By Ajai Sahni for SATP
In November 2003, according to the then-Union Home Secretary, 55 Districts in nine Indian States were listed as “Maoist affected”;1 by 2009, the country’s Minister for Home Affairs, P. Chidambaram informs us, that number had risen to 223 Districts in 20 States. Further, the new ‘solutions’ currently being proposed, the Maoist leadership confidently assures us, will only help the Naxalites “expand to wider areas, mobilise wider masses… gather new momentum and get new dynamism.”2
Some may contest the Maoist assessment of the future, but, clearly, the many ‘solutions’ being applied to the problem (those who have been sworn to protect India over the past decades have surely been trying to solve this ‘gravest internal security threat’ to the country) are not working.
No doubt, the situation is not quite as alarming as the 223 District figure (India has a total of about 636 Districts) may initially suggest. A third of the country has by no means been ‘captured’ by the Maoists, nor are these vast areas seething with disruptive violence. The Home Minister thus clarified that violence “has been consistently witnessed in about 400 Police Station areas of around 90 Districts in 13 States” (there are over 14,000 Police Stations in the country). But 90 Districts experiencing ‘consistent violence’ is by far greater than the total of 55 variously affected Districts in 2003. The steady expansion of Maoist networks and the calibrated extension of their violence, suggest a significant strategic failure on the part of the state.
The most profound reason for this strategic failure is, bluntly put, sheer and enduring stupidity. No ‘solution’ has any relevance whatsoever without a clear detailing of the resource configuration and the objective context within which it is to be applied. Yet, virtually the entire counter-insurgency (CI) discourse in India has remained doctrinaire, with almost no reference to the nuts and bolts of what is available, a coherent strategy into which these capacities are woven, and how this is to be implemented.
The chief manifestations of this discourse have been the dogmas of the ‘military / law and order (L&O) approach’3 vs. the ‘developmental / political solution’ – as if by saying ‘military approach’ or ‘developmental solution’ all issues of policy, resources, strategy and tactics are resolved at a stroke.
Let us, quickly, see how this is utter nonsense. In Manipur, the Police-Population ratio stands at a startling 554 per 100,000 (at a time when the average for India was 125). In addition, some 42 battalions of Central Paramilitary Forces and the Army are deployed in a counter-insurgency grid in the State. Manipur does, of course, have an elected Government and an immensely overstaffed paraphernalia of administration, but no one pretends that there is a functional civil government in the State. Despite much ‘hearts and minds’ rhetoric, the ‘military solution’ – the use of force – is the only visible CI strategy in operation. And yet, this tiny State, with a population of under 2.4 million (ranking 22nd out of 28 States, by population size) now accounts for the largest number of insurgency-related killings for any single State in the country. Total fatalities in Manipur were 416 in 2009; Assam (population 26.7 million) accounted for 392; Jammu & Kashmir (population 10.1 million), 377; and Chhattisgarh (population 20.8 million), 345.4
On the other hand, Andhra Pradesh (population 76.2 million) has an extremely poor Police-population ratio, currently at 96 per 100,000. At the peak of the successful CI phase, between 2005-09, no more than six battalions of CPMFs were ever deployed in the State for anti-Naxalite operations, and the core responsibility of the campaign was vested squarely in the State Police. Of course, the quality of administration in the State is infinitely better than Manipur, but, once again, no one could, on the merits of the record, argue, that ‘development’ has ever been systematically and effectively applied as a CI strategy. In 2005, the Maoists were rampaging across every one of the State’s 23 Districts, and total Naxalite-related fatalities in that year stood at 320. By 2009, total fatalities were down to 28, with the Maoists operating principally from across the borders of neighbouring States, into just four peripheral Andhra Districts.
Clearly, ‘military’ strategies or L&O approaches vary widely across theatres, and the efficacy of use of force is far from uniform across these. There is no simple choice of a ‘military’ or ‘L&O’ response, with automatic and inevitable consequences to follow. The question of utility and impact cannot simply be resolved without reference to detailed realities of the ground, including the character and stage of the insurgency, force structure, leadership, capacities, deployment, motivation, terrain, population, strategy and tactics. All use of force is not equal, and this is the case even where the quantum of force used may be comparable. The ‘military’ or ‘law and order’ solution, indeed, comprehends an infinitely wide spectrum of Force dispositions, strategies, tactics, policies and practices, many of them effective, and others entirely counter-productive. Nothing but a detailed study of specific campaigns – both successful and unsuccessful – can yield an understanding of what works and what fails, in what circumstances. Such a study has been conspicuous in its absence within the Indian CI-CT and security establishment, as well as among ‘civil society’ voices that are particularly voluble on the subject.
