23 December, 2012

India and Philippines: searching the common contours

Centre for Land Warfare Studies, Article No. 2281


On 15 December 2012, Reuters reported that the government of “Philippines declared an 18-day unilateral Christmas truce with its Maoist guerrillas, in part to focus on relief efforts in Mindanao (a southern island), devastated by a typhoon”. [1]

It has been around two years since the peace talks had commenced between the guerrillas and the government. But the talks were stalled over a rebel demand for the release of prisoners and the government's natural insistence that the rebels stop extortion – a crucial pillar for the economic sustenance of the ultras.

In a 14 February 2011 report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) did not dither to predict that in Philippines, neither the Communist insurgents nor the ruling regime will win the ongoing war “militarily”. ICG had and by reasonable probability still has certain fundamental reasons to stand firm on its argument.

The present political dispensation, headed by the President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, decided to revive negotiations with the Communist Party of Philippines [CPP] and its armed unit New People’s Army [NPA] in October 2010. In fact, that was not for the first time that a Filipino government decided to hold talks with the ultra left-wingers. About two decades back, in the 1990s, during the period of Valdez Ramos – the 12th President, talks were held with the rebels.

Interestingly, the CPP-NPA, under the colourful Jose Maria Sison based in Utrecht, Netherlands, believes that the party would be reaching Strategic Stalemate - the second phase of Guerrilla Warfare – by 2015. Similar thought came to the minds of the ultras in the 1980s and the resultant was that they were almost on the verge of being decimated through internal purges and external onslaught by the security forces.

The Beginnings

The present insurgency began in the historic year of 1967-8 – when not only the South Asian people were clamouring, but even Europe and Latin America were claiming ‘change’. An ambience of resistance swept all through the globe. As Che-guevara was being hunted down within the confines of land-locked Bolivia and Mao Tse-tung voiced his concerns (regarding revisionism creeping into the domain of Communism) through the controversial Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, guns were taken up by a section of the populace in erstwhile colonies of European countries. Philippines were one. India was another.

And interestingly, both the countries, are still witnessing the two movements which commenced almost in parallel – at the same time, only separated spatially.

The present scenario reads thus: the southern island of Mindanao in Philippines mirrors the central Indian district of Bastar in terms of the focal point of the communist insurgency. Both CPP and the Communist Party of India – Maoist [CPI-M] generate revenues through revolutionary taxes on business houses; be it the plantations or the mining corporations as the case and chance may be.

Modi Operandi

NPA operates from the border areas of the provinces, so as to attack in many directions – a pattern very similar to that adopted by the Indian Maoists. Both the outfits strongly believe in Mao’s theory of Protracted People’s War [PPW] with the peasantry spearheading the movement. Both adopt a centralised strategic leadership with decentralised operations – that is, considerable independence at the field levels.

The NPA too goes for agawarmas – that is, seizure of weapons through ambushes, something which is at times exceedingly daily-event like in the Maoist dominated areas of India. Both the groups consistently carry out Targeted Killing of tribal leaders and other “informants”. Pangayaw or tribal wars go on with impunity in the insurgency affected areas of Philippines. Similarly, in the state of Chattisgarh in India, till recently, Salwa Judum was a well-known term.

Even as one looks at the growth trajectory of these two insurgencies, lots of similarities emerge. NPA had undergone multitudes of ups and downs in its history of over four decades. Counterinsurgency campaigns by the Filipino government alongwith internal splits and purges were the chief reasons in the mid 1980s to handicap the CPP. The NPA, too, lost many of its armed cadres in the process and presently has an estimated 5,000 fighters. At the other end, the estimated strength of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army [PLGA] of the CPI-M is somewhere between 10,000 to 25,000.

The Commonalities

CPI-M and CPP have had strenuous periods of internal bickering, splits, mergers, further splits and re-mergers. The major ideological and contentious issues for the development of fissures in CPP were:

·         Difference in opinion in adopting the “correct” Strategy and Tactics
·         Which to start first – rural or urban guerrilla warfare?
·         What should be the party hierarchy like? Whether to focus on Top-Down centralisation or favour more decentralisation?

A peep into the history of the Naxalite-Maoist movement in India since 1967-8 till today clearly shows that the present CPI-M was formed in 2004 after innumerable splits and internecine gory battles through 1980s and 1990s [2]. And the basic reasons for those splits were the vacillation amongst the leadership in adopting the future course of action. There was even a stage when the Indian Maoists were divided into “pro and anti Lin Piao” factions. 

Interestingly, it was in 2004 itself, that the talks between the CPP and the Philippines government broke down and then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo decided to unleash the counter-insurgency campaign. Finally, in December 2010, the CPP-NPA declared to be in the phase of Strategic Defense and agreed to engage in ‘peace talks’ with the Aquino government, brokered by the Norwegians.

Most of the leaders of CPP and as well as CPI-M are in their 60s and 70s. Both Ganapathy and Sison might like to see an end to the decades old conflict in their lifetimes. Though Sison’s intention may be to see the end through peace talks, as of now, Ganapathy is yet to exhibit that intent. The ‘unexpected’ may happen if the olive branch is extended to the latter. It could as well be the fact that both Ganapathy and Sison would keep on using the instrument of “talks” as a tactical weapon in this ongoing PPW.

There is, nonetheless, a distinct difference between the two insurgencies in contention – as seen through the prism of the counterinsurgent.

