Left-Wing Extremism: Rethinking India’s COIN Strategy
Bibhu Prasad Routray and Shanthie Mariet D'Souza
A short-sighted counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy, an apathetic political class, an unresponsive state machinery, bureaucratic inertia, and the growing disconnect between a prospering and an impoverished India, have been flagged as some of the factors that contribute to the lack of an effective strategy and the near unassailability of the extremists. At the heart of such inadequacies, however, is the persistent conceptual ambiguity regarding the nature of the movement and the threat it poses to the Indian state. Authorities have been periodically compelled to revisit their strategies after each successful extremist attack. And yet, a comprehensive national strategy providing a long term solution to LWE remains a far fetched goal. The 25 May 2013 extremist attack in the state of Chhattisgarh provided yet another opportunity to rethink and reset the official strategy. Whether the new strategy would end the ambiguity and explore alternate mechanisms for conflict resolution, however, remains to be seen.
Understanding Left-wing Extremism (LWE)
The phenomena of Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) in India, spearheaded by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), continues to pose a significant conceptual problem, impacting upon the policy response to deal with it. In spite of the sustained campaign of intimidation and violence by outfit[i] with the stated objective of overthrowing the present democratic system of government, there is little unanimity among the policy makers and practitioners on the strategy to counter this form of violent extremism (CVE). The fact that LWE is not a secessionist movement has scuttled isolated moves to deploy the Indian Army[ii] in extremist infested areas even when the law enforcement agencies and police have been found to be lacking in their abilities to protect the local populace from violent extremist onslaughts. The dilemma of proportional ‘use of force’ to deal with what is essentially perceived as home based and home grown extremist movement has complicated the search for an appropriate strategy - counter-terrorism (CT) versus counter-insurgency (COIN).[iii] The ‘use of force’ against its own population, although not a rarity in the history of Indian counter-insurgency campaigns, continues to evoke strong counter reactions under the country's liberal democratic order.
As a result, labelling the Maoists as terrorists remains problematic even for the ardent supporters of a force-centric approach against extremism. In a September 2011 media interview, then Home Minister P Chidambaram, under whose directives the Indian state launched the biggest ever coordinated security force operations in 2010 refrained from branding the Naxals as terrorists. "The most violent movement in India is not terrorism or insurgency but Left-wing extremism"[iv], he said advocating a move to provide enough manoeuvring space and at the same time win public support. A range of incongruous policies have originated from such lack of conceptual clarity.[v] While some of the extremist affected states have pursued a force-centric approach, others have espoused recourse to development-led solution, dialogue and peace negotiations as effectual alternatives.
Every major extremist attack has gradually blurred the lines of distinction between this perceptibly moralistic insurgency that has taken up the cudgels for the rights of the marginalised and disenfranchised tribals, and its use of terrorist methods. Moreover, un-relented attacks by the CPI-Maoist and its disinclination towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict has led to a gradual consolidation in the coalition of the willing favouring a force-centric approach.
Winning the ‘Hearts and Minds’ Campaign
India's interior ministry, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) propagates a two-pronged approach to counter LWE - combining security force action with accelerated development of extremist affected areas. In spite of the criticism that the two-pronged approach merely masks an overtly security force centric strategy to annihilate the extremists and clear the tribal inhabited areas for exploitation by the multinational corporations and the mining companies, development of the area under the domination of the CPI-Maoist and addressing the governance deficit remains a key pillar of the overall official strategy. Several ministers and officially appointed committees have underscored the need to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the tribal population who constitute the primary strength and local support base of the extremists through a sustained development campaign.
The Integrated Action Plan (IAP), launched since 2010 to develop 82 LWE affected districts[vi], is one of the key developmental initiatives in operation. There are additional schemes for generation of rural employment, to build road infrastructures, schools, hospitals, and efforts to activate the public distribution system (PDS) with a bid to reach subsidised food items to the impoverished population. There have also been efforts to reform the land acquisition laws for new industrial units as well as mining activities in the tribal inhabited areas. Legislations have been enacted to protect the forest rights for the tribal population and initiate land reforms in various states. Implementation of each of these measures, however, remain a key challenge, affected by bureaucratic inertia, political myopia as well as challenges posed by the extremists.
