Any strategy has to be a five-year plan

Print edition : November 06, 2009

The Army and the Air Force should never be deployed to tackle naxalites, says Ajai Sahni.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

AJAI SAHNI, Executive Director of the Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management and Editor of South Asia Intelligence Review, is known for his in-depth study and analysis of the security implications of left-wing extremism in India.

In an interview to Frontline in the context of the recent initiatives of the government to counter such extremism, Sahni emphasised that there could be no short-term solutions to any problem in the field of security. He says the model being followed by the government vis-a-vis left-wing extremism is replete with limitations and is unlikely to be effective even in the medium term. Excerpts from the interview:

The recent initiatives of the government to counter left-wing extremism have been seen as marking a structural change in approaching naxalism at the policy level. One part of it is what is called the Operation Green Hunt. How do you analyse these new developments?

I see a complete change of orientation. This does not, however, alter the capacities that the system has as a whole. Both the Central and State forces that are supposed to play a role in it are altogether deficient to deal with this problem. My understanding of it is that they are planning to put in around 70 battalions in the Maoist-affected areas. When I say 70, it seems to be a tremendous number. But when you talk about the actual deployment, each paramilitary forces battalion yields only around 400 men. So, you are basically talking about 28,000 men across the whole naxalite belt in thousands of square kilometres. Bastar alone is 40,000 sq km.

But the plan, apparently, is to deploy the forces in specific, selected areas according to sensitivity and not over the entire stretch under Maoist influence.

That has always been the strategy, but the point I am trying to make is that the Maoist is not going to confront you in your areas of strength. I believe that Lalgarh is the best example you have had of this. So much was said about it that it is going to be the decisive battle with the Maoists but they simply walked away from you. And then when they figured out where the actual deployments of forces were, they started walking back in.

Basically, you have to understand that if you squeeze, you also have to contain. If you only squeeze, they will simply squeeze out or overflow into other areas. If you read the June 12 document [CPI (Maoist) politburo statement], long before these operations started they had declared that the state at this juncture did not have the capacities to fight them in all their areas. Consequently, they decided to prepare themselves to widen their areas so that the state has to divide its forces. If you do not attain a certain saturation of forces, then there can be no rational deployment of forces. If you spread your present force evenly across the whole affected area, they will have to be on the defensive and cannot launch an offensive as was the case in the past. And if you concentrate your force, they will move out and try to increase the violence and conflagration in your peripheral areas.

Today the Maoists will only create situations where there will be significant loss of lives. You have no significant intelligence inputs, no idea of the environment. Thus, when you get a piece of information, you will send a troop of 40 people and they will attack you with 200 men, as in Gadchiroli where you lost 18 lives.

Unless you saturate, you are only sending these boys to their death. You do not have the capacity to fight them, and your surrender policy will not work at all. So, any strategy needs to be a five-year plan. It cannot be achieved in a night.

Is this what you have termed as the governments Rambo model in many of your papers?

It is the Rambo model. The idea that I can send very good fighting men like trained Cobras and Jharkhand Jaguars is nonsense. First of all, I find the entire nomenclature of this discourse offensive.

Green Hunt, Cobra, Jaguars, and the mildest of these is Greyhounds. Is this what we want the state to be seen as predatory animals, and hunters? There is some fundamental problem in our conception. I will train a special group of commandos, and they will go everywhere because, after all, who can beat a Rambo?

Everyone talks of the Andhra Pradesh model and then about Greyhounds. The Andhra Pradesh model is not Greyhounds. It is a model where there is a radical improvement in general policing to create an environment where Greyhounds can be effective. They created a system of general policing where 100 to 200 Maoists could not assemble in the State without the knowledge of the local police. Even the most traditional wisdom says that if you have to eat a plate of rice, you start eating it from the periphery. Do we have to relearn even the most rudimentary tactical wisdom, forget strategic wisdom?

Prepare your ground, get a smoke-screen up and then get to the beehive. This is a five-year plan on a very conservative estimate. And if you are killing a larger number of Maoists even now, you are probably killing the wrong people because you are killing without intelligence inputs and they are always poorly located without any local knowledge. Around the year 2000, when I used to talk to some very wise men sitting in the security establishment, everyone used to dismiss this as a problem of Telangana.

The contention was that it cannot go to coastal Andhra Pradesh and south Andhra. They used to give me a lot of sociological analysis for this argument. Now see, the Maoists are everywhere. As I said, you squeeze and they will overflow into other areas. It was your squeeze in Andhra Pradesh that made it necessary for their lead teams to go not only to Chhattisgarh and Orissa but also to Punjab, Delhi, Kashmir and Nepal. You are forcing them to adopt a more efficient technique and making them understand that they cannot remain concentrated in one region.

This is precisely what you are doing again, except in this case you are going unprepared. Andhra Pradesh had a long period of training, preparation and methods. Yet, the whole orientation in Delhi today is towards a special force. A special force can be efficient only in an environment conducive to its operation.

What about all this talk of deployment of the Army and the Air Force?

