The appointment of K. Vijay Kumar as the new director general of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) earlier in October was greeted with some propaganda fanfare. He had, in 2004, led the Special Task Force of the Tamil Nadu police that cornered and killed Veerappan, termed the “forest brigand” by the media. Kumar is now expected to combat Maoist rebels, who wear an equally giddy crown: “Red Menace”.
Also Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns
In the process, he is expected to erase the ignominy of major reverses this year, including an ambush by the Maoists on 6 April in the Dantewada region of Chhattisgarh in which 73 troopers were killed, and another on 29 June, north of Dhaurai in Bastar that killed 26. In addition, Kumar will also have to deal with the unenviable peacekeeping record of his heavy-handed troops in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East.
Kumar may find that combating the Maoists is an altogether more complicated game than dealing with a smuggler of sandalwood and poacher of ivory and tiger skin. Chasing Veerappan was complicated enough: it took 20 years before the intersection of political and tactical orbits in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka permitted the apprehending of Veerappan.
To combat the Maoists, CRPF needs to separately coordinate and work with the political, administrative and police apparatus in each of the states that currently display acute manifestation of Maoist rebellion.
Moreover, the Maoists, though these days under great pressure, continue to operate as a quick-footed, wily force whose profit motive, as it were, is vastly different from that of, say, Veerappan’s. As CRPF knows only too well, the Maoists will extract every advantage from CRPF’s weaknesses.
By CRPF’s own estimation, it is a force of relatively low morale and high-pressure; the latter sometimes manifests itself in troopers shooting colleagues. By other estimations as well, India’s biggest paramilitary force is plainly used as both cannon ball and cannon fodder in situations that the army doesn’t wish to participate in, the police of a particular state are unable to deal with on their own, and the political establishment has messed up in the first place.
CRPF is neither army nor police. It is generally a poorly paid, poorly equipped, resentful force—a halfway house of training and application.
On a visit to the campus of the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College near Kanker in Chhattisgarh this July, I met its director, Brig. B.K. Ponwar.
The retired army officer now holds the equivalent rank of inspector general of police, and trains policemen from several states in six week-long courses. He was sorting photographs taken at the site of the June attack—part of a post-mortem. He showed these to me, and explained how a CRPF patrol invited death.
The patrol had stopped to rest and eat in an open field—fallow farmland bordered by the usual low embankments of dried mud. At a distance, the empty fields were bordered by clusters of trees abutting a forest. The brigadier pointed out remnants of kit: bits of equipment, open mess tins.
The Maoists had clearly been tracking the progress of the patrol and also kept watch from a nearby rise. When the CRPF troopers relaxed, the Maoists attacked from positions of advantage behind well-concealed positions. The open field became a killing zone. Cutting through government-led description of them being thugs and extortionists, Maoist rebels consider themselves to be soldiers for a cause. Like any police and paramilitary, the CRPF men were, and are, fair game. If the Maoists hadn’t attacked the CRPF patrol, the patrol would have attacked the Maoists had they come across the rebels.
This feedback does not augur well for a force that is routinely shipped around the country from one hot spot to another, with minimal rest, orientation, and little concern for local residents and local mores. And so, a key concern remains about the broad spectrum application of forces such as CRPF, that also does not augur well for people who have been—and will be, given India’s abysmal record in such matters—caught in the crossfire, or the rage of troopers bent on revenge. More innocents will die. That will maintain a climate for recruitment into anger in several different ways—extreme left wing rebellion being just one manifestation. More forces such as the CRPF will be rushed in, and history will repeat itself. Like his colleagues, Kumar leads a closed loop.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
Respond to this column at email@example.com