It’s is as good a time as any to flag this concern.
Last month I was at the Army War College in Mhow to talk to a group of “senior command” students—officers up to the rank of a major in the Indian Army and a sprinkling of officers from other services of similar rank—about Left-wing extremism in India.
I broke ranks a bit, and also discussed several reasons behind such armed rebellion existing in the first place—among other things: socio-economic inequities, corrupt government officials who continue to browbeat the disadvantaged, slippages in the criminal justice system, aggressive displacement of people by the government decree for acquisition of land for large projects and mining, and plain bad governance. Root causes are what Left-wing rebels use to plan, spread propaganda, recruit and operate; their rebellion mirrors the failures of India as a nation.
The officers patiently heard it out, then peppered me with searching questions. After all, were push to come to shove, officers of such relatively junior ranks would be in the frontline, leading the battle against Maoist rebels, executing what policy the “brass”—higher command, who, too, are boning up on aspects of left-wing extremism—task them with.
That possibility is the reason for my unease, even though the chief of army staff and the defence minister have gone public more than once to insist that the armed forces will not be deployed to combat the Maoist rebellion; that it is best left to police, paramilitary and the administration to sort out. At most, the armed forces will provide training and logistics support to police and paramilitary.
The army now has a jungle warfare and counter-insurgency training camp in the Bastar district in Chhattisgarh, that abuts the Maoist stronghold of Abujmarh. It’s been fully operational since last year, and several thousand troopers and an appreciable number of both junior and senior officers have “rotated” through this facility. The army has also begun a hearts-and-minds exercise along with the local administration to gain the confidence of local villagers. As for operations out of this base, last year the top commander of the army’s central command cryptically told media: “Army will fire in self-defence, if attacked by ultras.”
To locate a training school in the heart of Maoist country is clearly a warning to rebels of a sledgehammer force in the vicinity. Thus far, the Maoist leadership has kept away from panicking into the trap of taking on the army, preferring instead to attack police and paramilitary well away from the army’s current footprint. It well knows that to attack the army will bring upon it more than the rebel force, under heightened pressure in these past two years with several deaths and arrests of top leadership, can afford. But it’s a thin line. Because, logically, the army will continue to ingress deeper into the Maoist mind and territory. The line must snap sometime.
The danger also lies in India’s leadership and security mandarins triggering the army to join battle in earnest. Among other things, the army’s human rights record—and that of its associates of the Rashtriya Rifles and Assam Rifles—is quite scandalous in Jammu and Kashmir and north-eastern India. Should such an attitude be applied to Maoist zones, India could be looking at a human rights disaster—the chilling “collateral damage” that brings war to non-combatants—far in excess of the overkill that police and paramilitary already practice.
Expectedly, for their part, Maoists have lost no time to highlight these aspects in their information campaign. It helps the campaign that, at least in the natural resource-heavy mining and metals industry oriented states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa, along with several other states such as West Bengal, there is an ongoing record of attracting business through heavy-handed methods of land acquisition and permitting the use of local administration and police as extensions of corporate will.
“The state is using the army to further its agenda,” says an issue of the Maoist Information Bulletin, quoting Left-leaning civil rights activists. “Using these bases as a stepping stone, the army would penetrate deep into the forested Adivasi areas and “clear” them for the corporate… thereby, pushing the country towards an inevitable civil war.”
As I mentioned to my class, if that were to happen, the army would get a bad rap for cleaning up someone else’s mess; and they shouldn’t really be doing that.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues of conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and the soon-to-be-published Highway 39: Journeys Through a Fractured Land.
This column, which focuses on conflict situations that directly affect business, will run on Fridays.