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Maoists thumb their nose

Many wonder whether the Dantewada jailbreak will serve as a wake-up call for the Chhattisgarh Government. The truth is, there has been an incessant succession of such calls, but the Government remains stubbornly asleep

A forgotten corner of Chhattisgarh has, once again, exploded on the national consciousness with yet another Maoist 'success' -- this time a jailbreak in Dantewada which not only demonstrates the most extraordinary negligence but also the endemic deficits of capacity that plague the security establishment in the State. Various reports suggest that there were no more than four guards on duty at the time of the jailbreak -- a number that is virtually meaningless in order to secure as many as 383 prisoners, including at least a hundred Maoists and several hardcore militant cadre.

Several prison officers have now been suspended, including the DIG (Prisons) who, "prima facie... had not done his duty properly". Many wonder whether this will serve as a wake-up call for the State Government -- the truth is, there has been an incessant succession of such 'calls', but the Government remains stubbornly asleep. Regrettably, there is no rule or constitutional provision that allows anyone to suspend the political executive for failing comprehensively, repeatedly and abysmally in performing its duties properly.

While other States, most notably Andhra Pradesh, have secured significant successes against Maoists in the recent past, Chhattisgarh remains a picture of utter confusion. Indeed, if there is a model for incompetence in counter-terrorism responses, it is to be found here. With almost all other States in the country recording a decline or a plateau in Maoist-related violence and fatalities, Chhattisgarh has seen a dramatic growth from 264 dead in 2006 (Ministry of Home Affairs data) to at least 332 dead in 2007 (provisional data till December 11, 2007, from the South Asia Terrorism Portal).

Worse, Maoist fatalities have actually declined from 73 in 2006 to 53 in 2007, reflecting a clear diminution in the operational focus of the State's forces. On the other hand, security forces fatalities have risen to 166, from 109, over the same period -- registering a 65 per cent increase. Security forces fatalities constituted 50 per cent of all fatalities in the State, while civilian fatalities, at 93, accounted for another 28 per cent. The State has recorded at least 27 'major' incidents of Maoist violence this year, each resulting in three or more fatalities.

The worst of these were the Rani Bodli incident of March 15, in which 55 security personnel were killed; the Elampatti-Regadgatta forest incident of July 9, in which 24 security personnel and 20 Maoists were killed; the ambush in the Jagargunda forest on August 29, in which 12 security personnel were killed; the Pamedu ambush, in which 16 security personnel were killed; and, the Konta landmine blast, in which 10 security personnel of the Mizoram Reserve Police were among 12 killed. None of these sufficed to 'wake up' the Government. Chhattisgarh has also seen the largest number of 'swarming attacks' -- attacks by large numbers of Maoist cadre and "people's militia", between a few dozen and up to a thousand -- accounting for 15 of the 37 such attacks in the country in 2007.

Who is to blame for this? "A skilled commander," it has been remarked, "seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates." In Chhattisgarh, the security forces are presently being asked to operate in conditions that make victory -- or even containment of the Maoist threat -- impossible, and are then blamed for the inevitable Maoist excesses that occur. The State's police leadership must, of course, bear part of the blame for these circumstances.

While there are acute deficits in the State police -- for instance, a police-population ratio of barely 103 per 100,000, against a national average of 122 per 100,000, and international norms that are above 222 and up to 500 per 100,000, it is the case that the Chhattisgarh ratio is certainly (though marginally) higher than Andhra Pradesh (at 98 per 100,000). And Andhra Pradesh has designed and implemented an extraordinarily effective counter-insurgency strategy, virtually wiping out the Maoists from all but four districts on the State's border with Orissa since 2005. It is evident -- and there is data to support this -- that the 'operationalisation' of available forces is abysmally inefficient in Chhattisgarh.

The principal obstacle to effective counter-terrorism in Chhattisgarh is, however, the complete failure of vision and will in the State's political leadership, and this has undermined efficiency, delayed or obstructed improvements in forces, and allowed the police to evade responsibility. While it is impossible, here, to review the full measure of these failures, a handful of representative indices help form a picture. Acute and persistent deficits in the police leadership have not been addressed over the years, and the crisis is compounded by an endemic gap between sanctioned strength and the force available, which varies between 20 per cent and over 50 per cent at various ranks, and even more in the Maoist-affected areas, where the deficit at certain ranks may be as high as 79 per cent, as was the case with the rank of SIs in the Bastar Division, where only eight of 38 sanctioned posts were filled at the end of 2006.

National Crime Records Bureau data for Chhattisgarh indicates that, in the ranks from Deputy Superintendent of Police to Senior Superintendent of Police, the deficit in Chhattisgarh (as on December 31, 2006) was 29.9 per cent; and at the rank of SI and ASI, it was 36.6 per cent. Crucial posts in Naxalite affected areas have remained vacant for extended periods of time, while some such posts are held by unwilling or unsuitable officers who lack the profile and motivation necessary for effective counter-insurgency operations.

Similarly, while the police-area ratio in Chhattisgarh is 17 per 100 sq km (as against 42 for the whole country), in the Bastar Division -- the worst-affected area in the State -- it is just 5.62 at sanctioned strength, and 3.55 on actual deployment. Over the past two years, a significant number of policemen have been recruited in the State, and thousands have received specialised counter-insurgency training, but they have been deployed, overwhelmingly, outside the worst-affected areas. It is only a fraction of the central forces, and a few hundred among the State's police, who are engaged in offensive operations.

Targeting a few police officers after each major incident will do nothing to address these structural deficiencies. Unless the State's political leadership recognises the gravity of the situation and begins to design and adopt a comprehensive policy and strategy against the Maoists, the situation in Chhattisgarh can only -- and considerably -- worsen.

(Published in The Pioneer, New Delhi, December 19, 2007)





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