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Appalling absence of leadership in war on Naxals

June 15, 2010 17:05 IST

After six decades of floundering through dozens of uprisings, India's govt is facing the Naxal challenge as incoherently as ever, writes Ajai Shukla

French diplomat and wordsmith nonpareil Charles Maurice de Talleyrand remarked of the Bourbon dynasty -- restored to power after the Napoleonic Wars and back to their old excesses -- that "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing". That withering observation accurately describes New Delhi today. After six decades of floundering through dozens of uprisings, including multiple insurgencies in the Northeast and proxy wars in Punjab and J&K, India's government is facing the Naxal challenge as incoherently as ever.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was wrong last month in calling the Naxal insurgency "India's greatest internal security challenge". He first used that description three years ago and, if it remains so even today, India's greatest internal security challenge is the strategic bankruptcy of its ruling elite.

The appalling absence of leadership is evident. Two months after the Dantewada debacle, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) is only now absorbing the reality that its traditional response to insurrection -- passing the buck to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) -- is not yet an option. Prompted by an overstretched military, Defence Minister A K Antony has blocked the MoHA's request for using the army's Rashtriya Rifles and elite special forces to "force the pace of offensive operations".

The accommodation then reached by the Cabinet -- using the army only for training and "demining" -- reeks of the compromise culture that shapes our answers to crucial questions of national security. Enough military steel has been sprinkled over the pot to deflect potential criticism that the Cabinet did not take firm steps, but not enough to generate criticism that the military was being sidetracked from the borders.

This step is hardly likely to rein in the Naxals, given the systemic ineffectiveness of police forces, both those of the states and the Centre. But the appearance of action was necessary; and criticism has been deferred to the next crisis.

That this will come before long is evident from the approach of Home Minister P Chidambaram. No Churchill in inspirational leadership, but rivalling that British wartime PM in verbal and ethical gymnastics, Chidambaram claims to have demanded a "wider mandate" for tackling Naxalism even as he sought army units for discharging the primary function of his own central police organisations: i.e. reinforcing the state police in maintaining law and order.

His ministry, meanwhile, continues to pass the buck. This week, the MoHA is inviting the chief ministers of Naxal-affected states (a term that is entering official lexicon!) to a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security "so that their suggestions on strengthening police and paramilitary forces can be sought".

Only Chidambaram can answer why those CMs -- who are squarely blamed for the Naxal problem via home ministry leaks -- are now being asked for suggestions. Clearly, the MoHA wishes to spread thin the blame for policing failure, riding on the fact that law and order is constitutionally a state subject. But what about the CPOs, which function directly under the MoHA and have long operated in Naxal-affected states?

Such is the MoHA's indifference to its CPOs -- some 7.5 lakh armed policemen in the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Indo-Tibet Border Police and others -- that even top MoHA officials refer to them as "paramilitary forces". A paramilitary force is, by definition, led by military officers on deputation. Only the Assam Rifles, which operates in India's north-eastern states, is a paramilitary force.

This difference is not merely academic, given that the Dantewada debacle and others before it stem from professional blunders by CPO units, which could hardly have happened under military officers. The MoHA has cynically stymied multiple proposals to stiffen CPO capability by inducting soldiers who have prematurely retired after just seven years in the military. The key reason proffered by the MoHA: this would damage the promotion prospects of directly recruited policemen.

Another reason that the Home Ministry cites in rejecting the proposal to laterally induct army jawans into the CPOs is the military's institutional orientation towards overwhelming force, which would be unacceptable in dealing with Indian citizens. This logic, while cruelly ironic for the CRPF jawans who faced a hail of Naxal bullets in Dantewada, has been fully disproved in J&K where regular army units have been no less restrained than their CPO counterparts.

Given the MoHA's stance on guarding CPO turf, and the MoD's minimalist stance on direct involvement in anti-Naxal operations, the compact on army training for CPOs is doomed to failure. Over the last five years, one of the army's most experienced trainers -- Brigadier (Retired) B K Ponwar of the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Mizoram -- has trained more than 10,000 Chhattisgarh policemen at the state's Jungle Warfare College in Bastar. The vast majority of them have gone on not to fight Naxals, but to soft jobs on the personal security details of state police officers. A policeman can be trained easily, but changing police culture is far more difficult. The same is true of the CPOs.

Do not write off the possibility that our leaders in North and South Block might have read Talleyrand. The Frenchman also said, "Since the masses are always eager to believe something, for their benefit nothing is so easy to arrange as facts." That is all that New Delhi has done so far in confronting Naxalism.

Ajai Shukla
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