It is only ironic that the acceptance of serious losses by the Naxalites comes at a time, when the security establishment is itself reeling under the after-effects of a botched-up encounter in Chhattisgarh. Given the indications that the operations against the extremists have slowed down, Naxals would get yet another opportunity to make up for their losses.
In a press release dated July 5 and released on July 17, the CPI-Maoist accepted that its “failures and shortcomings in studying the deceptive strategy of the enemy” is the reason “behind the serious losses” it is facing. It called for “preservation” of its leadership by avoiding “unnecessary losses”.
Roughly at about the same time, the top brass of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was busy explaining to the media that the June 29 encounter in Chhattisgarh that killed a large number of civilians, was a genuine one and at least seven of the 18 persons killed had “clear-cut criminal records” against them. Repudiating the overwhelming tenor of the media reports that the security forces had acted in a haste and had indeed indulged in a massacre of tribals unconnected to extremism, CRPF authorities insisted that even though adequate precautions had been taken to avoid loss of civilian lives, forces had to open “defensive” fire only after its own personnel came under attack from the Naxals.
In any event, negative publicity the failed encounter received was recipe for a series of brain-storming sessions within the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). On July 13, police chiefs and MHA officials met in New Delhi to finalise a revised list of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to respond to situations of civilians being used as shields by the Naxalites. To much amusement, the new SOPs call for sparing villages where Naxals take refuge from encounters.
A couple of months prior to that, officials had met to finalise rules of engagement on the hostage-taking situations after the Naxals abducted two Italians and a politician in Odisha and a district collector in Chhattisgarh. At the end of the meeting, the MHA reiterated the need to abstain from negotiating, although it gave free hand to the state governments “appreciating the complexities of abduction situations”. In the preceding months and years, officials have regularly met to revise SOPs to respond to the strategy modifications by extremists, each meeting producing a different set of rules. The state is stuck in a trough of reactive tactics.
Besides politicking and misplaced priorities, at the heart of the fact that the country does not yet have a strategy to deal with the Naxalites is the absence of an effective forum for strategic dialogue and planning. Let’s focus on two of the known forums which deliberate anti-Naxal initiatives on a regular basis.
The first is the Conference of Chief Ministers and DGPs of Naxal-affected states. This event, which attracts enormous media and academic interest each year, is nothing more than a podium to air grievances. For one full day (on some occasions two), the MHA outlines its viewpoints and the states theirs. At the end of the exercise, everybody goes home with the satisfaction of having scored brownie points over the other. Strategy remains a casualty.
Second, the full-fledged Naxal management division within the MHA is headed by an additional secretary and staffed by a joint secretary and four deputy secretaries/directors. A brigadier of the Indian Army serves as the security adviser. It isn’t clear whether this department, set up in 2006 to “effectively address the Naxal problem in a holistic manner”, follows a system of scenario building and devising response to them. From the panic that sets in the ministry after each operational setback, it appears no such exercise ever takes place. Ambitious sloganeering such as “arrest or kill”, “intelligence-based operation”, “targeting of leadership” remain the predominant inputs from the centre to the forces.
Bulk of the strategy, apart from operational planning, is, thus, scripted at the ground level — in police headquarters and CRPF command centres. Given that the Naxal problem is spread over several states of the country, there are several ‘strategies’ in place of one, at times one working at cross purposes with the other. And not surprisingly, these ground-level strategies too have a high rhetorical content — “big sweep operations”, “precision strikes” and “people-centric approach” — in their attempt to match the MHA’s contribution.
The net result of this skewed arrangement has only been minor successes and enduring failures.