We are fighting the war the way they (Naxal) want us to fight. We are confused about what we want to do against a ragtag army of 10,000-15,000 ultras spread across the 10 states. It is clear that the present strategy authored by the top leadership with all its advantage and disadvantages to kill a small enemy is not working. Give us a clear mandate, we’ll kill them all,” says a serving paramilitary officer.
The paramilitary commandant was a wiry man, going prematurely grey at the temples. He recounts armed confrontations between the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Naxalites in the jungles of Chhattisgarh with the dispassionate air of a surgeon; a veteran of many operations.
Until he describes the footprints in the mud. Naxals had captured a patrol of his men, shot their kneecaps out and flung them into a ditch alive, leaving them to bleed to death.
When their bodies were found after an extensive search two days after, the ground of the ditch had been churned up and scourged. Since the incapacitated soldiers couldn’t stand, they could only flail at the earth desperately with their feet.
This story of sadism and futile bravery captures the tragic war India’s under-equipped, poorly fed and paid paramilitary forces are fighting in the small towns and villages of Kashmir and the Maoist-infested jungles of India. Despite the numbers of red terrorists killed—298 between 2016 and April 2017—the ultras are outmaneuvering the paramilitary forces, revealing gaping holes in Indian counter-insurgency operations.
After the massacre of the 25 CRPF jawans in Sukma last week, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh offered to review the Naxal strategy and called a meeting of top officials in Delhi on May 8. But who is to blame?
BLAME GAME AS USUAL
A section within the security establishment immediately pointed fingers at the paramilitary forces themselves, mainly poorly treated CRPF footsoldiers—who fight carrying loads of 25 kg on their back—for not following the Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) in anti-Naxal operations.
The home ministry has deployed 108 battalions or 124,308 jawans from CRPF, Border Security Force (BSF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) in Naxal-affected areas. Insiders reveal there is no single piece of SoP to guide them in the killing fields, either during Rambo-style operations or standing their ground for area domination and being martyred like in Sukma.
In Kashmir, where paramilitary forces form the mainstay of anti-terror and anti-street fight action, the CRPF is a dispirited body of fighting men.
In spite of being humiliated and attacked, they have to exercise restraint. In a video that went viral last week, a mob of locals was shown hitting and kicking paramilitary soldiers on election duty in Srinagar, trying to provoke them. Later, Bhavesh Chaudhary, CRPF spokesman in Srinagar, said:
“When someone slaps you, the instant reaction would be retaliation but see how our jawans stay patient despite being armed.” Restraint is a political decision in a highly volatile area, which doesn't make the soldier’s job any easier. One of the injured CRPF men was seen in the video carrying a rifle, which he did not use, in spite of being kicked on the shins and beaten on the head.
So far, in 16 years of insurgency, 212 paramilitary soldiers have been killed and 2,400 injured in encounters against terrorists in Kashmir. On June 25 last year, militants fired on CRPF jawans in Lethpura and killed eight and wounded 22. There have been several attacks on CRPF convoys in Kashmir Valley, especially on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway.
The 78km stretch between Jawahar tunnel to Srinagar witnesses on an average one attack in two months on paramilitary convoys; 647 CRPF vehicles have been damaged by stone pelters this year while their number in 2016 was 618. More than 200 vehicles have been targeted by mobs in the Valley since 2010. The CRPF is buying bulletproof buses to protect its men in transit.
Most paramilitary soldiers die because of the lack of adequate bulletproof jackets against fire from small arms and assault rifles. In anti-Maoist operations between 2005 and 2017, home ministry records show, around 1,900 jawans and 2,994 civilians were killed, while only 2,600 Maoists were neutralised; one Naxalite for every two persons they kill.
Why this tremendously poor kill ratio? Is there a place for indecisive leadership in the jungle or the Valley?
In 2016, a total of 66 paramilitary soldiers were killed in anti-Naxal operations. During deliberations within the security establishment, questions flew thick and fast on intelligence capacity and whether the forces have been able to dent the Naxal’s fighting capability.
