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Maoists attack and why it's an impossible war to win: Recycled response of every govt betrays bankruptcy of creative solutions

Home Minister Rajnath Singh has called a "high-level" meeting on 8 May in New Delhi to discuss "strategy" following last week's brutal killing of 25 men of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) by Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district. Will it throw up new and out-of-the-box ideas? Unlikely, if one goes by Singh's response immediately after the massacre.

Barely hours after the attack, Singh told the CRPF he wants "targetted" operations against the Maoists. He also reportedly said the CRPF should resolve its "inherent" problems like "weaponry, logistics and intelligent gathering mechanism to ensure lethality and better results by avoiding casualties", one news report said. Another quoted him as saying: "Tell me how many men you want, how much money you want, how many arms you want." Very gangsta!

But what does he mean by "targetted" operations? Have they not been "targetted" until now? What "inherent" issues does the CRPF have with weaponry, logistics and intelligence? Does the home minister believe the force has not enough arms and intelligence? How long has it been this way?

The 24 April attack is not the first and, sadly, won't be the last. On 11 March, the Maoists had killed 12 CRPF men in Sukma district. Why didn't Singh then order an urgent resolution of all these issues? Did his ministry take any corrective steps in the intervening six weeks since? If the CRPF lacks mojo, why has the government been sleeping on it?

Relatives of martyred CRPF personnel at his funeral. PTI

Relatives of martyred CRPF personnel at his funeral. PTI

Then, for the home minister to ask the CRPF to "ensure lethality and better results by avoiding casualties" is such a bummer. Are we to believe that the CRPF has been shying away from "lethality"; do they not shoot to kill? Is the CRPF lax in ensuring fewer casualties of its men?

If we translate this in simple English what Singh has reportedly told the force, is this: Make sure you don't get killed, not at least in such high numbers; use more guns; improve your intelligence; and kill the damn Maoists.

Really? How much more non-revelatory can you get with instructions? Hasn't the CRPF's only remit been to kill the Maoists and secure the region? Hasn't it utterly failed to achieve that goal despite its heavy presence there for years?

To be fair, Singh's cluelessness is not unique. Former Home Minister P Chidambaram was no less vague and imprecise as home minister under the previous government. After the Maoists killed 75 CRPF men - the largest casualties ever in an attack by the Maoists - in April 2010 in Dantewada district, his response had been similarly hollow. His successor, Sushil Kumar Shinde, too, deployed the same rhetoric — "we will avenge the attack" — when 11 CRPF personnel and four policemen were killed in March 2014, weeks before the Lok Sabha election. Ditto when the Maoists had killed 27 people, including Congress party leaders, in Sukma, in May 2013.

Last week's massacre was caused not by insufficient ammo or a lack of targeted strategy, or even failed intelligence, as Singh's reported statement indicates, though these factors exist, too. No.The CRPF men repeatedly end up as lambs to the slaughter because they are caught in an impossible — for want of a better word — war that, try as hard as they may, they cannot win.

They are doomed to fail because their presence is not backed by any practical and pragmatic assessment of the ground realities in Bastar, the Maoist-"infested" region of Chhattisgarh, where the high-intensity, overwhelmingly one-sided battle between the rebels and the security forces has raged for more than a decade with little success for the latter. The recycled responses of successive ministers betray a bankruptcy of creative solutions. The government has failed to acknowledge the obvious failure of the exclusive "military solution" and the need for a Plan B in its place.

For one, the CRPF men are badly disadvantaged as they have zero knowledge of the terrain. While the ragtag Maoists can sleepwalk across this land on a moonless night, the CRPF's ill-paid, ill- equipped and ill-trained men, who are non-locals without even a passing acquaintance with the landscape, make heavy duty marching a mile from their camps on a hot summer day.

Look at where the CRPF men were killed on 24 April: barely 1 km from their camp, just as those killed on 12 March had been from theirs. Those killed in April 2010 in Dantewada had been marching near their camp when attacked.

Chidambaram had then thoughtfully surmised that they appeared to have "walked into a trap". Anonymous officials have repeated "walked into a trap" analysis this time, too. How exactly do you walk into a trap a kilometer from your camp? When Maoists attack you so close to home, they aren't trapping you; they're stalking you.

Incredibly, the only counterinsurgency strategy in Bastar — a region larger than Kerala — has been to build mammoth CRPF camps in the middle of nowhere. Among the world's most fortified with their larger-than-life presence in a sparse and verdant vista, the camps are visible from afar. Officials have acknowledged that the Maoists probably keep a watch before striking.

