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#4608, 18 August 2014

Red Affairs

Anti-Naxal Operations: Seeking Refuge in Symbolism
Bibhu Prasad Routray
New Delhi-based security analyst

The day Prime Minister Narendra Modi unfurled the national flag from the precincts of the historic Red Fort to mark India's 68th Independence Day, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) authorities in Chhattisgarh unfurled the tri-colour at Tadmetla in Sukma district. Flag hoisting at the site of the bloodiest massacre that claimed the lives of 75 CRPF personnel four years ago was apparently to make a statement that the forces have reclaimed the territory from the extremists and are asserting their authority over the piece of land. This avoidable symbolism, in the backdrop of apparent extremist domination over the area, in a way, sums up the country's stagnated approach towards the Naxal problem.

The 2010 attack at Tadmetla (then in Dantewada district which was bifurcated in 2012 to create the Sukma district) still counts as the worst attack ever to have been carried out on the central forces by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist). The loss of an entire company of the CRPF cast a pall of gloom, and more importantly, pushed the forces into a defensive mindset. It also brought New Delhi's attempts to subdue the extremists through a multi-theatre military offensive to an abrupt halt. Subsequent inquiry by a retired police official revealed serious command and control lapses among the forces. The CRPF has not suffered a loss of that magnitude thereafter. Whether this has been achieved by addressing the weaknesses exposed by the attack or merely by becoming more defensive in its approach is debatable.

Behind the 'successful' flag hoisting at Tadmetla, however, were painstaking preparations. A CRPF contingent consisting of the specialised Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA) commandos and led by an Inspector General, camped in the area for several days. A detailed sanitisation exercise was carried out in the area during which a CRPF personnel was injured in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion and had to be air lifted for treatment. A senior official told the media that the ceremony was essential "to mark the domination of this area."

Extremism related incidents reported in 2014, however, do not indicate any security force domination over the area. Sukma continues to be among the worst extremism-affected districts in Chhattisgarh. On 9 February, two CRPF personnel, including a Deputy Commandant, were killed and 12 others injured in a landmine blast carried out by the CPI-Maoist. Not far from the site where the tri-colour was hoisted, three COBRA personnel were killed and three others injured in a Naxal ambush on 9 April. And on 11 May, extremists killed 15 security force personnel at Jeerum Nullah in the district. Several other incidents of ambush, attack and explosion have been reported from the district. In fact, the domination of the extremists has forced to the CRPF to take upon itself the task of building a seven km road stretch as no private contractor has agreed to take up the job.  

In October 2013, Union Home Secretary Anil Goswami had pulled up the central armed police force organisations including the CRPF operating in Chhattisgarh for their "defensive strategy." Goswami regretted the fact that there was a lull in the action by the security forces despite New Delhi's directive to engage in result-oriented operations. The forces were not just reluctant to carry out sustained offensive operations against the extremists, even the routine area domination exercises were avoided. It is not clear whether the flag hoisting in Tadmetla, with significant sanitising preparations, marks the beginning of a change in the tactic of the forces and is demonstrative of a newfound vision.

It is unfair to blame the CRPF personnel deployed in Chhattisgarh for the lull in action, for the current state of affairs emanates from a policy stagnation that marks the anti-Naxal initiative. Apart from their own internal problems and the continuing confusion whether to remain a supporting or lead counter-Naxal force, lack of coordination with the state forces, lack of adequate progress in state police modernisation, inertia at the level of bureaucracy, and lack of a national consensus with regard to solving the Naxal issue, have affected the performance of the central forces. This could be pushing them to find refuge in symbolic events rather than attempting decisive gains.

At one level, such policy stagnation is strange especially when the CPI-Maoist has lost several senior leaders across states and has failed to maintain a level of violence necessary to keep its own internal mechanism alive and kicking. At the other level, however, it underlines the country's predominantly reactionary counter-insurgency doctrine, which does relatively well in responding to extremist violence, but dithers when violence dips, either due to the setbacks suffered by the extremist outfits or because of the latter's tactical retreat decision.

The task for New Delhi, thus, is well cut out. It has to find a way to instill a sense of purpose among the state as well as the central forces. It has to ensure that the bureaucracy and grass root politics works in tandem with the security forces. And it must ensure that the acts of symbolism come to a grand halt.

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