13 October, 2011

Talks Vs Targets

a slightly edited version has been published in the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi


Searching the option in India’s anti-Maoist operations

Analyst Daniel Byman asserts that “talking with insurgents is often a necessary first step toward defeating them or reaching an acceptable compromise.” Nevertheless, Byman concludes on a far less optimistic note as he says: “Talks with insurgents are politically costly, usually fail, and can often backfire.” However, he still believes that talks are “often necessary to end conflicts and transform an insurgent group into a legitimate political actor or wean them away from violence”. [1]

At the other end of the ideational spectrum, theorists Stahl and Owen; while substantiating the policy adopted by the state of Israel in its counterinsurgency-counterterrorism (CI-CT) operations, stresses on the elimination of the insurgent leaders as an effective instrument of state policy to counter the growth of rebellion. They vouch for targeted killings (TK) of charismatic leaders of the ultras. The authors counter-argue the prevalent belief that killing one leader will simply result in ten more ready to supplant the leadership. They seem to further the view that persistent application of TK continues to deplete the insurgent groups in terms of their brain and consequently their morale.

Augmenting the TK strategy, the researchers also posit: “The more time leaders spend underground (in fear of TK), the less time they have for conducting armed activity against the state.” [2]

In this regard, they put forward the example of Hamas’ leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, who was forced to hide underground for four weeks; the very period for which he was the chief of the militant organisation.

In this theoretical backdrop, it may be germane to analyse the post-2004 Maoist insurrection in India and the broad strategy-cum-tactics adopted by the authorities to tackle the quagmire. It has undoubtedly become a matter of serious debate in terms of choosing the CI-strategy against the left-wing ultras. Whether it shall be long-term population-centric CI-operations with the purpose of ‘winning hearts and minds’ (WHAM) or it shall be the deployment of the army with the intent of completely annihilating the rebels; are issues which need to be resolved sooner. While some activists would psychologically ‘coerce’ the authorities for talking with the insurgents, conservative elements on the other hand, would surely ‘pressurize’ the government to refrain from adopting such ‘soft’ approach.

However, if history is invoked, then one may confront the empirical flow of events post-1967, when the ‘Naxal’ insurgency first erupted. Then government adopted a two-pronged approach to ‘wipe out’ the rebellion.

First, through ‘Operation Steeplechase’, the triumvirate of the army, para-military and the police; forming three concentric circles (army forming the outer and police the inner to perform the combing operations) demolished the very nervous system of the insurgency. At a concomitant level, the police penetrated deep into the organizational structure of the Naxals by planting their ‘moles’. With the aid of ground intelligence, TK and targeted incarceration (TI) of the Naxal leaders grew in considerable numbers.

Eventually, this dual approach worked. After Charu Mazumdar’s death in prison and the imprisonment of Kanu Sanyal and other top notch leaders, the Naxals splintered into innumerable and hence inconsequential factions.

What deters the present state governments to adopt such a two-pronged strategy as mentioned above to counter a much bigger (in magnitude and territorial extent) Maoist revolution in not beyond understanding. After all, anti-establishment political brouhaha and civil society-cum-media backlash are much more pronounced today than was in the early 1970s. In this connection, it must be mentioned that between 1997 and 2007, there were about 1,800 TK (encounter deaths as per police parlance) conducted by the Andhra police. [3] And it is now a bare fact that the insurgency in Andhra reached its nadir due to the ‘Greyhound-facilitated’ CI operations plus the effective usage of TK-TI strategy.

Bringing in the army to counter the Maoists is always fraught with politico-legal implications; let alone ethical considerations of the army ‘fighting against its own people’, keeping in mind that the ultras are mostly active in tribal-backward regions. The army has done a commendable job in north-east and Kashmir. But it has the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for smoothening its functioning in those areas. However, unleashing the army in large swathes of the country in the so-called Red Corridor means imposition of the AFSPA in about 100 to 150 districts. This is an unfathomable and undesirable political situation.

However, the idea could be well tested in ‘pockets’. The recent deployment of the army at Dantewada, albeit for training purposes, must have had its psychological impact on the rebels. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza in fact, recommends introduction of the army to deal with Maoism.[4] She argues that militant activities could best be resolved through police-military operations. In this regard, she cites the examples of the Khalistani insurgency and the terrorism in Tripura, both of which were quelled through brute force.