The camps are virtual prisons whence inmates rarely venture out; never in ones or twos but only as a patrol. They are like the tethered goat in Jurassic Park for the dinosaur to grab and eat. To have these uniformed men guard road construction, as the CRPF men killed last week and on 12 March were supposedly doing, or have them march around their camps regularly - "area domination exercise" is the ironic phrase- is like putting out radio ads of their locations.

As a reporter I had reached Jagdalpur, the district headquarters for Dantewada, within hours of the massacre of 75 CRPF men in April 2010. It was surreal to witness CRPF jawans saw ply-board and nail together coffins for their fallen comrades. Nearby, hapless doctors silently carried out mass autopsies. One of the three survivors I met at the hospital revealed he lacked any meaningful counterinsurgency training. None of his colleagues had had a familiarizing tour of Bastar. Incredibly, the little training his batch had had in jungle warfare had been in Punjab.

If the CRPF men are not safe on any occasion they step out of their camp and are attacked so near it, one can imagine how impossible would be any kind of outreach into the local communities, who alone can help the CRPF with intelligence and ground support. The CRPF men don't speak the local language, Gondi, and it has not occurred to the government to make them compulsorily learn it. Mass contact with civilians for confidence building is not part of the strategy. In 2014 when I traveled to an interior village to investigate a killing I found that the communication gap between the civilian tribals and the security forces was wide as ever. The police were bent on arresting more tribals, and the tribals hated even the sight of the uniformed men.

The approach of the CRPF towards the civilian tribal people has historically been adversarial. The CRPF men (along with the state police) are routinely accused of arson, torture, rape and murder of civilians. On Friday, an audio statement reportedly released by the Maoists claimed that the 24 April killings were "revenge" for the (alleged) rape of tribal women by uniformed men.

A file photo of a CRPF personnel's funeral who lost his life in 24 April massacre in Sukma. PTI

A file photo of a CRPF personnel's funeral who lost his life in 24 April massacre in Sukma. PTI

In January, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said it had found "prima facie" evidence that 16 tribal women had been "victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by state police personnel in Chhattisgarh" in Bijapur district in October 2015. It said "prima facie, human rights of the victims have been grossly violated, for which the state government is vicariously liable."

Notwithstanding the machismo of their rhetoric, the governments of neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi and nor his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, ever called a comprehensive reassessment of counterinsurgency ops in Bastar to find and plug gaps. Had they done that, they would have found a total disconnect between the patrolmen and the local communities.

Once upon a time security forces claimed they had access to the Maoists' networks via the Salwa Judum, the barbarous tribal militia that Chhattisgarh police raised over a decade ago to counter the Maoists. But the militia had alienated the tribals with their unrestrained violence long before the Supreme Court ordered it shut in 2011. Former Judum members have now regrouped in another shape and form but, predictably, civilian tribals continue to hate them.

The biggest paradox is that there is a tremendous scope to build a bridge with the tribal communities, who have suffered much violence at the hands of the Maoists, too. In May 2016, a fact-finding team of four eminent social and political activists - who can by no stretch of imagination be labeled as proxies for the government - reported that in many places tribal villagers have been trying to fight the Maoists, too, some by using axes and arrows.

In fact, some villagers even sought police protection against the Maoists - one village wanted a CRPF camp set up near it - but without success. Instead, the police torture villagers to force them to confess that they are Maoists. Especially since Mr. Modi came to power in May 2014, the police have gone on a hyperdrive in Bastar. Allegations of police assaults and torture have shot up. Police have allegedly forced hundreds of innocent tribals to "surrender" as Maoists. This, obviously, is doing little to improve an already disreputable image of the police and the CRPF there.

The irony is that the government has accused one of the four activists who have documented the tribal resistance to Maoists of being a Maoist herself. Chhattisgarh police have even implicated Nandini Sundar, a professor at Delhi University and a tireless campaigner against human rights violations by the forces, in a murder case, a charge that she obviously denies.

"A proper dialogue process and a genuine people oriented democratic model of development is essential for the well being of the people of Bastar," the activists said in a statement. "In the current context neither the state nor the Maoists are addressing this urgent need."

We can't and shouldn't expect the Maoists to listen to the voice of reason, for even if they aren't winning the war they're certainly scoring every battle they fight with the security forces. But surely the government can't be so far gone in its mindless pursuit of a "bullet-for-bullet" approach that it cannot see how miserably that has failed for decades? Prime Minister Modi needs to break this cycle of hopelessness and bring some real solutions to the table.

After all, as has been said, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Updated Date: May 02, 2017 09:11 AM

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