In the absence of good ideas, the meeting of senior police and intelligence bureau officers called by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh soon after 26/11 recommended a “commission” tasked to come up, inside of “100 days”, with ways to stamp out the Naxal menace. It is another matter that there is no sign of any such body at work. In any case, it is unlikely that it would have suggested the one thing that can, in fact, beat the Naxals: genuine commando capability to hunt down and eliminate them.
Naxals are the greatest peril facing the country today precisely because they are virtually sovereign and cock a snook at the state in the Red Corridor stretching across the forested uplands and jungles of Andhra Pradesh and central India to Nepal, which they control. But the “commando” solution is just too onerous an option for the organizationally lazy and non-innovative Indian police and paramilitary forces to stomach. Commando life entails hardship and real danger. Why would the usually pot-bellied Indian Police Service (IPS) officers and the lower constabulary risk their relatively undemanding jobs for the horrors of the jungle and the joys of living on the edge and off the land? The average recruit to the state police is interested in his hafta (illegal weekly collection) and not in tangling with the Kalashnikov-carrying Marxist hotheads.
The police brass, however, love the “commando” tag, the distinctive black dungaree uniform, and the specialized small arms and equipment that no self-respecting special forces can be seen without. Thus, the “commando” police units in many states have fanciful names (Greyhounds, COBRA, and the like) but rarely engage in anything arduous. They are perceived as endowing the police, the IPS-led paramilitary organizations and state governments with prestige rather than as effective and efficient instruments to deal with the Naxal terror. In the event, these “commando” police units get carted around in buses or lorries to their jump-off points, whence they thrash about the countryside during the “office hours” with breaks in-between for dal-roti from the mobile Mess, before returning to the barracks or armed camps at dusk. Whatever the contingency, they never stray far from the road or a township—just in case help has to reach them fast. This is the very antithesis of the commando operational philosophy.
Photo: Prakash Singh / AFP
By definition, a commando melts into the countryside—the proverbial “fish in water”, surviving on what’s available in the harsh terrain, and is on the job all the time. He relentlessly tracks the guerilla and should he run into Naxals in large numbers, tries to infiltrate the group, win their confidence and, having done so, secretly identifies them, follows their movements, studies their daily schedule and the individual habits of the leaders, discerns the operational pattern before eliminating them singly or arranging ambushes by the regular police and, ideally, he does all this without arousing suspicion. Not easy! Bereft of personal arms, communications paraphernalia, and the telltale signs of the logistics umbilical cord trailing after regular police forces in the field that are a giveaway, he acts on his own or in teams of two for maximum effect. In this job, knowledge of the local language and customs is a must. Once part of the scene, he can also discreetly provide field support for the activities of “indigenous” anti-Naxal outfits, such as the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, or of charismatic locals, such as Kukka Parray in Kashmir, whose allegiance has been turned and who can mobilize the alienated people against the rebels.
Deployments of individual and teams commandos have to be for sustained periods—six months to a year or more at a time. Expected to operate by stealth, the commando must be undercover for most of his active service life and be rewarded by long months of “rest and recreation” with no contacts with the host police in and out of the mission area. Hefty remuneration and compensation packages and other inducements are an imperative to attract ambitious, hard-charging, adventurous, unmarried young men (and women?) able to live by their wits, and whose skills training, besides survival techniques and navigation, will mostly be in lethal unarmed combat. The bar for the entrants will have to be very high, with severe winnowing done at the training stage. The commandos are the elite, and necessarily few in number; if properly utilized, they can have disproportionate impact.
Able to out-guerilla the guerilla, the commandos, history shows, are hard to cope with. The FLN urban terrorists in Algeria had fought the French army to a standstill in the mid-1950s, but were bloodily dismantled by the commando unit of the French Foreign Legion in the famous Battle of Algiers. Elsewhere, the Viet Cong justly feared not the American conventional military, which it brought to its knees during the Vietnam War, but the elite US Special Forces—the lightly armed and foot mobile Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols operating autonomously, in radio silence, astride the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Bharat Karnad is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org