10 July, 2013

The Last Thunder?

Geopolitics, July 2013, pp 62 - 64

by Uddipan Mukherjee

Dandakaranya is huge. The undivided Bastar district alone was larger than the state of Kerala. The railway line connecting Delhi to Hyderabad borders Dandakaranya on the west, while the sea, near Vishakhapatnam, flanks it on the east. The railway line connecting Kolkata and Mumbai near Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh marks out its border in the north.”

How apt was Sonu – one of the protagonists of erstwhile BBC journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary’s composition Let’s Call Him Vasu. The very idea of creating today’s dreaded guerrilla zone at Dandakaranya was of Kondapalli Sitaramaiyyah’s, then leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War. And as Choudhary describes the geography of 1,00,000 square kilometre ‘sprawl of trees, hills and treacherous paths……’, one is forced to acknowledge the hazardous terrain which so readily traps India’s security forces and of late, peaceful political marches. Ambushes are the order of the day – in fact, for days.
However, the stealthy attack on the Parivartan Yatra of the Indian National Congress on 25 May was not only the most impactful in 2013 – probably it was the most high profile targeted attack after the assassination bids on erstwhile Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. And as STRATFOR’s Scott Stewart had suggested in their security weekly a couple of years back in June 2011 that “if an assailant has a protectee's schedule, it not only helps in planning an attack but it also greatly reduces the need of the assailant to conduct surveillance -- and potentially expose himself to detection”, such an intelligence malfunction and information leakage turned out to be the two most decisive factors at Darbha Ghati, Jeeram Valley – again in Bastar !

On that Day

27 people, including Chhattisgarh Congress chief Nandkumar Patel, his son Dinesh and anti-Maoist vigilante group leader Mahendra Karma, among others were brutally butchered. Veteran leader and former Union minister V C Shukla was badly injured and later on succumbed to the injuries. Over 30 rank and file of the Congress party had to fall prey to the carefully orchestrated ambush of the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-M), for which the left ultras, later asked an apology in their official proclamation – too late, too little though.
The Darbha Ghati incident was neither the first of its kind, nor will be the last. The Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) have had to face brutal onslaughts and invariably taken unawares on many occasions – not always in the labyrinthine topography of Chhattisgarh, but at times in Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal – though terrain was almost always the slippery area. Not only that, lack of ground intelligence and exposing their own selves to the guerrillas in the search operations against the Maoists had been lethal to the security personnel – let’s take the planting of IEDs inside the dead bodies of CAPF jawans in Latehar in January 2013 or may we just remember the April 2010 Dantewada massacre of 75 CAPF jawans. Or, for that matter, why fail to recollect the annihilation of 11 CAPF men at Lohardaga in Jharkhand in May 2011.

Nevertheless, the Darbha Ghati event shook many structures – especially the corridors of authority – and the resultant is that two independent probes are on – one by a sitting judge of Chhattisgarh High Court, Justice Prashant Mishra and the other by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). A natural knee-jerk reaction could have been to send ‘more CAPF forces’ against the rebels – however, even though in a phase-wise manner the number of battalions need to be increased in Ground Zero – but that’s not the panacea for this woe.

Ganapathy, the General Secretary of the CPI-M, still has dreams of a Red Flag at the Red Fort. Or may be, since he knows that those are dreams to be seen during the day, he needs to pull off something extravagant from time to time in order to maintain the espirit de corpsof his guerrillas and sometimes, to buttress his own dreams. The Darbha Ghati mayhem needs to be viewed in that context. Apart from the obvious negatives, the positives that could be taken out of the gory bloodletting on 25 May would be the analytic that CPI-M was definitely and still is under pressure – with its top brass either incarcerated or eliminated. Its wings and branches had been pruned in Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. In fact, after the era of Mallojula Koteswara Rao alias Kishenji, West Bengal’s Jangalmahalregion has had a long bout of serenity and silence. In such a backdrop, it may not be na├»ve to surmise that 25 May was an ‘act of desperation’ by the Maoists. However, in no way, we can infer that the Maoists are in their last stage or they could be eradicated easily now.
However, it is probably hard to deny that Ganapathy and his party were hard pressed from all directions and they ‘had’ to prove their existence somehow. 