In the past decade, extremist violence has remained an impediment to such development efforts. The CPI-Maoist has destroyed schools, offices of local self-government institutions, roads, and mobile phones towers as part of its asymmetric warfare to deny the space and prevent the state agencies from making inroads into their stronghold areas. This, however, has not prevented the state from pouring in money into extremist-affected areas. The total annual budgetary allocation for the 82 worst affected districts for four financial years stands at Rupees 10 billion.[vii] In the battle to win the ‘hearts and minds’ and to meet the challenges posed by the extremists who target the developmental schemes, a 'clear, hold and develop'- strategy has been implemented with varying degrees of success. However, the proportion of money being siphoned off by the political-bureaucratic-contractor nexus in the burgeoning war economy[viii] remains substantial.
(Dis)proportionate Use of Force?
While a force-centric approach is not entirely linked to the state's inadequate gains from the developmental approach, the latter has indeed contributed to the need to blunt the violence potential of the extremists as a precondition for sustainable development. The capacity of the CPI-Maoist to carry out a sustained and systematic campaign of violence targeting the security forces, police informers and civilians seen as sympathising with the state has justified the predominance of the security force operations model. The fact that most of India's previously perceived COIN/CT successes (in Punjab, Mizoram, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh) have been achieved through security force operations, this model has its ardent supporters both in the official as well as strategic circles. Deploying security force battalions into the conflict affected areas has always been a convenient strategy of gaining control over the liberated zones. The development model, on the other hand, is perceived as tedious, costly and liable for disruption by extremist violence.
The myriad range of military measures employed against the CPI-Maoist include multi-theatre operations (Operation Green Hunt), localised small area operations (Operation Anaconda and Monsoon in Jharkhand and Operation Maad, Kilam, and Podku in Chhattisgarh), use of civilian vigilante groups (Sendra in Jharkhand and the disbanded Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh), and covert intelligence operations targeting the extremist leaders. As per the Government of India (GoI) data, as on May 2013, 532 companies of the central armed police forces have been deployed in the affected states to carry out joint operations with the state police forces.[ix]
Achievements from each of these measures have been marked by setbacks. In the ensuing asymmetric warfare, security forces have lost personnel and weapons in some of the neatly executed ambushes by the CPI-Maoist. In 2010, the outfit killed an entire company of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Chhattisgarh's Tadmetla area. Inadequate knowledge of the terrain and lack of human intelligence (HUMINT) resulted in some of the worst incidents of civilian casualties during encounters, further contributing to the existing alienation among the tribal population. The lack of coordination between the central and the state police forces made the operations far less effective. And the worst among them all, the divergent approaches and varying intensity of counter-extremist responses across different Indian states has resulted in the inflation of insurgent balloon, allowing the Maoists to move and establish safe havens/sanctuaries in different ungoverned spaces of the country.
At the same time, each of these force-centric tactics, along with continuing efforts to modernise the state police and para-military forces, has made several tangible gains. The CPI-Maoist has lost a number of cadres to arrests, killings and surrenders, a fact claimed by the official machinery and acknowledged the outfit's published literatures. According to official data, 1707 extremists were killed between 2003 and 2012. Another 6849 were arrested and 1100 surrendered during 2010 and 2012.[x]
Area under extremist domination has shrunk after security forces cleared off some CPI-Maoist strongholds in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. In 2011, the chief of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) claimed that his forces have managed to free about 5,000 square kilometres of area previously controlled by the Maoists. Police stations, previously the most vulnerable among the Maoist targets, turned into impenetrable fortresses after available resources were used efficiently to augment their securities, grossly undermining the 'raids for weapons'-strategy of the CPI-Maoist. The overall impact has been reflected in the extremist ability to inflict injuries and fatalities on the security forces and civilians. Fatalities among civilians and security forces declined to 301 and 114 respectively in 2012, from 720 civilians and 285 security forces in 2010.[xi] Number of violent incidents during the same period declined from 2213 to 1412.[xii]
Maoists also were affected by a range of self-generating deficiencies. Rapid expansion facilitated the entry of a large number of insufficiently motivated cadres into the organisation. Mutation along caste lines in states such as Jharkhand and Bihar initiated a phase of internecine warfare. The state agencies roped in the renegade factions and made them unofficial partners in the COIN campaign against the CPI-Maoist. Moreover, craving for media publicity also led to some senior CPI-Maoist leaders coming under the radar of the forces and consequently getting eliminated.
