Comments and Complacency – The pitfalls in combating left wing extremism

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“The most effective ally of terrorism is complacency”, opines MJ Akbar in his op-ed piece in The Indian Express dated 01 April 2016. Although Mr. Akbar’s remarks were in the context of laxity of the European State actors towards monitoring the movements of criminal terrorists Ibrahim el Bakraoui and Abdelhamid Abaaoud; his observation is equally apt with regards to what happened in Dantewada districts’ Mailawada village on the 30th of March.

Seven CRPF jawans were killed in a powerful Improvised Explosive Device(IED) blast, which took place 12 km from Dantewada. The blast left a deep crater in the road, with the bodies as well as the vehicle completely blown apart. It was conjectured that the IED could not have weighed less than 15 kg. This was not a pressure IED but required a trigger, and preliminary investigation suggests that given its depth in the ground, there are two methods to plant it that could have been used. One is that the IED was planted before the road was constructed, and the Maoists were lying in wait to trigger it. Second is that it was done recently by drilling into the road from the sides, through a tunnel emanating from the loose earth areas in the vicinity.

The likelihood of planting the IED prior to construction of the metaled road is remote since the road was constructed several years back and the explosives normally used by Maoists cannot sustain for so long. And if the tunnel theory is correct, it shall usher in a new modus operandi on part of the Maoists, to plant IEDs on busy and pucca roads. Recently, CRPF had unearthed such a tunnel in Bijapur. Also, the CRPF believes that information regarding the movement of its troops, killed in the blast, was “leaked”, by a mole who could be from “within or outside” the paramilitary. The troops, as per Director General CRPF, were doing a surprise non-operational movement and hence were not in uniform.

Having mentioned the stand of CRPF, the most surprising, or rather shocking development was when the Chhattisgarh Home Minister Ajay Chandrakar told Sreenivasan Jain of NDTV that it was a major lapse on part of forces to move without uniform and arms and that this was in violation of rules where soldiers should not move in sensitive areas unprepared. The minister could be correct but the timing of his comments were certainly not worthy of the state Home Minister, vis-à-vis the adverse effect the same would have on the moral and psychological fabric of the troopers is deplorable. The syndrome of chasing tangibles is a bane while combating insurgencies and the state apparatus seems to be stuck doing the same.  

The mindset of the Chhattisgarh government shows the apathy towards central forces. Undoubtedly the lapses and shortcomings have to be admitted with an honest perspective to draw tactical lessons, with an aim to improve. However, such observations to fix accountability ought to be confined to in-house analysis. It is not justified when, in public domain, an alibi such as this is made for disowning a failure.  

In an insurgency environment, the challenge for insurgents and counter-insurgents is to win over the majority of the neutral local population which cannot be achieved by the state projecting its security agencies as feeble in their abilities. In addition, such remarks adversely affect the dedication and conviction of the rank and file (of security agencies), making them defensive, over cautious, and indifferent.  The resultant thought process infuses ticket punching syndrome among the troopers, with grave manifestations.

Although casting aspersions in terms of tactical errors by someone not on the ground is highly irresponsible; prima facie, the lacunae are far too obvious. Firstly, with desired levels of human intelligence for the CRPF, it would not have been possible for the Maoists to plant an IED in the manner that they did, since it does not seem to be an overnight operation.

Secondly, with reference to the remarks about the information of troops’ movement getting leaked, it is observed that any such leak would not have been required. Normally, in counter-insurgency scenarios, it is experienced that insurgents are wary of confronting alert troops. The kind of intelligence that the Maoists have in the area, the movement of troops would have been observed for a protracted duration by the Maoists to ascertain a pattern. This usually is the homework that any insurgent group carries out, prior to planning and executing a tactical operation against the counterinsurgent group. It certainly does not require a mole to enable the Maoists to choose their potential target that follows a routine and is weak in terms of its likely reaction, when confronted.

Thirdly, with relatively lower levels of fatalities over last few years in the region, the sense of complacency that sets in; is for the genius of unit commanders to ward off. Going on a road opening, non operational movement without protection and terming it as a ‘surprise’ movement makes a recipe for disaster. Ideally, in an insurgency scenario, the counterinsurgent has to be a step ahead of the insurgent, not only in execution but also in terms of thinking and planning. Until, such an ethos is inculcated by personal example and hands-on leadership, tragedies like this shall recur in the long wars that insurgencies are.

The kind of guerilla warfare that the Maoists have been waging and with recent mounting pressure, it is not too difficult to fathom that they were on a constant lookout for an opportunity to strike. Maoists have repeatedly proved their mettle towards striking at will, especially in south Bastar, as part of their declared Tactical Counter Offensive.

It is worthy to add that the developments in Bastar, over the last several months have been worrisome, as far as positive perception management by the state is concerned. The aspect of psy-messaging to counter the insurgent narrative is an imperative and the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has adopted public perception management as one of the four pillars to base its counter Left Wing Extremists(LWE) strategy. The other ones being security, development and ensuring the rights and entitlements of local communities.

However, in the wake of developments like allegations of fake surrenders, pressure on activists and media, rise in extremism of vigilante groups like Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM) do not portend too well for the counterinsurgency campaign. Given the media reports on the high handedness of SEM, it will not take much for these groups to get weaponised in the face of Maoists pitching in; and certainly, any repeat of a Salwa Judum would be most undesirable, which saw adivasis killing adivasis.

This is not to indicate that the allegations of Bastar turning into a police state are correct, but the requirement on part of the state is to come out clean by projecting a counter narrative, refuting the allegations. If required, transparent enquiries should be resorted to, to probe the matters. In absence of the same, it is likely that the Maoists agenda shall gain traction, further sapping the state efforts to counter them.

Lastly, invoking the comments of Chhattisgarh Home Minister, where he remarked that it was not to the Maoists’ credit but due to the negligence on part of the CRPF that led to the recent IED strike. It is unfortunate that by making us believe so, an effort is being made to ignore the elephant in the room. Planting a powerful IED underneath a pucca road and being able to execute a strike on an unprepared body of troops requires a tremendous amount of effort and a multitude of behind-the-scene actors. The Maoists’ capabilities are rather reinforced by this daring act. Unless the government and its organs go beyond the illusions and acknowledge the strengths of the Maoists, a counter to the dynamism of Left Wing Extremism shall be a challenge to come by.

The government needs to focus on all sub-components of the overall context, complemented by the in-house reordering by involved security forces. With the fatalities in the conflict going down and positive indices on the rise, it would be unwise on part of the government to lose focus and seriousness in their fight against Left Wing Extremism.