By K.P.S. Gill*
The Burkapal attack in Sukma District is disturbing not only because of the high number of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel (25) who lost their lives, but because a similar pattern of apparent neglect of basic procedure had resulted in the significant loss of 12 troopers on March 11, at Bhejji, less than 30 kilometres away from the location of the Burkapal incident, and in circumstances that were comparable on several parameters. Yet, this failed to alert forces in the wider region to the daily risks that confronted them.
Both incidents were avoidable, and there is an urgent need for the CRPF to study and understand what is going wrong, and to address the visible failures of orientation, training and leadership that lie at the source not just of these two, but of the long succession of incidents in which the Maoists have been able to successfully target our forces. Significantly, while other forces have also fallen to Maoist ambushes – for instance, in February, eight personnel of the Odisha Police were killed in a landmine blast in the Koraput district – CRPF losses have been disproportionate. This is only partly because the CRPF is, in fact, the largest force deployed for ‘anti-Naxalite’ operations. Structural and operational deficiencies of the force, including irrational and protracted deployments, inadequate training, almost no retraining, poor leadership, strategic and tactical stasis, fatigue and indiscipline, and an overwhelming posture of passive defence, have also played a crucial part.
Nevertheless, the idea that India’s counterinsurgency campaigns against the Maoists are failing is false, as is the idea that the Police and Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) currently deployed are incapable of delivering (and the corollary, often voiced, that the Army needs to be called in). The Maoists have suffered massive reverses over the past years, and are now fighting for survival in the last of their erstwhile ‘bastions’. In 2010, the Maoists were rampaging across 223 of the country’s 640 Districts; by 2016, they had been restricted to just 106 Districts (of 707), of which no more than 25 – overwhelmingly at the tri-junction of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh – were in the ‘highly affected’ category.
Crucially, a large proportion of the top Maoist leadership has been arrested, a few have been killed. Through the middle leadership and lower ranks, surrenders and arrests have been endemic, forcing the Maoists into what they describe as a ‘tactical retreat’, and into a surge of violence against civilians who are branded ‘collaborators’ or ‘police informers’, tortured and killed. These are desperate measures in an organisation that is under deep stress. The state’s successes, here, have overwhelmingly been the result of the only successful counter-insurgency (CI) paradigm across theatres – narrowly targeted intelligence based operations – and not the clumsy ‘area domination’ or ‘clear and hold’ exercises that rely on massive deployments of Force.
In this, Chhattisgarh has remained problematic, first, because the Maoists have been most deeply entrenched in its forest areas, with a very substantial and sustained tribal recruitment over the past two decades; and second, because the State Government has sought the illusion of success rather than its substance. Despite significant augmentation of Police resources, and tens of thousands trained in the State’s Counter-insurgency and Jungle Warfare College at Kanker, the Police has failed to take the lead in the fight against the Maoists, and prefers to thrust the CPMFs to the helm. The latter, operating on limited or poor intelligence, with little understanding of local conditions, having been bloodied again and again, have retreated into their camps, to carry out occasional and tentative forays into their proximate surroundings. Most of their ‘regular’ duties are now static, an interminable and inactive waiting that saps the will. The State Police boasts of thousands of Maoist ‘surrenders’ and arrests, but these rarely include identifiable leadership elements, and State Police leaders admit in private that a bulk of these are ‘fake’.
There is a surfeit of experience in theatres across India that has demonstrated clearly that the essential template of successful CI response is police-led. As long as the State Police holds back and seeks to fight through proxies – whether these are undisciplined tribal irregulars or CPMFs unfamiliar with local population and environment – enduring success will remain elusive, though occasional operational victories may reinforce a false belief that gains are being made. Such convictions, however, are quickly undermined when the other side orchestrates a major incident.
CI is a long war; its core principle is attrition, not an abrupt and dramatic overwhelming of the adversary. CI campaigns demand tremendous tactical adaptation within an enduring strategic framework. Unless the state demonstrates determination, and an unwavering commitment to a well-defined CI strategy, operational gains are quickly lost. The Maoists are presently in great difficulty, and there are wide opportunities for state consolidation. It must, however, be abundantly clear that they will not go down without a fight.
K.P.S. Gill, the writer, former DGP, Punjab, is president, Institute for Conflict Management, and publisher, ‘South Asia Intelligence Review’.