Spent Force

Amidst the bullets and bloodshed, what has the government's counterinsurgency program in Chhattisgarh achieved?

Kaka Ramesh, one of the injured in the encounter between Maoist rebels and security forces in Kotteguda in June this year. NOAH SEELAM / AFP / GETY IMAGES
01 September, 2012

SEVERAL TIMES A MONTH ACROSS central and eastern India, thousands of troopers, deployed in hundreds of fortified camps, arm themselves with assault rifles, grenades, rocket launchers and cheap jogging sneakers, and set out on ‘Operations’ to find and kill a guerilla army that has no territory to hold, no fixed military or civilian installations to defend, and no interest in engaging in military confrontations unless the odds are overwhelmingly in their favour.

The troopers may march for days through the trackless jungle without drawing fire; the forests and rolling hills of south Chhattisgarh are dense enough for armed companies to cross each other unnoticed. The encounters between Indian security forces and guerillas of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) invariably occur along the horizons of their separate worlds: on the outskirts of villages where Maoists hold meetings, or along the narrow broken roads as troopers move from one barricaded police camp to another.

I witnessed the potency of the Maoist war machine soon after I arrived in Chhattisgarh in 2010 as a reporter for The Hindu. In April that year, I stood in a field in Tarmetla, in Dantewada district, amidst the bloodstained debris—uniforms, bullet casings and unexploded grenades—scattered in the course of an ambush in which about 300 Maoists killed 76 troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in a matter of hours.

On my final assignment in the region for the newspaper, in June 2012, the village grounds of Kotteguda, in Bijapur district, were stained with the blood of 17 villagers, including several children, who were gunned down by the CRPF in the course of a controversial raid. The CRPF claimed they were attacked by Maoist sentries and retaliated in self-defence. The Maoists rubbished this claim; the villagers of Kotteguda pleaded the innocence of the dead and the war rolled on as it has for as long as anyone here can remember.

Yet, more than a decade after paramilitary forces were first posted in Chhattisgarh to assist the newly formed state’s fledgling police force, it seems pertinent to ask what India’s counterinsurgency policy has achieved; and if the ghastly human costs of pouring thousands of troops into some of the country’s poorest and most impoverished districts have been outweighed by any significant benefits.

In 2004, the country’s two largest Maoist formations—the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre of India—merged to form a single, highly militarised configuration called the Communist Party of India (Maoist), whose stated aim is to replace the Indian state with one organised along Maoist principles.

That year, the annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs estimated that the CPI (Maoist) had an “assessed strength of 9,300 hardcore underground cadres”, pitted against 23 battalions of the Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMF) like the CRPF.

Seven years on, in the February 2011 session of the Lok Sabha, the Ministry of Home Affairs said the “estimated armed cadre strength of the Maoists in 2010 was 8,680”, at a time when official CPMF deployment had risen to 80 battalions, suggesting that a four-fold increase in CPMF deployment alone (discounting the increasing participation of state police forces in anti-Maoist operations) had reduced the organisational strength of the Maoists by a mere seven percent.

Intelligence officers warn that these estimates are far from definitive—that the Maoist movement could have gathered strength and recruits over the past few years, and that operations have had little effect on the party’s network. A former intelligence officer familiar with the conflict stressed that 8,680 hardcore cadres is a very conservative estimate, with the most alarmist estimates as high as 20,000 armed cadres, and that CPMF deployment is in fact closer to 86 battalions.

“The insistence on operations, operations and more operations has reduced the entire anti-Naxal operation business to sheer mazdoori—and that’s why it is now done without any heart or mind in it,” said a senior police officer, explaining that most operations had no coherent aim beyond signaling the presence of troops in Maoist affected areas. “Troops are marching day in day out—without any intelligence worth its name… They are just going into jungles and coming back.”

The source, who has been on several such operations, said that the Maoists were content to silently trail police parties for days, before striking when the police were at their most vulnerable. When faced with overwhelming force, such as during Operation Haka in Narayanpur this year, the Maoists melt away and return once the forces retreat.

“The professional issue is, there are some guys who have rifles and who also have some cover. How do you attack them and kill them? What exactly are you supposed to do?” the source said. “No one knows this because the knowledge does not exist. It is not taught anywhere in any training. We make people do 200 push-ups and run 15 km, and negotiate all sorts of obstacle courses. But we do not teach them how to fight.”

The past 10 years have also witnessed the coalescing of a “clear, hold, build” doctrine that hopes to marry gains in security with development initiatives to convince Chhattisgarh’s largely adivasi population of the advantages of siding with the state.

The data suggests that security gains, particularly in Chhattisgarh, have been minimal, but that there has been a ballooning of coordination committees and task forces put in place to implement the Indian government’s vision of development backed by security. According to home ministry reports, India’s Maoist policy appears to be guided by the ministry’s Naxal Management Division, created in 2006 to “effectively tackle the naxalite menace from both security and development angles”; a standing committee of chief ministers of concerned states “to work out a coordinated policy and specific measures to deal with the Left Wing Extremism problem on political, security and development fronts”; a Review Group (formerly called a Task Force) to “review coordinated efforts across a range of development and security measures”; a Coordination Centre to “review and coordinate the efforts of concerned State Governments”; a Task Force to “deliberate upon the operational steps…and bring about coordination between authorities of different states”; and an Inter-Ministerial Group to “oversee effective implementation of development schemes… for accelerated socio-economic development”.

On the ground, there is little evidence that this impressive display of bureaucratic commitment has delivered over the years. The bundling of development and security has, perversely, led to a situation where—in the eye of the state—there can be no security without development, nor any development without security.

Counterinsurgency experts believe that the “clear, hold, build” policy itself is flawed. “We do not have the manpower for a clear, hold and build strategy,” Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, told me earlier this year when the Maoists kidnapped Alex P Menon, the enthusiastic young collector of Sukma district in Chhattisgarh. Sahni stressed that he wasn’t against development as such, but the current policy requires that troops divide their duties between fighting the Maoists and providing security cover for development workers—to the detriment of both.

Yet, given the immense amount of resources and manpower that continue to be channeled into Chhattisgarh, it seems likely that the state and central government may be compelled to stay the course, rather than risk admitting to nearly a decade of policy failures. Till then, the troops will continue to march through Chhattisgarh’s forests in service of a strategy that has long outlived its purpose, and the villagers of Bastar will bear the consequences.