Red Affairs

Naxalism: The Insufficiency of a Force-Centric Approach

19 May, 2014    ·   4445

Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray says that the political leadership must inject vigour into what remains a mostly a sluggish civil administrative establishment

Bibhu Prasad Routray
Bibhu Prasad Routray
Visiting Fellow

In the first week of May 2014, security forces launched a fresh anti-Naxal operation at the Saranda forests in Jharkhand's West Singhbhum district. The operation was started following intelligence inputs that a squad of armed Maoists had entered the forests. Few days into the operation, the state police Director General of Police (DGP) led a contingent of troops and spent a night deep inside the forests. The motive was to make a point. The media personnel were told by an assertive DGP, “We have conquered Saranda and nobody can dispute it now.”

It was, however, strange for the DGP to affirm the success of his forces, for Saranda had reportedly been conquered three years back. Considered to be a Maoist liberated zone, which housed the Communist Party of India (CPI-Maoist)'s Eastern Regional Bureau (ERB) headquarters and also a large number of arms training camps, the impregnability of Saranda had been shattered in 2011.

Between July and September 2011, about 10 battalions of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel conducted Operation Anaconda seeking to liberate the area. Not many encounters took place during the operations, probably due to fact that the Maoists had decided to desert the area rather than to put up a fight. The state duly claimed victory. The domination of the security forces over the 855-square kilometre area had apparently been established.

The recovery of Saranda was important for two reasons. Firstly, it came after the failure and subsequent abandonment of Operation Green Hunt, the multi-theatre counter-Maoist operation which was launched in 2010. The OGH's failure, following a series of Maoist attacks on security forces, had convinced the MHA of the criticality of small area operations as opposed to a nation-wide blitzkrieg against the extremists. The recovery of Saranda through a focussed area approach, thus, became a reaffirmation of the fact that an incremental approach is key to ultimately defeat the extremists.

Secondly, for the Union Ministry of Rural Development, Saranda became a test case for a development-led solution to the Maoist problem. Under Minister Jairam Ramesh, support was extended to Jharkhand's 'Saranda Development Plan' that sought all round development for its inhabitants. It was hoped that the establishment of the civil administration's writ over the area would provide a bulwark against the relapse of the area into extremism. Among the schemes sought to be implemented in the area were housing, connectivity, forest rights, watershed development, drinking water, and employment as well as free distribution of solar lanterns, bicycles and transistors.   

Under ideal circumstances, the retreat of the extremists from the area and intervention of the development administration would have been able to make wonders. However, the government's ambitious plans of seeking loyal citizens among the tribal population were nullified to a large extent due to the lack of enthusiastic participation by the civil administration. A prominent newspaper's op-ed piece summed up the developments in Saranda, nine months after the SDP came into being. "Nine months on, police camps sole development in Saranda Plan", the piece appearing in The Hindu, June 2012, read. Other reports detailed how bicycles procured for distribution were rusting in the government offices, solely because no official was prepared to do the ground work of preparing a list of beneficiaries. 

Over the passing months, even as Minister Ramesh pleaded to the media to give SDP a "second chance", Saranda saw only a haphazard development initiative, providing enough opportunity for the extremists to attempt a come back. Although the area has not seen much violence in recent times, the necessity for re-launching a security force operation to dominate an area that had already been cleared, underlines the reversal of gains made by the state.      

In the near decade-long endeavour of conquest vis-à-vis the CPI-Maoist, a realisation has dawned over the policy-makers that the extremists cannot be defeated through military means alone. Therefore, in spite of what appears to the human rights and civil society organisations to be a predominantly military effort against the Maoists, a number of developmental as well as perception management initiatives have been undertaken by the government. However, this strategy of "clear, hold and develop" has not been able to make much headway mostly due to the fact that the civil administration has remained somewhat reluctant to build upon the accomplishments of the security forces.  

For the new government in New Delhi, ways to make the bureaucracy an enthusiastic partner in the counter-Naxal endeavours would remain a key challenge. The political leadership both in New Delhi as well as in the affected states would have to make extra effort to inject vigour into what till now remains a mostly a sluggish civil administrative establishment. In fact, Jharkhand DGP's victory speech on 6 May underlined the key steps required to avoid relapse of recovered areas into extremism. "The villagers now require immediate administrative attention", he said.