Small successes and enduring failures

The current state of anti-Maoist operations in India

There are multiple ways of analysing the ongoing state of India’s counter- Maoist operations. One can either choose to be convinced by the declining numbers of fatalities and the achievements made by the security forces against the extremists or one can turn a cynic and dismiss whatever has been achieved. Recognising that both the narratives have some merit, this piece makes a case for a third approach, i.e. interpreting the counter-insurgency (COIN) successes as patches of brilliance in a sweep of mediocrity and arguing that a comprehensive victory over extremism is difficult to achieve from such a combination.

To begin with the success stories, security forces do have some achievements to show off in the past year. These include the decimation of the Maoists in West Bengal, clearing off of the Saranda forests in Jharkhand and the preliminary foray made into the Maoist stronghold Abujhmaad in Chhattisgarh. It appears that the areas under the extremists has somewhat shrunk.

The improvement in the security situation is also supported both by declining fatalities among the security forces and civilians and also by the reduction in the number of violent incidents, indicating a depleting ability among the Maoists to inflict damages on the state forces. In 2011, civilians and security forces’ fatalities and violent incidents declined to 606 and 1755, from 1005 and 2213 in the previous year respectively. Data available for the first five months of the current year indicate further improvement. Till May, 131 deaths were recorded among the civilians and security forces, which is lower than the 167 deaths recorded during the corresponding period in 2011.

A Press Release by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) on 10 June indulged in some explaining act. The outfit detailed that in the past one year, it has lost 150 cadres, necessitating a search for a new line of leadership. Among the dead are 40 cadres in Dandakaranya alone, the outfit’s primary base area. This is a rare admission of a state of relative weakness that has set in the Maoist ranks. In fact, in the relatively short history of the CPI-Maoist, this is second such occasion of admission of vulnerability, the first being General Secretary Ganapathy’s widely published interview in 2009. Following the loss of a number of central committee and politburo members to arrests, killings and surrender, the outfit had issued a set of guidelines for self-preservation.

Coinciding with Ganapathy’s interview, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) conceptualised and initiated Operation Green Hunt, the multi-state coordinated offensive against the outfit. There was a sense of obdurate optimism bordering on condescension in the Ministry, elaborated by the then Home Secretary who claimed that the outfit would be wiped off in about a year. It merely took two ambushes in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district in 2010 wiping out 100 security force personnel, for both the optimism in the MHA and the proclaimed state of weakness in the Maoist ranks to evaporate.

A repeat of 2010 is always on the cards.

Photo: Jenny Downing

CPI-Maoist’s “weakness”, its “struggle” to find a safe location where its top leadership and hundreds of cadres can congregate for its 10Th Unity Congress to decide the future course of action, are only small parts of the narrative. On earlier occasions, experts have relied largely on the “tactical retreat” phenomenon to coalesce these two apparent contradictions- potency and declining activity.

While this could possibly be true, its opposite is equally true. Notwithstanding these achievements and the relative decline in its activities, the CPI-Maoist remains a potent force. Its writ still runs large in large parts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar and Maharashtra. Grounds lost by it have been made up through its expansion and recruitment missions. Its non-eroded subversive potential is reflected in its “morale boosting and weapons yielding”- operations, six of which were carried out in the first five months of 2012 alone, resulting in the loss of 44 security forces and an equal number of sophisticated weapons. These dead men are part of the 140 security forces killed during the past year-June 2011 to May 2012.

Quite clearly, the military ability of the outfit has been hammered only a limited dent. While reasons for the failure are many, this piece limits itself to explain two of the operational deficiencies.

First, contrary to the popular perceptions of a feeble police force with rickety weapons fighting the Maoists, the anti-Maoist police forces in most of the states today are much better armed and trained. A far cry from the days when remote police stations stripped their personnel off weapons fearing that these would be looted by the Maoists who were expected to overrun these facilities. Not a single police station has come under attack in the past few years. The failure of the inability to score over the Maoists, thus, are rooted not so much in logistical shortcomings, but in muddled visions of the political leaderships in various states, where unfocused operations remain interspersed with the lingering hopes of peace deals with the extremists.

Secondly, too much emphasis has been put on the performances of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), who themselves have struggled with command and control issues in the past. Fortunately for the Central Reserve Police Force, (CRPF) operations have improved after K. Vijay Kumar took over as the Director General. However, despite the superior firepower that the CAPFs have brought back to the Maoist badlands, the tactical constraint of being a part of a strategy inked by the state police establishments limits their functional autonomy. CAPFs play the role of performance enhancers and thus, can only be as good as the strategy itself.

Despite its failure to contain the menace so far, New Delhi displays a strange sense of arrogance, reflected in the June 2012 policy elaboration by the Home Secretary before the Standing Committee on Home Affairs to “arrest or kill” the extremists. With the plethora of limitations affecting its COIN operations, for New Delhi, it is not a matter of discretion whether to pursue a strategy of annihilation or not, but a chronic deficiency in capacity to do so.