If the Indian government needed a reminder of the threat posed by Maoists, the Dantewada massacre of an entire company of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is a timely wake-up call. Not only because of the brutal nature of the ambush, but because the sophistication of the Maoist attack, borrowed from classical guerilla tactics, contrasts sharply with the general ineptness and lack of training of CRPF. Clearly, CRPF and other Central and local forces face a steep learning curve in jungle warfare.
Now, some commentators argue that the attack may be a tactical triumph but a strategic blunder, for the resultant public outrage may finally force the government to act strongly against the Maoists. And it has exposed many of the intellectual elite who have framed the conflict as one between a capricious state and the downtrodden fighting for their rights, ignoring completely the Maoists’ disregard for constitutional means, their recourse to violence as the first tool of negotiation, and their avowed desire to overthrow the Indian state. Considering that these intellectual elements largely serve as Maoist propaganda tools, their defanging is particularly desirable.
However, the most important question that arises is the nature of the state’s response: Will it be acts of localized and ill-directed revengeful rage or a well-calibrated, smart strategy that leverages this public outrage to systematically tackle the Maoist challenge?
Unfortunately, the first response—indiscriminate use of brute force—has been the state’s favoured response, simply because there is little political incentive for the government to undertake a long-term, resource-intensive overhaul, when public pressure—momentary and whimsical as it is—is satisfied with “strong” action. And in a sharply divided discourse, there is little likelihood of any influential political or intellectual figure opposing such a course—except those who have willy-nilly aligned themselves with the Maoist cause.
However, it is obvious that if Maoism is to be extinguished, the state needs to choose the rational, smart longer-term strategy. But for that to happen, constraints imposed by the Indian state’s lack of capacity—political, security and administrative—must be immediately tackled.
Public outrage, properly channelled, can stiffen resolve and generate enough pressure on the political executive at the Centre and in the states. This political will to act against Maoists can—with sustained civil society pressure and media support—translate into adequate political capacity in a short span of time. It is immaterial if certain political parties remain sympathetic to the Maoist cause as long as the political executive at the state level understands the gravity of the challenge.
The role of state governments is of particular importance because Maoists have mastered the art of operating across state borders. As policing is a state subject as per the Constitution, state governments own the anti-Maoist operation. However, because of the marked reluctance of some state governments to act against Maoists along with their operational limitations, the Centre has emerged as the public face of anti-Maoist operations. While state governments are absolved of their constitutional responsibilities, attention is focused on the Centre, creating a perverse incentive for states to deliberately assume a low profile and shirk responsibility.
Maoism cannot be successfully tackled till states are held accountable. To ensure the public accountability of state governments, the Prime Minister must call an urgent meeting of chief ministers of all Maoist-affected states and compel them to publicly denounce Maoists and support the Centre on its plan against the Maoists.
The administrative capacity, or lack thereof, presents another challenge. The starting point of any long-term anti-Maoist strategy has to be long-stalled police reforms. Merely putting more boots on the ground without fundamental reforms would achieve no purpose.
The road map for police reforms already exists, but the requisite political will is lacking. Police reforms include not merely operational autonomy and freedom from political interference, but extend to issues such as creation of special security zones across contagious areas of neighbouring states, as enunciated in the draft model police Act, 2006.
It is obvious that even successful police reforms will not make an immediate impact on the Maoists. As a short-term strategy to bridge the security gap, a better intelligence set-up and more professional counter-insurgency training to the paramilitary and state police forces is required. It may include using army trainers and employing senior Army officers as advisers to the state; however, a far better option would be to integrate trainers and experts from the army at sub-unit and unit level with the Central and state forces. Similarly, anti-Maoist operations must be strengthened by including resources such as helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles from the Indian Air Force for reconnaissance and rescue missions. Inclusion of the army’s special forces and National Security Guard teams in specialized missions may be considered.
“Never let a crisis go to waste,” argues Rahm Emanuel, US President Barack Obama’s pugnacious chief of staff. The audacious Dantewada attack presents the state with a crisis that must be utilized for a long-term, well-thought-out offensive against the Maoists.
Sushant K. Singh and Rohit Pradhan are fellows at the Takshashila Institution. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org