cut the recruitment pool of the Maoists, and there is enormous theoretical appeal in such an argument. If poverty and backwardness are the source of conflict, evidently, development must be a solution. But this is mere tautology, tantamount to saying that the ‘solution’ to poverty is wealth; or the ‘solution’ to disease is good health. Both propositions seem impeccable, but imagining telling a person diagnosed with cancer to go home and ‘be healthy’. A ‘solution’ is not the mere absence or inversion of the problem.

Development is certainly a major preventive barrier against the emergence of insurgencies. It is evident that insurgencies will secure little traction in most of the affluent societies of the West. Nevertheless, it offers no solution to an ongoing insurgency in an underdeveloped society and, indeed, even to an ongoing insurgency in relatively advanced systems as well. The reasons are complex, but principally include the following broad considerations:

  • You cannot develop what you do not control.

  • You can’t order ‘development’ off a menu card: it is not the case that successive regimes over the past 63 years have opposed development, and wisdom has abruptly dawned on our present masters. The sheer enormity of the developmental task, and the limitations of resources – particularly institutional, administrative and qualified human resources – has not been factored in by those who remain committed to the ‘development’ slogan.

  • No society in the world has ever ‘out-developed’ an ongoing insurgency.

  • "Security may be 10 per cent or 90 per cent of the problem, but it is first 10 per cent or 90 per cent."

  • The ‘developmental solution’ has become alibi for failure to address immediate tasks

  • Large proportion of developmental resources flow into the underground economy of insurgency, strengthening edifice they are intended to dismantle.

  • While the rhetoric of development dominates, there is little done in reality, even in areas not controlled by Maoists. It is useful to note that, in the case of Chhattisgarh, six Districts are categorized as "marginally affected", and four as "not affected" by the Maoist insurgency. That is 10 out of 18 Districts have little or no Maoist activity. Who is stopping the state from developing these areas? From making these models for the country and the world to envy? This is something that has not been missed by the Maoists, and their spokesman, Cherukuri Rajkumar aka Azad astutely notes:

The exploiting classes have absolute control over more than 90 per cent of the country's geographical area. If at all they wish to reach out to the masses with their so-called reforms, who is preventing them from doing so? Instead of addressing problems of the poor in these vast regions under their absolute control, they are talking of recapturing territory from Maoists.

It is useful, within this context, to make an actual assessment of the developmental challenge in India, before committing to this facile talk about development as a CI strategy. Sample data offers a few windows into the stark reality:

  • 77 per cent of India’s population (836 million people) lives on less than Rs. 20 per day according to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector.

  • 858 million are still out of the market. 850 million will still remain outside the market in 2025

  • Marginal and vulnerable segments of the population increased from 51 per cent to 55 per cent of the population between 2001 and 2006, the years of the most rapid GDP growth.

  • Poverty data is based on statistical jugglery. Global poverty line is USD 2 per day. Indian poverty line is less than US 40c per day

  • Average family of five consuming at least 200 kilograms of grain less in a year than 50 years ago. Food grains are available but poor lack purchasing power.

  • India has 17 per cent of the world’s population, but a third of the global Poor reside here. The country accounts for just 1.76 per cent of world GDP, 3.8 per cent of global Electricity Generation and 1.5 per cent of World Trade

The situation is geared to worsen, even as conflict potential escalates, as a result of a range of demographic factors. These include, above all, the sheer growth of population. Just between 2001 and 2020, India will have added 310 million to its population – more than two Pakistans. 63 per cent of this growth will be in the most backward states – UP, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh & Uttarakhand. The share of these States will rise from 40 per cent to 50 per cent. The much-vaunted youth bulge may actually aggravate already manifested conflicts. The skew in sex ratios implies a ‘surplus of men’ which has historically been associated with a ‘deficit of peace’. Inevitably, population pressures, environmental degradation, poverty and resource deficits will rise, enormously increasing conflict potential.

Worse, India lacks the administrative capacities to engineer and execute major developmental projects at a scale that could offset these negative developments. This is not just a question of easily-addressed institutional weakness and ‘corruption’, as the popular and media discourse would have us believe, or of purely qualitative factors that can be addressed by ‘reform’ or ‘modernization’ or ‘training’. Long term administrative erosion has resulted in a quantitative situation of near collapse. Despite the multiplicity of functions governments in India perform, the manpower availability, in relative terms, is minuscule. A comparison with the US, where the dictum "that government is best, which governs least" prevails, is enlightening.


