As India contemplates the initiation of another counter-insurgency campaign, it would do well to heed the lessons it should have learnt from its long history of dealing with insurgent challenge, beginning with the Naga uprising of 1954.
We have succeeded in containing all the insurgencies, sometimes at a heavy cost, but we can only claim to have successfully rolled back the Mizo and the Khalistani uprisings. The Naga, Assamese, Manipuri, Kashmiri and the Maoist insurgencies continue to fester, seemingly incurably so.
Force alone cannot defeat an insurgency, development and good governance can. But for this you need to first alter the terms of the current discourse which is dictated by the Maoist guns.
You need a complex amalgam of military force, development works and civil administration, led by a far-sighted and courageous political leadership. It goes without saying that you also need patience, tenacity and some luck. The twelve specific lessons that the country needs to understand are:
One: Even the meekest of people are formidable fighters, when they are sufficiently alienated or motivated. The obvious example is that of Kashmiris who were said to have had a history of accommodating conquerors rather than fighting them. We can only speculate about the staying power of the Kashmiri militant minus the assistance from Pakistan; nevertheless, the zeal with which the Kashmiri militant has fought has surprised many.
Two: It is easy enough to send in the army, but devilishly difficult to use it correctly. Compared to the army, the insurgents are relatively lightly armed. So the armed forces must adopt the doctrine of minimum force which goes against their usual doctrine of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. Collateral damage, which is acceptable in a general war, is a disaster in a counter-insurgency because it breeds more insurgents. Kashmir is a good example where the excesses of the counter-insurgency campaign have left a residue of bitterness and alienation which is difficult to overcome.
Three: There is now a sufficiently large small arms market in South Asia to enable large groups of insurgents to obtain weapons and ammunition. And as a corollary, the knowhow of making improvised explosive devices has become widespread. The first wave of Maoists fought the state with pipe guns. It is not as though IED precursors were not available; it is just that there was little knowhow of putting them together into usable explosive devices. The recent scandal in which Maoist ammunition was being sourced from the CRPF system is perhaps the most audacious manifestation of how this works. But there have been other changes as well. The LTTE aided the People’s War Group and provided it training in fabricating mines, the Nagas have reportedly aided the ULFA, while Pakistani camps that have trained Kashmiri militants and assorted Indian terrorists have done the rest.
Four: There is need for a single general or a unified command authority; this commander has to be a political leader, not a military one. In the case of Maoists, it could well be a special minister in the PMO. Neither the Home Minister nor the PM should be directly involved since they need to retain a larger perspective.
Five: Boots on ground is the best way of containing insurgency. Beginning in Nagaland, India patented a method of blanketing an area with armed presence. This tactic was refined in Sri Lanka and Kashmir where the whole area was divided into grids with interconnected nodes providing mutually reinforcing security to the posts and checkpoints. So important was the use of numbers that for the 1992 elections in Punjab the Army even committed its strike corps for internal security duties, albeit for a brief while. The corollary of this is that the use of air power does matter, but not significantly. It is fine to use it for logistics and casualty evacuation, but that’s about all.
Six: Numbers will contain an insurgency, but they alone cannot roll it back. For that a political thrust is required. That’s often easier said than done. Look at Manipur which has had a democratically elected government all through, and yet it also has several full-blown insurgencies. The political system has got contaminated by the militancy, rather than successfully combating it.
Seven: International connections matter. The Mizos threw in the towel after their sanctuaries in East Pakistan were busted after the 1971 war. The Khalistani terrorists suffered from the shift of the Pakistani attention to Kashmir, as well as the distaste for their tactics in the West where they had initially gained sympathy. The same thing happened to the LTTE as well.
Eight: We do need special laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to enable the armed forces of the union to operate against insurgents. But such a law must have clear cut and draconian penalties for those who violate it. In other words, while soldiers and policemen need to be indemnified in case they kill a person by mistake or in a cross-firing incident, they also need to be punished if they do so deliberately, or if the mistake is egregious. Not only should government punish wrong-doing, but it should make the information relating to it public.
Nine: Insurgency areas should be open to the media, no matter how much pain the media gives, though the tendency of insurgents and their fronts to perform before TV requires some check. Transparency, even when it is flawed, is a better bet than opacity. The quick availability of accurate information does more to check insurgent propaganda than anything else.
Ten: Counter-militants can perform a valuable role in disrupting an insurgency, but they are often a dangerous double-edged sword which can undermine the counter-insurgency. The experience of Kashmir is instructional. Counter-militants like Kukka Parray played a crucial role in containing the militancy, but the government failed to rein them in and subsequently the situation degenerated. Something similar happened with the SULFA (Surrendered ULFA) cadre in Assam.
Eleven: As is famously known by all, but understood by none — the war against an insurgency is about winning hearts and minds. Any military campaign must go hand in hand with a strict adherence to human rights. The armed forces and the police must understand that torture, custodial deaths or hostage killings have no place in modern war, more so if that war involves your own estranged people. Human rights observance needs to be part of the counter-insurgency doctrine because it is the war-winning factor in the battle for minds.
Twelve: No insurgency is like another and neither will the Maoist one be like the previous challenges India has confronted. The principal difference is that while the Naga, Kashmiri and other ethnic insurgencies are geographically limited, the Maoist uprising has the potential of engulfing the whole country.
It goes without saying that before sending in the Army, or any such thing, the government needs to again re-study the Maoist militancy in some detail. And then come up with a plan of action that will incorporate the lessons of the past. If it does not, we are condemned to repeat that past, mistakes and all.
This appeared in Mail Today June 3, 2010