That is completely ludicrous. They should never be involved. The debate is taking place because some people are sucking up to the Ministers saying, we will do it. Ministers want results and something that can be achieved within a time frame of not more than six months. We are always in such a hurry that all our problems take decades to resolve. You never initiate fundamental and structural changes that are necessary. So, what happens is that after 15 years you find that you have become worse in your capacities and the enemy has grown. From 56 districts in 2001 to 223 districts now, according to the Home Ministers own statement.

Your police population in this period has been continuously declining. Orissa has 207 IPS officers sanctioned but currently only 84 officers are placed. In most of the States, DSP rank officers have not been recruited for a decade.

In addition, you are shutting down police stations or disarming policemen. In this situation, local policemen have worked out a deal with the Maoists as they have no other option. So, now the target areas of the Maoists are special forces.

The question is whether Pakistan and Afghanistan have become our models for counter-insurgency. Look at what they have done to their own countries? Why dont we learn from Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Tripura? Why has the government not studied this and prepared a document? Unless you create general force capability, no special force can be effectively deployed because the first responder is the general police. K.P.S. Gill always says that whether it is terrorism or insurgency, it is a small commanders war. It is the job of the leadership to empower the small commander. He should have the capacity to respond to a threat.

You have been on record repeatedly asserting that no terrorism in the world has been countered by an approach that stresses on socio-economic development. The new government initiative, however, lays emphasis on advancing a development-oriented approach after a particular area has been cleared militarily.

I have no theoretical problem with this approach. What I am trying to say is that development cannot be a counter-insurgency strategy. It is the duty of the government to carry out developmental activities. But it is a much-longer-term programme than counter-insurgency.

People who are talking about this are basically saying that good health is a solution to disease. But when you look at India demographically and its cumulative developmental deficits, 836 million people (77 per cent of the population) are living on less than Rs.20 a day. More than half of them live on less than Rs.10. They are living on the edge of survival, and are you telling me that the government has the capacity to bring this section to middle-class prosperity in 18 months?

The model of development here is also not unidirectional. Even as it is benefiting many, it is actually harming many people. Rural distress has increased in the past decades. Why dont you develop your areas where there is peace? In Delhi, the Maoists are recruiting students, retailers affected by the ceiling drive and multinational retail companies, people displaced or affected by SEZs, unorganised workers. If you have cancer, you have to treat it first. I cannot tell a cancer patient to go home and try to be in good health.

What is your view on holding negotiations with the Maoists? If you look at history, it is evident that giving indiscriminate powers to the security forces and using such security measures have often resulted in more chaos than good. Negotiations, on the other hand, have yielded results. For example, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), demanding a separate Nagalim in the north-east or, say, the Meiti National Movement in Manipur, has only grown in stature since a security-centric approach was adopted in the 1950s by the Indian government. The antithesis of it is the case of Mizoram, where the Centre went for a peace treaty, granting the people some autonomy.

Mizorams was among the most brutal military campaigns, using methods that no police officer would ever recommend. When the movement was destroyed completely, when 80 per cent of the population was forcibly relocated, then the negotiations happened to buy the rebels out. It was not a civilised negotiation at all.

One must understand that no insurgent group has ever negotiated in good faith when they are on the ascendant. They negotiate only when they are faced with near-complete annihilation or when they have been trapped in the war of attrition for decades and they see no gains and there are sufficient gains available at the negotiating table.

The third situation is Nepal, where the insurgent group believes that it can secure its objectives more efficiently and with less loss of lives through a negotiating process. What they engage in is tactical negotiation and not efficient negotiation as they did in Andhra Pradesh. Use negotiation as a tactical ploy to consolidate, recruit and build more ground. It is a different thing that the A.P. government used this period better than the Maoists.

There is a feeling that there is a distance between the states understanding of violence and that of the masses in the rural hinterland. A lower-ranking Maoist cadre would say that he had no option but to take up arms to survive the exploitation. How do we resolve that?

The only way to address these people in a reasonable time frame is to eliminate mobilisation of grievances. You must understand that the Maoist leadership is not trying to resolve these grievances. It is harvesting them. It is not concerned whether the people of Lalgarh are more secure in the post-Lalgarh agitation phase. In fact, the leadership is happy if it is able to provoke sufficient repression from the state in order to alienate more people. In one of their documents, they say explicitly that any partial struggle of the United Front that does not advance the war is irrelevant. So, if you eliminate this mobilisation, you will be able to resolve the problem of mass violence.

As for these grievances, we have to reach out with governance. Given the virtual decay of governance, it is not an easy task. But commit yourself to that and begin to act in good faith, not with the kind of endemic neglect and corruption that characterise the government. In most of the States when people try to raise funds because of the naxalite activity, they are mostly corrupt because they see this as preferred areas for capital disbursement as there is hardly any accountability in the naxalite-affected areas.

Finally, how do you see the police-capacitating process in isolation with the political culture you talked about? If this remains the political culture, police excesses could grow with increasing force.

Police capacitation itself alters the political culture. If we bring in elements of modernisation and retraining, you will see that there will automatically be a more accountable police force. With greater efficiency, there will be a better system of checks and balances with greater autonomy. It can happen only with greater political will. But at present the political community is deeply criminalised.

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