The long war against India’s Maoists is over five decades old now. As the recent attack in and around Tekulagudem village in Sukma district demonstrates, it shows no signs of ending anytime soon. On the face of it, Maoists seem to have pulled off a spectacular strike against our security forces in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. As of now, the Chhattisgarh police and the CRPF have suffered a combined total of 22 casualties. There are no reliable inputs about casualties on the Maoist side but there are reports that they too number in the double digits.
Even before the bravehearts could be accorded their last rites, a fresh round of breast-beating and finger-pointing, from entirely predictable quarters of our civil society and security experts, has begun. No matter what the specifics of the setback may be, their diagnosis and prescriptions remain remarkable, if not for their accuracy and relevance, at least for their consistency.
Broadly speaking, the post-incident analysis of such setbacks comes in two flavours. The most popular theory amongst our intelligentsia and media is the root cause and alienation approach. It focuses on the socio-economic causes that are supposed to be the most important drivers of support for the Naxal movement. According to the votaries of this approach, it is the failure of the Indian state to provide economic development and social justice to the tribals living in these areas that has fuelled the Naxal movement and sustained it for five decades. As a prescription, experts in favour of this theory emphasise a development-centric approach and negotiations as the way forward.
There are several problems with this approach. First, it glosses over the ideological foundations of the movement, specifically its rejection of India’s Constitution and democracy, and its exaltation of the Maoist variant of communism. Second, it fails to see that social and economic deprivation is not unique to the jungles of Chhattisgarh. Large parts of the country suffer from this affliction. Third, it doesn’t account for the possibility that while alienation and deprivation may help in igniting the spark of revolution, once lit the flames draw oxygen from many sources. Fourth, the role of external forces in fomenting and sustaining this movement is deliberately underplayed. Fifth, the grubby ground reality of the praxis of revolution is conveniently swept under the carpet. The organised extortion racket from all economic stakeholders in the Naxal-affected areas by our alienated revolutionaries seldom gets talked about. Sixth, the extensive ideological, financial and logistical ecosystem that provides sustenance to these revolutionaries in the jungle is seldom acknowledged. Last but not the least, every time Naxalites are killed in an exchange of fire by the security forces, the overground network goes into overdrive through the media and the judiciary in labelling it as cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians.
The other kind of diagnosis is offered by a coalition of Cassandras consisting of retired military experts, CAPF cadre officers and disgruntled IPS officers. According to this view, our tactical failures against the Maoists are entirely due to the poor quality of leadership provided by the Indian Police Service. The when, where, how of a setback simply don’t matter. When in doubt, identify the first IPS officer in the chain of command and hoist him on the petard of tactical incompetence. It doesn’t matter if there are three or four layers of officers in the chain of command belonging to the CAPF cadre involved in the incident. Of course, in the case of any operational success, cadre officers will fall over each other in claiming credit.
This view completely ignores the many successes of IPS leadership in counterinsurgency operations in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and most recently in Odisha. Even in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, where the Indian Army provides the backbone of the counterinsurgency grid, the police forces of the respective states and their IPS leadership play a crucial role in gathering intelligence and in executing operations. So, the failures and setbacks in the Naxal areas of Chhattisgarh need to be placed in perspective.
The loss of 22 lives is undoubtedly a setback and a tragic loss for the families of men killed in the ambush. But to read anything more into it is an overreaction. History tells us that nation-states on the losing side of an insurgency seldom lose militarily. They simply lose their appetite for a long war characterised by open-ended attrition and casualties. More precisely, their decision-makers are forced to disengage by domestic public opinion and/or international pressure. In most of these cases, we are dealing with expeditionary forces in foreign countries, the Americans in Vietnam, the French in Algeria or even the IPKF in Sri Lanka. Our forces in Chhattisgarh are not invading armies. They are forces of a democratic republic deployed in their own heartland, backed by the full force of public opinion and faith in the legitimacy of their cause.
In the context of our Maoist challenge, I don’t see us being defeated militarily or facing a public clamour for withdrawal happening anytime soon. Despite the current setback, the level of bloodshed is negligible compared to the overall deployment and, therefore, is unlikely to turn public opinion. The fact that the Indian state has adopted a broad policy of economic development, military restraint and gradual attrition and rejected indiscriminate violence in the Naxal theatre is the democratically prudent and morally just course of action. This hasn’t dissuaded Maoist sympathisers from gaining international attention through relentless propaganda against our security forces. However, such attacks also help in exposing their true nature and hardening public resolve against them.
The finger-pointing and breast-beating at this debacle are along expected lines but it must be taken with a large pinch of salt. We have enough examples of successful, police led CI Ops in our country. Why we are not able to replicate these successes in Chhattisgarh is a matter of larger political issues, well beyond the narrow scope of operational tactics and individual lapses of police leadership. Not just the politics, the geography and demography of the Naxal-affected areas, make it an even more complex challenge of internal security. Our public opinion is rightly reluctant to adopt a brute force strategy as the prime ingredient of a comprehensive solution.
Nevertheless, despite this tragic setback in Tekulagudem, the revolution has zero chance of success in India’s own long war.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 21, 2021 under the title ‘On red turf, standing ground’. The writer is an IPS officer. Views are personal