USA Federal: 889

USA State & Local: 6314

USA Total: 7203










India Union: 295

Less Railways: 171

UP State: 352

Bihar State: 472

Orissa State: 1,007

Chhattisgarh State: 1,067

Maharashtra State: 1,223

Punjab State: 1,383

Haryana State: 1,482

Gujarat State: 1,694

Tamil Nadu State: 1,813

Tripura State: 3,961

Himachal State: 4,598

Nagaland State: 16,084

The last figure is, of course, of particular interest. Despite accounting for 16,084 employees per 100,000 population, Nagaland does not have much of a State Government to boast of. Clearly, numbers alone are not the issue. Nevertheless, the absence of numbers cripples not only the capacities for governance, but also the potential.

An easy ‘solution’ appears obvious. With high growth rates and booming revenues, the administration can simply employ the numbers required. Life, unfortunately for wishful thinkers, is never quite that easy. India’s present human resources profile places a relatively inflexible cap on the capacities for capacity generation. Once again, a few numbers help draw a graphic picture:

    • India has a 9 per cent higher education participation rate as against 35 to 70 per cent in Western countries. The average for Africa is 10 per cent.

    • Only 50 million of India’s 1.16 billion people – just 4.3 per cent of the population – have degrees past high school.

    • A NASSCOM study notes that, even after retraining, only 25 per cent of technical graduates and 10 to 15 per cent of general college graduates are "suitable for employment in the offshore IT and BPO industries".

    • The National Knowledge Commission noted that India needed 1,500 universities by 2015, as against 350 today. When the Prime Minister announced the setting up of 20 new Indian Institutes of Technology, most experts felt that the teaching cadres required to man these new institutions could not be found without a radical dilution of standards.

Simply put, the ‘developmental solution’ is no magic remedy that will cure India of all its ills in a quick flourish. While development is an objective that must be pursued vigorously by the state, its time-frames cannot be reconciled with the imperatives of CI, and it offers no meaningful ‘solution’ to prevailing insurgencies, nor will it act as any significant bulwark against the spread of the present Maoist insurgency. The resource pool of the distressed and disaffected is simply too large, and shows every sign of expanding, and will remain available for Maoist recruitment virtually across the country in the foreseeable future.

‘Hearts and Minds’

It is useful, there, to quickly assess another emotively powerful, but contrafactual, idiom, the idea of ‘winning hearts and minds’ as CI strategy. This has caught the imagination of many strategists across the world, including many in the Indian political and Police leadership. The phrase itself comes from Sir Gerald Templar’s Malay campaigns against the Communists, and is based on the seductive premise that state action must seek to ‘win over’ the population from their allegiance to the insurgents. This idea represents a failure to understand that ‘allegiance’ in areas of conflict is a function of dominance, not of inducement. Unless state dominance is fully established in areas, no inducement (if it can, in fact, be effectively delivered) will ‘win over’ the people, if only because the insurgents will retain the capacities to destroy all benefits, or to penalize and even kill the beneficiaries of state intervention. Simply put, if you cannot secure, you will not endure.

The popularity of the "Malay model" of "winning hearts and minds" is, moreover, based on singular ignorance of the realities of the ground. The Malay campaigns were, in fact, brutal and lawless, and their principal objective was suppression, not only of the insurgents, but also of their supporting community. It was only after this objective had been substantially secured, towards the end of the campaign, that a light overlay of ‘hearts and minds’ initiatives was introduced. Even at this stage, these initiatives played no decisive role in terminating the insurgency. It is useful to list some of the actual methods employed in suppressing the Malay insurgency:

    • Forcible resettlement of 25 per cent of the Chinese population

    • Mass arrests

    • Death penalty for carrying arms

    • Treating prisoners as criminals and hanging hundreds of them after summary trials

    • Detention without trial for 2 years

    • Deportations

    • Arson against homes of Communist sympathisers

    • Collective punishment

    • Indiscriminate shooting of rural Chinese squatters

No democracy today, and no modern security force, could adopt or attempt to justify the methods that were employed in the Malay campaigns. As Paul Dixon notes, "the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ does not accurately describe Britain’s highly coercive campaign in Malaya. The British approach in Malaya did involve high levels of force, was not fought within the law and led to abuses of human rights." David Benest remarks, similarly, "Bluntly put, coercion was the reality – ‘hearts and minds’ the myth." If any realistic judgement on this ‘strategy’ were required, it is useful to recall that its architect, Sir Gerald, eventually came to refer to "hearts and minds" as "that nauseating phrase I think I invented."

