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No time for war

Should India deal with the Maoists as Pakistan deals with the Taliban? As lofty as the Maoist ambition is, as brutal as their growing attacks are, this would be a grave mistake, writes Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Apr 26, 2010 18:32 IST
Samar Halarnkar

First, a disclaimer: I have a deep, emotional connection with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which lost 76 troopers in the forests of Dantewada on Tuesday.

My father retired from the CRPF. I’ve lived in their rough camps. I made friends with soldiers from every corner of India, from Kashmiris to Malayalees to Manipuris. I pored over self-loading rifles and 9mm carbines. I felt their silent pain when a soldier fell in some corner of India, the body shipped home to, usually, an uncomprehending family in rural or small-town India.

This is the great irony of the growing Maoist attacks on security forces. The men they kill — and get killed by — are not unlike themselves, living and dying in that ill-visited twilight zone between Third World Destitute India and First World Emerging India. Second World India is a violent place, inhabited by people with guns but without real power; locked in feuds over resources, influence and power.

These feuds simmer across India, largely ignored as a few commas in eternal India, boiling over into our lives only when the attacks are so brazen as to make it to breaking-new tickers; when the attacks are so bloody as to make us shift uneasily nervously and wonder: Can they reach us?

Well, that is their plan.

The Maoist strategy, as I wrote last month, is deadlier than jihadi terrorism. The plan is not to terrorise but capture India, starting with a takeover of the countryside and isolating the cities. The Intelligence Bureau (IB), the domestic intelligence agency, has struggled to track Maoist penetration of labour unions and colleges. The IB believes such an infiltration is underway, the precursor to the Maoist dream of ruling India.

Hours after Tuesday’s attack, a friend from Pakistan said: “The Naxals are beginning to sound like India’s version of the Taliban!”

Should we declare war against the Maoists as Pakistan has against the Taliban? Should we call in the army, send in tanks to Lalgarh and helicopter gunships to Dantewada?

As lofty as the Maoist ambition is, as brutal as their growing attacks are, this would be a grave mistake.

First, despite what we think, the scale and intensity of Naxal attacks do not match the Taliban’s ceaseless offensive. Air force strikes, US drones and the Pakistani army have reduced the frequency and ferocity of attacks, but the Taliban’s bloody strikes continue. I do not have the precise numbers, but the Taliban claim more lives in a month than the Maoists do in a year.

Second, however abhorrent I find Arundhati Roy’s description of the Maoists as “Gandhians with guns”, and however deep my anger at them, the fact is their rebellion emerged because of the horrific inequities and injustices that prevail in second- and third-world India. In Dantewada — the site of Tuesday’s massacre, in the heart of the so-called Maoist “liberated zone” — no more than 30 per cent of the people are literate, less than half the national rate. India’s tribals are dispossessed and discriminated against, and unless their lot improves, the security forces will be occupying armies, the Maoists, liberators. India could indeed use a scorched-earth policy and do what the Sri Lankans did to the Tamil Tigers — if we want to conquer our poorest people.

Third, the Maoist insurgency is based not religion but on an ideology of violent revolution first propounded by, obviously, Mao Tse Tung, as a revolutionary peasant struggle against the State and exploiting classes. In a religious, rapidly urbanising nation, a Maoist class struggle, however violent, will always struggle to find sympathisers in cities. The Taliban can strike metropolitan areas because they have support there.

Maoist areas of influence now spread across nine Indian states and, theoretically, a third of the nation’s area. Yet, it is an insurgency that grows because of our ineptness at spreading economic development and not making the urgent course corrections that the surge against the Maoists needs.

It is easy now to talk of war, but the Maoists have already made that declaration. We didn’t notice, and so never prepared. It is important now to nuance armed responses, review our failing battle plans, training and processes — and bring into our national discussion the injustices being inflicted on the tribal areas.

That is the war India needs.

Consider the CRPF. With 208 battalions (that’s more than 15,000 men and women), the CRPF is one of the world’s largest paramilitary forces. As the name suggests, it’s supposed to be a federal reserve, to be called up when needed.

A third of the CRPF’s battalions are supposed to be in stand-down mode, training and recuperating. With India in a state of continuous ferment, there is no reserve left. The unofficial acronym for the force is ‘Chalte Raho Pyaare’. Keep moving my friend, a reference to the unceasing movement of its battalions from one trouble spot to another.

Most Indian police and security forces are overstretched.

These forces need reform, modern counter-insurgency tactics and equipment. It is inconceivable that 1,000 or more Maoists could take an Indian security unit completely by surprise. They need not helicopter gunships but drones. It’s obvious that intelligence agencies have little or no penetration of battlefield Naxal formations. How difficult is to have drones sweep areas before and during troop movements? As for tactics, the CRPF units violated a cardinal rule of such operations: never return the same way you went.

As Home Minister P. Chidambaram said, something has gone “seriously wrong”. Let’s find out what that is before talking of war.