India's COIN approach and left-wing extremism

The Maoist insurgency once described as the single greatest threat to the Indian state has lowered in intensity. But the success of the government's COIN approach may not deliver a peace, but an entrenchment of the cycle between stalemate and further violence.

Shanthie Mariet D'Souza Bibhu Prasad Routray
13 August 2012

On April 4, 2012, India's Home Secretary R K Singh told a parliamentary committee that the official instruction for the security forces fighting the left-wing extremists (LWE) is to arrest or kill as many extremists as possible. The country, he insisted, is indeed trying to send a tough message to the extremist camp, even though it realises that the problem has socio-economic roots.

Within three months of the Home Secretary's reported statement, the security forces were involved in one of the most controversial encounters in the state of Chhattisgarh, considered to be the worst affected by LWE. On the night of June 29, a large contingent of security forces carried out a pre-planned attack on what they thought to be an extremist congregation in Bijapur district. Among the 18 dead, as per the official statement, were seven persons "with definite criminal records". The rest were tribals, unconnected to extremism. The Home Secretary's prescriptions had back fired.

Conquest-Capitulation Paradox

Curious as it may sound, the Indian state's counter-insurgency (COIN) successes and inadequacies against the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) exist on the same plane. The state's effort has succeeded in halting the rapid expansion of the area under the outfit's control. However, the project of scripting a nation-wide success against the extremists remains an unfinished task.   

A few years back, the LWE appeared to be spreading at an unstoppable pace, gobbling up state after state. With 320 districts in 18 states reporting Maoist activities, India's Prime Minister termed the threat the "biggest internal security challenge". This expression remained in vogue for the next four consecutive years. Fatalities reported from the LWE-affected areas had surpassed the combined fatalities reported from the two other enduring conflict theatres – Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeastern states.

However, by the end of 2010, the intensity of the challenge appeared to have declined to a situation described as a "stalemate" by then Home Minister P Chidambaram. He claimed, "The state governments concerned cannot claim any major advance, nor should we conclude that the CPI-Maoist has gained an upper hand. There have been casualties on both sides".

The downgrade from a force that was expanding at such a rapid pace, to a force that had developed chinks in its armour came about because the Maoists had violated their own principle of strategic growth. The CPI-Maoist, since its 2004 formation through a merger of two outfits, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the People's War Group (PWG), had expanded too fast, doing little to consolidate the newly won areas before adding new territories. The foot soldiers who had joined the Maoist movement in the later years had little interest in furthering the people's war, but joined for the pecuniary benefits the movement was offering. A movement that is so critically dependent on the ideological affinity and morale of its foot soldiers faced the prospect of melt down.   

From the COIN perspective, the state forces demonstrated some significant achievements. By 2010, the area under the extremists’ control had shrunk and violence was being reported from only eight states. A large number of the top leadership of the CPI-Maoist had either been killed, arrested or had surrendered. Extremism related deaths among civilians and security forces, 1005 in 2010, had declined to 606 in 2011. Between 2007 and 2011, 10068 extremists had been arrested and another 1599 had surrendered. Not surprisingly, for the Prime Minister, the challenge got relegated to being only a "serious problem", manageable compared to what it was a few years ago.  

The success claimed by the state stands corroborated by the extremists. On 10 June, a press release by the CPI-Maoist admitted that in the past one year, the outfit has lost 150 cadres, necessitating a search for a new line of leadership. Among the dead are 40 cadres in Dandakaranya alone, the outfit’s primary base area. A month later, another press release underlined the need for preserving the Maoist leaders, "who had gained decades of vast experience and have been guiding the party with the unwavering confidence of the people and the revolution". The release surmised, "it is not so easy to give birth to such leaders again".

While declining violence and neutralisation of extremist cadres did constitute a narrative of success for the State, the task of defeating the Maoists is still Herculean, even by the most optimistic estimates. In spite of the loses, the CPI-Maoist still has an estimated cadre strength of 46,600 hardcore armed squad members and foot soldiers and remains what former Home Minister P Chidambaram described as a "powerful and determined adversary" with a clear intention to "overthrow parliamentary democracy through an armed rebellion and seize power through the barrel of the gun." 

