While sufficient details of the April 24 attack in Sukma that has resulted in the loss of the lives of at least 25 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel are not yet available to make any definitive assessment of the circumstances that led to this latest debacle, there is no doubt that a sequence of negligence and neglect of the basic lessons of the past, as well as, possibly, established standard operating procedures (SOPs), will have afflicted the deployment and actions of this unit, as was found to be the case in the March 11 incident in which 12 CRPF jawans were killed in the same district. In both incidents, the target units were deployed to protect road building parties, and were following a predictable routine in an area of significant and enduring vulnerability.
Such recurrent losses of valuable lives of security personnel are completely unacceptable and, one may add, unaffordable. Apart from their impact on morale and the objective circumstances prevailing in the theatres of conflict, their financial cost far outweighs any projected costs of the necessary means and measures that would be required to demonstrably diminish the risks of such attacks. Process, technical and technological solutions are available, and have succeeded in other theatres, including areas where the terrain and challenges were even greater than those prevailing in the areas around Sukma.
Permanent road opening processes, for instance, have been well established and have succeeded in very difficult terrain, including the densely forested hills of Tripura – topography that is far more difficult than the forests of Bastar. Unfortunately, our governments and forces have no core institutions for documentation and dissemination of, or learning from, such valuable experiences, which pass out of use with the retirement or movement of the officers who have commanded remarkably successful counter-insurgency campaigns. Indeed, the lessons of the dramatic successes of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh are yet to be adequately understood by forces operating in Chhattisgarh.
The issue of micro or mini UAVs or small drones to such exposed parties would have worked. These devices are no longer expensive, and can be used for scouting and limited area surveillance, without any intervening intelligence or mediating establishment, could adequately equip such exposed and relatively isolated units to maintain permanent surveillance over an area of a few square kilometers – enough to ensure that no surprise attack could be mounted at any significant scale. This is certainly a possibility that needs to be evaluated. Indeed, in locations where fForce presence is permanent or recurrent, even cheaper alternatives would be available, including movable cameras to be located at a sufficient height to provide a 360 degree view of the immediate surroundings.
Crucially, while it is likely that any future inquiry into the present tragedy will either seek to disperse blame, or to focus it on the hapless commander of the target unit (who is reportedly among the dead), the senior leadership of the CRPF and the policy establishment must be squarely held to account for the persistent and predictable vulnerabilities of deployed Forces. Tactical errors, particularly where they are recurrent, are usually the consequence of strategic vulnerabilities: structural weaknesses, the result of poor planning, inadequate numbers, bad training and processes, and insufficient technical, technological and intelligence backup.
The practice of parachuting often uncommitted Indian Police Service (IPS) deputationists into almost every senior position in the CRPF has a great deal to do with existing structural deficits and deficiencies, despite the decades of experience within the Force. Moreover, while details are only fitfully available, it is also clear that equally indifferent ‘generalist’ Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers in the policy establishment contribute to the unaddressed susceptibilities of the force. Firefighting measures cannot meet these challenges; only an experienced, specialised and competent leadership can successfully confront and resolve these.
Ajai Sahni is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management
The views expressed are personal