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Shilda's lesson for govt: Make up your mind on strategic and tactical objectives

The trajectory of the Maoist challenge in West Bengal is a stark demonstration, both, of the Maoist strategy of expansion, and of the inability of the state and its agencies, despite long histories of experience and voluminous materials easily available on the subject, to comprehend this strategy. Thus, while continuous and systematic Maoist consolidation was being noticed by independent analysts, including those at the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), the leadership at Kolkata had its head buried firmly in the sand, insisting that the Maoists would fail to take root in the State because of the brilliance of the ruling Communist Party of India – Marxist’s (CPI-M’s) land reforms and policies of social uplift. In the meantime, the Maoists consolidated significant capacities across wide areas of the State, and these became abruptly visible at the time of their choice, when they escalated their movement to a more violent plane. Consequently, though just 7 persons were killed in Maoist-related violence in West Bengal in 2007 and 24 in 2008, these numbers suddenly soared to 159 in 2009, and at least 60 persons had already been killed in 2010 by February 24 (ICM data). Crucially, the trajectory and breakup of violence demonstrate clearly that the initiative remains firmly in the hands of the Maoists.

The state’s neglect and the Maoist ascendancy were laid brutally bare in the incident at Sildha in the troubled West Midnapore District, when 24 personnel of the State’s paramilitary Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) were killed (along with one civilian) as their camp was overrun by raiding Maoists. At least 279 persons have been killed in Maoist-related violence in this District alone, since 2002 (till February 24, 2010), and yet a unit located in close proximity to the locus of a preponderance of the recent violence, Lalgarh, was utterly unprepared in terms of weaponry, training, camp location and, crucially, orientation, morale and leadership. Published excerpts from the diary of one of the EFR jawans killed in the Sildha raid are poignant testimony to the abject collapse of morale in the State’s agencies in Maoist afflicted areas in West Bengal. Suraj Bhan Thapa’s diary recorded: “There is a threat to our lives at all times here. Anything can happen at any time”; and further, “The party politics of a few people has endangered the existence of the country. We are also suffering...”

Just before the attack at Sildha, Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium is reported to have told the Supreme Court, “Every officer in the area is marked for death”. The same news report records the conditions of the Sildha camp: “No sentries, no watchtowers, a fence with one entire side missing, a crowded marketplace, a public toilet – personnel of the EFR camp over-run by the Maoists were little more than sitting ducks.”

These are the realities that make all the posturing on ‘coordinated strategies’ and ‘clear, hold and develop’ approaches so much nonsense. The most rudimentary components of a counter-insurgency (CI) response to the Maoist challenge are yet to be put in place. In truth, State Police Forces will have to be enormously expanded, prepared, trained, equipped, revitalised and, crucially, led and mandated, before any coherent CI strategy can be effectively implemented in West Bengal. This reality will not be altered by any injection of the much vaunted ‘massive deployment’ of Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) in the afflicted areas. 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.

The crisis of capacities in the West Bengal security establishment is something that I have already dealt with in the past, and it is sufficient to reiterate, here, that, unless the quantum, profile and thrust of Police and CI Forces in the State is reconciled with the extraordinary conditions in which they are required to fight, no enduring gains can be secured. In the interim, it is imperative that immediate steps be taken to ensure that we don’t have more Sildhas in future – something that is nigh-inevitable in the circumstances currently prevailing.

Broadly, the most significant dimensions of the security and effectiveness of CI deployments must include, first, complete operational clarity for each post, camp or station. Past patterns of deployment of various Forces have tended to be purely reactive, with little consideration to the strategic and tactical objectives a particular deployment is intended to serve. This was certainly the case at Sildha, where the camp was apparently set up to provide security to the local CPI-M party office, and little review of its role, capacities and vulnerabilities had subsequently been attempted. The tactical siting of posts and their fortification are further imperatives that were visibly ignored at Sildha – and, indeed, in an overwhelming proportion of existing posts, camps and Police Stations. High levels of training, and the periodic retraining of all personnel, are also necessary, not only to keep the ranks and field commanders in fighting condition, but also to maintain the very high levels of discipline that are necessary in a CI Force. Senior officials have condemned the ill-fated ERF personnel at Sildha as being ‘on a picnic’. Such a collapse of discipline, however, is not the consequence of irresponsibility on the part of the camp personnel alone, but of the enveloping conditions of neglect and carelessness created by the Police and political leaderships in the State. The necessary regimes to maintain a disciplined, alert and highly motivated Force are the responsibility of the higher command structures and the policy establishment – not of the hapless jawans who are being thrown into these crises with little understanding of the purpose or objectives of their deployment. A continuous assessment of threats and capabilities is necessary. The capacities of each post must be calculated and established to ensure complete autonomy of defences for the time that may be required to get assured reinforcements. Deployments must be structured within a mutually reinforcing grid, so that no post is entirely abandoned to its own devices for any significant length of time. All Special Forces available to the State must, moreover, be integrated with its security plans. It is not clear, for instances, that the NSG hubs established at Kolkata have been meaningfully integrated with the emergency response and relief capabilities across the State’s CI apparatus. Having such highly trained Forces in the State sitting idle, while a major attack is being executed at distances that could quickly be covered by helicopter, makes no sense whatsoever. Under existing arrangements – which were actually in practice earlier – the District Magistrate and Sub Divisional Magistrate have the powers to call on all available Forces in the vicinity in the event of an emergency. These powers have now become increasingly centralised. There is urgent need to decentralize these powers once again.

The importance of trained field commanders and of high standards of leadership cannot be sufficiently emphasised. Such commanders must undergo battle inoculation before deployment. Each post must be provided an appropriate mix of weapons, including whatever may be needed to confront the military-style assaults of large groups of Maoist attackers. Each camp and post must, moreover, have sufficient capacities for counter-attack, and for offensive strike operations – the initiative cannot be left to the Maoists at all times. Every camp must be self-sufficient for water, electricity, toilets, rations and firewood (firewood, rather than cooking gas, should be the principal fuel at camps). Internal communications within each camp must be absolutely secure and planned to cover every sentry post and the camp’s command centre. Combat personnel must be trained not to mix with local populations – such fraternisation should be permitted only for separate intelligence cadres.

Crucially, the State’s top security leadership must constantly and intensively tour the worst affected areas to ensure that assessments of threat and capabilities remain current, and that standards, discipline, morale and motivation are maintained at high levels.

Eventually, the State must develop its own emergency response mechanism and Special Forces to tackle such situations. There is constant handwringing about the costs of such Forces, but such costs are far exceeded by the cost of the trained personnel lost to the Maoists each year, the compensation and maintenance that falls due to the families of SF personnel killed, and the incalculable damage done to the morale of both the Forces and the general public, by each successful Maoist attack.

These are not the ideals that we are to aspire to; they are the minimal conditions necessary to ensure that fighting Forces are capable of protecting themselves, and of acting effectively against the rising Maoist offensive in West Bengal.


(Published in The Telegraph, February 28, 2010)





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