Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Asleep in Chhattisgarh - Ajai Sahni

It is not clear whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was able to sleep after he heard the news of the 24 policemen slaughtered by Maoists in the forests of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh on July 9, 2007, but it is clear that this incident did not merit a public reaction from him, in contrast to his fervently articulated anguish over the suffering of the parents of alleged Indian terrorists arrested in London and Australia. This is unsurprising, considering the sheer frequency of such incidents.

It is less than four months after Maoists massacred 55 policemen on March 15 at Rani Bodli in the Bijapur District. And, Maoists have already butchered a total of 119 security forces personnel in Chhattisgarh in 2007 (till July 15), in at least 31 significant attacks on the forces. The Prime Minister of India cannot be expected to respond to so quotidian a succession of events.

Significantly, the total Maoist fatalities in Chhattisgarh in 2007 stood at 58 on July 15 - more than two security forces personnel killed for each Maoist fatality. It is clear where the initiative lies in the conflict.

The growth of Maoist power in Chhattisgarh has been systematic and pre-planned, based on a tactical decision taken in December 1999 - January 2000 by the then People's War Group to permanently locate all important party cadre in the forest areas of the Dandakaranya 'Special Zone', principally centring around the unsurveyed and near-impenetrable Abujhmadh forest in the Bastar division of Chhattisgarh, which has since been declared the Maoist's 'Central Guerrilla Base Area'.

Seven years is a long time in a counter-insurgency context, but while the Maoists have vigorously built their movement now afflicting as many as 16 of Chhattisgarh's 20 police districts - the State's responses have been abysmal. Despite the hysteria that each major attack provokes, the tasks of capacity building have been persistently neglected.

Force deficits are endemic. The all-India average police-population ratio stands at 122 per 100,000. The UN norm for minimum police strength is 222 per 100,000 (1:450). Most Western countries have ratios between 250 and 500 per 100,000. Chhattisgarh has a sanctioned strength of 103 per 100,000.

The crisis is compounded by a tremendous gap between sanctioned and available force. In the Maoist-affected areas, deficits at certain ranks may be as high as 79 per cent (in Bastar division, only eight of 38 sanctioned posts for SIs were filled at the end of 2006). In the ranks from DSP to SSP, the deficit (as on December 31, 2005) was 29.9 per cent; at the rank of Sub-Inspector and Assistant Sub-Inspector, it was 36.6 per cent. Crucial posts in Maoist-affected areas remain vacant for extended periods of time, and as the police-population ratio indicates, sanctioned posts are themselves well below the needs of the State.

The ratio of police personnel to the total area of the State is also very poor. The all-India average stands at 42 per 100 square kilometres. The figure for Chhattisgarh is just 17 per 100 square kilometres. In the Bastar Division - the heart of Maoist violence - the ratio of sanctioned force is 5.62, and of actual deployment, just 3.55 per 100 square kilometres.

Efforts have been made to 'fill' this gap with Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs), but their numbers are a tiny fraction of requirements. Some 85 companies of CRPF are currently available for the whole of Chhattisgarh. By contrast, Manipur, a State of about 2.4 million people, has a police-population ratio of 535 per 100,000, and in addition has almost 350 companies of CPMFs deployed for counter-insurgency. Manipur's geographical area is just over half the Bastar division and the population of Chhattisgarh is almost nine times that of Manipur.

Worse, the utilisation of manpower is inefficient and unproductive. A bulk of forces has been kept out of the areas of intensive conflict. The Chhattisgarh Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School had, by February 2007, trained 2,590 police officers and men. A majority of these trained personnel are, however, deployed for static duties and in urban areas, reflecting a tremendous waste of trained manpower.

Of the total force in Chhattisgarh - State and Central - no more that 1,800 to 2,000 personnel are engaged in offensive counter-terrorist operations. More than 80 per cent of available force is deployed for passive defence. Crucially, the available force in the affected areas is simply too small and dispersed even to protect itself. In the Bastar division, for instance, an additional force of over 80 companies is required to protect existing police stations, police posts and important Government establishments and projects. Paramilitary forces, moreover, have obvious difficulties in operating in unfamiliar and difficult geographical and cultural terrain, and are starved of operational intelligence.

In the absence of basic capacities and will, other 'force multipliers' are destined to inevitable failure. Thus, the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles to detect Maoist concentrations in the forests failed to produce results in the absence of rapid follow-up action. Some hare-brained schemes are now being conjured as a quick fix, based on a questionable understanding of the 'Andhra Model'. Reports suggest that 'a dozen' Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs) of 'crack commandos' are shortly to be deployed in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, to be "air dropped in dense forests" to launch swift guerrilla operations.

What is missed out is that the Greyhounds in Andhra Pradesh operate within a pervasive policing environment that has been systematically strengthened and that has established overwhelming capacities for containment of Maoist operations. With small groups of Maoists dispersed over limited forest areas, and possessing relatively insignificant residual capacities for resistance, these groups are vulnerable to focussed attack by a highly trained and rapidly deployed force.

Within an enveloping environment of the breakdown of policing, the dominance of wide areas by the Maoists, and little capacity for immediate and massive reinforcement, a QRT dropped into a jungle would, in most cases, be overwhelmed and slaughtered.

State police sources estimate that the Maoists in Chhattisgarh have an armed cadre of over 5,000, equipped with sophisticated assault weapons, landmines and explosives. These 'full-time revolutionaries' are backed by at least 20,000 'people's militia'. The sympathetic base on which this armed capacity is founded is substantial.

Interestingly, Central agencies are currently and vigorously peddling the ludicrous fiction that the total armed strength of the Maoists across India is just 4,000, with 4,100 weapons - if that was even remotely close to the truth, we would have little to worry about.

Chhattisgarh simply does not have even the numerical capacities to contain an insurgency of this magnitude. Worse, existing capacities remain under-utilised and misdirected, and there is a progressive collapse of political will at the highest levels. Sadly, that means that many more security forces - thrown without plan, preparation or purpose into the conflagration - will fruitlessly lose their lives.

It can only be hoped that, eventually, someone, somewhere, in India's corridors of power, will lose a little sleep over this as well.

(Published in The Pioneer, New Delhi, July 25, 2007)

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