Monday, November 16, 2009

Red terror challenge

PR ChariMonday, November 16, 2009 0:46 IST Email

Statements continue galore. The prime minister has identified the Naxalites as constituting the most important threat to Indian security. Several meetings of home ministers, chief secretaries and directors-general of police have issued firm statements of resolve. But the Naxalite influence now extends to 20 states where the writ of the State no longer runs in those affected areas. Recurrent attacks by the Naxalites on police stations, killings of security personnel and suspected informers, lootings of arms, ammunition and explosives and disruption of communications delineates an insurrection; this is no longer an insurgency.

The New York Times on November 1 opined that the Naxalites want to gain control of the State. Is this an over-statement? It is arguable that the Naxalites will over time get subverted like the other insurgents and take to making easy money through kidnappings for ransom and by running protection rackets. This may or may not happen, but the commitment of the Naxalites to Marxism-Leninism provides strong ideological underpinnings. The NYT report further notes that killings by the Naxalites has reached 900 over the last four years, while the coalition forces in Afghanistan have lost 1100 lives over this period.Clearly, the obsessive concern of official India with the security threats from Pakistan and China has deflected attention from the more urgent and growing dangers to internal integrity and national security.

Now, at last, a massive operation with some 80,000 to 1,00,000 security personnel (largely state police and the Central Reserve Police Force) is to be launched against the Naxalitestrongholds in Chhatisgarh, Orissa and Maharashtra. Presumably these areas would be encircled, the local inhabitants screened and suspects taken away for further questioning. A degree of violence is inevitable, since the hardcore Naxalites will fight rather than be captured to spend years languishing in jails awaiting the tedious Indian judicial system processes to unfold. Encounters and encounter deaths on both sides can be reasonably expected and a media policy should be evolved before the operation commences. Will the print and electronic media be left to develop copy through handouts or by accompanying the security forces as "embedded" journalists? And, will this policy apply to the tribe of human rights and peace activists who are greatly exercised over the privileges of the insurgents? Obviously, no easy decisions are possible, but an imperfect media policy is preferable to no policy, as the blunders after the Mumbai attacks instruct.

Some basic questions regarding the politico-military strategy underlying these operations arise, for which no answers are now available.

First, it is unarguable that Naxalism is an idea premised on seeking justice through violence. It cannot be solely defeated by military means. But hard blows must be inflicted on the Naxalites to bring them in for negotiations. Commencing these negotiations, however, is not an end in itself. Credible efforts must simultaneously be made to mitigate the centuries-old neglect of these areas and the alienation of their largely tribal population. Socio-economic reforms are urgently needed to address the deprivation, exploitation, and injustices heaped on them over the ages. A clearer vision is therefore required as to how the development process will be initiated or strengthened, appreciating the ground situation.

Second, it is equally unarguable that socio-economic development cannot proceed unless the law and order situation improves significantly, and a degree of normalcy is restored. It is unrealistic to believe that the State could establish and run schools and health centres in areas under Naxalite control. In theory, two models of counter-insurgency operations are available. The strategy of "swat the mole" can be pursued, implying that the security forces acquire a firm base, and attack the insurgents in their locations whenever firm intelligence becomes available. The purpose is to inflict attrition losses until a milieu is created for a larger clearing operation. The other model is that of the "inkblot." Like ink spreading on a blotter the areas coming under the control of the security forces are expanded from a firm base. Civil administration moves into the cleared areas, but functions under the protection of the security forces till no longer required. So, which model India will adopt?

Third, are the security forces earmarked for these operations trained adequately? Are they physically fit enough for jungle operations? Are they conversant with the terrain, language and customs of the local population? Otherwise, huge casualties without commensurate gains can be expected. It will be very demoralising for the security forces. It may also become necessary to seek a larger role for the armed forces. Has all this been thought through?

These seminal issues must be brought into the public domain before the operations
commence. Ex post facto explanations will be suspect as being either hype or self-exculpatory justifications.

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