And nothing could have been bigger than Darbha – where their age-old animosity against Mahendra Karma was brought to an illogical fructification. Desperation manifested in diabolism when the demise of the octogenarian politician V C Shukla was justified by the spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, Gudsa Usendi, on 11 June 2013. In their ‘press release’, the Maoists have attempted to paint their devilish actions with the colours of exploitation and deprivation – a bogey with which they have consistently tried to coerce the tribal people join their military dalams.
Eradication or Negotiation?
A baffling situation no doubt, and the Indian policy makers have embarked on a two-pronged strategy to deal with the insurgency. The general principle works on the security-cum-development model. First, ‘clear’ the affected area and then ‘hold’ onto it and pump in the development as fast as practicable – or may be, faster than normal bureaucratic processes function.

As former Director General of the Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF), K Vijay Kumar told at the Idea Exchange event hosted by Indian Express in January 2012:

"Indian insurgencies need to be fought with security and development."

Taking the example of the anti-Maoist operation in Saranda forests of Jharkhand's West Singhbhum district, he also said in the same forum that “the security forces had pushed the door figuratively, by going in first. This had to be followed by immediate development in the region from the government.”
The strategy, however, do not exhibit much novelty as this has been put into effective usage in Iraq and Afghanistan recently and moreover there is nothing ‘new’ in the government’s experience regarding the Naxal/Maoist insurgency. It is a four-decade old problem. Though it subsided in the late 1970s and was dormant in the 1980s and 90s; Andhra Pradesh was to feel the jolts of the shock many a times, first during 1978-85 and thereafter in the late 1990s which zoomed in March 2000 with the assassination of A. Madhava Reddy, then Home Minister of Andhra Pradesh, further magnified with the attack on a central cabinet minister in 2001 in Andhra itself and finally culminated at the failed murderous attempt on the erstwhile Chief Minister of the state, Chandrababu Naidu in October 2003. The machinery of the province did react and it was ruthless in its execution. It prepared an elite band of ‘Greyhounds’; on most occasions manned by the Indian Police Service officers and clubbed it with a penetrative intelligence department.

The strategy worked quite successfully. Incarceration and annihilation of the top brass of the Maoist leadership obliterated the preponderance of the Naxalites in the province and they were forced to shift base to neighbouring Chattisgrah. The ultras were forced to form a new epicenter: Dantewada-Bastar region of central India. Such was the dramatic effect of the elite Greyhounds on the Maoists, that N. Venugopal, a participant observer of the movement in Andhra notes in p. 219 his book:

“The Greyhounds do not even have uniforms, they do not wear badges, they do not travel in numbered vehicles, and their sojourns are never recorded.”

One can sympathise with his disgruntlement and hence the venom pouring through his pen.

A freelance journalist Rana Bose, somewhat inadvertently, lays down the principle of conflict resolution. He contributed an article in the anthology “War and Peace in Junglemahal” whose title ran like: “If You Want Peace, You Must Go To War” – something similar had been propounded by Edward Luttwak in Foreign Affairs magazine, when the celebrated military strategist wrote: “Give War a Chance”. However, and quite correctly so, Bose goes on to clarify the military tactic inherent in his title:

“………You must actually wage war to a point of advantage where a stalemate is reached and peace negotiations are inevitable.”

Simply put, ‘talks’ with a guerrilla organization, whose sole motive is to uproot the democratic structures of the nation, can possibly take place only when the authorities place themselves in a position of strength. After the Jhiram valley murders, who is at a position of strength? Analytically speaking and by gleaning onto the data of the past 2 to 3 years, it may be safely commented that the government still holds onto that advantage, but an outright clash at this moment could be gorier. However, the government must utilise the media coverage during this period and win the propaganda war – since it would be utterly cumbersome for the Maoists to intellectually defend themselves after these mass murders.