Case Study: The Chhattisgarh Attack
In the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, the worst extremist affected state in India, the CPI-Maoist, on 25 May 2013, carried out a well planned attack targeting a convoy of vehicles carrying political leaders and activists belonging to the Indian National Congress (INC). A group of 350 Maoists consisting of men, women and children exploded improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to bring the convoy to a halt, overpowered the security forces and went about selectively killing political leaders. Among the killed were Mahendra Karma, the leader of the controversial Salwa Judum vigilante programme, and the INC's Chhattisgarh unit leader and his son. The death toll in the attack was 30 with no casualties on the Maoists side. A former union minister who was injured in the attack succumbed to his injuries on 11 June in a New Delhi hospital.
The attack carried out on the convoy did not constitute a significant military victory for the CPI-Maoist. The motley of security force personnel, mostly personal security guards protecting some of the leaders, either ran out of bullets or were overpowered by the numerically superior adversaries. Neither did the attack advance the Maoist objective of capturing state power. The attack took place in an identified extremist stronghold and did not demonstrate an audacious outreaching capacity into an area devoid of Maoist influence.
However, the violence, termed as a "frontal assault on the democratic foundations of our nation"[xiii] by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, did pose questions on the exaggerated claims of the state about its gains vis-a-vis the extremists in the recent months. Whether optimistic official assessments regarding the on-ground situation had encouraged such bravado of the INC leaders too came under scanner. Two months before the attack, the Union Home Secretary had told a parliamentary committee, "There has been an absolute turnaround in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and now we are chasing the Naxal groups."[xiv] A month before the attack, an internal assessment of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had emphatically noted, "If the current momentum could be sustained for a period of few more months, it could perhaps lead to decisive tipping of scales in favour of security forces."[xv]
Rethinking COIN Strategy: Old Wine in a New Bottle
The 25 May incident in Chhattisgarh was neither the worst incident of man slaughter by the Maoists, nor did it constitute the first ever attack on politicians. However, it was for the first time that the extremists had managed to annihilate a number of prominent politicians in a single attack. The incident generated intense media attention. Predictable reactions called for swift punitive measures against the extremists. The Chhattisgarh Chief Minister categorically rejected the possibility of peace negotiations and vowed to aggressively pursue the extremists.[xvi] The Union Home Secretary R K Singh predicted an intensification of the COIN operations.[xvii] The Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde promised a "joint operation"[xviii] of state and central forces against the Maoists.
The attack also brought about some noticeable shifts in the proclaimed perceptions of some of the key government functionaries regarding the nature of extremism. Minister of Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh, a long standing advocate of the politico-developmental approach against the Maoists, termed them the attack a "holocaust"[xix] and its perpetrators, "terrorists"[xx]. Home Minister Shinde summed up in the shift in the following words. "So far we were thinking that this (violence) would be some other way of movement. But in 2010 incident (Tadmetla massacre in which 76 security personnel were killed) and May 25 (attack on Congress rally) we have seen it is nothing other than a terror (activity)," he said. Shinde concluded, "The (May 25) incident is bigger than terrorism."[xxi] Amid the convergence of views, some dissenting voices, however, remained. The tribal affairs minister K C Deo, for example, opined that the end of the conceptual problem alone will not help addressing the Maoist issue. "Calling them terrorists... is it going to help or improve the situation? You can use different terms but ultimately you have to get at the root of the problem"[xxii], he told.
Apart from such predominantly rhetorical official assertions, the 25 May extremist attack did herald the possibility of a reset to the existing COIN strategy. The need to end the partisan differences on the issue and evolve a consensus at the national level to formulate a policy on LWE led to a meeting of different political parties on 10 June. The Prime Minister, inaugurating the meeting, underlined the need to "fine tune and strengthen"[xxiii] the defensive and offensive capabilities of the state against the extremists. While declining to disclose the measures initiated to "permanently root out this menace" assured the nation that his "government will not be found wanting in this regard".[xxiv] A resolution passed at the end of the meeting called upon the state and the central governments to "adopt a two-pronged strategy of sustained operations to clear the areas of Maoist influence and pursue the objectives of effective governance and rapid development."[xxv] The parties resolved to "remain united and shall speak in one voice and act with a sense of unified purpose and will."[xxvi]
The content and direction of the new strategy remains matter of speculation. Some of its key parameters, however, can be inferred from the statements of bureaucrats and ministers. While an overwhelming opinion against the participation of the Indian Army against the CPI-Maoist continues to persist, the government appears prepared to abandon the policy of trying to develop the extremist affected areas, pending its sanitisation by the security forces. Underlining the difficulties of implementing development schemes in extremist controlled areas Finance Minister P Chidambaram told journalists, "In Bastar (Chhattisgarh), what development can you attempt if people can't enter?"[xxvii] The Home Secretary R K Singh also added that security action must precede developmental work and can not be carried out simultaneously.[xxviii] A further hardening of the force-centric policy is visible through the attempt by New Delhi to coerce all states to pursue a unified national strategy against the CPI-Maoist, using preferential deployment of central police forces as a leverage tool. New Delhi intends to rapidly fill up the shortage of 27000 in the central forces' ranks to ensure an optimal force deployment in the extremist affected areas.
The new strategy appears to have ssigned a disproportionate use of force, representing a return to the mindset that prevailed in 2010. Operation Green Hunt (OGH) launched in the early months of that year, involving over 70 battalions of central security forces and an equal number of state police personnel, had hoped to surmount the military challenge posed by the extremists through a rapid and decisive demonstration of strength. Within a few months, the security forces met with a series of setbacks leading to the abandonment of the operation. Lacklustre response of the civil administration failed to address the governance and development deficit (hold and develop component) both in the OGH and the subsequent focused area operations. Surprisingly, the discourse on the new strategy appears to have given very little attention to these past shortfalls.
Whether a real turn around can be achieved through the new strategy remains unclear. It may still be possible for a determined state to neutralise some of the senior Maoist leadership and effect some fatal blows on the movement. However, unless the state demonstrates its willingness to fill up the vacuum of underdevelopment and absence of governance, Maoists in some form or the other will find an opportunity to return. The purported objective of an extremist takeover of the country has always been an unrealistic goal. Without a comprehensive strategy and a coherent national policy that nips at the very strengths of the extremists, the government's objective of reclaiming the liberated zones too would defeated, even with the prevailing state of heightened alacrity.
[i] The history of LWE in India goes back to the 1960s. However, the 2004 merger between two erstwhile outfits, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the People's War Group (PWG), leading to the formation of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) is largely described as spearheading a violent campaign. Once described as active in one third of India's geographic expanse, the movement has claimed 8498 lives between 2003 and 2012. India's Prime Minister has termed the movement the most serious internal security challenge. The CPI-Maoist's armed cadre strength was estimated officially to be 8680 in 2010. Additionally, the group derives support and sympathy from a very large tribal population inhabiting India's resource rich and yet, ungoverned and undeveloped regions.
[ii] The CPI-Maoist, unlike the insurgents in India's Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir, has not received any external assistance from foreign powers. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, Countering the Naxalites: Is there a need to ‘bring in’ the Army?” Journal of Defence Studies, Vol.3, No.3, pp. 125-132 (New Delhi, July 2009).
[iii] Shanthie Mariet D’Souza and Bibhu Prasad Routray, “ India's COIN approach and Left-Wing Extremism” , Open Security, London, August 13, 2012, http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/shanthie-mariet-dsouza-bibhu-prasad-routray/indias-coin-approach-and-left-wing-extremis. Accessed on 15 June 2013.
[iv] "Naxalism is a bigger challenge than terrorism: Chidambaram", Times of India, 14 September 2011, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-09-14/india/30153889_1_naxalism-bigger-challenge-home-minister. Accessed on 16 June, 2013.
[v] Bibhu Prasad Routray and Shanthie Mariet D’Douza, Inde: la reponse de l'Etat a l'insurrection des extremistes gauchistes, (Co-authored) in Aurelie Campana & Gerard Hervouet (ed.), Terrorisme et insurrection. Evolution des dynamiques conflictuelles et reponses des Etats., Presses de l'Universite du Quebec (PUQ) Montreal/Quebec, January 2013.
[vi] The plan began with 35 districts under its ambit and has subsequently been expanded to cover 82 districts.
[vii] "Rs 1,000-cr fund for 82 Naxal-affected areas to continue", Times of India, 15 June 2013, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-06-15/news/39993105_1_backward-districts-integrated-action-plan-central-assistance. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[viii] Shanthie Mariet D’Souza and Bibhu Prasad Routray, “Red kitty and beyond", Business Standard, New Delhi, May 20, 2010. http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/shanthie-mariet-d-souza-bibhu-prasad-routray-red-kitty-and-beyond-110052000002_1.html. Accessed on 15 June 2013.
[ix] Deployment of CRPF in Naxal Affected States, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=95723. Accessed on 8 May 2013
[x] "State-wise extent of naxal violence during 2008 to 2012", Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
[xi] "State-wise details of Civilians killed, Security Forces (SFs) killed, Naxals killed and Naxals arrested", Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
[xii] "State-wise extent of naxal violence during 2008 to 2012", Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
[xiii] "PM’s opening remarks at the All Party meeting on Naxal violence", 10 June 2013, Office of the Prime Minister of India, http://pmindia.nic.in/speech-details.php?nodeid=1325. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[xiv] Aloke Tikku, "MHA told Parliament panel Naxals are on the run in Chhattisgarh", Hindustan Times, 25 May 2013.
[xv] Rahul Tripathi, " Bastar Bloodbath: Alert on Naxal build-up came a month back", Indian Express, 28 May 2013.
[xvi] "No talks, fight against Naxals to intensify: Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh to NDTV", NDTV, 5 June 2013, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/no-talks-fight-against-naxals-to-intensify-chhattisgarh-chief-minister-raman-singh-to-ndtv-375448. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[xvii] "Anti-Naxal operations will be intensified: Home Secy RK Singh", Zee News, 28 May 2013, http://zeenews.india.com/news/maharashtra/anti-naxal-operations-will-be-intensified-home-secy-rk-singh_851348.html. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[xviii] "We will launch a joint operation: Shinde", The Hindu, 31 May 2013, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/we-will-launch-a-joint-operation-shinde/article4769407.ece. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[xix] "Naxal attack was a 'holocaust': Jairam Ramesh", Daily News & Analysis, 26 May 2013, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/1839766/report-naxal-attack-was-a-holocaust-jairam-ramesh. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[xx] "Maoists terrorists, should learn from Arvind Kejriwal, fight polls: Jairam Ramesh", Indian Express, 29 May 2013, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/maoists-terrorists-should-learn-from-arvind-kejriwal-fight-polls-jairam-ramesh/1122026/. Accessed on 16 June, 2013.
[xxi] "Naxal attack: Shinde speaks of joint action, Greyhound forces", Daily News & Analysis, 31 May 2013, http://www.deccanherald.com/content/335731/naxal-attack-shinde-speaks-joint.html. Accessed on 16 June, 2013.
[xxii] Sindhu Manjesh, "Calling Naxals 'terrorists' will not solve problems: Tribal Affairs Minister KC Deo", NDTV, 31 May 2013, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/calling-naxals-terrorists-will-not-solve-problems-tribal-affairs-minister-kc-deo-373522. Accessed on 16 June, 2013.
[xxiii] "PM’s opening remarks at the All Party meeting on Naxal violence", 10 June 2013, Prime Minister's Office, Government of India. http://pmindia.nic.in/speech-details.php?nodeid=1325. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[xxv] "Unanimous Resolution by the All Party meeting on Naxal violence", Prime Minister's Office, Government of India, 10 June 2013, http://pmindia.nic.in/press-details.php?nodeid=1635. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[xxvii] "States agree to adopt Andhra-style anti Naxal policy; national policy soon", Economic Times, 6 June 2013, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-06-06/news/39788812_1_chief-ministers-bastar-dantewada. Accessed on 17 June 2013.
[xxviii] Aman Sharma, "Naxal violence: Security action must precede developmental work, says RK Singh", Economic Times, 11 June 2013, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-06-11/news/39899514_1_naxal-violence-home-secretary-rk-singh-chhattisgarh. Accessed on 17 June 2013.