Saturday, April 10, 2021

Failed Naxal tackling strategies

While Naxal influence in other states has reduced, Chhattisgarh continues to be the Maoist capital

Illustration. Credit: Sajith Kumar

In the din of blaring controversies on elections and vaccine-politics, what went unnoticed was how a rag tag army could humble the mighty Indian State on April 8 by wresting publicity advantage after the April 3 ambush which killed 22 security personnel on Bijapur-Sukma district border in Chhattisgarh.

The visuals aired by the social media on April 8 on the release of CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) commando Rakeshwar Singh Manhas were striking: the low key, non-rambunctious function, unlike an election rally was over in minutes. More than 200 Maoist adivasi men and women, some dressed in worn out battle fatigues, were calmly sitting in a circle in what was called the People’s Court. They were watching their leader who identified himself as DVC “Jagdish” untying the shackles of Manhas and handing him over to unidentified men who were later recognised as social workers.

Talking to a Bijapur correspondent, Jagdish did not fail to deliver propaganda in a calm and collected tone that they are fighting for Adivasi lands and water from `depredatory elements’ who were helped by the “dalal” (middlemen) police. He rejected all surrenders as “bogus” since no true “Maoist” would “surrender”. He also indicated that they were not worried if IPS officer Kalluri, considered as their nemesis, is brought back to operate against them.

What is the inner strength of their intelligence which enables them to deceive the security forces year after year? Maoists did it on June 29, 2008 when they ambushed 65 Andhra Pradesh “Greyhounds” in Odisha’s Balimela reservoir, killing 36, as the police were returning after an infructuous “Operation” based on deceptive intelligence. On April 3, 2021 too, deceptive information was received about the presence of Maoist commander Madvi Hidma at Tarrem, on Bijapur-Sukhma border. When five different teams converged at Junagada, they were ambushed by about 400 insurgents.

This incident provoked several complaints on social media that a sudden operational plan was prepared by a senior officer from New Delhi without consulting the ground level leaders who had to assemble troops from five different areas, who had not done joint training. Also, that the Maoists were monitoring troop movements through a CRPF wireless set which had fallen into their hands after the 2010 Dantewada massacre in which 76 Jawans were slaughtered.

A similar complaint was received from unidentified CRPF sources about the “Kasalpad” ambush on December 1, 2014 when 14 CRPF personnel including two officers were killed while returning from an operation. At that time, a senior military officer had suggested that such unwieldy contingents should not be deployed in jungles to combat Maoists who knew the terrain better. Yet another ambush took place on April 11, 2015 in Sukma killing seven policemen.

On April 8, 2021 another complaint came up that the intelligence for the April 3 “Operation” was received 20 days ago, throwing a doubt whether this was based on any NTRO (The National Technical Research Organisation, a government technical intelligence agency) input through drones operating since 2012. At that time, there were complaints from the ground that visual surveillance inputs from UAVs were usually sent to New Delhi for photo interpretation, resulting in delay. By the time such information was locally received, the targets would have already moved away as Maoists are constantly on the move.

I may mention here we had faced a similar problem in the late 1980s to monitor LTTE movements in and out of South India. Our monitoring stations used to send intercepts, sometimes in codes, to New Delhi for decryption and analysis, causing considerable delays

To overcome that, as a special case, we posted crypto analysts along with all Southern monitoring stations so that the output would be decrypted and interpreted immediately and conveyed to the stake holders speedily.

Collecting insurgency intelligence is a challenging subject. It is like almost law and order intelligence where the collectors and analysts need to have sound local knowledge. More often than not, insurgency intelligence is about movements which are short-term and time sensitive. Collecting that would necessarily mean reliance upon human intelligence, which would mean befriending the locals. An adivasi in tribal areas like Chhattisgargh or Jharkhand would not trust a CRPF “handler” from outside the state who does not know the local language.

Although several claims on “surrenders” are publicised, I have not come across any dependable literature on how Maoists collect intelligence on police. Unless we know this, we could never overcome their methods of intelligence operations. This is the great deficiency in our handling of the Maoist insurgency. Aerial monitoring has its own drawbacks as thick foliage in forest lands prevent clear identification. In May 2010, I had asked Raytheon, which had invited me to deliver a lecture at their Global Homeland Security Meet whether they had any solutions. They were not sure.

On the other hand, one could study details of the intelligence collection by the then outlawed United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) during their period of insurgency from 1996 to 2006 from the papers published by a British NGO which was permitted to be involved in the UN-sponsored peace talks with the Communists. Paul Jackson, a professor at the University of Birmingham, representing NGO “Saferworld”, has published a good paper in March 2019. He concludes that Maoist insurgents had the upper hand during the hostilities because the government intelligence was ineffective. On the other hand, the Communists had also developed “an information strategy to make themselves more acceptable to the local population”.

In dealing with the rump of Maoists in Chhattisgarh, we need to learn how the adivasis were originally brain washed. In 2007, I went to Hyderabad to meet late S R Sankaran, IAS (retired), an authority on Maoist insurgency and to whom two successive Andhra Pradesh governments had to turn for arranging peace talks in 2002 and 2004. The seeds of insurrection were planted in the 1980s by Naxal leader Kondappally Seetharamiah when he sent nine volunteers to the Dandakaranya to spread Naxalite philosophy on a 1+2 principle: one leader, two followers. They used to care for the needs of these neglected segments like education, conducting medical camps during epidemics etc while governments did nothing. Gradually these people started accepting the PWG’s (People’s War Group, a Naxal outfit) parallel government which was also free from corruption.

A tendency to crush the “Naxals” of all hues through brute force was evident after the NDA government assumed power in 2014. This is not going to work in areas like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The only possible solution is a mixture of selective use of force combined with better governance and development.

The only Central minister who understood the problems of Maoist insurgency was UPA government’s Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh who, after visiting 30 of the 78 affected districts, clearly identified the problem as “placing the interests of tribals below that of mining firms in the rush to attain high growth rates”. He recommended a new “Empowered Group of Ministers” instead of tackling it only by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Another solution will be adopting the forgotten the 2007-2010 “Punchhi Commission” recommendation on “localised emergency provisions” under Articles 355/356 to place even part of a district under Central rule for development and intensive counter-insurgency action. However, it is too optimistic for this to be accepted, given the bitter relations between the Centre and Opposition-ruled states now.

(The writer is former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat)

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