It could always be the case that Ganapathy and his Central Committee smashed the ace through the Darbha incident – expecting an all-out offensive – which in turn would be utilized by them to foment disaffection against the state structures and wean away the masses from the democratic moorings. Another possibility which Ganapathy and his mates could have guessed was a timid reaction by the government so that offer of talks may flow and they would renew and refresh in the meantime. As Gautam Navlakha notes in p. 311 of “War and Peace in Junglemahal”:

“……majority line at the Unity Congress 2007 on the issue of talks in Andhra Pradesh was to utilize the relaxation in order to complete the preparation for confronting future offensive ……”.

Navlakha’s theoretical statement is empirically corroborated by failed Maoist interlocutor Sujato Bhadro in p. 63 of the same book: “To our utter dismay, the Maoists, even after our contact with them had been established and a round of peace talks with them was completed on a positive note on 28 August, took the lives of 3 activists of other political parties in a ruthless manner.”

Let’s Move On, But How?

·         The CPI-M is still a non-conventional guerilla force and fighting an insurgency in the strategic stalemate phase. Thus, a full-fledged operation employing the Armed Forces is still not on the cards of feasibility.

·         The CRPF needs to be trained in counter-insurgency warfare. More jungle warfare schools modeled on the one at Kanker needs to be set up and are being done so. The disbanded civil militia is gradually being incorporated into regular police forces. In this manner, the irregular militia is obtaining a facade of legitimacy. Local men with knowledge of the topography and dialect would surely provide a fillip in counter-insurgency operations.

·         Interestingly, Sunil Dasgupta in a Brookings publication, while discussing on local alliances in counter-insurgency operations, comments:

Extant counterinsurgency theory, which is sensitive to escalation control and accusations of abuse of power, does not highlight this frankly brutal approach that still allows the government keep their hands relatively clean.”

·         Further, CRPF could implement platoons, or may be squads so as to “fight the guerilla like a guerilla”. Finding targets is a challenge. Satellite imagery and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are being used to zero in on the targets. Area domination exercises must follow proper Standard Operating Procedures, in order to avoid loss of lives of the security forces.

·         Not only strength in terms of technical wherewithal or arms, the CAPF personnel need to have constant motivational and psychological boosts – more so in the wake of reports of high suicide rates and attrition factor.

·         Empowerment of the adivasis must continue as a parallel course, for instance, revenue-sharing with the adivasis by the corporate bodies and the proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006. The administration needs to act as a facilitator in this regard. Some corporate houses have taken positive steps. Like the Tata Steel has called for social infrastructure development in the Maoist areas. Already, ITC has served the peasant community by introducing agri-marketing through Information Technology (the e-choupalscheme)

·         Surgical strikes against top leaders of the Maoists need to continue. Such a policy will lead them to ideological bankruptcy. By all probability, personnel from the Greyhound force can ‘coach’ the provincial police forces and the CAPF.

·         Human intelligence network of the police has to be improved because it’s the local police which will be the base of the pillar of strength against the Maoists. The CAPF will provide the raw power, but the local police stations must come up with the vital nutrients – in this case, intelligence aka precise information and at the same time, conserving one’s own. But, the key has to be ‘mixing’ with the population and ‘winning’ them from the ultras.

·         Finally, seeds of dissension may be attempted to be sown amongst the Maoists; that is, try for a de-merger of CPI-M into MCC and PWG wings. A case in point is the bloody internecine skirmish going on in Jharkhand, between the Tritiya Prastuti Committee and the CPI-M.

The way forward may not be smooth – both for the administration as well as the ultras and more so the masses – whom Mao Tse-tung so fascinatingly termed the ‘water’. Meticulous planning, a unity of purpose and clinical execution may very well combine so that the original Spring Thunder can as well be the last.

Dr. Uddipan Mukherjee is an IOFS officer under OFB, Ministry of Defence, Govt. of India. Any opinion expressed in this article is solely that of the author and in no way reflects the official position of the Govt. of India.