It’s getting increasingly clear now that the Government of India is serious about taking on the CPI(Maoist). Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s statement in Chhattisgarh on Wednesday on the government’s willingness to “revisit the previous mandate” [of not using a military option against the Maoists] was reassuring. His outright rejection of any “talk of talks” with the Naxals at this juncture also shows that finally a strong consensus on anti-Maoist operations is developing. The case for the government continuing its present offensive against Maoist insurgents is strong. The real question — and the one that has been brought out in sharp relief by the killings of 76 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers in Dantewada on Tuesday — is whether India has prepared its security forces enough to tackle a well-entrenched and motivated guerrilla force. This covers the entire panoply of counter-insurgency skills ranging from training to technology, intelligence to social development. So far, the evidence is that such capabilities are noticeable mostly by their absence.
This partly reflects an underestimation of the Maoists’ military capabilities. This is not surprising. Though ultra-Left insurgents have had a presence in the poorer parts of India for nearly half-a-century, they have rarely posed a serious threat to the Indian State. If anything, the tendency has been for local authorities to seek a political compromise with Maoist groups in their areas. In the past, the administration would refrain from anything but the most symbolic police action against the guerrillas. The Maoists, in turn, would rule their shadowy kingdoms in the forests and ensure other parts were unaffected by their actions. It was a cozy relationship. But it has ensured that now, when this cozy relationship is being replaced by genuine armed conflict, there is a serious capacity problem with the security forces.
The list of things to do is long. The paramilitary forces have long been woefully lacking in good training and knowledge of up-to-date tactics. While there is much complaining about the state of India’s external intelligence, the Chhattisgarh massacre indicates that the state of India’s internal intelligence is equally parlous. There is now a host of technologies designed to help counter-insurgency operations. New Delhi may have strategic reasons to hold back its armed forces against the Maoists. The problem is not firepower; it is much more systemic than that. There should no longer be any doubts that tackling the Maoist problem will not be the rural equivalent of quelling a mob of stone-throwers. The Maoists may have degenerated from ideologues into tribal and caste militias, but they are still a formidable military force. To paraphrase one famous guerrilla leader-turned-political leader, counter-insurgency is not a picnic. And the Indian State is, thankfully, waking up to that fact.