Deploying COIN: To Counter the Contours of Red Corridor

The Sukhma Bijapur forest belt in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh covering 40 percent of the region is home to a vast array of wildlife. Besides providing an abode for various plants and animals and tribal population, it also gives shelter to thousands of Naxalites. Thus, the forests reverberates with the sounds of bullets and guns every now and then.

By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee

Opinion

On 3rd April, 2021 one such fierce faceoff broke out between India’s Security Forces [SFs] and the Maoist insurgents. It claimed the lives of 22 CAPF personnel and more than 30 injured making it the deadliest ambush in 4 years. It unleashed a flurry of analysis carrying more of rhetoric and opinion than substance. This in turn aided and abetted the cause of the Maoists – as if the propaganda war was being carried out on behalf of the insurgents by some intellectuals in the country.

If we look at the SFs to Maoists kill ratio, it remained significantly in favour of the SFs since 2011, when it was at 1:1.53. Nonetheless, in 2010, the SFs to Maoists kill ratio was at 1.01:1, favouring the rebels. It is thus clear that the tide of war has steadily turned against the Maoists since 2011.  In fact, the annual fatalities are more or less on a declining curve since 2011 as could be seen in the adjoining figure.  There was a peak of fatalities recorded in 2010. But the total number of fatalities has shown a declining trend thereafter. Moreover, the geographical space in which the Maoists operated in 2007 has shrunk by almost 90% in 2020 with respect to ‘Highly’ affected districts. This is another feather in the cap of the SFs as well a validation of the policy adopted to negotiate LWE. In September 2007, there were 62 highly affected districts in the country, whereas the number has gone down to a mere four in 2020.

Source Credit : SATP

It is thus evident that the insurgency is under control by the SFs – even in Chhattisgarh. However, with about 8,000 fatalities from 2005-2019, this is indeed still a serious insurgency being waged in certain localized pockets of India. In 2018, the US Country Report on Terrorism ranked the Communist Party of India – Maoist as the deadliest terror organisation globally after the Taliban, Islamic State, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Brief backgrounder

The demise of the erstwhile Naxalite insurgency in its first phase of 1967 to 1972 can be owed to a few reasons- Weak organization of the party, lack of mass mobilization, indiscriminate use of violence in which police officials of the subaltern ranks were butchered by the insurgents for no just cause and of course tactical torture of the Naxalites by the police as well as cadres of then mainstream political parties. Nonetheless, the most important reason was their alienation from the masses in general and unnecessary reliance on the theoretical premise of ‘annihilation of the class enemy’ of their ideologue Charu Mazumdar.

In 2018, the US Country Report on Terrorism ranked the Communist Party of India – Maoist as the deadliest terror organisation globally after the Taliban, Islamic State, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Communist Party of the Philippines.

He died in police custody in Calcutta in July 1972, yet the movement somehow failed to die. Between 1972 to1985, the movement branched out to other provinces of India, specifically Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. People’s War Group [PWG] was formed in Andhra Pradesh and the Maoist Communist Centre [MCC] in Bihar-Jharkhand region. Finally in 2004, the PWG merged with the MCC under the banner of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. The idea was to have a vanguard revolutionary party [Leninism] which would essay to usher in a New Democratic Revolution [NDR] in India by toppling the so-called ‘bourgeois government’. The process of ‘toppling’ would be carried out through political, social, economic and most importantly military means. The first phase of the military action would be spearheaded by a People’s Liberation Guerilla Army [PLGA]. From 2004 onward, the Naxalites officially began to be called as Maoists and the movement turned more organized, hierarchical and militarized.

Chhattisgarh, Security personnel at the site of Naxal attack at Sukma-Bijapur border

Foreign Arms & Weapons?

The 3rd April 2021 ambush by the Maoists was a copybook case of V-Ambush coupled with Demolition Ambush. In the latter, explosives are used and a smaller force plans to wipe out a comparatively larger force. Good intelligence on the route taken by the SFs was thus required; which was presumably available with the insurgents, who had a comparatively smaller contingent (400 militants) to about 1000 SFs to combat with. Sophistication and variety of weapons used by the insurgents is nothing new. Apart from guns and explosives, the Indian Maoists have had a symbiotic relationship with the Maoists of Nepal and Philippines, as well as the LTTE of Sri Lanka – insofar as training is concerned.

And if a valid question is raised regarding the source of funds for the procurement of weaponry, it may be noted that about $ 20 million USD per year is collated by the CPI-M, and as an analyst writes, “from business houses, contractors, corrupt government officials; and political leaders. The largest and principal sources of income for the Maoists are the mining industry, PWD works, and collection of tendu leaves”.

