The Centre has decided to re-deploy the army-led Assam Rifles from border duties in the Northeast to Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh in a blueprint that is being drawn up for a renewed stage in the counter-Maoist offensive.
The re-deployment is contingent on three factors: the situation on the ground wherever the forces are currently deployed, the availability of civil police to replace the units that will be re-deployed and the weather (the onset of the monsoon could make a large-scale redeployment tardy).
A large-scale attack by the Maoists after a series of killings in the past two months could well mark the tipping-point that would convince the Centre that police action was less-than-sufficient and it would switch gears in the drive against the rebels.
The director-general of military operations (DGMO), Lt General Anand Mohan Verma, currently on a force-projection exercise if the army were to be deployed in Left Wing Extremism-affected areas, was in the eastern command headquarters in Fort William, Calcutta, on June 4 and subsequently on a tour of Manipur, where the blockade by NSCN(IM) is snowballing, and to army formations in the Northeast to assess the availability of manpower and resources for duties in the hinterland.
Sources in the defence and home ministries have confirmed to The Telegraph that a re-deployment of forces was on the agenda of the cabinetcommittee on security, scheduled for June 10.
A senior home ministry official said the ministry wanted to put the BSF in charge of the Indo-Myanmar border and re-deploy the Assam Rifles, headed by a major general, for “counter-insurgency”.
The Assam Rifles is deployed not along the border but 20km inside, leaving scope for infiltration. Moreover, with insurgency on the decline in the Northeast, the other duties obviously lie in east and central India.
On Friday, the DGMO was given a briefing by the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C), Eastern Command, Lt General Bikram Singh, on the situation in the Northeast and especially on the situation in Lalgarh and the Bengal-Jharkhand and Bengal-Orissa border zones.
The army’s central command monitors Maoist activity but the Bengal area falls under the eastern command. The DGMO was himself the general officer of the Bengal Area as a major general.
The re-deployment of the Assam Rifles, and also, possibly, battalions of the Rashtriya Rifles from Jammu and Kashmir, need the concurrence of both the defence and home ministries and the army. The Assam Rifles is officered by the army. The Rashtriya Rifles, also officered and mostly staffed by the army, was raised specifically for counter-insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and its mandate would have to be amended. It is likely that the RR’s U (Uniform) force could be pulled out of currently responsibilities in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Assam Rifles has nearly 50,000 men in 46 battalions and the Rashtriya Rifles about 40,000 soldiers in five “forces” — Delta, Kilo, Romeo, Victor and Uniform. The Assam Rifles is raising an additional 20 battalions in this, its 150th year.
While the possible deployment of the Assam Rifles and the Rashtriya Rifles “in support of” the counter-Maoist offensives still means that the army’s role will be short of a full-scale commitment, the army, through the defence ministry, will seek legal provisions in support of its actions.
This essentially means it will insist on the extension of the Disturbed Areas Act and include the Armed Forces Special Power Act in specified zones in eight states where the army’s central command has assessed the Maoists are active.
Section 3 of the AFSPA allows the government to decide whether a state or areas within it are “in such a disturbed or dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil powers in necessary”. Though law-and-order is a subject in the state list under the Constitution, the power to declare an area “disturbed” also vests with the Centre.
A preliminary assessment projects the need for 10 battalions (each of between 900 and 1,100 troops) spread over three sector headquarters commanding troops in Chhattisgarh, Orissa and in the Bengal-Jharkhand-Orissa zone. This deployment will be in addition to the state and central forces already in operation.
In addition to the establishment of the sector headquarters — one in Chhattisgarh (Raipur) and another in Orissa (Koraput) are already being developed — the army has agreed to set up more schools for specialised training to state and central forces in jungle warfare.
Till now, the army has trained some 47,000 policemen.
While the army’s involvement in the counter-Maoist offensive could run just short of a full-deployment (unlike Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast), the Indian Air Force has issued strict directives to its crew in support of the counter-Naxalite offensive to keep their signatures low and stay out of the line of the fire as far as possible.
In the standard operating procedures that have been drawn up for the IAF in these areas, helicopters are flying with the IAF’s own armed Garud special forces soldiers while transporting the police or while evacuating casualties.
This has caused some consternation because the IAF’s insistence on foolproofing landing sides has often meant a delay in sorties. One officer pointed out, for example, that in the April 6 incident in Mukram, many of the CRPF troopers bled to death even as they were being flown to a hospital in Jagdalpur.
The IAF has insisted that the central and state police guarantee “perimeter security” around helipads, ensuring that they are out of the range of small arms fire. The Garud is tasked specifically with securing the IAF’s own assets.
Helicopter pilots have been asked to go only for “steep approaches” while landing and “steep take-offs” while taking flight. This means that they must fly as high as possible to keep out of firing range of insurgents.
The IAF currently has six helicopters doing duty in these areas and the BSF has two. The home ministry has asked for up to 35 additional helicopters from the army and the IAF. A proposal is afoot to lease more choppers from Pawanhans for logistics and evacuation.
The home ministry is yet to receive views from other ministries prior to the CCS on the proposal for deployment of army in Maoist-affected areas.