There is something fundamentally wrong with the Indian police & government approach in handling the naxal challenge.
According to media reports, the security forces combating naxalism in Chhattisgarh have suffered a major reverse with as many as 22 men having been martyred in the forest along the border between Bijapur and Sukma districts.
The official press release states that the martyred personnel include
- eight men of the DRG (District Reserve Guard, Chhattisgarh police);
- six of the STF (Special Task Force, Chhattisgarh police);
- seven of the COBRA (CRPF), and
- one of the so-called Bastariya Battalion (CRPF).
At least 31 men are wounded and one is missing. Only sketchy details of the botched operation have appeared in the media. From whatever that is available in the public domain, it is clear that:
- A very large number of men (over 2,000 according to one report) were pushed into the jungle.
- They were taken by complete surprise in an ambush by the naxals.
- The naxals ambushed the troops at a place and time of their choice, leaving little chance for them to defend themselves even as they fought heroically.
What Went Wrong in Chhattisgarh?
Even this much information is adequate to expose the fatal professional mistakes in the planning of the operation. First, when such a large number of men are inserted into the jungle, so many preparatory movements of vehicles etc are required that their insertion cannot remain a secret. Contrary to popular perceptions harboured by most urban people, the jungle is not as uninhabited as they think.
It has happened almost every time in the past that information regarding troops’ presence or movement in the jungle is leaked by the naxals’ local informants.
On the other hand, it has almost never happened that locals come forward to give information about the naxals’ presence and movement.
As the papers Chhattisgarh Vaibhav and Dainik Bhaskar have rightly pointed out, three very senior officers from Delhi have had been camping in the area since three weeks for this operation. It is natural that they must be held responsible for the poor and faulty planning.
Inserting such a large number of men simultaneously was a blunder. It also means that the so-called operational planning was essentially a semantic exercise of grandiose objectives sans any tactical knowledge of the complexities of jungle combat.
Intelligence Failure or Zero Intelligence?
Second, the very fact that the men of the forces were taken by surprise, proves that the leadership/planners had no intelligence worth its name about the naxals, their numbers, and weaponry, not to speak of their likely planning.
This means that it was not just an intelligence failure; they blundered into an operation without any intelligence worth its name, which is criminal as it cost valuable lives.
Moreover, in their attempt to conceal their rank incompetence; they have mesmerized and fooled the government by overselling ‘technological silver bullets’ to a problem, which is a complex mix of social-economic-political and military problems.
That is how, as Chhattisgarh Vaibhav also pointed out, they have been pretending to depend heavily on UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles)/small drones to the utter neglect of human intelligence. UAVs could be used in Afghanistan because there are no jungles there. Here, their optical cameras cannot see anything under the cover of a tree canopy.
Fatal Megalomania of the Police Leadership
Why have they been persisting with their follies, year after year since 2010, when they had lost 76 men in one incident?
The reason is that for many officers ‘close to the powers that be’, the so-called operations are the result of their megalomania and their obsessive desire to please their equally megalomaniac masters that they would finish off naxals and naxalism in one single ‘masterstroke’. The sub-culture of ‘masterstrokes’ in the country that we have been talking about lately is not really a new thing. They have been selling such unrealistic dreams and plans since long.
The same megalomaniacs in the police leadership have been selling the myth of the so-called ‘small-team operations’ a la the Tamil film Peranmai (2009) or its Hindi-dubbed version ‘Kasam Hindustan Ki’. Essentially, they dream that a couple of super commandos would sneak into the jungles and kill a whole bunch of naxals.
Various schemes of eliminating the naxals have also been sold to the political leadership. These include aerial bombing or strafing; setting fire to the jungles; planting wireless ‘bugs’ in every adivasi household; following the ‘Gadhchiroli model’ or the ‘Andhra model’; covert operations; better coordination, liaison and synergy amongst various forces; and ‘eyes in the sky’, etc. The outcomes have not been encouraging.
No SOPs; No Real Enquiries
Internal or external inquiries under any government, which are held into such disasters, are essentially hogwash to complete a formality and silence the opposition by telling them that an inquiry has been ordered.
In any case, the reports of such ‘face-saving’ inquiries are also never made available to the junior and middle-level officers.
Inquiry reports prepared after major incidents are closely guarded secrets as their basic purpose is to save the favourites and find some scapegoat for punishment.
It has been observed since long that the nexus of the police leadership and their masters in the government go out of the way to hush things up so that the guilty IPS officers are saved and eventually the blame is passed on to the poor men for not having followed the mythical, non-existent SOP (Standard Operating Procedure).
Fact is no SOP of any kind exists anywhere. In fact, there should not be a SOP because every situation is different and there cannot be a one-size-fits-all type of response.
Dainik Bhaskar has blamed one particular officer involved in this incident by name, citing his dubious record of blunders in the past, and how he was promoted, rewarded, and given important responsibilities.
Not Learning from Mistakes
As a result, there is no opportunity of analysing and learning from mistakes.
Officers of the junior and middle level and the men are obliged to ‘surrender their brains to the hare-brained schemes of the leadership’ in the name of discipline. Anyone who ever dared question the wisdom of the grandiose but vacuous plans for purely professional reasons, is publicly insulted as a coward and marked for punishment later.
I do not think that from a professional angle, any solace is to be derived by claiming that the forces also have inflicted casualties on the naxals because not all their dead bodies are ever produced—the press release speaks of the dead body of only one woman.
The police leadership has traditionally been telling lies about casualties on the other side and the stock explanation is that the naxals carried away the dead bodies of their comrades or forced the villagers to do so. Let us be fair, casualties are to be expected in any combat. Some casualties are unavoidable whereas some are perfectly avoidable. We must be concerned about the avoidable casualties. Avoidable casualties continue to take place because, as discussed above, the forces are not allowed to learn from their mistakes.
Need for a Realistic Approach And an Honest SWOT Analysis
If a ragtag band of less than 10,000 poorly armed people has managed to survive the might of lakhs of soldiers since 1967, it means that its strength does not lie in just a few clever leaders.
It also shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the approach of the government in handling this challenge to internal security. Moreover, our intelligence is so hopelessly deficient that, even in 54 years, the nation has not been able to disrupt the naxals’ sources of finance, weaponry and recruitment.
Anti-naxal operations, as purely military matters, must have limited objectives in the first place and no one should delude himself or the government that one huge operation will wipe them off the face of India.
More importantly, the government must abandon its hubris and address those aspects of the problem.
(Dr. N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. He tweets @NcAsthana. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)