But Dror tends to generically disagree with such a theorization by saying that: “negotiations, compromise and conciliation rest at the heart of democratic political processes.” [5] In this context, it is noteworthy to refer to Byman again who advocates that by opening the avenue of talks, there is always a possibility of creating fissures in the group by fomenting pro-talk and anti-talk factions.

Moreover, Byman cautions that if policymakers abjure the path of ‘talks’ altogether, then they might face the dead alley in terms of breaking the political stalemate.

Interestingly, Stahl and Owens are optimistic that with enough TK – “there will come a point” in time when the insurgent group is forced to compromise; as was the case with Hamas in 2004. Furthermore, it must be mentioned that ideologically strong movements like the Maoist rebellion might not ‘bend’ easily. For instance, the four-decade old Filipino Maoist movement is yet to see a politically negotiated settlement though the government has been ‘talking’ to the ultras since 1985. The latest round of talks commenced in Oslo. But it is yet to taste the actual fruits as reportedly, the Filipino Maoists are continuing with their ‘warlord-ism’ in the rural heartlands.

Recommendations for the Indian case
    A carefully orchestrated dual strategy of TK-TI compounded with population-centric, WHAM-based CI operations needs to be implemented.
2.   The direct deployment of the army may be kept in abeyance. However, future prospects of the army being put into effect should not be ruled out altogether.
3.   Tribal militias need to be upheld. However, they must be provided legitimacy through the process of official recruitment. Tribal militias are extremely significant for acquiring knowledge of the local terrain and for useful ground intelligence.
    The path of ‘talks’ needs to be kept open as a viable option, but only when the government would be sure that the Maoist guerillas are in an awkward position to continue their present phase of ‘strategic defense’.
    Mere proclamations of ‘ceasefires’ by the Maoists should not be taken as pre-conditions for opening talks as these temporary cessation of hostilities are used by the rebels to regroup, rearm, revitalize and recruit. In this regard, the Andhra talks are a pertinent case in point.
    Talks can only be initiated if the government is in a ‘position of strength’. And this could be achieved through sustained implementation of a strategic framework which houses TK-TI plus WHAM-based CI operations. 


Rajesh Rajagopalan is confident
that the “Maoist rebellion has the potential to be a serious headache but not a fundamental threat to the Indian state”, possibly because historically, “guerrilla fighters have had far less notable results when fighting against their own government” than they have had against foreign occupants.

He further says the obvious that “a more responsive and representative political and economic order would prevent the conditions that gives rise to rebellions”.  [6]

Martha Crenshaw observes that insurgency may decline because of three features; [7] viz.

a. physical defeat
b. decision of the group to abandon terrorist strategy
c. organizational disintegration

In the Indian context, it may be hypothesized that some or all the above features may be achieved through talks. However, if talks do not provide the way out, then targeted killings/incarcerations along with WHAM-based CI operations must be employed. After all, the demise of the Maoist insurgency should be an acceptable endgame for the Adivasis, the government, the police and the paramilitary; apart from a handful of the core Maoist leadership. 

If talks work, then it’s fine. Otherwise, to quote Luttwak, there would probably be no harm if “war is given a chance”. [8] It is true that development and governance are the keys to long-term tranquility, but the 'small war' must be won as a prerequisite. 


1. Daniel Byman, “Talking with Insurgents: A Guide for the Perplexed”, The Washington Quarterly, April 2009, pp. 125 – 137

2. Stahl, A.E. and Owen, William F. “Targeted Killings Work”, Infinity Journal, Issue No 1, Winter 2010, pages 10-13

3. Jairus Banaji, “The Irones of Indian Maoism”, International Socialism, 14 October 2010

4. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, “Countering the Naxaites: Is there a need to ‘bring in’ the Army?”, Journal of Defence Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3, July 2009, pp. 125-132

5. Dror, Yehezkel, “Terrorism as a Democratic Capacity Challenge to the to Govern”, 1983, pp. 69-90 in Martha Crenshaw, ed., Terrorism, Legitimacy and Power: The Consequences of Political Violence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

6. Rajesh Rajagopalan, “Insurgency and counterinsurgency”, India Seminar, 2009,

7. Crenshaw, Martha, 1991, “How Terrorism Declines”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 69-87

8. Edward N. Luttwak, “Give War a Chance”, Foreign Affairs, July/August 1999

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