Setbacks and loopholes in the COIN approach

The strategy to defeat the Maoists through a surge in troop levels received an early set back. By late 2009, the central government had amassed 70 battalions (about 70,000 personnel) of central armed police forces with an intention of launching multi-location operations, codenamed Operation Green Hunt (OGH), targeting the inter-state borders, where the extremists were the most active. Central to OGH, launched in the early months of 2010, was the official belief in the ability of the forces to restore order and reignite the administrative and governance capacities of the state in areas under Maoist control. These areas were a combination of the geographical spread from where the state had retreated as extremism took roots and also areas the state had not ventured into even after six decades of the country's independence. The then Home Secretary declared, "We hope that literally within 30 days of security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there."

In April and May 2010, two big ambushes resulted in the killing of 100 security force personnel in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, sending the forces into a defensive set of mind. These twin incidents sparked off not just a war in the media between the central and the state police authorities regarding the deployment patterns, but also led to a series of brainstorming sessions regarding the appropriateness of using a 'huge force' to ensure victory. Since then the official COIN strategy has been scaled down, with renewed emphasis on small area operations, intelligence-led offensives and operations that seek the cooperation of the host population. 

Even before the mid 2010 setbacks, New Delhi, in its COIN endeavour, has struggled to choose between two available options: first, to let the COIN effort be a small commander's war wherein the security force officials stationed locally decide the nuances of operations and New Delhi is responsible for implementing a broad strategy finalised at the top; second, to fight the war as per a strategy which is not only configured but also constantly driven from the top.

Over the years, both the approaches have been tried individually and also as a mélange. However, deep rooted structural as well as operational constrains have produced limited gains. Firstly, the state police forces, who should have been the most appropriate force to deal with the extremists, have not emerged as operationally capable to deal with the extremists. Secondly, operations by the central police forces have suffered without ground level human intelligence (HUMINT). And thirdly, the scale and intensity of operations against the extremists have varied significantly across states, providing the extremists options of tactical relocation from a state where operations are intense to states where forces adopt a 'go slow' approach.

Security vs development dilemma?

Since mid-2011, India has also experimented with a 'clear, hold and develop' approach. Forces are assigned to clear small areas of extremist presence and subsequently transform themselves into providers of security for the civil administrative officials as they launch an array of development programmes to win the ‘hearts and mind’ of the tribal population, the primary support base of the CPI-Maoist. In official circles there appears to be an increasing realisation that – according to Minister of State for Home Affairs Jitendra Sing – "Government and the political system is to be blamed for the Maoist problem in India" since "(There has been a) lack of communication between the government and the people in different areas of the country, which has led to impoverishment“.

The experiment was initiated in the eastern state of Jharkhand after the security forces cleared a decade-old extremist stronghold in the Saranda forests following a month-long operation in August 2011. The Rural Development Ministry unveiled the 'Saranda Development Plan' with an objective of unleashing a broad range of health, education, employment and infrastructure development activities in the region. The approach has subsequently been expanded to the neighbouring states of Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

However, bureaucratic inertia has emerged as a major road block. Months after the launch of the plan in an area from which Maoists have been expelled, the state bureaucracy has enveloped itself in a web of official rules and regulations to slow down the programme implementation, thereby heralding the prospect of these areas falling into the extremist hands once the forces withdraw. Achievements under the Integrated Action Plan (IAP), a flagship programme of the government launched in 2009-10 to develop 82 Maoist affected districts, also remains below par. Citing that less than 60 percent of the available funds gets spent, the Planning Commission, India's top most development planning institution, has expressed its intention of scrapping the programme.

A Strategic Paralysis

The thrust of India's COIN efforts currently resembles a confusing ensemble of inertia and action interspersed with the ever-increasing belief in the delivery capacity of the theory of "cycle of violence" – where phases of prolonged violence are followed by periods of peace and tranquillity. There is a growing belief among the official strategists, supported by the admission of weakness by the Maoists, that the CPI-Maoist will degenerate by itself, under its own unmanageable weight and inherent contradictions. Given the fact that the officialdom is yet to configure the winning formula against the extremists after years of experiments with trial and error methods, recourse to such a fatalistic approach appears to be a natural outcome.

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