Says a senior paramilitary officer, “Yes, the Naxalite movement was weakened momentarily after we killed around 250 armed guerillas last year. But we failed to make inroads among the people they draw their strengths from, and to get at their cadres and finances.
Despite the large force we have on the ground, we haven’t been able to pinpoint their weaknesses. It’s easy to blame the jawans, who are duty-bound to leave the camps at 5 in the morning fed on stale bread and watery daal with not enough water to drink and the fear looming over their heads that they may not be returning to camp in the evening.”
Ironically, BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav, who posted a video on the poor quality of food served to soldiers and alleged corruption of officers in his regiment, was dismissed after an internal inquiry pronounced him guilty of making false accusations against his superiors.
The disparity within the fighting forces of India reveals a story of casual neglect of the paramilitary forces. The 10,000-odd Group A officers of Central Para Military Forces (CPMFs) such as the CRPF, BSF, ITBP and SSB do not fall in the category of Organised Services, which hobbles their careers, affecting financial benefits. The ultimate casualty is the morale of the cadre officers who are the ones leading from the front, whether on the Indo-Pak border or in the hinterland.
Though created through Acts of Parliament, CPMFs are not considered armed forces of the Union. They have no immunity from prosecution under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act—their personnel are often booked for action during bona fide duties by the Jammu and Kashmir government under the Ranbir Penal Code for casualties/injuries sustained by stone pelters.
The officers are not allowed to form an association. Their grievances go unheard by the government. Associations of retired paramilitary personnel are fighting a legal battle in the Supreme Court to get their dues. As a result, long periods of continuous postings in difficult areas often lead to stress and health ailments, sometimes resulting in suicide.
Many officers often proceed on voluntary retirement or simply resign. In bizarre disparity, paramilitary forces are denied gallantry awards as commonly given to the Army, Air Force and Navy. Under the new pension scheme, pension amount is deducted monthly from the salaries of paramilitary staff unlike the defence forces. They do not receive military service pay like army personnel do.
Meanwhile, the Army is demanding One Rank One Pension stating the lower retirement age. In central paramilitary forces, jawans and officers both retire between 57 and 60 years of age. In the Army, jawans start retiring between 37 and 50 years, and officers retire at different ages depending on rank from 54 to 60 years.
According to home ministry data, 329 Naxalites surrendered to the security forces in the last four months. During 2014-16, 3,552 Naxalites gave up arms. So, how do Maoists keep getting fresh recruits?
Information on the ground has been so poor that there is so far no evidence or intelligence inputs available on the recruitment strategy and firepower of Naxalites. India has not been able to chock the supply gauntlet of arms and ammunition through the Northeast, Pakistan and China. Paramilitary forces deployed in the Naxal-infested districts are tasked to carry out five types of missions—short range patrols, long range patrols, road opening, area domination and providing security to infrastructure development work like roads.
However, they are supposed to launch ‘Kill’ operations only in cases when specific intelligence has been furnished to the forces. Last month when 12 jawans of the 219th Battalion of the CRPF were killed in a Maoist ambush at a road-opening mission, top officials were grilled over the poor intelligence. They privately admitted there was no specific input and the ones provided were not area-specific.
The martyred jawans and officers were once again blamed for not having followed SoP! According to a senior CRPF official in Chhattisgarh, road opening patrols and the security of road construction activities are carried out at the convenience of the contractors without changing the timings, exposing the pattern of the paramilitary movement and deployment to the Naxals.
Often the intelligence given to troops in the morning before they set out on missions is insufficient. In many cases, the ambushes have happened in a different area than the one suggested. Sometimes patrols don’t even find any signs of the Naxals; not even the telltale signs of their presence like boot prints or evidence of cooking. In paramilitary lexicon, this is called “jungle bashing”.
“Both the security and intelligence officers are sending jawans on wild goose chases on the basis of information collected from fringe sources. Due to lack of actionable intelligence, anti-Naxal operations are about taking chances. Most of the successful encounters have happened when the ultras had misjudged the situation and not because the troops surprised them by surrounding the camps. The war in the jungle cannot be won by jingoism, but leaders need to have a solid strategy to fight the enemy,” said an officer with expertise in anti-Maoist operations.
