The 1 December 2014 killing of 14 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) should invariably go down as one of the country's worst security force operations in recent times. In terms of the killing of trained personnel, looting of their weapons, and the follow up response of a well established security establishment in the state, the attack surpasses even the far bigger extremist attacks of the past in which the force had lost far larger number of personnel. The incident further gives rise to the question whether a victory over the Maoists is at all possible under a CRPF-State police force combination formula?
The attack took place as over 2000 personnel of the CRPF were conducting a four-phase operation against the extremists in the district. As expressed by the involved personnel to the media, without much of intelligence to back these initiatives, there was little objective behind the operations rather than what broadly is described as area domination exercises. During the end of the third phase of the operation, a section of the force, variously described as consisting of 200 to 700 personnel came under attack by the Maoists – who apparently used civilian villagers as shields. There was little resistance from the forces, who as reports suggest got away only 14 fatalities. While 12 perished in the combat, two personnel died while being shifted. Had the Maoists persisted and continued their attacks, the toll could have been much higher, perilously close to the 2010 Dantewada attack in which the CRPF lost 76 troopers. The attack has led to an early conclusion of the area domination exercise in Sukma.
The attack raises several questions regarding the ability of the force that has been designated as the country’s lead counter-insurgent force after the Kargil attack, vis-a-vis the Maoists. There are issues of leadership, logistics, intelligence and coordination with the state police force. However, none of these concerns are new. Each investigation following a major attack has unravelled the same ills affecting the force that has been fighting the extremists for nearly a decade and whose battalion strength in the conflict theater has grown manifold over the years. While some incremental improvements in the way operations have been conducted are natural and are there for everybody to see, fundamental issues such as the CRPF leadership's strategy of fighting the war with well-motivated and adequately supported personnel have been chronically absent.
This explains why the transient successes that have pushed the 10-year old CPI-Maoist arguably to its weakest state notwithstanding, the CRPF's own history of engagement with the extremists is replete with mistakes, setbacks, and a perennial search for the right principles of operational accomplishment. The force's projects to generate intelligence by setting up an dedicated wing; its initiatives of developing bonds with the tribal population by providing them with gifts, medical facilities, and organising sports and cultural events; and its efforts to narrow down the differences with the state police forces have all achieved marginal results. Even the 10-battalion strong Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA), raised with the specific objective of fighting the Maoists, which has since been diluted to make them deal with the insurgents of all denominations in the northeast, have minor achievements to demonstrate, in the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)'s own assessments.
The uncomfortable conclusion one can derive from the state-of-affairs is that the CRPF, in its present state, is not the force that can deliver significant successes in the Maoist conflict theaters. Even with an ever-expanding budget of Rs. 12,169.51 crores for the current financial year - amounting to almost 1/5th of the MHA's entire budget – the successive chiefs of the force have failed to provide its fighting troops even the basic of the provisions. Media narratives indicate soldiers keeping themselves operationally fit with rice, lentils and Maggi noodles. Worse still, seen in combination with poor condition of the state police forces and their virtual irrelevance to the conflict resolution project, it points at an ignominious future of a permanent state of conflict in a sizeable geographical expanse of the country.
In response to the Sukma attack, the MHA plans to induct more forces into Chhattisgarh. Such a move, in the pipeline since the new government assumed power in New Delhi in May 2014, is based on the premise that more boots on the ground would be able to reverse the success of the Maoists. Nothing can be farther from truth. The CRPF's failure needs to be seen in the context of the overall lack of imagination among the country's policy makers in dealing with the Maoist threat. Ever since the CPI-Maoist emerged as a major challenge, lackadaisical, reactionary, and adhoc-ish measures have been passed off as official policies. Even as such experimentation continues, the soldiers, among others, are paying with their blood and lives in conflicts mainland Indians are completely oblivious to.