Friday, January 30, 2015

Maoist Insurgency: Tactical Quiescent?

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee, 
Visiting Fellow, VIF

Relative Slowdown

The monsoon period has traditionally been a time of relative quietude in rebellious activities of the Maoists. But this year, even before as well as after the nature’s rain lashing, there has been a noticeable dip in the number of major anti-state incidents perpetrated by them. Indeed, in the Maoist dominated regions, there are visible signs of the Government’s efforts to control the insurgency fructifying to encouraging results, tentatively at least.

There is relative quietude in the intensely Maoist affected areas in the states of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar, and so it is in somewhat less severely affected areas of West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. However, from the hazy inputs coming from village grapevines, it is easy to infer that the Maoists continue to remain in their ominous business from their ‘liberated’ bases in remote jungles.

Be that as it may, a traverse through the troubled areas indicates there have been some attitudinal realignments among the contending parties to the Maoist rebellion. This development therefore provokes deeper enquiry and analysis.

Reckonable Developments

If during the past three years, life and movement along the main arteries running across the Maoist affected areas had been relatively free from violent interruptions, presently even among the people in interior areas a sense of release from the perpetual state of apprehension is palpable. It is certainly not the case that the insurgents have been run down; what seems to have actually happened is that a slew of events have converged to make it sensible for all the parties to the confrontation – Maoists, police and people - to pause, take stock and re-strategise.

Let us see as to what these events are and as to how are these likely to play out in the coming days. However, conditioned by the trends of local politics, it would be natural to expect subtle differences in the situation from one affected state to another.

Strengthening of Police Forces

Repeated warnings from intelligence agencies, security analysts and even the Army notwithstanding, it was only after the massacre at Chintalnar (Dantewara, Chattisgarh) in May 2010 that the public pressure to act with due urgency got infused among the policy-makers of the state Home Departments. No doubt, much before that the Central Government had initiated many steps to equip the Central and state police forces for them to effectively fight the insurgency. But in the face of obdurate self-denial among the ruling political parties in all states barring Chattisgarh, practically none of such measures had made any worthwhile progress. The effort was diluted further by the absence of common cause among the police hierarchy of the Centre and the states, who – as some in the know have attributed to their transient and mutually rotational incumbency - failed to rise above the mundane of turf competition and red tape. Even in the matter of good governance, various state public service departments had their own agendas that were mostly dictated by the scope for influence and crony aggrandisement. Thus, proposals and plans proposed by one group among the state police, central police and the departments of public works, health, education, rural development etc. got subverted by another group. That was an agreeable situation for the local political power brokers who found such cross-cuttings to be much to their advantages.

Once, however, the Maoist mayhem started hurting political interests, the same state hierarchy rose to the occasion. In a remarkable show of purpose, within just a period of three years or so, the forces were substantially expanded in terms of manpower and infrastructure, motivated with rewards, equipped with modern weaponry and accoutrements, serviced with effective engineering works and communications, better trained, and above all, committed to anti-Maoist operations with due deliberation, overwhelming strength and responsive logistic support. Indeed, it has been a commendable show of common purpose within the fraternity of civil services - the IPS being a part of that fraternity - in harnessing its grip over the system to obtain what they want.

The results on ground has been reckonable, the Sukma debacle in December 2014 being but an one-off incident in nearly ten months. Procurements, recruitment, new raisings, build up of road and communication networks, fortification of police posts, mobility, administrative supplies and casualty evacuation by air, and all such policing related initiatives which moved at a snail’s pace earlier, saw a quantum acceleration during the past two years. Meanwhile, the state could sort out many of the inter-cadre officers’ related heart-burns while also streamlining the inter-state differences regarding cross-border police action. It could also prod other departments, particularly the Public Works and Health Departments, to be readily responsive to the requirements raised by the police forces. It is not the case that every matter is hanky-dory, but there has definitely been much improvements in the situation from what the police forces had earlier been operating under.

