A prime ministerial review of the Naxal situation, the second this year, was held on 14 July, and there has been a change in perception from the last meeting on 7 February. At that time, the home ministry was confident of meeting the security threat, with plans for a coordinated operation across Naxal-affected states called Operation Green Hunt. Since then, a series of attacks by the rebels has put security forces on the defensive. Dominance of the Naxals during this period is evident from the stark statistics: 97 extremists killed compared with 209 security personnel in the first six months of the year.
The derailment of the Jnaneswari Express on 28 May, which caused the loss of 148 lives, has led to disruption of rail services in the crucial Kharagpur corridor. The regularity with which the Naxals are enforcing bandhs in central India is also alarming. Reports of Naxal penetration in pockets of Gujarat, Punjab and Delhi denote dark times ahead.
Security forces, too, have seen some success, particularly in targeting the Naxal leadership—23 of 49 members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) central committee are now either behind bars or have been eliminated, the latest being Cherukuri Rajkumar, or Azad. There are reports of a sharp division in the Naxal top leadership and indications of the emergence of rogue elements outside the control of the central authority, as Maoist sympathizer Varavara Rao recently admitted. Union home secretary G.K. Pillai has also claimed that government control has now been extended to over 4,000-5,000 sq. km earlier held by the Naxals. Some opening moves for talks with Naxals under Swami Agnivesh are under active consideration.
In light of the above, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday emphasized a state-specific approach and the need for unity in resolve and execution in dealing with Naxals. On the security side, provision of helicopters for logistical support, funds for new police stations and special police officers, and creation of a Unified Command with a retired major general on board have been deliberated. While these measures may add to the efficiency of current operations, there are sufficient indications of a long and bloody struggle ahead.
The salient shortcoming remains the present security strategy based on the clear, hold and develop model, which is troop-intensive and will take some years to show results. Moreover, norms of engagement by security forces and their present operational capability have possibly not been factored in. An assessment of Naxal capability shows that there is a differential in the level of threat in each state, with some areas critically affected, such as the Dandakaranya zone (or the knot between Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Maharashtra), southern districts of Jharkhand, and the Jangal Mahal area of West Bengal. These will require intensive engagement by well-trained security forces.
There are varying degrees of Naxal influence in other districts for which an armed police response could be adequate, while some areas would require intelligence-based proactive policing. International norms suggest 13-20 security personnel per 1,000 people or three to eight personnel per sq. km for critically affected districts, and around 220 personnel per 100,000 people in other areas, which is also the United Nations standard.
Going by this matrix, the police requirement for Naxal-affected areas in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand will exceed 200,000 and 130,000, respectively, while availability is limited to around 60,000 and 50,000, including central paramilitary forces. The large differential means continued Naxal domination of these areas till force levels are increased. Current capacity, including assistance from the army, is for training 10,000-12,000 personnel for anti-Naxal operations per year. What, then, is the alternative?
It is interesting to look at the Andhra Pradesh counter-Naxal model here. The state has been able to bring down its overall personnel losses to around 40 in 2009 and only around 10 this year. The model espouses a “whole of system” approach, with political will supplemented by local police capacity building. Adopting a mix of counter-insurgency and counterterrorism, the intelligence network has been extended along with development of roads, schools and government offices. The local police led the way with build-up in numbers as well as mobility, communications, and arms and equipment, thereby expanding strike and coordination capability. While Greyhounds, a special anti-Naxal police force, has come into the limelight, it does not comprise an exclusive elite—simply well-trained constables on deputation for two to three years, which in turn contributes to capacity building at the local level. All police officers are trained in anti-Naxal operations and a posting in Naxal-affected areas is compulsory before an officer can be appointed superintendent of a district. Policing is supplemented by a viable surrender and rehabilitation scheme, which has induced a number of hardcore Naxals to give up the fight in the past few years.
While much was expected from Wednesday’s prime ministerial review, what was seen was a reinforcement of the current strategy that has failed to yield results. The Andhra model provides a viable alternative that could have been suggested for adoption by states based on local conditions. Hopefully, the proposed Unified Command in states will come up with such alternatives at a time when the socio-economic costs of left-wing extremism are affecting India’s global image and harming its business and investment environment.
Rahul K Bhonsle is editor of South Asia Security Trends.
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