The disaster at Sukma, where 25 CRPF jawans lost their lives, represents multiple failures at different levels. Starting from the top, it is inexplicable that the post of Director General of the CRPF should have been kept vacant for more than 50 days. A disciplined force always looks up to its leader for guidance and direction, and his absence creates a sense of uncertainty in the ranks. Keeping India’s lead counter-insurgency force of more than three lakh personnel headless was, to say the least, avoidable.
It is also incomprehensible that there is no clarity yet about the strategic approach to the Maoist problem, even though the Indian state has been battling it for the last 50 years. Shivraj Patil, Union home minister in the UPA government, in a statement on April 24, 2005, described the Maoists as “our brothers and sisters”. The Maoists took full advantage of this approach to augment their strength and build their firepower. In 2006, a 14-point policy was announced which inter alia talked of addressing the problem simultaneously “on political, security and development fronts”. The policy, however, never got implemented on the ground.
The next Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, summarised government policy in three graphic words in 2009: “Clear, hold and develop.” It was a cryptic enunciation, but was executed by a massive deployment of the Central forces in the affected regions. His approach was, however, not shared by everyone in the Congress. Digvijaya Singh openly criticised Chidambaram. As a result, the security forces felt hamstrung in their operations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day speech on August 15, 2014, giving Nepal’s example, called upon the misguided youth of the country to shun terrorism and Naxalism and opt for peace and brotherhood instead. During his visit to Dantewada on May 9, 2015, the prime minister again called upon the Maoists to shun violence and said, “only plough on shoulders can bring development, not guns”. These were unexceptionable statements, but there should have been a strategic formulation by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
In the absence of any clear-cut guidelines or directions from the Central government, every state government has been dealing with the problem as per its own assessment of the situation. There is no coherent strategy or plan.
The Chhattisgarh government has not covered itself in glory while dealing with the Maoist problem. The state has witnessed the highest level of Maoist violence in the country. It has not extended the kind of support it should have to the Central armed police forces, which, more often than not, are left to fend for themselves. In the Sukma incident, 25 CRPF personnel were martyred, but there is no information yet about injuries to state police personnel. Either they were not there or were in very small numbers. It is said the CRPF personnel were attacked by about 300 Maoist guerrillas. Obviously, these Maoists must have been in the area for a couple of days. How did the local administration and intelligence have no scent of their presence? Such an intelligence vacuum is inexcusable.
The 74 Battalion personnel also seem to have made serious tactical mistakes. It appears they were having lunch together and huddled in one place. This explains the heavy casualties suffered by them. Forces sent for counter-insurgency must have first-class leaders, first-class weapons and first-class training. The CRPF in Sukma appeared to be lacking in the required level of training and leadership. What is particularly galling is that it was in Sukma, on March 11 that 12 members of another CRPF road-opening party were killed in an IED explosion. Apparently, no lessons were learnt.
The fact also remains that there has been a significant drop in the volume of Maoist violence. A decade ago, Chhattisgarh reported 350 killings, among them 182 security forces personnel, 73 Maoists and 95 civilians. In 2016, the figure had dropped to 207 fatalities, which included only 36 security forces personnel, 133 Maoists and 38 civilians. At the all-India level, the geographical area under Maoist influence has shrunk drastically. In 2010, when the movement was at its peak, 223 districts in 20 states across the country were affected by Maoist violence. Today, the figure has come down to 106 districts in 13 states. Several members of the CPI (Maoist) central committee and politburo have been neutralised. The Maoists are in tactical retreat. This is, however, not to deny that they retain the capacity to launch lethal strikes. Besides, they have, in the past, shown enormous capacity to reorganise and reinvent. Clearly, there is no room for complacency.
Chhattisgarh, however, has been sluggish in building the capacities of its police forces. There are about 10,000 vacancies in different ranks in the state police. Twenty-three sanctioned police stations have yet to be set up. And, shockingly, there are 14 police stations without any telephone link.
A fundamental flaw in the anti-Maoist operations today is that the state police forces in most states — undivided Andhra Pradesh was a singular exception — are heavily dependent on the Central government. The mindset seems to be that Maoism is the government of India’s problem and, therefore, the Central forces should bear the brunt of extremist violence. The great lesson we learnt in Punjab was that until the state police makes a frontal attack on the terrorists/Maoists, the battle would never be won. State governments must realise that it is their battle: They have to lead and the Central forces are to play only a supportive role. Once this transformation in mindset takes place, the tide will definitely turn.
The security forces’ efforts will, of course, have to be supplemented by appropriate socio-economic measures to address the legitimate grievances of the tribals and draw them into the mainstream.