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The faultlines in Chidambaram's anti-Naxal strategy

Last updated on: April 09, 2010 14:01 IST

That there is something awry in Union government's anti-Naxal strategy is now established. Experts are questioning the methods of the home minister and his ministry. Sheela Bhatt reports on the repercussions of the Dantewada massacre.

"This is unprecedented. Even in our wars with Pakistan, an entire company has never been wiped out. This is shocking," a senior officer of Intelligence Bureau told about the massacre of 76 Central Reserve Police Force troopers by the Maoists in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh on April 6.

According to IB sources, "intelligence" was not lacking about the current status of the Maoists in that area. In fact, two clear inputs were sent from the IB headquarters to the state police in Raipur, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The IB claims that the first message was about "reorganisation taking place within Naxal groups." The IB says that after Union Home Minister P Chidambaram's high-profile strategy promising to finish the Maoists in the tribal belts came into operation "regrouping" had started amongst the Maoists.

In both states, smaller Naxal groups have come together to form bigger and stronger battalions to take on state and central security forces. IB officers in New Delhi claim on April 5 a message was sent to Raipur's nodal office, handling such intelligence, that in Dantewada the risk of IED (improvised explosive device) blasts is high. The officer says, "Our information was almost precise. The actual blast took place just 2.5 km away from the place where we had expected it."

In short, inspite of having specific intelligence, Indian security forces are suffering heavy loses against the Maoists. In the last one year, there have been more deaths among security officers than Maoists.

A seasoned police officer with 30-plus years of experience told, "In last couple of years, the CRPF top brass has twicde told the home ministry that their soldiers should not be sent to unfamiliar area to tackle the Maoists. In the meetings, senior officers have told the home secretary that troopers should not be 'cannon fodder' till other issues of operations are put in place."

"The new Chidambaram plan to tackle Maoists is to take back control of the Naxal-controlled areas, help development while the police fight the Naxals and rebuild the economy with a surge of new projects. But this policy has failed," he said.

In a scathing attack on Chidambaram's policy of using the media against the Maoists, another senior officer with outstanding knowledge of India's internal security, said, "When you are fighting insurgents within your country, this is never done. The use of the media to build your image as the doer is a different ball game. The home ministry is an action-oriented and sensitive ministry. While fighting insurgents it's important not to send provocative messages. Fighting Naxals in the interiors of India is one thing and polemics is another."

He further says, "I know from experience that whenever the government or political leaders in states like Andhra Pradesh or Orissa have challenged the rebels, they have taken it seriously. Mind you, the Naxals are not indulging in mindless and indiscriminate violence. They are choosing their targets carefully. Their violence is discriminate."

About the political message that has emerged from the Dantewada killing fields, he said, "Observe carefully, they have selected the CRPF which comes under the Centre. It's so sad that the toll is so high. Since the last one year Home Secretary G K Pillai and Chidambaram are giving deadlines for finishing off the Maoists in their innumerable media interviews. The reality is something else. On April 6, the Maoists told the home ministry 'we are right here. We are well-organised and we are taking up your challenge'."

B Raman, columnist and one of India's ace experts on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, knows Chhattisgarh quite well. When in service he belonged to the Madhya Pradesh cadre.

He says, "Chidambaram's hawkish statements on how he intends handling the Maoists insurgency have acted like a red rag to the bull and provoked the Maoists to retaliate against the State at a time when it was not well prepared to counter their retaliation."

"In counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, rhetoric should be soft and action strong. Chidambaram's rhetoric is strong, but actions have been not as strong as indicated by his rhetoric. In counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, too much talk and too much transparency can be counter-productive," he adds.

It is surprising that on one side a huge budget is given to fight the Naxals, it is on top on the national agenda and the issue has been debated threadbare from every public platform but, today, in North Block (which houses the home ministry) there is no exclusive, experienced left-wing extremism expert.  

Pillai is media-savvy but he has not dealt with the Maoists, he is an expert in north-east insurgents. Probably, none of his team members have seen any Maoists, says a former colleague of Pillai.  

Special Secretary U K Bansal, in charge of internal security, is from Uttar Pradesh cadre and he too does not have any first-hand experience of handling the Maoists.

"You know first-rate pilots cannot be asked to do heart surgeries just because they are smart, intelligent and efficient in their job. Similarly, tackling Maoists is a specialised job and any smart or media-savvy IAS or IPS officer can't handle it efficiently," says a former officer in the home ministry.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and K Kamraj, who made their mark in internal security management, were known as silent strongmen.

Raman says, "It seems Chidambaram is the opposite. He is too talkative for a home minister -- one who does not keep his adversaries guessing as to what he will do. His frequent statements of a contradictory nature have also affected his credibility in dealing with the (Lashkar-e-Tayiba 26/11 suspect David) Headley case."

Many serving and retired policemen are arguing in off-the-record conversations that Chidambaram and Pillai should also avoid discussing in public matters like use of air power because it is turning out to be a joke.

Raman says, "If he is not careful, disenchantment with his handling of internal security may set in just as it did with (former home minister) Shivraj Patil."

That there is something awry in the entire strategy is now established. Now, even moderate critics of the government are questioning the methods of the home minister and his ministry.

The Hindu newspaper has written a sharp editorial on Thursday criticising Chidambaram. The editorial said the Maoist attack, 'has demonstrated that the architecture of the government's counter-Maoist campaign is fundamentally flawed. Mr Chidambaram's dramatic pursuit of success and his high-sounding polemical attacks on the Maoists have endeared him to Indians frustrated by years of inaction against terrorism.'

Chidambaram may be getting kudos among urban television viewers but it is at a high cost.

'A poorly thought-through counter-insurgency campaign has ended up jeopardising the lives of men who are being pushed into a battle they are ill-trained and ill-equipped for,' the editorial added.

Many experts are unhappy with over-exposure and grandstanding of the home minister and home secretary in the print and television media. The editorial puts it sharply, 'India ought not to be losing the war against the Maoists. It will, inevitably, continue to do so as long as grand-standing substitutes for capacity-building and strategic thinking.' 

The police officer, who has interrogated many Maoists, told that while the Maoists have read Mao well Chidambaram and Pillai need to do so too. 'When you are prepared, show your enemy that you are unprepared. When you are nearer to your enemy, mislead him by saying you are in far away place,' the Chinese leader had said.

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi