“I wished to have depopulated the country of Roh,” wrote Sher Shah Suri, as he contemplated the Mughal offensive that would destroy his empire in 1555, “and to have transferred its inhabitants to the tract between the Nilab and Lahore, that they might have been constantly on the alert for the arrival of the Mughals, and not allow anyone to pass from Kabul to Hind”. “Another is to have entirely destroyed Lahore, that so large a city might not exist on the very road of an invader, where immediately after capturing it on his arrival, he could collect his supplies”. Five centuries on, it’s hard not to miss how little has changed in India’s counter-insurgency paradigm: Even today, planners depend on gargantuan concentrations of forces, coupled with denial of access to population centres, to dominate the physical terrain. This week’s loss of 26 Central Reserve Police Force personnel isn’t significant of itself: In war, tragedy is but punctuation. Its real significance, though, ought be to tell us that the paradigm itself is past its sell-by date.
In 1961, the French special forces officer Roger Trinquier authored his findings on why militarised counter-insurgencies were fated to fail. The French military in Algeria and Indochina, he noted, persisted “in studying a type of warfare that no longer exists and that we shall never fight again”. “The result of this shortcoming”, he went on, “is that the army is not prepared to confront an adversary employing arms and methods the army itself ignores. It has, therefore, no chance of winning.” He concluded memorably: “Our military machine reminds one of a pile-driver attempting to crush a fly, indefatigably persisting in repeating its efforts”.
In November 2009, when then-Home Minister P. Chidambaram launched what the media called Operation Green Hunt, the task seemed simple: The gerontocrats who run India’s national security were persuaded that pumping huge forces into under-policed Bastar would sever links between the Maoists and adivasis, degrading the insurgency. It was a classic medieval response — move in a few risalas to stamp out the bandits, and fly the imperial flag. Thus, Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai announced: “Within 30 days of security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there.”
The promise has been brutally exposed. Ill-prepared CRPF personnel, often trained in tents, short of about half their sanctioned requirement of key assistant commandant-level officers, were slaughtered. In April, 2010, 76 CRPF personnel were killed in a single ambush, while wandering aimlessly in a forest patrol. How this came about, though, has as much to do with serious errors in conception. For one, there was no looming “red-corridor”, with 180 affected districts — or, rather, there was only one if one used the government’s dubious index of one Maoism-related First Information Report having been filed in the previous year. There was, moreover, no prospect of “clear, hold and build” in Bastar — the then-fashionable doctrine Chidambaram’s mandarins had borrowed from the United States. The Bastar division of Chhattisgarh sprawls across 40,000 square kilometres, an area larger than the Kashmir Valley. New Delhi pumped in 14 battalions of the CRPF — each of 1,000 men — and five of the Border Security Force. That means each battalion of security forces were expected to engage with insurgents in areas larger than 2,000 square kilometres, thinly covered by road.
Fatalities in 2009 were, unsurprisingly, higher, at 941, than in 2008, which saw 648. The higher fatalities in 2009 included a sharp rise in security force losses, from 214 to 312, and civilians, from 220 to 391. Indeed, fatalities in 2007 and 2008 were lower than in 2009. Thus, “Green Hunt” had the proximate consequence of making the region less secure — not more.
After the 2010 debacle, the counter-insurgency campaign in Chhattisgarh wound down, with the police force — battered by allegations of human rights violations — leaving the fight to the CRPF, which, bereft of a specialist intelligence wing, local language skills and a higher management proficient in counter-insurgency, could do nothing: Maoist losses declined steadily year on year.
Then, in 2016, two states registered sharp upticks in offensive Maoist operations, while figures for the others remained static: Chhattisgarh saw a jump from 36 to 133 Maoists killed, while numbers of police lost declined from 41 to 35, and Odisha saw killings of insurgents rise from 11 to 45. Though disaggregated figures on these operations aren’t available, there is reason for concern: There is no known means that makes relatively dysfunctional forces perform miraculously well inside a year. In Chhattisgarh, killings of individuals unconnected or tenuously connected to the insurgency are reported to have led to a resurgence of support to the Maoists.
Force seduces — but it comes at a price. In a signal 2001 essay, the former Assam Chief Secretary, Vijendra Singh Jafa, recorded how the village of Darzo was relocated. “My orders,” a soldier told him, “were to get the villagers to collect whatever moveable property they could and to set their own village on fire at seven in the evening. I also had orders to burn all the paddy and other grain that could not be carried away by the villagers.” The officer, Jafa recounted, ordered village elders at gunpoint to certify “that they had burnt down their own village”.
But the insurgency did not end. New Delhi and Laldenga were able to agree on the contours of a peace agreement as early as 1976, but the deep anger provoked by the army’s campaign made it impossible to settle the deal. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval knows the story well, for he eventually helped bring about peace through intelligence operations in 1986.
It’s painful for many to admit — but India’s counter-insurgency record isn’t luminous. Punjab and Tripura might stand out, but much of the Northeast is a desolation of degraded insurgent fiefdoms; in Kashmir, the military defeat of the jihad hasn’t yielded peace. Though terrorism-related violence remains well below the levels seen even a decade ago, 1,00,000 troops deployed on counter-insurgency duties, in addition to the 83,000-plus Jammu and Kashmir Police and 60,000 CRPF personnel, haven’t succeeded in tamping down violent protest. The option to finding better ways is endless war, corroding the Indian republic from within.