The killing of 75 CRPF personnel and a local policeman in a Naxalite ambush in Dantewada on Tuesday is a wake up call for all. Operation Green Hunt launched by the Union home ministry to flush out the Naxals has gone horribly wrong.
Right from the word go a discordant note was struck when the government unilaterally declared that it would use 'minimum force' and not permit the use of Indian Air Force helicopters or the army or other special forces in the battle.
I had led a team to study the Naxal problem in Chhattisgarh in July 2006. A major finding of that study was that faced with ill-equipped police forces, the Naxalites had an upper hand and have acquired an image of being 'ten feet tall'. A large number of 'fence sitters,' mainly innocent tribals joined the Naxal ranks as they are seen to be the winning side.
It is a seldom appreciated truism that battles are won or lost in the minds. The fight to last man last round is a myth. In India 'flag marches' are a regular feature. The idea to let the potential adversary know the overwhelming force that is available. 'Flag marches' would be meaningless if there is a prior declaration that the force being demonstrated is never going to be used.
In case of the ongoing armed action against the Naxalites, it appears that the 'deterrent' effect has been diluted due to such declarations that some of the instruments or coercion available with the government will not be used. During the Kargil conflict a decade ago, a similar declaration about not crossing the LoC operationally helped the enemy.
It is recommended that to redress the balance of perception, the following be considered:
- To undo the damage due to statements about the limitations on use of armed force the authorities could make it clear that while at the moment they do not intend to use the armed forces or air power, the option to do so if necessary is open.
- To demonstrate the national resolve, fighter aircraft recces and photo missions must be considered over the affected area. These missions should be widely publicised. A movement of large body of troops, around a division, could be considered through the road network of the affected area.
- The army should carry out regular training exercises in the Naxal affected areas so as to show its presence.
- Selected operations by elite National Security Guard to eliminate the top leadership of the Naxals should be considered.
One of the greatest worries in anti-Naxal operations is the loss of life of innocent tribals who are in it due to real or imagined petty grievances or propaganda by the Naxals.
A demonstration of the force by the State will wean away a large portion of sympathisers and fence sitters. The hardcore ideologically motivated cadres are not likely to be affected by this, but it will ease the path of the impending operations by lowering the morale of the Naxal rank and file and raising that of the police forces as well as common people.
Thus in order to achieve the psychological goal of convincing the insurgents/counter insurgents that they are in no win situation, the force used has to be neither minimum (as in a situation of civic unrest) nor maximum as in case of an all out war between two states, but adequate. The adequate force has to be so in terms of both quality and duration and has to be legitimate.
Strategy to deal with the Naxal problem
Essentially the strategy would be based on the principles of 'isolate, contain and disarm/destroy'. Prima facie this seems simple, but as the famous war historian von Clauswitz has famously said that strategic issues seem simple, that does not mean they are easy.
The first element of this strategy, isolation, will have physical, economic, social, psychological dimension with variety of means available including use of media and propaganda. It is the first essential step in a war against the Naxals. The isolation of the Naxalites would mean cutting off sources of money, supplies, arms and ammunition and even provisions.
The much criticised shifting of villagers out of the combat zone is necessary. A measure of population and resource control can isolate the Naxals. Once separated from the support base of the tribals, the full force of the state ought to be brought to bear upon the rebels.
It is necessary to remember that in the early stages of the insurgency in Nagaland and Mizoram, air power was used against the rebels. It also needs to be reiterated that the much smaller Naxalite revolt of the 1970s was brought under control not by the paramilitary forces but a division strength force of the Indian Army.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often stated that Naxalism is the greatest internal threat facing the country. With elements in Nepal and Chinese hobnobbing with the Maoists, the issue of dealing with Naxalism has acquired great urgency.
In addition the Maoists in Nepal are likely to play the traditional Nepalese game of playing the China card against India. The problems of Nepal are unemployment and growing population, none of which lend itself to easy solutions. To stem the likely public disenchantment, the Nepalese Maoists are likely to use India bogey as well as export of revolution to distract the popular mind from the regime's failures, failures that are inherent in the socio-economic situation in the neighbouring country.
As India's economic and military power grows, competition with China in South East Asia as well as global issues may well tempt the Chinese to use the Nepalese proxy to checkmate India. Not unlike it is doing at present with Pakistan.
Given this grim scenario it is necessary to deal with the problem before it assumes this international dimension. The measures recommended above are a minimalist option and even if not fully successful, can do no harm.
The only adverse impact could be a bad press in terms of 'excessive' threats by the State. The Indian State could well do with some such an image makeover. Unless we want to wallow in our weakness, which regards strength as immoral.
Colonel Anil Athale (retd) has studied the insurgencies in Kashmir, the North East, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, South Africa and Chhattisgarh. As a former infantry officer he has also participated in counter insurgency operations. He is a former fellow of the United Services Institution, New Delhi.