On the other hand, advocates of the ‘developmental solution’ would have us accept, as a general proposition, that the problem of terrorism-insurgency cannot be addressed through ‘security responses’ or use of force, but must be resolved through the implementation of a range of programmes for poverty alleviation, the ’empowerment’ of disadvantaged groups, the redressal of grievances, and delivery on wider developmental goals, to undercut the ‘recruitment pool’ of terrorist and violent political groups.
This is another unexamined shibboleth, essentially based on a priori reasoning, a hollow tautology that rests, simply, on the unverified claim that the lack of development (poverty) is the ‘root cause’ of terrorism and, therefore, the ‘elimination’ of this ’cause’ is the ‘solution’. There is, here, no reference either to available resource configurations and administrative capacities, or to any rational assessment of the deficits that would need to be met in order to realize this ‘solution’. One may, just as well, argue that the ‘solution’ to poverty is wealth; or the ‘solution’ to disease is good health – both claims are impeccably true, but imagine the reaction of a cancer patient being advised by his doctor to ‘go home and be healthy’!
It is not surprising that the Maoists are laughing at these inanities. When the Centre declares its ‘new strategy’ would ‘clear, hold and develop’ areas under present Maoist dominance, Azad, the spokesman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) responds:
The exploiting classes have absolute control over more than 90 percent of the country’s geographical area. If at all they wish to reach out to the masses with their so-called reforms, who is preventing them from doing so? Instead of addressing problems of the poor in these vast regions under their absolute control, they are talking of recapturing territory from Maoists.5
Advocacy of the ‘developmental solution’ is, in fact, based on a number of politically correct but altogether contra-factual assumptions.6 Among the emotively powerful articulations of this advocacy is the idiom of ‘winning hearts and minds’, and Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templar’s counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya is held up by the uninformed as a shining example of this model. But, as Paul Dixon notes, relatively mildly, “the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ does not accurately describe Britain’s highly coercive campaign in Malaya. The British approach in Malaya did involve high levels of force, was not fought within the law and led to abuses of human rights.”7 David Benest is more outspoken: “Bluntly put, coercion was the reality – ‘hearts and minds’ the myth.”8 And in the most significant assessment, Sir Templar himself had, by 1968, come to refer to ‘hearts and minds’ as “that nauseating phrase I think I invented.”9
In essence, the ‘development solution’ fails – and inevitably founders – on the following considerations:
* You cannot develop what you do not control
* ‘Development’ is not something that can be ordered off a menu card. The state’s absolute capacities to deliver an acceptable level of development to populations in the principal ‘problem areas’ are themselves limited by demographics, the available natural, financial and human resource base, and structural infirmities.
* No society in the world has ever ‘out-developed’ an ongoing insurgency or terrorist movement.
* The ‘developmental solution’ has progressively become an alibi for persistent failures to address immediate tasks of response.
* The time frames of counter-terrorism and developmental policy cannot be reconciled. Counter-terrorism demands immediate responses; development is, by definition a long-drawn-out process.
* While the rhetoric of ‘development’ dominates the discourse in areas of major conflict, there is little evidence of a sustained effort at development or good governance in areas – particularly in the rural hinterland – where there is no significant manifestation of insurgent or terrorist violence.
* Crucially, an overwhelming proportion of developmental resources actually flow into the vast underground economy of terrorism, strengthening the very edifice that they are intended to dismantle.
Over the past year, nevertheless, the Centre has been tom-tomming ‘massive’, ‘comprehensive’ and ‘coordinated’ operations against the Maoists in the major affected States. These statements, with small variants, have found occasional echoes in some of the worst-affected States, while other States continue to support a ‘negotiated solution’ with the Maoists. Despite all claims to novelty, however, the essence of these pronouncements is exhausted by the tired ‘multi-pronged approach’ that has been the staple of the MHA’s declarations for decades now.
