Taking On Naxals In Chhattisgarh: An Insider’s Account

Simultaneous offensive operations and economic development has slowly started paying dividends against Maoists, writes GK Pillai.

 Indian paramilitary soldiers walk past the remains of a bus that was blown up by Maoist rebels in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 8, 2018. (Photograph: AP/PTI)
Indian paramilitary soldiers walk past the remains of a bus that was blown up by Maoist rebels in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 8, 2018. (Photograph: AP/PTI)

In 2009, when I assumed charge as Union Home Secretary, left-wing extremism or Naxalism as it is popularly known had been the most serious internal security situation in India for the last five years. But the most pressing internal security situation was actually not in Chhattisgarh but in Lalgarh, West Bengal where the state government at the time had abdicated its primary role and allowed the Naxals or Maoists complete sway in hundreds of square kilometres in an area not very far from Kolkata, the state capital.

The police station at Lalgarh had been shut down and almost all vestiges of state control had disappeared. The Government of India had to send in three battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force to restore a semblance of law and order. Over the next two years, the ‘Lalgarh Experiment’—which was being tom-tommed by the Maoists as a precursor of what was to happen in the rest of India—lay in a shambles.

Chhattisgarh was the most severely affected state by the left-wing extremist movement. Even today, the writ of the state government hardly runs in hundreds of square kilometres.

I will not go into the history of the Naxal movement on which tomes have been written.

This was a self-inflicted wound inflicted indigenously, without any external support, primarily due to poor governance and exploitation of the weaker communities by the dominant elites.

Redirecting Central Forces

It was no longer a simple law and order situation, which could be tackled by just inducting more central police forces into the state. Maoist violence had been low in the preceding decade, as the state had ceded its functions over large areas to them. They were busy consolidating their positions and didn’t see the need to strike at the state.

While the state government had taken steps to augment state police forces, the new plan called for a quantum increase in central support and a new strategy.

The inadequacy of the forces could be seen in the fact that the seven left-wing extremism-affected states had just 33 battalions of central police forces while Jammu & Kashmir, at one-tenth the area, had 90 battalions, apart from the army.
Army uints cordon off the area where militants attacked on a CRPF Party at Wanpoh National Highway in Kulgam district of south Kashmir. (Source: PTI)
Army uints cordon off the area where militants attacked on a CRPF Party at Wanpoh National Highway in Kulgam district of south Kashmir. (Source: PTI)

A lot of discussion took place on the deployment of the army in these left-wing extremism-affected states, but in the end, it was rightly decided that the better course of action would be to use the central police forces. These would undergo an orientation training of six weeks with army units before being deployed. We were facing a serious insurgency situation calling for troops prepared to fight a jungle warfare over a protracted period of time.

Inducting central police forces urgently was necessary also to boost the morale of the state police forces who were struggling to hold ground. Looking at the overall availability of the central police forces—which would have to be inducted by withdrawing forces from J&K and North-Eastern states in a phased manner—it was also decided that these would be used in a concentrated grid fashion and we would consolidate in areas where we had the advantage of logistics and infrastructure, and go after the Maoist strongholds later, once we were in a better position. This also meant that the battle was going to be a long-drawn-out attrition battle, but there was no alternative to this, knowing the difficult terrain and the large areas involved.

There was the added problem of state police forces being limited to their state jurisdictions, while the Maoist forces had no such restrictions and could slip across state boundaries when the pressure became intense.

Turning The Tide

Of the additional forces deployed, the bulk was in Chhattisgarh. The change in strategy also meant that the combined forces had to slowly dominate areas under the influence of the Maoists both during day and at night. Another major problem was coping with the Maoists’ use of improvised explosive devices. Strict standard operating procedures were put in place, and within two years every company of the central police forces had a retired sapper—a combat engineer—from the army as an IED adviser.

Chhattisgarh had a dynamic chief minister who understood the seriousness of the left-wing extremism problem. That was not the position with some other Chief Ministers who gave it a low priority.

We could not succeed fully unless all states were on board with the strategy and tactics.

There were some serious setbacks in 2010, especially at Chintalnar, where an entire company of the CRPF got wiped out and all their weapons were seized. Slowly, the tide turned and the violence which peaked at the start of the decade, as we went on the offensive, has been slowly coming down.

The strategy of simultaneous offensive operations and economic development has slowly started paying dividends.

Roads have improved, communication facilities have improved and some outstanding work by young and dynamic district collectors has helped.

The scheme of giving Rs 30 crore to each district every year—to be operated by the district collector, the district superintendents of police and the district forest officer—to meet needs that were understood locally, was a game changer.

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Work Remains To Be Done

Yet, the weaknesses in the district administration and shortage of officers in key areas like health, education, police and other welfare departments is a worry. The tardy implementation of the Tribal Land Rights Act and provisions of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution (Administration and Control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes) are still matters of concern and need to be vigorously enforced. A good grievance-redressal mechanism to resolve the common citizen’s small issues will be a game changer in this area.

We must not forget that a bulk of the main armed group of Maoists is still intact, and can be a threat at any time in the next few years. However, if development continues and basic facilities begin to be provided by governments, the grip of the Maoists over the bulk of the people will wear away and more will join the mainstream of development, which must ultimately must be oriented to better the lives of the people in the region.

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Gopal Krishna Pillai was Union Home Secretary from June 2009 to June 2011.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.