Subjected to regular assault from the Maoists and public trivialising of their worth, the afore-stated developments have energised the police forces. No police post or armoury has been allowed to be attacked, patrolling in fringe areas have been better organised and many of the Maoist ‘liberated’ areas, which had been given a wide berth earlier, have been repeatedly traversed by strong patrols, thus dismantling a mental barrier.

There is today a palpable sense of confidence, even aggression, among the higher level police officers. Experience, however, should caution against growth of overconfidence - even if words of caution do not seem to make much impression on a mood bordering on boisterousness. This aspect needs serious consideration among the top police and state leadership.

Police Action

Better organised police action undertaken in deliberately defined areas is showing encouraging results. Much of the inhabited hinterland is gridded with well protected police operating bases from where area domination patrols operate at regular intervals. Movement in rural areas is safer, public works for developments out of special Left Wing Extremism (LWE) related allocations have commenced, the ever-absent government officials are often to be found at their post and many of the public services – health centres, schools, tele-communications, Public Distribution System (PDS) - are functional - of course, alongside the innate pull of misappropriation, work-shirking and callous attitude as are ingrained into the society.

Among the Maoist cadres, the lure of ‘percentage cuts’ accruing from various social development schemes have led to dog-fights amongst Maoist factions, and at the same time, caused the state and Panchayat functionaries wetting their lips in anticipation of the manna. Rural employment schemes and recruitment of local lads into the newly raised Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and India Reserve Battalions (IRB) are pulling the youth away from the hardships of rebellious ways. Energetic police actions having made life in the yonder difficult, and incentives becoming more attractive, trickles of surrenders have also started.

No doubt, the police forces have achieved quantum improvements in their counter-insurgency capability, particularly in preventive and objective-denial measures. The stage when they would be in position to take the fight to the insurgent strongholds is, however, yet far away.

Maoists’ Setbacks

A new-found urgency in the state governments and the energised police actions have challenged the Maoist’s unbridled domination over the affected areas. The police no more remains as the insurgents’ ‘quartermaster’ for supply of weaponry, and combined with concerted action by the state police against illegal gun manufacturing and ammunition filling industries in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Maoists are faced with a crunch over supply of arms and ammunition, the latter mostly. Similarly, arrest of several middlemen who arranged explosives for the insurgents has, to some extent, led to depletion of their stocks of explosive devices.

The second factor that has impinged on the rebellion is the combined effects of preceding years of economic slowdown on one hand, and extra-ordinary funding of socio-economic developmental schemes in the Maoist affected areas on the other. The first has caused retardation in mining, transportation and allied business and a resultant drop in ‘levy’ extortion, while the second has lured away the Maoist cadres – never serious about radical socialism in any case – to greener pastures of regular and quasi-legal earnings. More, the development schemes in progress and in planning, and control of local ‘development councils’ over these, has enticed away many key Maoists to the engaging games of group-aggrandisement, graft and brokerage in local politics. Situation in Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha is so affected by competition to make money that Maoist splinter groups have taken to fratricide when agreement in sharing the loot is not forthcoming.

Killing, surrender and arrest of many ideologues, and more importantly, the key players who are generally referred to as ‘area commanders’, has put the third rung cadres into a quandary. Not graduated to the role of leadership and yet trying to establish their position, these wannabe leaders may take time to consolidate themselves. Meanwhile, failure in expanding their ‘urban party cells’ and so garner more finances to buy weapons, pay the cadres and sustain the insurgency, has added to the Maoist woes. The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) cadres, who unlike the village and town based ‘hard-core’ cadres and collaborators are totally dependent on Maoist logistic chain, are the most affected.

