India has deployed over 70 battalions of para-military forces in Operation Green Hunt, its coordinated and multi-theatre battle against the left-wing extremists (Maoists).
On the face of it, the size of the forces is substantial, if not sufficient. However, with the passage of time, it is increasingly becoming clear that the ongoing operations suffer from a range of deficiencies -- quality of personnel, poor equation between the different types of forces deployed and near absence of intelligence inputs to feed the forces. Needless to say, without addressing these, the operations would not even make a visible dent on the capacities of the extremists.
For New Delhi, the Maoist insurgency is a 'law and order' problem. Thus, it is the primary responsibility of the state's police forces to fight the Maoists, whereas the Centre only assists the states by deploying the paramilitary forces.
In view of the poor standards, huge vacancies and prevailing incapacities among most of the state police forces, however, the anti-Maoist operations has turned into and remained primarily a paramilitary forces-led endeavour. The paramilitary forces are better trained and better armed compared to the state police forces. Even this superiority is buckling under the steep challenges posed by the extremists.
On November 21, eight persons were killed in Bihar as an improvised explosive device, planted by the Maoists exploded. The paramilitary personnel had in fact recovered the explosive and had abandoned it in an open field to be defused later. As curious civilians came flocking towards the unguarded IED, it went off. On November 20, two cops were killed as the IED they had dug out and believed to have defused, exploded, again in Bihar.
These incidents were bizarre, but certainly not isolated. From other Maoist-affected states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal, similar episodes of civilians and security force personnel losing their lives while engaging in 'defusing' recovered explosives have been reported regularly.
Security force personnel have been killed while lobbing stones at IEDs, trying to move them on motorbikes or simply inspecting them. Put together, these incidents pose serious questions about the training and preparedness among the forces.
A bulk of the 70 battalions of paramilitary forces deployed in Operation Green Hunt are drawn from the Central Reserve Police Force. Following the Kargil war in 1998, the central government's task force on internal security had recommended modelling the CRPF as the primary strike force for counter-insurgency operations. This recommendation had been accepted in 2000 by the then National Democratic Alliance government. Since then, enormous funds have been made available to the CRPF to augment its size as well as its capacities.
However, former CRPF officers, including a former chief of the force, indicate that a plan to achieve the objective is yet to be formulated. There is no indication that the CRPF, which has grown to 210 battalions after continuing expansions, is anywhere close to being a specialised CI force.
In 2008, the government set up a 10 battalion specialised counter-Maoist unit within the CRPF. The unit was fashionably named Combat Battalion for Resolute Action, COBRA. Home Minister P Chidambaram didn't like the acronym. But the name stuck. The personnel underwent a year-long specialised training in the counter-insurgent and guerrilla warfare schools and were deployed in a phase wise manner in the Maoist-affected states. The actual achievements of the COBRA are operational secrets.
However, by any standard, this is too small a unit to make any impact on the Maoists who have spread out over a vast territory. The stress of continuous engagement could also be growing within the COBRA. Recently, a COBRA personnel deployed in Chhattisgarh fled the force after killing a civilian, disfiguring his face and planting his official identity card on the body to fake his death.
In April and May this year, the CRPF lost over 100 personnel in Maoist ambushes. A single attack in Chhattisgarh wiped out an entire company of the CRPF, demonstrating serious training and command inadequacies. Since then, the force has gone on the defensive and has centralised its operations.
Clearance from the CRPF regional headquarters in Kolkata, which takes at least a day to receive, has been made mandatory before the personnel embark on any CI operation acting on intelligence leads. Maoists have been extremely mobile in their approach. Even a day's delay in obtaining clearance has virtually turned the CRPF into an inspecting unit rather than a combat force.
The CRPF's losses are partly linked to the weak or non-existent human intelligence apparatus within the state police forces and also to the poor operational camaraderie the two forces share. Attempt to set up CRPF's own intelligence unit has been a long pending project. Frequent verbal duels have been reported between the CRPF and the police authorities.
In August, the home ministry transferred a top CRPF officer overseeing Operation Green Hunt after his spat with top police officer of Chhattisgarh. To iron out the differences between the forces and improve their joint operations, the home ministry instructed several states to set up unified command structures. Five months since the July 2010 decision, the UCSs are yet to be created.
The government needs to take a leaf from the manual of the Maoists, to be slow and calculated in the way it builds up its response. It is clear that in the hurry to mitigate the menace, some serious compromises have been made. The necessity to put boots on the ground can not be at the cost of quality of personnel deployed.
Similarly, unity of purpose among the police and paramilitary and an enabling intelligence gathering mechanism are other critical pre-requisites for success in the CI operations. Unless these basic war principles are adhered to, India's war on left-wing extremists is bound to be a protracted one.
Bibhu Prasad Routray, a former deputy director at India's National Security Council Secretariat, is currently a visiting research fellow with the South Asia programme of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nangyang Technological University, Singapore.