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Maoists established their base in Bastar in today’s Chhattisgarh from 1980s. Photo: Shaswati Das/Mint
Maoists established their base in Bastar in today’s Chhattisgarh from 1980s. Photo: Shaswati Das/Mint

A reason to pause in Sukma

State secrecy when it comes to military operations can usually be understood through the 'means and ends' approach

Naxalism, in its various forms and functions, has been a festering sore on the body of Indian affairs for almost half a century. (The history of left-wing extremism in the subcontinent arguably goes back much farther. But the moment you push that particular historical envelope into the colonial era, all kinds of patriots start tumbling into it. Which is awkward for everyone and usually set aside in polite conversations.)

By extension, the history of state action, inaction and misaction to counter Naxalism is also just as long. One would assume that by the very nature of the agencies involved—state and Central governments, police, paramilitary and other forces on one side, insurgents and terrorists, often running a guerrilla campaign, on the other—we would know much more about the former than the latter.

But, in fact, that may not be the case at all. And that is problematic.

There is a tremendously rich variety of scholarly and journalistic work on Naxalism. Sumanta Banerjee wrote his widely acclaimed In The Wake Of Naxalbari: A History Of The Naxalite Movement In India in 1980, within a decade of the Indian state’s first major concerted effort to crush the movement across the country. Rahul Pandita’s excellent 2011 book Hello, Bastar picked up the story from the 1980s, when Maoists established their base in Bastar in today’s Chhattisgarh. In between, there have been several scholarly and narrative works on the history of the movement from various perspectives. Not least of these is the 2008 Government of India report titled “Development Challenges In Extremist Affected Areas". The report, prepared by a diverse group of experts ranging from the current national security adviser Ajit Doval to tribal rights activist Bela Bhatia, makes for fascinating reading. The conclusions of this report, freely available online, may surprise many who derive their perspectives on the Maoist problem through the prism of turbo-charged buffoonery that is TV news punditry.

Put all these works together and you get a remarkably detailed picture of the Naxalite movement in India. Let me just point out one fascinating aspect of this history: fragmentation. The Congress party in Kerala pales in comparison to the Naxalite movement’s tendency to split into groups, factions, sub-groups and then regroup later. For instance, the CPI (Maoist) group that is believed to have carried out the massacre in Sukma was itself formed out of the 2004 merger of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI).

The MCCI, according to one report, itself absorbed the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Second Central Committee into it also in 2004, but only after the latter had given up the part of its ideology that was “pro Lin Biao". Lin Biao was once the designated successor of Chairman Mao, before dying in mysterious circumstances in a plane crash in Mongolia in 1971. That the ideologies of a Chinese revolutionary who died 46 years ago are still a point of intellectual dispute within the Naxal movement is, at the very least, intriguing.

Thus, we possess a detailed picture of a movement that has lived in the shadows for several decades.

Yet, when it comes to the state’s response to these rebels, we know comparatively little. The spectre of Operation Steeplechase is a case in point. References to Steeplechase pop up in most histories of the movement. But the details remain exceedingly sketchy. Which is strange for an episode so central to the history of internal insurgency in India. The consensus view appears to be as follows: In 1971, military operations in Bangladesh and the imposition of President’s rule in West Bengal gave Indira Gandhi’s government a unique opportunity to strike back at the Naxal movement all over eastern India. Till then, uniformed responses to the Naxalites, led by state police, had failed to make a dent. But in 1971, by most but not all accounts, the army was roped in to work with state police forces. While army forces cordoned off areas in cities, towns and villages in West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, state police were sent in to flush out Naxal groups.

Gregory Fremont-Barnes, in his two-volume history of counter-insurgency, says that while thousands of Naxalites were killed, many thousands more were arrested (some claim as many as 20,000 incarcerations) and many militants fled into the jungles and hills. It was a swift, and by all accounts, brutal operation. Two years or so in the planning, Operation Steeplechase, Rahul Pandita writes, was completed in just over two months. In 72 days, the Naxal uprising had been crushed. And the movement would tail off before rearing its head again two decades later. It was, arguably, the most important moment in the history of anti-Naxal operations in India.

Why do we know so little about Operation Steeplechase? Pandita quotes a 2010 TV news interview with retired Lieutenant General J.F.R. Jacob, who recalls that he was specifically asked to not leave a paper trail of the operation. At the time, a bureaucrat told Jacob that “there should be no publicity and no records" (a video of this interview can be seen on YouTube).

State secrecy when it comes to military operations can usually be understood through the “means and ends" approach. Military operations are kept secret if the means used are problematic or the ends achieved were less than glorious.

If we know anything at all about Operation Steeplechase it is this: It achieved its ends. That it is still a secret should give anyone calling for furious armed retribution in Sukma reason to pause.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at

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