Though the Filipino government has directly used the military in suppressing the rebellion, India has been coy in doing that. It may well be remembered that in Operation Steeplechase in the 1970s – unleashed to decimate the erstwhile Naxalite movement, the Army was indeed used. It needs to be noted, however, that the Army basically encircled the insurgent hotbeds while the actual search and destroy operations were carried out by the paramilitary and the police.

Even after 2004 – when the Maoist insurgency in India really shaped up with renewed vigour – and till date, the Army has not been deployed in direct combat operations. It is true that an Army training unit has been set up in the heart of the insurgency at Bastar, but that is more psychological than operational.

Perspective of the Counterinsurgent

The counterinsurgency [COIN] doctrine that the Filipino Army uses is an admixture of Winning Hearts and Minds [WHAM] policy plus civil militia approach to separate the insurgent from the populace and to gather knowledge of the local terrain. The Indian approach to COIN – though undeclared in explicit form – is based upon similar techniques. The Civil militia part is legitimised through the induction of local youth into the constabulary. Furthermore, a methodology of targeting the top brass has been put into effective use in the last couple of years.

In this respect, the Special Task Force [STF] and the Special Intelligence Branch [SIB] have worked efficiently. This approach has in fact, crippled the Indian Maoists as they have lost “eminent” members of their Politburo and Central Military Commission; viz. Cherukuri Rajkumar, Koteswar Rao and Sande Rajamouli. As South Asia Terrorism Portal [SATP] informs, presently 13 Politburo and Central Committee members are behind the bars. [3]

Another palpable difference between the two insurgencies is the obvious – the Filipino movement is relatively at rest as on-off “talks” keep on going whereas the Indian Maoist movement is reported to have bloody skirmishes almost regularly. In the period of 2005 – 2012, the total number of casualties is close to 6,000 [4]. The CPI-M is reluctant to put down arms till the Indian counterinsurgents declare a unilateral ceasefire – a highly asymmetrical demand in this irregular war!

At this juncture, what could be the trajectories of solutions for the Indian counterinsurgent? Is the Filipino counterinsurgent proceeding in the right track by negotiating with the rebels?

There is no denial of the basic fact that the support of the population has to be with the counterinsurgent. If not, then at least the “sea” of population should not supply nutrients to the rebel “fish”. This is a maxim not only relevant from Mao’s perspective, but is also reflected through David Galula’s writings. For that, WHAM-based approach appears to be most feasible. Thus a ‘Clear’ operation must not be accompanied with only the ‘Hold’ follow-up, but the ‘Build’ phase with credible governance must be pumped into the rural heartlands without delay.

On a tactical level, the Targeted Imprisonment of the top leadership may go on unabated – gaining credible intelligence which can be further corroborated from the local level spy network established in the villages – which can only be created if the WHAM approach is carried on. In this connection of the ancillary Targeted approach, Superintendent of Police of the Koria district in Chattisgarh, Dhruv Gupta, has an interesting argument. His paper in the 2011 April-June edition of the Indian Police Journal clearly profess “nabbing the top leaders and plugging the supply routes from the urban areas” for the Maoists as an alternative to pumping more and more paramilitary forces to win the rural hinterlands. He advises the police to concentrate on their ‘strong points’ rather than unnecessarily trying to mend their weaker areas.

At the operational level, small-unit fast paced precision strikes could be implemented instead of the company level area domination searches. In fact, small-unit operations were highly successful in the counterinsurgency operations in Malaysia in the 1950s under the command of Harold Briggs. The concept ultimately tipped the war in favour of the British. Initially, the British counterinsurgents were relying on massed attacks on the fluid insurgents without discernible success.

Nothing happens without on-ground preparedness. “Cloning” Greyhounds and Cobras, as advocated by John D M Mitra [5], could be vital in the ongoing campaign against the CPI-M. However, the joint forces need to be led by the state police as it is only the latter which possesses the local knowledge.


For the above to fructify, a well-documented Counter-insurgency Manual by the Police would be a firm step in the right direction. Gone would be the days of ad-hocism. Standard Operating Procedures would be embedded into the manual – not a be all “dogmatic text”, but at least a strategic space to think and act decisively.

As far as India’s eastern counterpart is concerned, Manila is probably throwing its weight behind the peace talks not only just for the sake of it or for historical reasons. Manila has very recently come to an agreement with the Moro separatist insurgency and hence desires an equivalent outcome with the leftist ultras.

Two things, however, Manila may do well to remember. It is always better to talk to communist insurgents from a position of strength. Moreover, ‘third’ party interference in talks is better avoided. One may never know though, with the Moro insurgency subsiding, Manila can also take a cue from Colombo and go all out against the communist guerrillas.

A close watch on both these insurgencies in India and Philippines is thus specially warranted. And with the reports of Filipino Maoists aiding their Indian counterparts surfacing [6], such microscopic monitoring becomes more than relevant.


1: “Philippines declares unilateral Christmas truce with Maoists”, Reuters, Dec 15, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/15/us-philippines-maoists-idUSBRE8BE03Q20121215

2: Jairus Banaji , “The ironies of Indian Maoism”, International Socialism, Issue 128, 14 Oct 2010, http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=684

5: Aman Sharma, “Home Ministry proposes to replicate Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh in five Maoist-hit states”, India Today, July 16 2012, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/home-ministry-greyhounds-andhra-pradesh-maoist-hit-states/1/208420.html

6: Al Labita, “Philippine reds export armed struggle”, Asia Times, April 22, 2010, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/LD22Ae01.html