New Delhi: The central government is open to the controversial move of using limited air strikes to combat Naxal threat and is likely to convene a crucial meeting of chief ministers of Naxal-affected states in the first week of December, primarily to discuss this issue. The meeting was earlier scheduled to be held this month but was deferred by the home ministry in the wake of Bihar assembly elections.

The centre has been considering use of air power against Naxals in order to assist security forces on the ground. Both home and defence ministries are formulating a strategy as to how Mi-17 helicopters can be used in some operations against Maoists, especially in situations where civilian population is not involved, said a senior government official involved in anti-Naxal operations, requesting anonymity. “The meeting with chief ministers is crucial as apart from development work in Naxal-affected areas, we want to push for use of air power in some form in operations against Maoists. We feel providing air cover to forces on the ground will be of huge advantage in neutralising Naxal cadres."

Currently, Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters are being used in Maoist-affected states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha in relief and rescue operations and to transport injured security personnel to hospitals.

There is a growing view in New Delhi’s security establishment that the choppers should have a greater role in providing air cover to security forces on the ground, and whether the choppers should be used to fire from air or be deployed during hot pursuits to provide information to troops on the ground regarding the movement of Maoists.

“In the initial phase, we may use the choppers first in providing information to the security personnel on the ground. We feel this will act as a huge deterrent," said the government official cited above.

“Similarly, the air cover will be used to track the movement of Naxal cadres, who frequently cross state borders. The government will review the strategy and then, if need be, the option of using limited fire power from air is always there, particularly if there is no damage to the civilian population. Maybe we will do this in a phased manner to see the response first," said the home ministry official.

The issue of roping in the defence forces, both the Army and the Air Force, for limited use in anti-Maoist operations had come up during the tenure of former Union home minister P. Chidambaram. The move, however, was shelved, as the defence ministry was of the view that the task of dealing with Maoists should be left to paramilitary forces, such as Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and state police, while the Army should be involved in counter-terrorism operations in the Kashmir valley and the northeast. More than 10,000 CRPF personnel, including those from the COBRA battalion, a special unit formed to fight the Naxals, are deployed in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha.

IAF choppers should only have a limited role, said Prakash Singh, a former director general of Border Security Force (BSF) and member of the Indian Police Foundation Institute, a think tank on security issues.

“Choppers can provide backup in terms of providing information or rushing in reinforcements," said Singh. “Using heavy fire power from the air is not required, as Naxals are not like hardened militants operating in Kashmir and are after all citizens of this country. So, while security forces should do their job, the state and centre should review the root cause for the problem and address those issues," he said.