It took 25 corpses of security force personnel for the government to accept, albeit reluctantly, that its counter-Maoist strategy needs a review. It took this attack - the worst in seven years - for the government to fill up the top position in the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), over 90 battalions of which are deployed against the left-wing extremists, after three months. Only after the dead were declared as martyrs have top officials accepted the pitiable conditions in which the CRPF and other forces have been operating in the extremist affected areas, which impact their performance and morale.
In view of all these, it is imperative to wonder if the strategy to get rid of 'the biggest internal security challenge', notwithstanding the premature official declarations of victory, has been anything but sincere.
On 24 April, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) carried out its third big strike of 2017 in Sukma district, ambushing a team of the CRPF that was providing protection to a road construction project. Several accounts of how a Maoist group in waiting attacked the CRPF team have emerged. Pending a proposed investigation by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), it appears that there was no violation of the standard operating procedure (SOP) by the forces who walked in two separate lines, were off the road and maintained the required distance from one another. And yet, taking advantage of the terrain and using a team of women cadres who had arrived at the scene in the guise of villagers, the extremists managed to inflict serious losses on the forces and loot a large number of weapons from the dead personnel.
Instrumentalities of war are never in short supply in Bastar. According to official data, over 65 battalions of security force personnel comprising 45,000 central armed police forces and 20,000 state police personnel are posted in Bastar region alone. This is a huge amassment of forces in terms of area and adversaries, albeit still inadequate in terms of counter-insurgency (COIN) necessities. As many as 58 mine-protected vehicles and 42 bullet-proof vehicles are available in Chhattisgarh to the paramilitary forces.
Where then is the force-centric policy going wrong? Why is such a huge amassment of trained forces with weapons being unable to overcome the insurgency? Is it lack of intelligence? Or is it the lack of popular support? In COIN parlance, both amount to the same. Alternatively, is it a fatigued and disinterested force with which the country is attempting to win the war? These are valid questions. While there could be other reasons, in this commentary, let us briefly examine how two of the important factors - lack of popular support, and commitment of forces - could have affected the goal of making Chhattisgarh in particular free of left-wing extremism.
Mission 2016 and its follow up Mission 2017 are unique contraptions of the Chhattisgarh police for making the state Maoist free. Apart from the customary emphasis on development projects such as road construction, the objective relies on a Winning Hearts and Minds (WHAM) strategy of extending state support among the tribal population. While the raising of a Bastariya battalion enlisting tribal youth into the CRPF is one of the easier ways of the state's inroads into the tribal areas, gaining trust of the people has turned out to be a much more difficult exercise. The CPI-Maoist in a statement said that the attack was a revenge for the CRPF's sexual harassment of tribal women. Many would dismiss such claim of the extremist outfit. However, the deep distrust between the police forces and the tribal population, which has been exacerbated by poorly led and often irresponsible personnel indulging in excesses on the tribal population remains a fact of life that translates into poor intelligence gathering.
Post-attack, a former CRPF chief narrated the perils of exposing his personnel by deploying them in routine infrastructure project duties. He expressed his frustrations about how a file containing the CRPF's recommendations regarding laying roads faster is awaiting the Chhattisgarh government's decision for years. A series of allegations regarding lack of cooperation from the police and lack of poor camp conditions have been made by CRPF personnel and officers who also have talked about their frustration regarding implementing unproductive policies made by security advisors in Delhi. It appears that in spite of over a decade-and-a-half of operations against the extremists, strategy, synergy, and commitment continue to be the missing elements among the forces.
There is, however, little prospect that the reliance on a force-centric policy would be given up. Using the military arm of the state, even with all the persisting weaknesses, is a far easier option for the government to exercise than to evolve a more nuanced approach of reenergising the bureaucracy and involving the tribals in the decision making processes. Unsurprisingly, the new CRPF chief has spoken of a new strategy to dominate the area. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs apparently has provided the forces with a hit list of senior Maoist leaders. The Chhattisgarh police have offered a reward for punishing the perpetrators of the attack. It is not easy to surmise that such objectives would be achieved without repercussions on the civilian population. Would not that then add to the potency of the CPI-Maoist is a relevant question.