The recent spar between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) provides yet another occasion to raise some questions on what appears to be a recurring trend in the country’s military approach to Naxal conflict. In spite of the prolonged engagement in Naxal theatres, does unity of purpose continue to be a casualty among the security forces? Are basic camaraderie and coordination among the forces, standard rules of the game, conspicuous by their absence? Are the forces fighting the Naxals an unwilling bunch of men in uniform who have been constrained to operate much against their will? Answers are crucial, for these would have a bearing on the future of the conflict.
On January 18, an IAF Mi-17 helicopter, on a rescue mission to evacuate an injured CRPF personnel and the body of another, was forced to make an emergency landing in the densely forested Sukma district of Chhattisgarh after it came under fire from the Naxals. The police wireless operator on board the helicopter was hit by a bullet. What happened afterwards defied logic. The two IAF pilots then abandoned the helicopter and the injured wireless operator and scurried to the safety of a nearby police camp. The injured wireless operator, by the sheer dint of luck, survived till his evacuation four hours later. He is recovering from his injuries, although his “police career” has been described by the attending doctors as “over”.
Both the Chhattisgarh Police and the MHA blamed the pilots for abandoning the injured wireless operator. The IAF chief, however, came out in their defence, seeking not only to downplay the nature of injuries to the police personnel but also expressing satisfaction with the turn of events “which could have easily turned into a hostage situation” had the pilots not decided to run for security cover. The IAF chief’s comments have come for severe criticism. The MHA has called for a probe into the pilots’ conduct.
The army and the air force’s minuscule presence in the Naxal theatre is unenthusiastic, to say the least. While an army brigadier advises the MHA’s Naxal Management Division, the air force flies the helicopters for logistical requirements for the police and Central forces. The Ministry of Defence’s steady opposition has played a spoiler in the MHA’s repeated attempts to expand army’s role in the Naxal conflict. In the first week of February, the Committee of Secretaries (CoS) shot down an MHA plan to revive the proposal of deploying Rashtriya Rifles for static duties in the Naxal-infested areas.
It would appear that the clock has turned full circle for the victims, i.e. the Chhattisgarh Police, in a matter of less than three years. Back in 2010, a neatly organised Naxal ambush wiped out an entire company of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in the Dantewada district. It was the biggest-ever attack on the Central forces which undermined the force morale and led, within months, to the near abandonment of Operation Green Hunt. However, responding to a media query regarding how the CRPF could have been targeted so lethally by the Naxals, then Chhattisgarh police chief quipped, “We can’t teach the CRPF to walk.” The CRPF authorities reacted with a volley of accusations against the police before the matter was hushed up by the MHA.
Unlike the army, the Central armed police force personnel have designated roles in the Naxal conflict. While the mandate of supporting the state police forces has been put to good use in some of the states, in many others, the ‘jointness’ suffers from a range of deficiencies—coordination among the forces being the most serious. State police forces, reluctant to lead, depend on the capacities of the
Central forces to deal with the Naxals. Central forces, on the other hand, want to confine themselves to only a supporting role. Even within the police forces, the inclination of the IPS officers is to avoid becoming commanders of fighting battalions. Not long ago, a senior army official had advised the MHA to turn file-pushing desk officers into battalion leaders. In sum, the anti-Naxal military coalition today appears to consist of highly committed as well as equally apathetic forces.
The Naxal situation in the country has undergone some improvements in the past year, raising hopes of its complete resolution. However, for such efforts to succeed on the military front, there must be a ‘coalition of the willing’—responsible and prepared to own up the war efforts.
This article appeared in The New Indian Express and is reprinted with permission.