Friday, November 20, 2009

India Steps Up Its Fight Against Naxalites

By Jessica Bachman / Kanker Friday, Nov. 20, 2009

Late-night digging along the back roads of Bastar, a dense jungle region in India's northern state of Chhattisgarh, can only mean one thing if there's nothing to show for it the next day: Maoist rebel activity. So when a group of villagers in the state's Kanker district, the gateway to Bastar, were kept awake for nights on end last month by repeated chinking from metal striking rock on a nearby road, they knew something was up.

They were right. The Maoists, commonly known in India as Naxalites, had dug a tunnel five feet under the surface of a paved back road that was used by security forces from the nearby Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College. The insurgents' tunnel's exit points, on the side of the road, were well concealed with alternating layers of sandbags and dirt. But before the Naxalites got around to booby-trapping the underground tunnel with improvised explosives cobbled together from scavenged pieces of iron and heisted explosive materials from state-owned mines, it had been filled in. The villagers had tipped off commandos from the college.
(See pictures of India's turning points.)

Naxalite rebels, whose leaders claim to follow Maoist doctrine on armed people's struggle, have been waging a guerilla war against the Indian government since their first uprising in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967. For over three decades a phlegmatic response from central and state security organs did little to prevent the then isolated Naxal insurgency from foraying into underdeveloped forest and jungle regions in central and eastern India where it gained support of impoverished tribal groups and villagers. By 2001, some Naxalites had gained sway over 51 districts, and with the state response mechanism to their movements still weak, that number quadrupled in less than a decade. Naxals now operate in 223 districts, spread out over one-third of India along a vertical belt commonly referred to as the Red Corridor.

In the 34 regions that the government considers to be the worst affected by Maoist activity, the rebel movement has taken on a particularly bloody dimension, with Naxalites orchestrating police massacres, bombings, bank and mine robberies, informant murders and kidnappings on a routine basis. By Nov. 2, "left-wing extremism" — Delhi's euphemism for Naxal terrorism — was responsible for 834 civilian, security-force and Naxal deaths throughout 10 states this year, according to data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

As in previous years, Chhattisgarh took the biggest hit, sustaining 237 casualties. While last month's brazen attempt in the state to attack India's only anti-Naxal police training camp reveals how low the insurgents' perception is of the state's ability to fight them, it also, says the college's director, gives the institution further insight into how to fight this battle. "I've always told our men that they can't win the war against the Naxals without gaining the trust of the villagers and forest dwellers," says Brigadier Basant Ponwar, who served in the army for 35 years as a counterinsurgency specialist before going to Chhattisgarh in 2005 to set up the college. "Now we see that even right in our own backyard the villagers are our eyes and ears."

Tucked away on 300 acres of hilly jungle terrain, just north of a notorious Naxal stronghold, the college is strategically positioned to drill police forces in a strategy that until recently was reserved for training select army special forces: fight a guerilla like a guerilla. "Police are trained for carrying out normal law-and-order duties. They're not prepared for jungle combat or jungle living, but that's precisely what they must know to take on Naxals," explains the state's director general of police, Vishwa Ranjan. For decades the state had dismissed the Naxal movement's creeping ascendancy over its southern districts and did little to buttress the strength of its security force. This year, the state's sanctioned police force stands at 46,000, more than double the number of officers on the ground in 2005, and all new recruits are being put through the college course in addition to basic training.

The college has already taught 11,500 police personnel from eight states how to raid Naxal hideouts, conduct search-and-destroy operations at gun-manufacturing camps, clear roads of improvised explosives using sniffer dogs, set up roadside checkpoints and set up covert outposts in enemy territory. During the 45-day course, commandos-in-training get up at dawn for early morning conditioning, including three-mile runs up steep, rocky knobs plus strength training, yoga and meditation. (Ponwar insists that all officers who still have a paunch by the end of the course are failed.) To dispel officers' fear of the jungle, the forces are taught how to catch (and eat) snakes, distinguish edible plants from poisonous ones and make camouflaged lean-tos out of sticks and leaves.

The college has been a bright spot in India's fight against the bloody insurgency. But Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the New Delhi–based Institute of Conflict Management, says that the high level of corruption and inefficiency in the state security apparatus cancels out whatever inroads the school has made. "Only a fraction of those that go through the college's training are later used for what they are being trained for, so the effort is often for naught," Sahni laments, comparing the police commandos to students trained in neurosurgery who go on to become store clerks. Only half of the college's graduates from Chhattisgarh are deployed in areas with substantial Maoist activity and, according to Sahni, police corruption and grasping politicians are to blame. "It's a well-known fact that if a police officer doesn't want to be deployed to dangerous district, he bribes his way out," he says. "Many of the warfare college's commandos are also scooped up by VIP ministers and politicians who want to be surrounded by impressive security details."

Meanwhile, national efforts to bring this decades-long insurgency to a swift end are also intensifying. India's new hard-line Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, is not convinced that states, if left to their own devices, will be able to reassert state authority over Naxal-dominated territories anytime soon. That's why this month, tens of thousands of paramilitary and border security forces were withdrawn from other regions and deployed in rebel districts in northern and central India. "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," says director general of police Vishwa Ranjan. "We will repeat this pattern in other areas, a few at a time, until the enemy has nowhere to go. "

Still, considering it's taken four decades to get to this point, the process is bound to be a gradual one. In recent years, the state's action plan was to establish a minimum police presence in all Naxal regions, and little attention was paid to increasing the size of the ranks or improving the meager force's fighting abilities. But without strength in numbers or combat skills, the police have been unable to curb the spread of Maoist violence and defend the state's isolated police outposts. At the Indian Economic Summit in New Delhi on Nov. 10, Chidambaram said all heavily affected states would completely reassert control over their Naxal-dominated areas within two or three years. Director general of police Ranjan thinks four years is a more realistic time frame. "We're not taking any more shortcuts," Ranjan says. "This is going to be a long, drawn-out battle."

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