The doyen of modern military thinkers, Carl von Clausewitz said that war was the extension of politics by other means. The Maoists understand this dictum well since their icon, Mao Zedong, said equally famously that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Unfortunately, the Indian state has yet to comprehend the link between politics and the military.
Because they claim to speak for the poor and wave red flags, most Indian politicians are unable to understand the mortal threat Maoists pose to the nation. We need to quickly grasp, that, at this juncture at least, the only way we can meet the political challenge of the Maoists is through military means.
Why is it that in Kashmir, counter-insurgency operations in the urban and semi-urban areas are left to the police forces, including the CRPF, and the task of handling the larger groups of militants in the forested heights of the Pir Panjal and the Rajwar area is taken on by the Army? The answer is simple. In terms of training and their working the police are most effective where the militants have to be ferreted out of the populace with the use of ground intelligence. Whereas the Army alone is equipped and oriented to handle larger groups of insurgents who are well-versed in guerilla tactics.
This simple truth of the Indian experience in counter-insurgency is staring at us in the face, yet, the mandarins of New Delhi are unable to see it. The media, too, has been knocking on wrong doors. Neither KPS Gill nor Prakash Singh have really dealt with insurgencies involving thousands of armed men who are organised like an army and operate freely in a large geographical area. Such experience only resides with the Indian Army— or in a specialised unit like the Assam Rifles.
Ambushes are a devastating military tactic that the Indian Army understands well. Besides the element of surprise, the ambusher has the luxury of being able to site his own deployments and carefully prepare what is called the “kill zone”.
The army has a long institutional memory that encapsulates the experience of Burma in World War II, the Naga uprising of the 1950s and the Sri Lanka campaign of 1987-90. Perhaps no one could beat the Nagas in laying deadly ambushes. But in no one incident did the Army lose 76 men. The maximum I have been able to research is some
Caught in an ambush, even highly skilled forces find the going tough; for the CRPF company in Dantewada, the chance of escape was nil. Neither through training, nor doctrine and equipment, is the CRPF, or the BSF, oriented towards such combat. That is the reason why Maoist ambushes of police teams in Maharashtra, Orissa and West Bengal have been so devastating and one-sided.
As it is, there are chilling parallels in the Green Hunt strategy of sending in small groups of paramilitary to hold the ground to enable development activity, with the 1961 decision to send Indian forces in penny packets across the Sino-Indian border in what was optimistically called the “forward policy.” The Chinese military response to this fat-headed effort led to a disastrous military defeat for India. The Green Hunt’s disaster is only now becoming manifest.
Sending in ill-trained paramilitary forces where others fear to tread, too, is not a new development either. In April 1971, after General Sam Manekshaw turned down Indira Gandhi’s suggestion that the Army act in East Pakistan immediately, the government decided to entrust the task to the BSF. According to Lt Gen J.F.R. Jacob, the BSF commander K.F. Rustomji boasted that his forces would lead a victory parade in Dhaka in a short matter of three weeks. The BSF and their Mukti Bahini allies were so badly plastered by the Pakistan Army, that in May 1971 the government promptly handed over the security responsibility of the entire border to
Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has no doubt spoken in shock and anger when he termed the Maoists as barbaric and decried their cowardice in fighting from the jungle. The facts, however, suggest that a better trained and motivated force used a legitimate military tactic to wipe out an entire CRPF company.
The only way to respond to this challenge is to meet it in kind. Unfortunately, there is no indication that either the government or the Home Ministry are even aware of the nature of the threat, leave alone any idea as to how to confront it. The Home Secretary’s bleating about “pressure bombs” reveals his ignorance of the fact that pressure mines are the basic weapons of insurgents and not undefeatable atomic weapons.
The same holds true for his quick rejection of the use of air power. To not do so is to deny yourself an advantage. The government has been rightly reluctant to use helicopter gunships ever since the Chavakacheri incident in Sri Lanka where scores of civilians died in a strike that ignited a fuel bunker. They were right, too, in not using them in the crowded landscape of Kashmir where the excellent road network enables the forces to reach any spot within the hour or less.
The jungles of Chattisgarh are different and air support could be the only means of assisting beleaguered columns, especially those under ambush. If appropriate rules of engagement are framed to avoid strikes in villages— whether or not Maoists were suspected to be there— there is no reason why gunships cannot operate there.
The problems of a police-led counter-insurgency campaign are fundamental. Normally CRPF and BSF battalions, which are in themselves one thousand or so strong, are deployed in company-sized formations of some 100-120 men. These may be spread out in an unconnected fashion. The company commanders and battalion commanders are cadre officers, whereas most of the senior officers belong to the Indian Police Service who are most likely not to have served with the battalions at an operational level.
The army, on the other hand does not deploy anything less than a battalion which can be anywhere from 800-1000 men. While these are divided into companies, the command and control is exercised at the battalion level by a commanding officer who deploys his companies in a mutually supporting role.
Army officers learn combat craft along with their men. Their first posting is with the jawans in mountain pickets, and their experience is gathered in long-range patrols and operations in Kashmir or the North-east. The vital bonding that takes place between an officer and a soldier in the army at a lower level serves in good stead when confronted with an emergency like an ambush. Given their rural and semi-educated background, Indian jawans require good training and leadership to be effective, whether in the Army or police. But while the Army caters for this, the police units do not.
This is not an argument for sending in the army to take on the Maoists, yet. There are several other options before the government. It could set up a new Assam Rifles like force which is officered by Army personnel, matches the Army in its training, but is run by the Home Ministry.
The other is to sharply upgrade the quality of the existing CRPF units through better training and provision of better officers. In the meantime, perhaps, the Home Minister should persuade his Home Secretary to confine himself to running the day-to-day affairs of the ministry, and get himself a new security aide— an experienced Army officer— to advise him on the military aspects of tackling the Maoists.
This piece first appeared in Mail Today April 8, 2010