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States must get real about Maoist threat

States don’t collapse overnight, because of the activities of small handfuls of rebels. Decades of incompetence, neglect and mis-governance bring them to such a pass. The incidents at Shildah in the West Midnapore District of West Bengal, in which 24 personnel of the paramilitary Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) and one civilian were killed, the killing of 11 villagers at Phulwaria in the Jamui District of Bihar, and the hostage crisis that is still playing itself out with a craven Jharkhand Government, are not demonstrations of the great and irresistible power of the Maoists; they are indices of compromised and dysfunctional Governments that have systematically undermined and ruined their own security apparatus over extended periods of time. And they have done this despite mounting evidence of a rising threat. The reality of continuous Maoist consolidation has been intentionally suppressed and denied by pusillanimous political leaderships, at least some of which have been complicit with Left Wing Extremist elements.

Consider the West Bengal Government which is now rushing about in desperation. For years, when others (prominently including Institute for Conflict Management analysts) were issuing warnings of the increasing Maoist consolidation in the State, the mandarins at Writers’ Building remained insistent in their denial. Since 2002, 266 persons have been killed by the Maoists in just one District, West Midnapore, of West Bengal (till February 15, 2010); as many as 150 of these were cadres of the ruling Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M); across the State, in 2009 alone, there were as many as 159 Naxalite-related fatalities [135 civilians; 15 Security Forces (SF) personnel; and 9 Maoists], and 2010 has already recorded 47 such fatalities (16 civilians; 25 SF and 6 Maoist); but State responses remain incoherent, the State Police is manifestly unprepared, poorly trained, ill-equipped, and evidently incapable of protecting itself, even in the worst affected West Midnapore District.

What has already been disclosed about the Shildah massacre confirms a state of endemic un-readiness in the State’s security establishment. The State’s Home Secretary claims that he had information on the attack at least three hours in advance; the State’s Director General of Police denies all knowledge of such intelligence; no one bothers to ask the Home Secretary what he did with the information he had; evidently, no effort was made to warn the target EFR personnel, or to send reinforcements (though the curious reported absence of the camp’s commanding officers certainly demands scrutiny).

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. A look at a photograph published in one national newspaper of the gun salute in honour of the EFR martyrs by their colleagues is edifying: no two jawans are wearing the same shade of uniform; they hold their weapons clumsily; there is no uniformity of posture; several pot bellies are visible – these are not trained paramilitary professionals, they are a rag-tag bunch who would disgrace a criminal operation, leave alone a State’s Armed Police Force.

Too much of nonsense is currently doing the rounds about counter-Naxalite ‘strategies’, ‘comprehensive’ and ‘coordinated’ operations, ‘massive Force deployment’, ‘clear, hold and develop approaches’, and so on and so forth. Before any of this can make even minimal sense, it must be understood, State Police Forces will have to be enormously expanded, prepared, trained, equipped, revitalised and, crucially, led and mandated, to realize any coherent counter-insurgency strategy that may be deployed. There is too much emphasis, at present, on Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs), and this is entirely misplaced. The number of CPMF personnel available (and projected) can have no significant impact on the trajectory of the Maoist insurgency; CPMFs are, in any event, not the appropriate instrumentality for an effective CI response. There is also too much attention being paid to the window dressing of a National Intelligence Grid, the National Investigation Agency, NSG and other Special Forces’ ‘hubs’, and diverse Central initiatives, at least some of which are purely cosmetic. Others can be of no more than limited utility, as long as enforcement capacities in the States remain below a minimal critical mass.

Gaps in the Police leadership are an urgent crisis. There are indications that the Centre is making efforts to address cumulative deficits in the elite IPS on a war footing. The problem, however, is far more acute at State levels. At the field leadership levels, moreover, selection procedures are simply failing to recruit an appropriate profile of candidates. In Punjab, I recall, extraordinary measures were taken to ensure that the right field commanders were recruited, and I was later accused of ‘breaking rules’ in this regard. But you can’t produce commanders by holding written exams and interviews. You have to evaluate performances in extreme situations, and recruit from a pool that has been exposed to, and proven itself under, intense pressures.

Technology is of critical value, but some caution is necessary here as well. There is presently too much emphasis on hi-tech capabilities. Because of the sheer cost factor, such capacities will remain small and tend to be localised. What is more urgently needed, is the wide availability of appropriate technological innovations, which respond to the specifics of the challenges created by Maoist tactics and local conditions. In Punjab, we had set up our own Police laboratories to constantly respond to technological requirements of the field. In Afghanistan, to take another example, an overwhelming proportion of SF casualties result from IED explosions. A range of technological and process innovations has reduced such casualties drastically. We see no comparable technological thrust in current Indian CI theatres.

The quantum, profile and thrust of CI Forces must be reconciled with the extraordinary conditions in which the Maoist campaigns are being fought – in jungle terrain, in isolated, ungoverned or loosely administered regions. The Force that is necessary to dominate such regions must be objectively assessed. Most of our current solutions are being imagined, as one commentator expresses it, in a ‘dreamscape’. Unless our strategies are tempered with reality, nothing of enduring value can be achieved.


(Published in The Pioneer, February 21, 2010)





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