A winnable war

But a democratic state cannot turn around the Maoist insurgency in two or three years

Written by P. K. Hormis Tharakan | Published: May 28, 2013 3:58 am

But a democratic state cannot turn around the Maoist insurgency in two or three years

A few days after a major and devastating attack on some of the most prominent political leaders in Chhattisgarh may not be the right moment to attempt a dispassionate review of the government’s counter-insurgency strategy. Immediately after a traumatic event like the Darbha massacre,passions tend to run high and discussions tend to become irrational. Hence it was reassuring to note Jairam Ramesh’s averment that there would be no immediate rethink on the government’s two-pronged strategy of providing security and carrying out developmental activities.


The state must have a plan of action for the short term,which would focus on containing the spread of the menace by resolute governance. It has to be prepared for the long haul in its quest to regain its democratically legitimate power in the areas currently under the control of the LWE forces.


Not many details are available as of now. Some questions,however,can be answered on the basis of past data. The most significant among them is the question as to whether the attacks on political leaders indicate a new strategy of the Maoists. No,there have been past instances of attacks on politicians,notably in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. What happened on Saturday in Darbha was that the Maoists made use of an opportunity that was given to them on a platter. As stated in the document on “Strategy and Tactics” adopted in 2004,when the CPI (Maoist) was founded,“By following the tactics of sudden attack and annihilation,it is absolutely possible to defeat the enemy and achieve victory for the people in single battles.”

The second question that arises is whether there was an intelligence failure. It seems unlikely that the victims,who included high-value targets (for the Maoists),would have been unaware of the existential threat they faced. Specific intelligence regarding the gathering of a Maoist militia to attack them was not really required for the police to have been pro-active in such a context,but would certainly have been useful. Whether there was a failure of the human or technical intelligence mechanisms in place,or both,is something that can only be established by a departmental probe,not necessarily to find fault,but to learn lessons.

The next question is whether there was a security failure. When and where specific intelligence is not available,security arrangements are made on the basis of threat perceptions and assessments. If it had been assessed that sufficient security for such a high-profile convoy could be provided by the PSOs escorting them,it was indeed a wrong assessment. The questions as to whether the PSOs were armed with appropriate weaponry,whether standard operating procedures like route sanitisation were carried out would need to be looked into.

However,even if there were intelligence and security failures,it does not follow that the strategy being pursued by the state and Central governments is wrong. The Central government’s response is based on the three-stage strategy of “clear,hold and develop” — counter-insurgency operations followed by re-establishment of civil administration and economic development. When the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved,in November 2010,the “Unified Action Plan” to develop areas affected by left-wing extremism (LWE) in nine states,the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist) resolutely opposed it. The CC was understandably concerned that the government’s development strategy would actually work.

In an article in this paper (‘Doomed by example’,IE,August 3,2010,goo.gl/Cs4Fz),Ashutosh Varshney pointed out that India had always followed a three-part strategy in dealing with insurgencies. First,military counter-insurgency tries to subdue the insurgents,followed by economic resources for the area. The second part is to wean away the insurgents’ support and/or to buy off local elites; insurgents are also persuaded to run for office or talk with the government. The third part attempts a political resolution. Varshney argued that the same three-fold strategy is necessary in the Maoist areas today. However,he warned against the presumption that development is the only,or best,way to deal with Maoism. “Development is not possible in areas controlled by the Maoists,only in those areas where they have no or uncertain control,” he asserted.

Many police officers who have dealt with Maoists seem to agree. Pointing out how the Maoists were forced to retreat from the Telangana districts to the Nallamala forest area and finally to the Andhra-Orissa border,a former chief of Andhra’s Greyhounds argues that the much professed and propagated upward movement of the revolution from the perspective stage to the guerilla stage to the base stage to the final liberation stage was never seen in any part of Andhra,or for that matter,anywhere in the country. “Correspondingly,the war tactics of Guerilla warfare to Mobile warfare leading to Positional warfare also appear to be an unfulfilled distant dream of the Maoists.” In other words,it is a winnable war.

The policy of engagement before development,however,may lead to a situation where the government could be accused of attacking its own people. Strong-arm battle tactics employed to address external aggression can succeed in the case of internal conflict also,but only at a cost,as the Sri Lankan victory over the LTTE shows. The decisive battle is bound to be repressive despite all the politically correct phraseology on paper. We are expecting too much of our policemen if we want them to be both tough and soft at the same time in battling Maoists.

The state has to have a plan of action for the short term that would focus on containing the further spread of the menace by resolute democratic governance. This would involve various steps,including implementation of land reforms wherever warranted. The state has to move quickly to command the respect of those in the places adjacent to the areas of Maoist operations.

It may not be realistic to expect a democratic state to find a quick-fix solution to a social rebellion,or to turn around such a rebellion in two to three years. The state has to be prepared for the long haul in its quest to regain its democratically legitimate power in the areas currently under the control of the LWE forces. The long-term plan must be to bring about a gradual return to normalcy and sustainable democratic governance.

As Frederick the Great wrote to Voltaire in 1742,“It is the fashion these days to make war,and presumably it will last a while yet.”

The writer is a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing

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