Poor intelligence plagues our fighting forces across the line. A Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs has exposed the intelligence failures during the terror attacks in Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota, Pampore and Baramulla. It has asked the home ministry to conduct a post facto analysis to check repeats of such attacks. It said, “The Committee takes note of the fact that more than a year has passed since the Pathankot attack occurred.
However, the investigation of that attack has not been completed by National Investigation Agency (NIA). Moreover, no analysis seems to have been done into the failure of the intelligence agencies to provide credible and actionable inputs regarding attacks at Pathankot, Uri, Pampore, Baramulla and Nagrota.
The Committee feels that these attacks have exposed the deficiencies of our intelligence agencies. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the ministry should instruct the NIA to complete the investigations of these at the earliest so as to identify the loopholes in the intelligence set up in the border areas.”
So, are paramilitary soldiers merely cannon fodder?
LACK OFPOLITICAL WILL
A home ministry official said since the last one decade, the discussions within the security establishment are about achieving clarity on operations and creating a strong dedicated leadership well trained in jungle warfare. Unfortunately, both the issues remained unanswered.
“If you have the troops on the ground, then why are we shying away from using air power? One argument is that it could inflict maximum casualties. So, you have the dialogue option, which is not possible in the present circumstances. Isn’t this confusing? Be clear whether you want to eliminate the enemy or desire to have a conversation. If it’s decided tomorrow to finish them off at all costs, it can be easily done. Psychological warfare methods such as playing jingles on the radio will not work,” says a home ministry official.
The top leadership can be blamed for a series of blunders. In 2007, the security forces decided to go hi-tech for anti-Naxal operations. Within the next few years, the top officers decided to deploy Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to expose their targets and finish them.
Except in one or two cases where jungle foliage was sparse, UAVs did not produce any actionable input to mount ops. Similarly, instead of buying and deploying commando mortars and demolition primer grenades against Naxals, they have been busy procuring tractors to pull out the plated Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on roads.
“We are too dependent on technical intelligence and fringe sources that have no penetration in Maoist ranks. The senior officials are forcing their men to fight the enemy without foreknowledge,” the official further adds.
The Naxalites have forced the paramilitary forces to fight on grounds of their choosing. “The Naxalites can never match the firepower of the paramilitary forces, which is precisely the reason they refuse to fight like a conventional army. Their objective is not to seize the ground but to fire when the situation is in their favour. Fire and run,” says the officer.
Even official explanations on ambushes, like the one in Sukma last week, are faulty. Contradicting the official report that hundreds of Naxalites had mounted an U-shaped ambush to attack the CRPF, sources said it was an L-shaped well-executed ambush closing all retreat routes to the soldiers. Even a well-trained soldier in conventional warfare may find it tough to get out alive from such ambushes.
The only way to defeat the ambush perfected by Maoists is to deny them knowledge of your movements, says a middle-rank officer, who served in specialised CoBRA force.
“The soldiers on the ground must be trained to shun predictable timings and routes on missions. Those moving on foot must be trained to move in arrowhead and spearhead formations avoiding the skyline to prevent being taken out with automatic fire. A closed-up unit is vulnerable to even a small ambush,” he explains.
Poor training is another weakness that plagues paramilitary forces engaged in anti-Naxal ops. They are provided only rudimentary training in guerilla warfare and countering ambush before being deployed. In a difficult terrain like Sukma, foot patrols must be highly trained in counter-ambush tactics and armed with smoke grenades to create screens and take cover to launch a counter-attack.
“Naxals have the ability to conceal themselves perfectly before an ambush. It’s high time we trained our forces on flanking movements with standard drills and took out terrorists using normal visual search and pinpointing incoming fire. Remember, you are fighting on unfavourable ground and only a well-trained unit has a chance to come out alive to tell the tale,” the CoBRA officer further adds.
As the week passes into history as one of the bloodiest punctuation marks in India’s war against insurgency, the paramilitary soldier continues to risk his life as the forgotten hero of countless campaigns.