Sunday, February 17, 2008

Maoist mayhem

Friday’s Naxal attack on police stations in Orissa’s Nayagarh district is the latest wake-up call for India’s security mandarins. With every passing day, the Maoist guerrillas seem to be tightening their grip on the country, claiming some 500 lives every year. In some areas, the situation is so alarming that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described the menace as a “virus” that threatens the very idea of India. He asked states to pool their resources and crush the leftist rebellion once and for all. The states have been trying to fight the Maoists for some time, but with little success. The reasons are not too difficult to understand.

The state police forces are ill-equipped, poorly trained and lack motivation to take on the highly organised insurgents. Now, the Union home ministry is planning to tackle this problem by helping the states raise 35 India Reserve Battalions (IRB) to crush the rebellion. But the real problem is not the lack of forces. Both the Centre as well as the affected states lack a clear strategy to deal with the problem, making the threat even more alarming.

Now, the Centre has decided to take serious steps to curb the menace. There are already four layers of monitoring mechanisms. Since these have proved inadequate, the Union government has decided to have a fifth layer - a task force to be chaired by the cabinet secretary to promote coordinated efforts across a range of development and security activities so that the Maoist menace can be tackled comprehensively.

There are other issues that need to be resolved as well. Since law and order is a state subject, the Centre cannot take direct police action in the wake of an incident. Also, it is not possible for government to have a unified command for different states. So, what’s the Centre doing? The Union home ministry has provided 33 battalions (over 33,000 personnel) of paramilitary forces to states for deployment in Maoist-controlled districts. But even this is not enough. Chhattisgarh, for example, has over 13,000 personnel out of the total deployment of central forces, but it has still reported more than 50% of the total casualties (325 out of 601) in 2007.

The situation in other states is not very different. While they have all been demanding more forces from the Centre, the state governments drag their feet over filling police vacancies. There is also a blame game going on. Central government officials point out that the right to deploy central forces lies with the states. The states, on the other hand, complain that the Centre isn’t giving them enough manpower for taking on the Maoist guerrillas.

However, Andhra Pradesh has shown the way by creating a specialised force - Grey Hounds - to fight the Maoists and achieved huge success in minimising casualties in the past two years. The local police, backed by the armed reserve forces, the Grey Hounds and a well-developed intelligence network, have succeeded in beating back the Maoists to a large extent, and forced their leadership to take flight.

The other states - particularly Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand - have made no headway. One of the problems is that the terrorists, who are unified under the banner of the CPI (Maoists), can take advantage of the fact that the states do not have a ‘unified command’ to fight them. The rebels easily slip into another state after attacking civilians and security personnel in one, knowing full well that they can get away.

Though the number of casualties in Maoist violence declined in 2007 (601) as compared to 2006 (678), statistics do not tell the entire story. Incidents like the recent jail-break in Chhattisgarh where rebels attacked a jail and escaped with hundreds of their comrades reveal that the Maoists are only getting bolder. According to some figures, around 200 policemen were killed in the state last year. But, despite these attacks, the state has done little to improve the security situation.

In Orissa, the security build-up has slowly improved, with the setting up of a special operations group (SOG) and special intelligence wing (SIW) and raising of one India Reserve Battalion, but a lot more is needed to launch a really effective battle against the rebels as the latest attack has shown. ‘‘We have improved infrastructure in 114 of the around 450 police stations in the state under centrally sponsored police modernisation and security-related expenditure schemes. This includes around 70 police stations in severely hit pockets. We are in the process of scaling up infrastructure, equipment and manpower in 81 others,” says a police source, adding that the policemen now have sophisticated, automatic weapons.

The real problem, however, is manpower: posts of around 7,000 constables, 750 sub-inspectors as well as dozens of senior positions lie vacant in the state. “We have the equipment, but the manpower is not adequately trained. Moreover, we are recruiting people but we don’t have sufficient training facilities to put them on the job right away. It will take some time,” says a senior police officer. “We have made lots of arrests, but there have been large-scale acquittals because common people understandably do not want to stand witness against the extremists. We are taking a number of steps to quell the challenge.”

In Jharkhand, the police have miserably failed to curb the Naxal menace. Since the creation of the state in 2001 more than 150 CRPF men, district police jawans, one deputy superintendent of police, two inspectors and an equal number of sub-inspectors have lost their lives in anti-Naxal operations.

In terms of infrastructure the state police are on the last rung. Of the 45,000 policemen in the state, one-third don’t have weapons. About 11,500 SLRs and 400 LMGs were purchased in the name of police modernisation but most of these are still lying in stores. The state lacks a modern communication system and has not been able to connect all police stations to the headquarters with police network. The main reason why Maoists easily get all the information about police movement and plans is that these are communicated through the age-old wireless system.

With Grey Hounds on their heels, the Maoists have been on the run in Andhra Pradesh, but in other states the forces have not been able to take on the might of guerrillas. At this stage, it’s difficult to say if the new strategy by the Centre will be able to check the growth of Naxals in the countryside. In the past, states have failed to coordinate police operations to tackle such issues. But this time, as the Maoists increase their influence, the states have no choice but to join hands. Or else, the bloodshed will go on.

No comments: