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Getting it consistently wrong in the ‘Red Corridor’

By Bharat Karnad

There are two narratives regarding the Naxals. One, that the Maoist rebels are on the run, their ranks decimated by desertion and paramilitary actions, and that the entire fighting element among them has shrunk to a small “hard core” group of experienced fighters. The other is a more skeptical take on the situation, that this is so much brave talk to prop up the spirits because in reality ground is being steadily lost despite more roads being constructed and communications links established in the hinterland areas where hitherto government writ didn’t prevail because the apparatus of government — police and administration was absent. That the the truth lies somewhere in between can be taken for granted in view of the huge number of violent incidents that have been recorded and the ability of the armed “revolutionaries” to strike counter-insurgency troop concentrations, either in their bases, encampments in the field, and on the outskirts of big towns, such as Sukna where, in the most recent such incident 25 paralmils were slain.

The problem is this if 118 battalions of mainly CRPF, but also of ITBP, or some 120,000 troopers in all cannot make much of a headway, what are the prospects of improvements in the situation?

Proposals by Home Minister

Home Minister Rajnath Singh apparently believes two things that (1) injecting the more effective and disciplined army and its counterinsurgency arm — the Rashtriya Rifles, and the Indian Air Force with air support, would begin to tilt the balance of power against the Maoists, and (2) high-technology paraphernalia, such as drones, remote sensors, etc., will compensate for the manifest lack of spirit shown by the paramils, who are thus dragging down the effort.

Moreover, in this sort of operational scenario IAF helicopters are a big No-No. These whirly-birds clattering down in forest clearings to lift and offload CI troops are about as useful as deploying tanks would be. In fact, all that the rebels would then have to do is wait for the helos to unload a fighting contingent for them to know their targets and the drop zones. Regularly using combat aircraft or attack helicopters in ground attack mode, as the estimable former air chief heading for the hoosegaw, SP Tyagi, had suggested in trumpeting the supposed COIN attributes of the British Hawk aircraft, would be even more disastrous, because the cumulative costs of such missions (including protection of nearby satellite air fields where they’ll be based) in terms of kill-rate or interdiction success will be minimal. Despite the US Air Force dropping more bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam than were dropped on the Axis Powers by the Allies in WW2, the North Vietnamese logistics system was only minimally disrupted during the Vietnam War, 1965-72.

Such thinking, loved by the political pooh-bahs and service brass, gives me the shivers. For God’s sake what specific training would the army or even its RR elements be able to impart to the paramils? The army operates within the context of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a very different, less onerous milieu than the one the anti-Naxal cops face.

Time and again I have iterated in my writings that history shows that only small groups of committed, and materially well rewarded, commandos, who live off the land, spend long time in the field in hunter-killer groups of two or three personnel, work in complete radio silence over a vast area, and are left free to use their best judgement to do what to whom and when,  track and spy on Maoist groups, identify the leaders, and otherwise hunt down their prey without observing any Marquess of Queensberry rules, can rid the landscape of this kind of scourge.

Again, as I am fond of recounting, the only American fighting group the outrageously brave Viet Cong feared were the very Special Forces in the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) who moved silently on foot, were lightly armed, unencumbered by communications equipment, or any tell-tale camping wherewithal. These were the ghosts who killed without making a sound, highly individualistic men not given to following orders but determined on achieving results. They’d be gone in the jungles for 6 months at a time, never to touch base except when they trickled in singly (so as not to draw attention).

A bunch of paramil commando

So, why can’t a Special Commando Force for internal missions to quell insurgencies be formed outside the usual orgs, unstymied by any police protocol, and able to operate outside the rule of law but with full government sanction? Oh, sure, there are a whole bunch of paramil “commando” groups with fearsome names — Cobras, Greyhounds, etc. But these are neither by training nor disposition the genuine article, too heavily armed to be very foot-mobile, and mostly because they are tied to the road-borne logistics umbilical of rear area bases.

The true jungle commando should never be seen, or heard, never publicized, never in uniform, their presence never acknowledged, with their recruitment and remuneration channels managed separately by restricted personnel within PMO sworn to secrecy,  but whose success can be gauged by the areas sanitized, and the degree of sanitization achieved.

But why is such a solution unlikely? Because the exclusiveness of such an outfit is precisely why the IPS which is expert in mucking up things and should be kept as far away as possible — would oppose it. And because the bureaucratized Indian state won’t allow such units to function freely.


Bharat Karnad is senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group.

This article has been previously published in Security Wise.

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