In a landmark judgment on a writ petition filed by Nandini Sundar, Ramchandra Guha, EAS Sarma and others, Justice B Sudershan Reddy and Justice Surinder Singh Nijjar have asked the Chhattisgarh government to discontinue the counter-insurgency employment of SPOs, Salwa Judum and the Koya commandos. Since this is a significant dimension of countering Maoist insurgency, there has been consternation in the security establishment. The reaction should instead be one of re-examining counter-insurgency doctrine in general and approach to ‘root causes’ in light of the judgment.
The judgment makes three major points that can usefully lead such a re-examination. The first is the skepticism it expresses on the neoliberal paradigm of development in operation in India over the past two decades. The ‘have nots’ this is creating brings into question the corporate-friendly approach to development and governance.
The second point made is that the practice of employing SPOs is violative of Article 14 on right to equality and Article 21 on right to life. The SPOs are used as ‘force multipliers’ and for a meager ‘honorarium’ of INR3000 are expected to perform duties of trained policemen at a greater risk to their lives. Since the criteria for recruitment is based on passing Class Five and training consists only of two months, their employment in dangerous duties on the frontline against Maoists has been deemed ‘unconscionable’.
The third, and most significant point, is that while the state has the duty to provide security for people, its actions have to be within constitutional bounds. The state does not have unlimited powers. Given the constitutional scheme explicated in Article 355 regarding the Centre’s responsibility towards internal disturbance, the court opined that it expected greater engagement with the nitty-gritties of operations than was on display by the Home Ministry.
The question as to why the situation has come to such a sorry pass needs answering. The larger point on rethinking India’s neoliberal grand strategy is outside the scope here. However, counter-insurgency relevant points made in dismay by the court could provide yet another opportunity to revisit doctrine and structures.
The utility of the SPOs was brought out by the counsel for the government. They serve as ‘eyes and ears’ of the security forces, who are handicapped by their limited knowledge of the human and physical terrain. Since they remain in location while counter insurgents rotate into and out of the theatre, there is continuity and institutional memory. Their familiarity with the forests and jungle-lore honed instincts makes them good operatives in the jungle, widely recognized as the most challenging terrain. Given that the paramilitary are not trained to Infantry level specifications, the SPOs help increase the effectiveness of the force.
However, the judgment demonstrates that the casualties suffered have been out of proportion in comparison to those of the paramilitary. This indicates that they are being employed on warlike missions beyond the scope of their capabilities or contract. Additionally, they are being misused in actions with plausible deniability, such as in alleged atrocities in the Morpalli, Tadmetla and Timmapuram case that attracted the Court’s ire.
It is clear that India lacks the policing capabilities of the order necessary to bring insurgency under control. Given this a policy decision needs to be taken on the employment of the Army that is better suited and trained for such tasks in forbidding terrain. That it has not been employed so far perhaps owes less to the publicly aired reservations of the brass than to the effect on investments in the region that may be less forthcoming in the knowledge of the real dimensions of the problem.
The government would do well to heed the Court’s admonishment that it develop “well trained, and professional law enforcement capacities and forces that function within the limits of constitutional action.” On this, firstly, as of the moment, there is no overarching doctrine put out by the Home Ministry. The constitutional parameters need to have been set out in such a doctrine. This is evidence of lack of expertise in the bureaucrat-controlled Home Ministry. There is no doctrine for the paramilitary. The military’s own sub-conventional conflict doctrine is autonomous. No wonder it sees a role for ‘friendlies’.
Second, there is little hope of policing reform. The latest has been increasing recruitment into the IPS to a yearly intake of 150. This needs contrasting to the Army taking in over 1500 a year. Therefore calling in the Army is the answer. The fear that this would be disproportionate force misses that fact that the Army is more professional, has learnt its lessons on proportionality and has a doctrine that is people-centric.
Third, the reservations of the military for such deployment understandably spring from its external security concerns. India needs to recalibrate instruments to address the external threat, such as by using negotiations meaningfully; thereby releasing the Army for such duty. Better still it could take the Court’s opinion seriously that it undertake “all those necessary socially, economically and politically remedial policies that lessen social disaffection giving rise to such extremist violence.”