There was, of course, some initial enthusiasm under the new dispensation at North Block for Army deployment and some kite flying about hi-tech UAV guided ‘precision strikes’ against the Naxalites, but better sense quickly (and fortunately) prevailed. The Centre’s eventual grand vision crystallized in Home Minister Chidambaram’s words: “Our response… will be police action to wrest control of territory that is now dominated by the Naxalites, restoration of civil administration and undertaking developmental activities – in that order.”10 Home Secretary G.K. Pillai elaborates, with Panglossian optimism, “We hope that literally within 30 days of security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there.”11 From Chhattisgarh, the Director General of Police, Vishwaranjan, elaborates on this scenario in classical tache d’huile (oil spot) counter-insurgency terms: “Our newest strategy is to win complete control over small areas under Maoist influence, hold them, and not withdraw forces until development in the area is well under way… We will repeat this pattern in other areas, a few at a time, until the enemy has nowhere to go.”12
What is fascinating in these narratives is their exquisite simplicity and their utter divorce from reality. It would, indeed, be quite miraculous if the state could even ‘restore civil administration’ to vast expanses of rural India where the Maoists have no presence whatsoever, but where virtually the entire apparatus of governance has vanished. At least some of these areas are little more than a stone’s throw from Delhi.
The problem with these various ‘strategies’ is that they aren’t ‘strategies’ at all. These are borrowed ideas with no reference to capacities, capabilities, resources and the conditions of the ground.
A quick review of the relevant capacities is useful here. First, police-population ratios for the whole country stood at a bare 125 per 100,000 in early 2008. According to the Prime Minister’s statement on September 15, 2009, this has now risen to about 145 per 100,000 – still abysmally low, compared to required ratios for peacetime policing at over 222, and ranging, in some western countries, at well over 500 per 100,000. This is, moreover, a primitive, ill-trained and ill-equipped Force, and, in most States, has little capacity or orientation to deal with a full-blown insurgency. Worse, these numbers reflect sanctioned strengths, and not the actual strength available on the ground. Thus, there was more than a 14 percent deficit against total sanctioned strength in 2008. The situation in the States most affected by Naxalism is infinitely worse. Bihar has a Police-population ratio of just 60, and a deficit of over 33 percent against sanctioned strength. Orissa has a sanctioned ratio of 97, and a deficit of nearly 19 percent. In Jharkhand, the ratio is 136/100,000, and the deficit is 21 percent; Chhattisgarh has 128/100,000 and a deficit of 26 per cent; Andhra Pradesh, 96/100,000 and a deficit of 11 percent; West Bengal, 92 per 100,000, and a deficit of 25 percent.
The crisis of leadership is more acute. At the cutting-edge ranks of Deputy Superintendent of Police to Senior Superintendent of Police, deficits in Andhra stand at 19 percent; in Bihar at 35 percent; in Chhattisgarh at 28 percent; in Jharkhand at 51 percent; in Orissa at 34 percent; and in West Bengal at 25 percent. In the ‘fighting leadership’ at the ranks of Assistant Sub-Inspector to Inspector, deficits in Andhra are at 15 percent; Bihar: 39 percent; Chhattisgarh: 41 percent; Jharkhand: 18 percent; Orissa, 34 percent; and West Bengal 30 percent. Crucially, sanctioned strengths in most leadership ranks are severely inadequate, and will become progressively so as recruitment to the lower ranks accelerates. The overall system does not appear to be geared to respond to these predicaments.
Manpower deficits are, of course, infinitely compounded by extreme shortfalls in technical, technological and training variables, by irrational and wasteful deployment of Forces, and by persistently imprudent political interventions. The outcome is that current capacities of Police Forces in the afflicted States are simply insufficient to design an effective response to the Maoist challenge.
The Centre pretends to come ‘to the rescue’ with its ‘battalion approach’, and there has been much talk of ‘massive deployment’ of CPMFs. The reality is sobering. Prior to the much advertised ‘massive operations’ the total allocation of CPMFs in the Maoist affected areas was a mere 37 battalions, yielding a total of just 14,800 men in the field. There is now talk of 70 battalions being sent to these areas – though it is not clear whether this will be an additional 70 or an augmentation of current Force to this number. We would, in other words, have either 70 or 107 battalions allocated under the Centre’s projected operational plans, that is, 28,000 or 42,800 CPMF personnel, as the case may be, for six worst-affected States with a total area of 1.86 million square kilometers and a total population of over 446 million. This is like trying to irrigate the desert with dewdrops.
Of course, the Centre’s ‘operational strategy’ seeks to concentrate this Force in areas of specific Maoist dominance, to ‘recover’ these areas, and ‘bring them under civil administration’. But the Maoists would simply refuse to confront the state in its areas of strength, and the state cannot, given existing capacities, maintain permanent saturation in the ‘recovered’ areas. Where the state’s deployments are heavy, the Maoists will simply walk away. Where state Forces are dispersed or their presence is eventually diluted, they will be selectively targeted in a campaign of attrition.
