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March 7, 2014

Your soldiers, our soldiers

Among the state’s several inherent advantages over the extremists, resources are the key to ensure that there is never a shortage of fighting men.

In July 2013, a commander of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) asserted that the fighting army of the outfit he represents has a definite edge over the security forces. He said, “Our honesty, dedication and selflessness, coupled with public support, have kept us firm and strong over the years.” Maoist literature is replete with such affirmations. While such statements are mostly rhetorical, typical of an extremist movement trying to assert moral superiority vis-a-vis its adversaries, these do contain some truths. At least in terms of attachment to an objective, the extremists are much ahead of the security forces who are merely to trying to prevent such an end game.

Your soldier

To begin with, the country’s political leaders had less faith in the security forces. In his address at the Chief Minister’s Conference of Internal Security in New Delhi on 20 December 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “Inadequate, ill-equipped, ill-trained, poorly-motivated personnel cannot take on Naxalite extremists who are increasingly getting better equipped and organised.” In the next six years, enormous resources were spent to create a force that can discard these loopholes. The country continues to incur such expenses in modernisation programmes.

Improvements, as a result, have been achieved in terms of amassing a large contingent of fighting men, building on their capacities, and also the equipments in their possession. The days when the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) used to admit that the insurgents are better armed than the state police force personnel are far behind. Most of the police posts today are much better protected and are no longer sitting ducks they used to be half a decade back. While a large scope for improvement in the operating standards remains, the security forces combating the Maoists are much better dressed, fed, and equipped today than earlier.

Contrast this imagery of a security force personnel with that of a Maoist. In spite of the reports of the CPI-Maoist collecting millions of rupees as extortion and establishing arms smuggling networks through India’s northeast, living conditions of an average rebel has not undergone any improvement over the years. His/ her life is constantly on the run with access to the most basic diet just enough to survive and to crude weapons (only the senior cadres have access to sophisticated weapons) for purposes of inflicting fatalities on the enemy as well as self-defence. It is apparent from the descriptions of the media persons who have spent time in Maoist camps that with the state’s military approach gathering steam, such operating conditions have become even more precarious and inhospitable.

While one can go on debating the way the CPI-Maoist has been able to transform the cadres recruited through a range of methods into die hard revolutionaries, the fact remains that the steadfast attachment to an end game invariably differentiates the extremists from the security force personnel. While doubting the gallantry quotient among the security forces is none of the purposes of this article, the reality is that the left-wing extremism affected theatres of the country, much like the insurgency-affected states of the Northeast, are marked by a contest between resolute attachment to an ideology and personal bravery. Somehow, the rigorous training modules and expenses on firearms incurred on the security forces have not been able to bridge the crucial gap between competency and commitment.

Data on desertion among the security forces and surrender of Maoist cadres provide a useful, albeit not the most ideal, empirical evidence for this argument. Between 2009 and 2012, central police organisations like the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Force (BSF) and the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) lost 36,618 personnel to resignations and voluntary retirement. In 2013, another 8,500 personnel left their services. Experts attribute such mass-scale attrition to reasons such as stress, continued deployment in conflict zones and absence of peace time postings; hostile operating environments; and lack of basic facilities.

In comparison, 1533 Maoist cadres surrendered between 2009 and 2013. Some attributed their decisions to an ideological disconnect, some to ill health and some others to the hardships in the forests. Even considering the fact that not all the resigning security force personnel were deployed in Maoist affected areas and also that the total strength of the paramilitary forces is several multiples of the number of the Maoists, the retiree/ surrendered personnel to total force ratio is alarmingly higher among the security forces than the extremists. In simple terms, in spite of much worse operational conditions, most Maoists chose to remain with the outfit.

While several factors lie at the root of the “trend of attrition” among the security forces, three prominent ones are worth mentioning. One, there is a persisting command and control problem with the security forces, exemplified by forces being led during operations by less qualified commanders which result in operational goof ups. Second, in the absence of a national policy on extremism, force operations resemble a blow hot and blow cold engagement, inducting a sense of bewilderment among the soldiers regarding the nature of the adversary. And thirdly, in spite of their value to the government’s endeavours in the extremist affected areas, the forces continue to be treated as fully expendable. Stories of families of slain security force personnel being treated shabbily by the government are by no means infrequent. When national unity is still a contested notion, dying or getting maimed for a seemingly incomprehensible cause could be a completely worthless affair to these men in uniform. The extent to which recent proposals such as stationing security force personnel in the propinquity of their families during their entire career can address such serious operational anomalies is debatable.

Among the state’s several inherent advantages over the extremists, enormous resources are the key to ensure that there is never a shortage of fighting men. Hardly anybody anticipates a Maoist takeover of India. Over the past couple of years, fatalities in the Maoist theatre have been reduced. And yet an outright victory over the extremists remains a difficult proposition. This means that significant stretches of the country would remain no go areas for the state agencies. Under the circumstances, implementing a strategy of gradual expansion of state control through force domination and administrative penetration, through the efforts of these poorly motivated security forces, would be excruciatingly sluggish, if not unachievable.

Photo: graham_alton


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