In view of the setbacks discussed above, it appears that the Maoist leaders have decided to lie low while looking for means to build up their financial capacity. The policy is to let the hard core cadres lie dormant while remaining embedded in the rural and semi-urban society, and to goad urban collaborators to spread their influence. PLGA would, in the meanwhile, operate from their deep jungle camps, train and bide time for the insurgency logistics to recover. Their giving way to police patrols traversing through the core of their ‘liberated’ areas is one indicator of that policy of dormancy. Of course, certain acts of violence would be triggered to keep the ‘flame glowing’, as they as are wont to parrot at the slightest encouragement. For example, it was probably to that purpose that a couple of blasts on rail tracks were affected in the jungles of Latehar (Jharkhand) in September-October 2014 – the innocuous targets, superficial damages and wild location also being indicative of that policy.

Of course, any threat of police intrusion into their ‘liberated’ areas, from where the rebellion finds sustenance, would invite extreme reaction, as indeed it was done in November-December 2014 in the Chintagufa area of Sukma, Chattisgarh, a remote and forested hill area astride the Indravati Valley which is the Maoist’s strongest fortress. Some among the police hierarchy understand that attempting to displace the Maoists from such of their ‘core’ areas would amount to premature overreach of their forces. But there are many who give an impression of being overconfident, something that would worry an experienced mind.

The insurgency seems subdued - for the present. But it is gearing up at all times to reappear at the centre-stage.

Situation in Affected States

Needless to say, the insurgency situation varies in each of the Maoist affected states, the difference being in the hues of political management of the problem, which in turn are influenced by the politics of power. Thus in Chattisgarh, sustained initiatives of a focused state administration, better organised police action and dedication of certain Non-Government Organisations (NGO) manifests in even the most violence prone areas finding some relief and restoration of near-normal life. There is much enthusiasm among the people regarding various social-service, education, employment and infrastructural development schemes, so much so that the Maoists seem to be chary of interfering in development works and thus upsetting the popular mood. They however, remain sanguine, as they aver, of the Government’s eventual ‘failure’ given its ‘corrupt foundations’, and the resultant re-emergence of people’s ‘disillusionment’ for them to flock back to the ‘Red Salute’. Similar scene is playing out in Maharashtra with commendable success accruing to the state’s efforts.

The situation in Jharkhand is ambivalent. Here, while the trader-miner-mafia-political-outlaw-Maoist nexus remains operative, the police, weary of being at the receiving end for long, have, on their own initiative, hardened their counter-insurgency posture. A tentative political leadership has thus allowed the police to undertake, without interference, what counter-Maoist operations may deliberately be organised within their resources. Combing and area-domination operations are better organised and more frequent, leading to killing and arrest of many first and second rung leaders. Development projects and the advantages these offer have weaned away many cadres and collaborators to the mainstream while fissures within the extremists have widened, particularly on the question of sharing of extorted ‘levy’. Notably, the run up to the state assembly elections has been peaceful more or less, which indicates a popular fervour for development rather than the destructive revolutionary rhetoric. But the future course of insurgency would depend upon the attitude and effectiveness of the new government that has taken charge of the state in January 2015.

In West Bengal, the situation is unique. Domination of various party cadres, turncoats, lumpen elements and religious fanatics is so strong that Maoists have lost their distinct identity. The state police suffers strong influence from party cadres, a situation that the central police forces deployed in the state find rather dismaying. Maoist insurgency per se remains in the background, but afflicted with equally damaging ills, it is not a stable and free society either.

In Odisha, the unstated policy of the state government was to contain the spread of insurgency to new areas while lying low in the Maoist dominated territory. In the past six months or so that has changed, and besides deployment of operating bases, area domination by police patrols goes on regularly. The results have been satisfactory, particularly in arresting some top leaders, allegedly in mutual convenience.