India’s COIN approach

“From business houses, contractors, corrupt government officials; and political leaders. The largest and principal sources of income for the Maoists are the mining industry, PWD works, and collection of tendu leaves”

India is mostly concerned with three major insurgencies, viz., in the North-East, Kashmir, and the Left-Wing Extremism [LWE]. The three cases have different historical, cultural, and political undertones. India has dealt with these keeping in mind their regional and ethnic specificities, within the overall ambit of the rule of law. Against the Maoists however, a combination of classical and ‘quantum’ COIN holds the key. The essential elements of such a COIN are:

  1. Winning Hearts and Minds of the ambient population
  2. Decapitate the top leadership of the Maoists

Along with these two prime aspects, the following are essential components:

  1. Cost-effective anti-IED techniques to be incorporated.
  2. Standard Operating Procedures need to be followed at all levels to avoid ambushes and also to set up ambushes for the insurgents, to give them a taste of their own medicine.
  3. SFs to induct local people like that in Bastariya battalion in Chhattisgarh. Knowledge of local terrain along with viable ground level intelligence would go a long way to win the low-intensity conflict.
  4. To infiltrate the ranks of the insurgents, i.e. efficient system of espionage.
  5. To create schisms in the CPI-M, at all levels.
  6. Allure the foot soldier with lucrative job and/or surrender policy. This is already in vogue, but could be always made more attractive financially.

Talks with the extremists?

In the wake of the 3rd April attack and in general, few analysts have opined that India should follow the example of Colombia and Nepal and resolve the five-decade old insurgency by talking to the ultras. However, they fail to recognize that the situations in Colombia as well as Nepal were rather dissimilar to that in India. India is a democracy, with a shrinking geographical and ideological space for the Maoists. And with the Maoists having failed to garner any tactical alliance with other left-wing political parties, let alone centrist parties, the threat posed by the insurgents is locally confined to certain pockets – especially in dandakaranya, which borders Chhattisgarh with the states of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Maharashtra. Even militarily, the threat is not at all formidable considering the lack of progress made by the Maoists in the organizational sphere.

As development reaches the nook and corner of the affected regions, along with the security structure forcing the insurgents in cocoons of ever shrinking radii, the insurgency would be less than ragtag.

Moreover, it would be worthwhile to recollect that talks failed twice with the Maoists – once in 2004 in Andhra, which ultimately paved the way for the formation of the CPI-M; and again in West Bengal, after the Lalgarh fiasco in 2009-10. If at all talks have to take place with the insurgent group, it is recommended to talk from a position of strength. Daniel Byman asserts: “Talks with insurgents are politically costly, usually fail, and can often backfire”.

In this backdrop, the following are suggested:

  • Every Maoist-affected state ought to raise Special Forces and a sizable chunk of the state police forces must also be trained in COIN operations for a period of 1 to 2 years. They must have at least two COIN warfare schools. During any anti-Maoist operation, the state police contingent needs to be equitably distributed alongside the CAPFs. Only a thorough synergy among the different security agencies can help the SFs track the connection between the rebels with Arms smugglers within and without Indian borders, North-East Insurgents, Trans-national terrorists.
  • Every such state must be made to realise the urgency to cooperate with MHA in COIN strategy and operations, irrespective of its political affiliation. They need to earmark funds for COIN operations, in addition to the funding being received from MHA.
  • Intelligence sharing among states needs to be effected in letter and spirit. This is significant since the insurgents hop from one state to another through the jungles and rough terrain. In order to stem the flow of weapons, the rebels need to be continuously monitored, their base areas searched and combed and overall Control-Hold-Build doctrine of the COIN needs to be effected.
  • At present, the fundamental base of the Maoists is in the territorially inaccessible forests of Abujhmaad, in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. To physically capture the state, multiple streams of forces can be unleashed simultaneously in other Maoist zones in a manner that the rebels do not get a breather and their supply lines are jeopardized. This amount of targeted and comprehensive attack will eventually wipe out the rebels’ structure on the ground.

Thus to conclude, it is imperative to note that:

  1. The 3rd April 2021 event was an aberration in the overall declining trend of Maoist activities in India. It could be interpreted as a wakeup call for the SFs insofar as tactical implementation of the COIN doctrine is concerned.
  2. The group whose sole ambition is to usher in an NDR by eradicating the bourgeoisie democracy, will hardly agree to talk and give up arms, either post-talk or pre-talk. If they shun arms, they lose their identity which they can hardly afford. At a position of strategic advantage, the SFs could ill afford to squander the opportunity and provide the ‘advantage of time’ to the Maoists.
  3. The insurgency wouldn’t end suddenly. Its military intensity would gradually diminish as the SFs persistently pursue the COIN philosophy in a steadfast manner. As the government implements its pro-people schemes and constitutional provisions for the tribal populace, the Maoist ultras would lose the sea of people, to swim their way, and automatically be exposed to the SFs to be eliminated easily. As development reaches the nook and corner of the affected regions, along with the security structure forcing the insurgents in cocoons of ever shrinking radii, the insurgency would be less than ragtag. The present efforts verily indicate that endgame.

Note: (This is an edited version of the original and enlarged version of the article published earlier on the Vivekananda International Foundation website (www.vifindia.org).

 -The author is an IOFS officer and currently serving as Joint Director & PRO-OFB, under Ministry of Defence, Government of India. He has been an observer of left-wing extremism for over a decade and has been quoted by international agencies like Reuters, Al Jazeera. He has published extensively in national and international outlets. The opinion expressed in the article is of the author and not of Government of India / Raksha Anirveda.