Thursday, April 8, 2010

Lessons from the Dantewada debacle: training, not threats

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard

Brigadier BK Ponwar, who established and still heads the Jungle Warfare College in Kanker, Chhattisgarh. This photo is from his days at the army's Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School

It has been 44 years since that forgettable incident when New Delhi --- for the first and only time --- used its air force against its own citizens. With the Mizo National Front rampaging through Mizoram in 1966, the government warned that any Mizo who did not relocate to designated safe villages would be treated as a rebel. On the heels of that announcement came the Indian Air Force, bombing and machine-gunning stretches of jungle. Resentment against that indiscriminate killing, in which innocent Mizos died, sustained the insurgency for years thereafter.

Home Minister P Chidambaram’s warning, after the killing of 75 men of the 62nd Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in a Naxal ambush on Tuesday was put into context by an alarmed IAF chief, who clarified quickly that air power was a blunt weapon ill-suited for discriminating between insurgent and innocent. Mr Chidambaram’s words, however, linger as a reminder that the Home Ministry still considers --- as it did after the terror strike on Parliament in 2001, and the Mumbai attack of 26/11 --- that bluster and threat are convenient tools for masking abysmal security failures.

The CRPF’s operational debacle has transformed Operation Green Hunt: the hunter now seems the hunted. In the first three months of this year, 42 naxal rebels had been killed in Bastar at the cost of 4 policemen’s lives. In innumerable small operations, the state police and central police organisations (CPOs) had engaged and bested Naxal dalams; after this disaster, Naxal morale will be revitalised.

The Naxals’ dwindling strength before this week was also evident from the statistics of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks mounted by them over the last three years. In 2007, Chhatisgarh experienced 76 IED attacks; the next year, it was down to just 58; in 2009, the Naxals could successfully detonate only 29 IEDs. But Tuesday’s fiasco has made this depleted organisation look powerful enough to have the Prime Minister threaten that all options remain on the table.

A key reason for the CRPF’s dismal response to the Naxal attack has been their lack of training. As CPO units poured into Chhattisgarh for Operation Green Hunt, 5 battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF), 5 battalions of the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP) and 2 battalions of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) were all put through jungle warfare orientation courses at Chhattisgarh’s well-reputed Jungle Warfare College in Kanker. The CRPF, inexplicably, refused to undergo this training. Neither did CRPF HQ in New Delhi order them to do so; nor did the Home Ministry.

Training at the Jungle Warfare College, as every organisation except the CRPF seems to have known, has underpinned anti-naxal operations in Chhattisgarh since 2005, when the college was set up with the help of the Indian Army. Over the last five years, Chhattisgarh has trained 12,700 policemen (including 3700 from other states) at this institution. The college’s credo: fight the guerrilla like a guerrilla.

A senior official of the Chhattisgarh Police has pointed out to Business Standard that the CRPF has the worst record of all the police organisations that are conducting counter-Naxal operations in that state. “CRPF columns have often got caught in Naxal ambushes; many of the Naxals’ recent successes are against the CRPF.”

Instead of providing adequate training to each battalion that is sent into counter-insurgency operations, the CRPF has relied heavily for success on “elite” units, like its feared “Naga Battalion” which was based in Bastar for several years before being pulled out. In 2008, the Home Ministry authorised the CRPF to raise 10 COBRA (Commando Battalions for Resolute Action) units, for counter-naxal operations. But the regular battalions remain largely untrained, pushed at will from election duty, to counter-insurgency, to patrolling riot-affected areas, to anti-Naxal operations. The Home Ministry’s approach has always centred on getting the CRPF to the trouble-spot. After that, it is left to the harried battalion or company commander to deliver the goods.

The answer clearly lies in carefully training CPOs, especially before they go into counter-insurgency operations. The advantages are evident of stiffening the CPOs by laterally inducting retiring military jawans. Even without that boost forces like the CRPF are better equipped and armed than the Naxals that they confront. It is the Home Ministry’s job to ensure adequate training and then holding the force accountable for debacles like the recent one that sets back a campaign by years.

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