The policy of mutually profitable ‘accommodation’ among petty politicians, outlaws and Maoists in Bihar is apparently still in force, with each avoiding confrontation while going about their business. That gives the impression of relative quietude in Maoist infested North-Western and South-Western Parts of the state. As for Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Maoists have generally avoided overt insurgency in these areas and continue to do so, using these instead as their sanctuaries.
Progressive Measures

Recently, the Central Government has picked up threads from the initiatives of the previous regime and added some impetus to the counter-LWE measures. Issues listed in the current ‘Two-pronged Strategy’ have distinctly been flagged into a ‘Four-Pronged Doctrine’, viz, ‘security measures’, ‘development’, ‘socio-legal empowerment’ and ‘perception management’. The ongoing Integrated Action Plan (IAP) of ‘clear, hold, develop’ in 88 affected districts has been subsumed into a new ‘Additional Central Assistance to LWE Affected Districts Programme’ (ACALADP). To facilitate reach into remote areas of 34 severely affected districts, the under construction road length has been increased to 5,500 kilometres, and with over 12 lakh title deeds distributed to Adivasis, provisions of the tribal-friendly Forest Rights Act, 2006 are finally bearing fruition. Much of these measures remain yet at the preparatory stage, but what little changes have actually occurred on ground, these have made a difference - the people are hopeful.

Supervised by the ‘Inter-Ministerial Group’, ‘Coordination Committees’ at the district, state and Centre level have begun streamlining development works as well as the overall approach to the counter-Maoist strategy; these are functioning reasonably well within the ambit of usual local manipulations. An ‘Oversight Committee’ at Central level, comprising of ministers of Home, Finance, Tribal Affairs, Environment, Rural Development, Panchayati Raj and Road Transport has been constituted recently with the aim of giving further impetus to implementation of the counter-Maoist strategy. Similar oversight committees are to be constituted at the state level too. Enhancement of financial powers of police chiefs and proposed constitution of a ‘National Tribal Welfare Council’ are the other notable measures in this regard. However, these changes would deliver only if the state level political, administrative and police functionaries remain focused on containment of the rebellion.

In the overall context, with the insurgency in a state of relative dormancy, the situation seems to be turning in favour of the state. There are, however, matters to be wary of.

Analysis

Viewing from the ground, it is hard to deny that there has not been a better situation to disarm the insurgency and contain the Maoist rebellion. However, there are certain possibilities and pitfalls which it would be wise to guard against.

Hopeful proclamations of the state administration and exuberance among the police forces notwithstanding, the situation remains critical. There are areas where state-functionaries or even police forces fear to tread. The PLGA remains ensconced in their jungle camps, extortion goes on unabated and corruption thrives. Police officials have learnt to converse in military terminologies without having the benefit of practising these nuances under realistic conditions and the standard of training in the 21 Counter-Insurgency and Anti-Terrorist (CIAT) Schools have yet to mature. Obviously, rather than transitory and bureaucratic control, the CRPF leadership, since it has been committed to counter-insurgency role, needs to be tuned to practical counter-insurgency experience on long-term basis. In brief, the level of counter-insurgency training and operational execution would have to be raised considerably to cap the insurgency should the Maoists manage to escalate its level. That is a possibility which is not to be taken lightly.

In the final analysis, no insurgency can be defeated without sustained offensive action to run over the insurgents’ bases - ‘liberated areas’ as these are referred to. Such offensive action can only be delivered by militarised, rather than police, forces, who are organised, trained, led, administered and deployed in the manner military. The Government may take note of that fact.

There is little doubt that the Maoists are lying low and biding their time while waiting for finances to improve, organisational losses to recover - leadership at the ‘area’ level particularly - and alternate sources of supply of weapons and ammunition to be found. Even if there has been softening of cadres due to growing distractions of easy life and more agreeable opportunities as compared to life in insect-infested jungles, it would be naive to imagine that the Maoist rebellion is about to be contained. Lastly, the real fear is that the rebels, when cornered, may enter into issue based alliances with other anti-national elements and external adversaries in order to uphold their cause. That indeed would be catastrophic for the nation.

The present situation offers good prospects of controlling the Maoist menace. To do so, however, the course set is to be trod carefully and without the distractions of short-term expediencies and partisan compromises.

Published Date: 30th January 2015, Image source: http://photos.merinews.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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