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Combating Maoists: Into battle sans leaders

By Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)
April 16, 2010 16:14 IST
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With Maoist insurgents offering more lethal battles, police battalions will need a transformation to standards very close to infantry units. Even with the best equipment and training, they will not succeed if they do not have a dynamic leadership, writes Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

The Dantewada massacre by Naxals on April 6 killed 76 jawans (74 from the Central Reserve Police Force and two local police). Not one of those killed was that of an officer from the feted Indian Police Service that provides leadership to police organisations in our country.

The questions that this stark fact throws up are monumental: Is it possible to win the war against Maoist insurgents by fielding our police forces sans their leaders? Is it possible to learn about the dynamics of combat without having led men in tactical operations and operational manoeuvres? If the next CRPF company refuses to obey orders and go into the jungles (our home grown version of troops surge), will we call it another police revolt and undertake disarming operations?

There is plenty that ails the Indian police forces, but of all of them, leadership failure stands out the most. Armies all over the world believe in an axiomatic truth, "An army is as good as its officers are." In the combat zone, if not in every other aspect of policing too, the adage holds equally good.

There is much to be done and a lot to be undone before the Maoist influence spreads beyond one-fifth of the districts in our country. To start with we have to equip the police forces with a plethora of equipment. Not just the basic rifle, but they have to be provided communication equipment, surveillance capability, helicopters, greater and robust tactical mobility, logistics, training, to state but a few. However, there is a lot that the force could do to prepare itself and at least avoid being purposelessly massacred.

Given the right leadership, even an average police battalion can surely conduct itself with a lot more of professionalism. In the business of combat, those who provide the leadership have to earn their spurs under fire. The officers and men have to bond and yearn for combat exposure. That is where the towering failure of our police forces lie.

 Take a look at the diabolically different panorama not too far in time to have blurred. During the Kargil conflict every battalion and regiment in the Indian Army, without exception, that was not deployed for the operations wallowed in grief. Commanding officers and even senior retired officers from such units were doing the rounds, pleading for their units to be given an opportunity.

Officers serving tenures away from their battalions in instructional or staff appointments were using every influence to get back to the unit. Such a spirit, which is the most important driving force of an army battalion, is not even a utopian dream in our police forces, though the Maoist insurgency is over a decade old. Obviously, no lessons have been learnt.

If police battalions are to undertake combat duties they have to have the cohesion that any combat unit in the Indian Army has. An infantry battalion is a cohesive force and is deployed as a single entity in combat, by and large. In stark contrast, it is rare to find battalions of central police organisations or para-military forces ever operating with their subunits deployed contiguously. More often than not A Company of one battalion will be found miles away under some other battalion, while a third battalion's B Company could well be deployed along with the first battalion. The system of operational deployment beats all logic. Senior police officers, not having experience of service in battalions do not understand the difference between amassed, assorted men toting weapons and cohesive combat ready units. 

While the basic drills and methods of operation in an insurgency situation will have to be learnt by the rank and file, the higher police leadership will need to comprehend the issues of force deployment and application. The art of establishing a counter-insurgency grid and area domination are not easy to master. The intricacies of laying down inter battalion and formation boundaries, avoiding friendly fires while employing massed forces, or incorporating air power, as is being contemplated, are not easy to comprehend.

Merely locating of forces on the periphery of jungles (the nakah culture) and occasional forays inside will not serve any purpose. Counter insurgency operations call for relentless aggressive operations, domination of areas cleared, and keeping the insurgents on the run. It involves dynamic logistics that can roll out and reach supplies forward from static dumps and depots behind. Beyond that is perception management to isolate the insurgent from the populace, building the infrastructure and economy in consonance with local aspirations.

The age profile of our police battalions is also a stumbling block. Spending three nights in the jungles, patrolling vast wooded areas and surviving on bare minimum; all the while with a heavy rucksack on the back, test human endurance.  Should those who have to undertake such missions be unable to cope with the stresses, the guard would be lowered; an opportunity that the younger, fitter, lithe insurgent would pounce upon to telling effect.

Police officers, including senior officers need to undergo basic army courses to understand combat conditions and response to these. It is not adequate for a handful of them to go through courses meant for the army's senior leadership, like the National Defence College. Courses that are more important in addition to those that deal with jungle warfare and counter insurgency are the command course all armies run for their junior commanders at the company and battalion level. As far as training of the rank and file is concerned, training of entire companies and battalions as single cohesive entities that will also be employed so thereafter, is required.

With a huge upgradation of ranks in the police establishment and resultant accelerated promotions, it is well nigh impossible for IPS cadre officers of ranks equivalent to company and battalion commanders to get exposure to combat situations. And not having done such tenures handicaps officers in gaining better perspective of such situations. With Maoist insurgents offering more and more lethal battles, police battalions will need a transformation to standards very close to infantry units. Even if they were given the best of equipment and training, they will not succeed if they do not have dynamic leadership, cohesion at the battalion level, aggressive spirit and high morale.

An army officer starts his career as a platoon commander, considered his fundamental edifice (an IPS officer does not serve in that rank ever, he starts higher; the results being obvious), and moves up gradually as he assimilates the nuances of combat situations where one misstep can easily cost lives. Those who will provide leadership to the police forces tomorrow need to walk the same course. Further, those who wear a uniform that authorises a weapon at the belt cannot shy away from being there across the line of fire. Leadership, more often than not, is from the front.

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Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)