Are targeted killings of top militant leaders as a part of counter-Naxal strategy essentially flawed and undemocratic?
Every state has a right to pursue what it considers as an appropriate counter-insurgency strategy, keeping in mind larger political objectives. Of course, there cannot be a universal strategy; what worked in Iraq and Vietnam may not be a viable option in Afghanistan. Within India, what worked in Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast may not work in the Naxal affected regions.
Even within a given environment, states learns from their earlier mistakes and re-strategise accordingly. Earlier, Salwa Judum was used as part of the counter-Naxal strategy ; the approach was not only criticised by society but also declared unconstitutional by the courts. Obviously, the state cannot abdicate its responsibility to protect and ask the people to pick up arms against non-state actors, thereby making them a party to violence. However, the criticism against targeted killings, as a counter-militant strategy against the top Naxal leadership, cannot be totally ruled out for being anti-people, undemocratic or against human rights. Unlike the Salwa Judum, this strategy is devised and implemented by the security forces.
The State has the right to form an exclusive organization within larger police, paramilitary and military entities to operate as a specialised unit to deal with violence. Today, all leading countries have specialized counter-militant organisations, including the US, UK and most of Europe. They cannot simply be perceived as ‘hit squads’. Even in India, for the last many decades, the military and the police in every state have special forces to deal with militancy, or form an exclusive task force for a specific purpose. The National Security Guard (NSG), Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and various special units within the state police such as Maharashtra and J&K are a part of police/military strategy to counter non-state actors. These units are neither 'hit squads' nor are they violating the Geneva Convention. The formation of special units to counter non-state actors has been a national and international practice since the end of the Second World War.
So, the formation of specialised units to counter non-state actors, who use violence as a strategy against the State and its people, cannot be questioned under legal norms or international commitments. The larger question here is: does a specialised unit, and going after the top leadership, help the State achieve its larger political objective?
A primary argument has been that terrorism is a hydra monster; if one head is chopped off, there would be nine heads. Multiple NGOs and civil society organisations were spreading an untested hypothesis that if Osama bin Laden is killed, there would be thousand bin Ladens. Almost, a year after the elimination of bin Laden, how many more bin Ladens have been produced? How many Prabhakarans have been made in Sri Lanka, almost three years after his elimination?
An important point here is that while the targeted killing of the top leadership may not resolve the political problem, it does weaken the non-state actors, and the organisations to which the leadership belongs. In those regions, where the Naxals have a predominant presence – primarily Chattisgarh and Orissa - the groups are neither monolithic nor have uniform support cutting across all sections of society.
Hence, the argument that the targeted elimination of the top Naxal leadership, which does not believe in a democratic society, developmental efforts and a political solution to the problem, will result in many from within the society to fill the leadership vacuum themselves is only a hypothesis - primarily expounded by the pro-Naxal and over ground workers - than based on any valid argument or ground realities.
Unfortunately for the State, while its anti-Naxal military strategy is visible and obvious, its political strategies and investments in the developmental sector are not apparent. Equally important, while any failure or lack of success in a counter-Naxal military strategy is noticeable, the success of the State in its political and developmental investments is painfully slow and not so evident. Another problem for the State has been the highly sophisticated propaganda machinery of the Naxal groups. If there is any counter-propaganda by the State, it is crude and, hence, ineffective.
To conclude, a specialized force to counter the Naxal leadership – top, middle or bottom - is neither undemocratic nor counterproductive. However, the main problem that is likely to remain for India, especially the Union government, is that a counter-Naxal strategy in operational terms devoid of a larger political objective is less likely to succeed. The Union government has to double and triple its efforts with respect to the larger political objectives, and work alongside the Naxal-affected states. The State has to continue to maintain the military pressure on the Naxal groups, but simultaneously also ensure the speedy implementation of developmental projects, and more importantly make the governance and legal institutions effective and deliverable.
The State should dig deep now, both in terms of military and developmental strategies, with a clear political objective, and not blink. Results will not come overnight after decades of neglect and failure of institutions.