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Chhattisgarh attack: Why the Indian state was caught napping

“This period of peace,” Mahendra Karma had warned, “is dangerous for us.” The founder of the Salwa Judum anti-Maoist militia was shot dead on Saturday night, two years after the Supreme Court disbanded it; he was dragged out of his bullet-proof car as the commandos tasked with protecting him fled.

Former chief minister Vidya Charan Shukla was critically injured in the ambush, which claimed Karma’s life, along with Sukma MLA Kawasai Lakma. Nandkumar Patel, the state’s Congress chief, is missing—feared kidnapped, along with members of his family.

The site of the Maoist ambush on Friday night. TV screengrab

The site of the Maoist ambush on Friday night. TV screengrab

From here on, India has to make a fundamental choice: to decide if our democracy is worth killing, or stop sending men to die for a cause we don’t believe in.

In the weeks to come, the intelligence and combat-preparedness failures that led to Saturday’s carnage will be picked apart.

Either the $4 million-plus Israeli-made Heron long-range surveillance drones flown across the region each day failed to pick up the gathering of an ambush team reported to be hundreds strong—or the National Technical Reconnaissance Organisation didn’t interpret the imaging data accurately.

The Chhattisgarh police will have to explain why its intelligence networks in Sukma missed the gathering of the assault team, and so will the Intelligence Bureau.

There will be questions, too, about why a road being used by several high-profile politicians wasn’t more effectively swept for mines—and why more Central Reserve Police Force units weren’t combing the Darba plateau, the Maoists’ battlefield of choice, flanked to the north by the dense Kanger forests and to the east by the Balimela jungles.

Dabra-ambush-map---620

It isn’t the first time these questions have been asked—and we can be sure that the answers we’ll get will be lies. It hasn’t been six months, after all, since Chhattisgarh director-general of police Ramniwas proclaimed that the state’s Maoist problem was “very much under control”.

Ever since April, intelligence agencies had been warning that Maoists would focus on high-profile but vulnerable targets in the pre-monsoon period—the traditional time for what’s called the TCOC, or tactical counter-offensive. In 2010, a TCOC-time attack had claimed the lives of a staggering 79 CRPF personnel at Tarmetla: the worst single loss India has ever suffered in counter-insurgency. In the years since, though, the CRPF has pushed up its deployment in Chhattisgarh to over 20 battalions—and, more important, grasped the fundamentals of jungle warfare.

For months, therefore, Maoists had been unable to mount the kinds of large-scale attacks on security forces that had made them feared. Earlier this month, Maoists killed three police officers in an attack on the All India Radio station near Jagdalpur, but failed to overwhelm their target.

What seemed to be an irresistible tide of violence had been fought to a stalemate—and the Maoists’ commanders knew they needed to do something spectacular to project power.

In spite of the warnings, both the state and central governments remained sanguine. Like the rest of India, Chhattisgarh had registered a decline in levels of Maoist violence. In 2012, according to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, 63 civilians, 46 security force personnel and and 38 Maoists were killed in 2012—down from 124 civilians, 80 police personnel and 34 Maoists in 2011.

Maoist-violence-620

This was, however, a fundamental misrepresentation of the situation. Fire engagement with police declined sharply, from 99 to 88, even while the number of attacks on them rose from 75 to 76. Intelligence services reported 24 military training camps had been held in 2012, the same as in 2011. The number of reported Jan Adalats—Maoist courts, often characterised by savage punishments for alleged informers and ideological enemies—actually rose from 13 to 16. Even though there was fewer killing, thus, the Maoist presence on the ground hadn’t diminished significantly.

Put simply, the data showed the police had backed off offensive operations, retreating into holding defensive positions hardened against attack. Lacking political support for the collateral damage that accompanies all counter-insurgency operations—last year, orders were issued to call off operations rather than risk civilian casualties: they simply bunkered down.

The leadership called this retreat victory.

It isn’t the first time that fantasy has passed for policy. In 2009, as the union government mobilised CRPF personnel for its first push into the Maoist heartland, Union Home Secretary GK Pillai promised that “within 30 days of the security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration.” Eleven weeks after the massacre of CRPF personnel at Tarmetla, P Chidambaram announced he was confident “that the problem of Left wing extremism will be overcome in the next three years.” In 2010, Maoist violence peaked; the Union Home Ministry claimed its actions had led to “much better results”.

The United Progressive Alliance’s policies drew on population-centric warfare doctrines then fashionable in the Pentagon. It thought embedding the security forces amidst the population could spearhead a developmental push—and bring peace.

Experts on Indian insurgencies warned this wouldn’t work. Ajai Sahni sardonically suggested that the government “restore civil administration to vast expanses of rural India where the Maoists have no presence whatsoever, but where virtually the entire apparatus of governance has vanished." At least some of these areas, he noted, "are little more than a stone’s throw away from Delhi.”

The UPA didn’t listen—and eventually learned the hard way, just as the Pentagon did in Afghanistan.

Even now, though, the real work of counter-insurgency capacity-building hasn’t begun. In 2011, Chhattisgarh had sanctioned positions for 27,597 police officers patrol its 192,000 sq km of brutal terrain, ill-connected by road—contrast that with 64,200 in Gujarat, about the same size, or 69,801 with Delhi. The number sanctioned in 2008, when the Maoist insurgency was just gathering ground, was 25,716, of which just 17,392 were actually in service.

The worst deficits are at critical mid-level command positions: Chhattisgarh needs 370 officers from the rank of deputy superintendent of police to senior superintendent of police, but has just 288.

For all the talk, the figures show, there’s no coherent strategy for force-building. The less that’s said about training and skills enhancement, the better. Chhattisgarh founded a school of jungle warfare with great fanfare, but the bulk of its recruits are deployed in personal-protection duties for VIPs.

It isn’t a theoretical debate: people are being killed, every single day, because Indian democracy isn't being serious about defending itself against those seeking to overthrow it.

Perhaps it’s doomed to stay this way: like every other crisis to do with national security, the debate will soon degenerate into a war of hash-tags, a competition of mindless name-calling involving #Feku and #Pappu.

Large elements of India’s élite don’t have the stomach for a long and dirty war—which is what all insurgencies involve. For years, there’s been a complicity with the killing—on the Left because of misplaced guilt over India’s hideous failures to ensure equity for citizens; on the right, because of the misguided belief that geographical distance allows for apathy. It’s been facilitated by the fact that police officers’ lives are cheap, because the local Dalam commander can be bribed to let mines and factories run, and because Maoists aren’t—yet—setting off bombs in our cities.

That’s why after every previous massacre, once we were done with bleating calls for dialogue and bombast about carpet-bombing, everything went back to the way it was.

Except this time, it can’t.

Karma explained, three years ago, the irreducible ideological contest that underpins India’s struggle against the Maoists. “I am a democrat,” he said, “and live in a democratic system. If they are against our system, then it is a rebellion and should be crushed like one. The biggest drawback of our democracy is that democrats don’t have a commitment to their democracy.”

This hasn’t always been true. In 2003, after Maoists almost succeeded in killing N Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh roused itself to decimate terrorism. It happened in Tripura and in Punjab. It can be done.

India’s war against the Maoists will begin to be won when we decide that the democracy we have is worth killing for. Mahendra Karma made that choice—and one way or the other, we all will...