The reality is, the Maoist ideology and strategy find fertile ground in the security, administrative and political vacuum that extends over vast areas of the country. The entire structure of rural administration in the Naxalite-affected areas has been wholly emasculated, or has simply not evolved beyond the primitive structures of colonial governance, or has, through a combination of factors, including primarily the incompetence, corruption and criminalisation of the political leadership, deteriorated to the point of paralysis.
These are not deficiencies that can easily be addressed, even outside the regions where Maoists have established disruptive dominance. There has been a long-standing myth that India suffers from ‘too much governance’; that its ‘bloated bureaucracy’ needs to be ‘rationalised’ through drastic ‘down-sizing’. This is another bit of the most extraordinarily contra-factual nonsense that has taken firm root in the Indian imagination. The reality is, India’s administrative capacities are collapsing, not just qualitatively – because of rising incompetence and corruption – but even in terms of minimal quantitative variables. Thus USA, with its belief that ‘the best government governs least’, has as many as 889 Federal Government employees per 100,000 population. India’s Central Government employs just 295 per 100,000, and a large proportion of these are flogged out to a number of public sector enterprises and agencies entirely unconnected with core governance. The Railways, for instance, account for over 42 percent of the total pool. If Railway employees were to be excluded from the strength of Central Government Employees, this would leave us with a ratio of just 171 Central Government employees per 100,000. Moving on to State and Local Government employees, we find that, in the US, these account for another 6,314 per 100,000; in sharp contrast, Uttar Pradesh has 352; Bihar, 472; Orissa, 1,007; Chhattisgarh, 1,067; Maharashtra, 1,223; Punjab, 1,383; Gujarat, 1,694. Worse, in India, the overwhelming proportion of Government employees is in the lower cadres, as against the ‘thinking’ element of the state in higher echelons. Even in the latter category, qualitative profiles, including modern and administrative skills, training and technological competence are severely limited.
It is the infirmity of the state and the effective absence of its agencies and services across India’s vast rural hinterland, and not some inherent and irresistible appeal of the Maoist ideology, that explains the widening footprint of this anachronistic doctrine and its violent manifestations across an apparently modernizing India. The Maoist strategy simply harnesses a complex of inducements and terror to enthral populations that have fallen into the blackholes of India’s security and administrative system as a result of decades of political neglect, vacillation, collusion, corruption and ineptitude. A ‘strategy’ of response would have to factor in the cumulative deficits that have come to cripple the Indian state today.
On the other hand, as one senior Police official expressed it on conditions of anonymity, “if you don’t have a strategy, you start operations.” That is the reality of current state responses to the Maoist challenge in India.
Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; Executive Director, South Asia Terrorism Portal; and Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution. He is also a founding and Executive Committee member of the Urban Futures Initiative. This article first appeared at the South Asia Terrorist Portal – SATP – (http://www.satp.org) – produced by the Institute of Conflict Management.
1. At intensities varying from marginal, through moderate to high.
2. Mohua Chatterjee, “Thanks to Chidambaram, our war will expand to wider areas: CPI (Maoist)”, The Times of India, January 19, 2010.
3. I conflate the ‘military’ and ‘law and order’ approaches, as both essentially imply reliance on use of force, which is the basic template across which the contrast against the ‘developmental / political’ approach is constructed. Clearly, however, there is tremendous strategic distinction between reliance on the ‘military’ and on the ‘Police’, but that is an issue that requires separate treatment. The ‘military’ approach is, itself, far from unique or homogeneous.
4. All fatalities data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal database, www.satp.org.
5. Mohua Chatterjee, op. cit.
6. The various arguments against the ‘developmental solution’ have been dealt with in greater detail in Ajai Sahni, “Challenging Terrorism”, India & Global Affairs, April-June, 2009.
7. Paul Dixon, “‘Hearts and Minds’? British Counter-insurgency from Malaya to Iraq”, Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 32, Issue 3, June 2009, p. 353.
8. David Benest, “Aden to Northern Ireland, 1966-76”, in H. Strachen (Ed.), Big Wars and Small Wars: The British Army and the Lessons of War in the Twentieth Century, London: Routeledge, 2006, pp. 118-19.
9. Quoted in Paul Dixon, op. cit., p. 363.
10. Statement of the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram on August 17, 2009 at the Conference of Chief Ministers on Internal Security in New Delhi, www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/document/papers/Hm_is_170809.htm.
11. “Centre to launch massive operation against Naxals in November”, rediffnews.com, October 12, 2009,
12. Jessica Bachman, “India steps up its fight against Naxalites”, Time.com, November 20, 2009, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1940559,00.html.