Saturday, July 04, 2009

Crack tactics, tackle Maoists -- K.P.S. GILL

Wherever I have confronted terrorism and insurgency, from early encounters with Naxalism in Assam, through the multiple insurgencies in that state, then, in Kashmir, Punjab and, eventually, in Chhattisgarh, my first effort was always to develop a fair understanding of motive, intent and ideology of the groups. It is out of these that their strategies and tactics flow.

The degree of force, the nature of targets, the tactics and weapons deployed — each of these is defined by the underlying character and objectives of the group’s leadership.

Despite the fact that the Khalistani terrorists claimed to be fighting for Sikh rights, the reality was that this was an opportunistic platform for people who were trying to seize power through the use of limitless and indiscriminate violence. Significantly, a majority of their targets were, in fact, the very Sikhs they claimed to be “protecting”.

On the other hand, I recall, that when local explosives were used in the serial blasts in Hyderabad in August 2007 — at that juncture, for the first time — there was some speculation that the attack may have been engineered by the Maoists. This was a line of conjecture that I rejected immediately. The Maoists have many sins to their name, but putting bombs in public places to target random civilians are not among these.

There was evidently a comprehensive failure of assessment on the part of the Marxists, not only in Lalgarh, but in the preceding proclivity to deny or distort the reality of the Maoist gains in the state. This can partly be explained in terms of the utterly polarised and muddied discourse in India.

What we see is a whole spectrum of perspectives from the ultra-romantic to sweeping condemnation: intellectuals and political players have alternately projected the Maoists as heroic defenders of the oppressed masses, or as “mere” criminals, thugs and extortionists.

The reality lies elsewhere. This is an ideologically motivated grouping – though not all its members could conceivably have a full comprehension of ideology and strategy. This is no different from the agencies of the state: how many footsoldiers of the paramilitary forces or police, for instance, understand the Constitution of India? The core leadership of the Maoists certainly has a coherent vision of ideology and approach. At lower levels, what we have is the mobilisation of “grievance guerrillas”, people who join the ranks because of specific wrongs, deficits and needs.

The crucial element that must be grasped is that the Maoists have never been able to create a “liberated area” anywhere in India. Once the security forces enter, they simply cede territories. There is never a direct and wider confrontation, though small police parties may be opportunistically ambushed.

What was seen at Lalgarh — despite panicked assessments of a Maoist “liberated zone” being carved out — was a transient and tactical disruption based on a specific local incident and through the creation of militant front organisation activity.

Even here, the dominance of the Maoists was vastly exaggerated. While I was in Midnapore — though I was prevented from entering the affected areas — I was able to talk to several villagers coming from what was generally thought to be “Maoist-dominated” territory. Oddly, when they were questioned, the replies encountered were that their village was free from Maoist influence, but others “10 to 15 kilometres away” were controlled by the rebels. Those familiar with such matters will confirm that this is the standard response across India for all unverified rumours.

By and large, the Maoists are essentially making inroads into regions of governmental neglect by trying to dominate areas that are either very lightly governed as a matter of policy, or where the reach of governance has diminished. This was dramatically visible during my tenure in Chhattisgarh.

There was much talk about the situation in Bastar, and how the Maoists had established “dominance” across this vast administrative division — the heart of violence in the state. What I found, however, was that the total presence of police forces in the area was abysmal. Across 39,114 square kilometres was a total sanctioned strength of 2,197 policemen (5.62 per 100 square kilometres). Actual availability was just 1,389, yielding a ratio of just 3.55 policemen per 100 square kilometres.

I recall that I travelled long distances through Chhattisgarh, often late at night, but would not see a single policeman on duty. Another signal abdication was police officers turning up for meetings in civilian clothes to avoid detection by the Maoists.

Much of current discourse attributes far more popular support to the Maoists than is, in fact, the case. Thus, we are told (inaccurately) that the Maoists principally dominate tribal areas because these populations are among the poorest of the poor. What is ignored here is the sheer and demonstrative brutality of the Maoists — cold-blooded killings; the cutting off of limbs for the smallest of infractions; harsh and humiliating punishments for “co-operating” with the government, or otherwise acting against the will of the local Maoist leadership.

This, precisely, was what was on display in Lalgarh. No other tactical purpose was served through the killing of Marxist cadres and the macabre display of at least one corpse for days on end, other than to inspire widespread terror. It is notable that once the security forces had moved back into Lalgarh the thousands who had fled the Maoist terror quickly returned to their homes.

If the Maoists are to be defeated, the state and its agencies will have to develop a detailed understanding of their strategies, tactics and underlying ideology. Such an understanding is now conspicuous by its absence, with the notable exception of the police leadership in Andhra Pradesh and a few officers in the intelligence establishment. To my surprise, it appears to be evidently and abundantly lacking among the Marxists in West Bengal.

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