Convenience is not strategy

The governments’ lack of enthusiasm and willingness to meet the Maoist challenge is pervasive and perplexing.

Neither the 25th May attack in Chhattisgarh’s Darbha nor the 2nd July killing of the Superintendent of Police of Pakur district in Jharkhand by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres constituted momentous military victories for the outfit. None of these attacks furthered the outfit’s purported objective of capturing state power in any manner. Yet the 35 dead bodies of politicians, activists and security forces, left behind by these attacks, significantly deepened the myth of an invincible adversary. There are doubts whether the Indian state would be able to neutralise the threat.

The 25th May attack was described as a game changer and a landmark event. Within hours, leaders and bureaucrats, propped by the agile media, promised decisive action to end the conflict through joint operations, kinetic actions and hunting the rebels down. Each of these claims, rooted in the sense of shock and outrage against the first ever large scale attack on the political leaders, ended in a whimper a vaguely worded resolution by political parties asking the central and state governments to do all that is possible; and an assurance by the Prime Minister that his office with the Cabinet Secretary and the Home Secretary will fine tune the existing anti-Maoist strategy to strengthen the country’s defensive and offensive capabilities.

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How the fine tuned strategy differs from the one that preceded it, still remains unknown, although at least eight attacks leading to 20 deaths (until 2nd July) have followed the 25th May attack. Extremists have killed security force personnel and civilians in ambushes, destroyed road-building instruments, attacked a train, and killed a vice president of a private steel manufacturing company. None of these, including the most outrageous attack on a passenger train in Bihar, has evoked emotions or been described as affronts on Indian democracy. The great Indian resilience, backed by the belief in the invincibility of the Indian state, has returned.

A lot has been made out of the achievements of the security force operations against the CPI-Maoist in the past years. The outfit is described to have been weakened, lost areas under its control and has been stripped of its ability to carry out sustained violence. The noticeable decline in violence levels countrywide, both in terms of incidents and fatalities, has been cited to support this claim. Extremism related incidents in 2012 compared to the previous year declined by 19 percent. Fatalities among security forces and civilians declined by 19 and 36 percent respectively. While much of this is irrefutable, whether these gains are due to a clear strategy or simply rewards that large deployment and operationalisation of security forces accrue over time, is a relevant question.

It is also possible to interpret each parameter of state success in the opposite manner, demonstrating that it is in fact the CPI-Maoist which has managed to achieve its objective of minimising its losses and holding on to its areas of influence. Compared to an annual average of 174 cadre deaths between 2007 and 2011, only 72 cadres were killed in 2012. Absence of larger attacks by the outfit were made up by 134 smaller attacks on security forces in 2012. Constituting more than 11 attacks per month or an attack every third day, these kept up the outfit’s violent profile, and its support among the tribal communities. Even in a phase when the outfit’s influence was described to have shrunk rapidly, the CPI-Maoist managed to organise 113 training camps and Jan Adalats (People’s Courts) in 2012, almost at the same level as 2008 and 2009.

The group lost some territories in Jharkhand, but managed to hold on to its strongholds in Chhattisgarh, Bihar, and Odisha. Amid claims that the paramilitary forces have wrested 5000 square kilometre area from the Maoists in 2012, Abujhmaad, arguably the most crucial stronghold from the outfit’s point of view, remained unscathed. The first ever and also the lone security force foray into Abujhmaad forests was undertaken in March 2012. Personnel interviewed by the media before the operation talked about their fears of encountering hydra-headed monsters. Apart from media headlines that over 3000 security forces have shattered the impregnability of Abujhmaad, this exploratory trip achieved little and has not been repeated ever since.

The attempt here is not to paint the overall anti-Maoist strategy as mumpsimus. However, a sense that the efforts constituting each affected state’s strategy to defeat left-wing extremism is disjointed and aim only at temporary gains, is almost inescapable. The MHA (which has conveniently passed on the responsibility of all failures to the state governments), is yet to take the blame for letting the loopholes that hampered the big war strategy of 2010, culminating in the launch of Operation Green Hunt, persist. The deployment of insufficiently motivated forces prone to violating standard operating procedures, the abysmal lack of ground level intelligence, and absence of coordination between the central and the state police forces continue to mar operations in various theatres. Forces continue to suffer from leadership, and command and control crises.

The civil administration’s lack of enthusiasm to step into the areas cleared of extremist presence has often been cited as the greatest failure of the overall counter-Maoist effort. However, big attack-induced alacrity notwithstanding, the lack of enthusiasm to meet the extremist challenge is pervasive and perplexing. Here are some examples. It took over a week for the Home Minister to return from the United States of America, to attend to the May 25th attack, which he later described as an attack on democratic foundations of the country. A whole month passed before the Unified Command Structure in Chhattisgarh could huddle together to analyse the attack. For almost seven years, security forces battled the extremists wearing the uncomfortable hard-leather shoes, before the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) relaxed the norm and allowed them to wear canvas shoes. It took four years for the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) high command to figure that not using the 50 mine-protected vehicles (MPVs) is in fact a better idea as far as preventing casualty among its personnel is concerned. The longevity idiocies that play out in the Maoist theatres are the greatest bane of the country’s fight against extremism.

Novelist and Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “We do not err because truth is difficult to see. We err because this is more comfortable.” The country would have to wait for the governments, states as well as the Centre, to emerge from their comfort zone and stop masquerading tactical convenience as a counter-Maoist strategy that will secure victory, some day.

Photo: Ryan Clements