There are many in India, nevertheless, who continue to treat this discredited ‘model’ as if it were divine revelation.

The ‘Law and Order Approach’

In India’s polarlized debates, any rejection of the ‘developmental approach’ ordinarily and necessarily implies recourse to the ‘law and order (L&O) approach’, as if, in this single phrase, all issues of policy, resources, strategy and tactics are resolved at a stroke.

This is, in fact, just another brand of silliness that dominates the CI discourse in India. It is fairly simple to demonstrate how this is so.

In Manipur, for example, the Police-Population ratio stands at a startling 613 per 100,000 (at a time when the average for India was 128). In addition, some 42 battalions of Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) and the Army are deployed in a counter-insurgency grid in the State. Manipur does, of course, have an elected Government and an immensely overstaffed paraphernalia of administration, but no one pretends that there is a functional civil government in the State. Despite much ‘hearts and minds’ rhetoric, the ‘military solution’ – the use of force – is the only visible CI strategy in operation. And yet, this tiny State, with a population of under 2.4 million (ranking 22nd out of 28 States, by population size) now accounts for the largest number of insurgency-related killings for any single State in the country. Total fatalities in Manipur were 416 in 2009; Assam (population 26.7 million) accounted for 392; Jammu & Kashmir (population 10.1 million), 377; and Chhattisgarh (population 20.8 million), 345.

On the other hand, Andhra Pradesh (population 76.2 million) has an extremely poor Police-population ratio, currently at 99 per 100,000. At the peak of the successful CI phase, between 2005-09, no more than six battalions of CPMFs were ever deployed in the State for anti-Naxalite operations, and the core responsibility of the campaign was vested squarely in the State Police. Of course, the quality of administration in the State is infinitely better than Manipur, but, once again, no one could, on the merits of the record, argue, that ‘development’ has ever been systematically and effectively applied as a CI strategy. In 2005, the Maoists were rampaging across every one of the State’s 23 Districts, and total Naxalite-related fatalities in that year stood at 320. By 2009, total fatalities were down to 28, with the Maoists operating principally from across the borders of neighbouring States, into just four peripheral Andhra Districts.

Clearly, the L&O approach and ‘military strategies’ vary widely across theatres, and the efficacy of use of force is far from uniform across these. There is no simple choice of a ‘L&O’ response, with automatic and inevitable consequences to follow. The question of utility and impact cannot simply be resolved without reference to detailed realities of the ground, including the character and stage of the insurgency, force structure, leadership, capacities, deployment, motivation, terrain, population, strategy and tactics. All use of force is not equal, and this is the case even where the quantum of force used may be comparable. 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. Nothing but a detailed study of specific campaigns – both successful and unsuccessful – can yield an understanding of what works and what fails, in what circumstances.

Such a study has been conspicuous in its absence within the Indian CI, counter-terrorism (CT) and security establishment, as well as among ‘civil society’ voices that are particularly voluble on the subject. Nevertheless, Campaigns in Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh yield explicit lessons, some of which can be summarized here:

    • There is no oppositional dyad: politics vs. use of force. War is politics of last resort (Colin Powell)

      • Use of force is an instrumentality within the political spectrum.

      • Strategy is the endeavour to determine which elements along the spectrum are best suited to the circumstances that prevail.

      • Failure of assessment in this context, results in failure of strategy.

  • Time frames of the conflict: this is a protracted war – the enduring strengths and weaknesses of targeted systems have to be the object of strategic attrition. Imposing overwhelming short-term objectives to the detriment of long-term objectives yields failure.

  • Capacities must be reconciled with a realistic assessment of the challenge.

  • Police primacy, intelligence and Police-led operations are the template within which all strategy must be mounted.

  • These are small commanders' wars. The focus must be development of capacities within local Police forces to execute narrowly targeted anti-terrorist operations.

  • There must be condign, discriminate use of force.

  • Sharp distinctions must be maintained between the extremists and the larger community from which they are drawn. Population protection is a key template.

  • Operations must inflict demonstrable defeats on the insurgents.

  • There must be a concentrated effort to secure the institutional internalization of a strategic orientation to contemporary protracted and irregular warfare.






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