Homeland Security

Assessing India’s Counter-Insurgency (COIN) strategy against Left Wing Extremism: An ineffective response?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 11 Oct , 2017


Today, the resurrection of Left-Wing Extremism in India, under the umbrella of CPI-Maoist, poses a grave challenge not only to the stability and security of the regions surrounding the “red corridor” but also to the internal security of India. In the light of “aggressive” response from paramilitary forces followed by a scenario of excessive violence and intimidation by the CPI-M with the sheer task of overthrowing democratically elected governments, there is sheer “discontent” within the security experts, law enforcement advisers, policy makers and strategic experts on India’s strategy to counter Left Wing Extremism. Using Indian Army as a tool to counter LWE has been halted on the fact that CPI-M is not a secessionist faction however, this decision has been taken in the light of ineffective law enforcement and para-military strategies to protect the local masses from violent left-wing extremism. The “perpetual thought” to counter, what started as a “domestic” extremist movement which resulted in some domestic communist violent homegrown factions has further “complexed” the issue by instigating a debate between opting strategies focussing on counter-terrorism versus strategies focussing on counter-insurgency. Although using “aggressive” actions response coupled with “force” against the local masses, which however, is not new in the history of Counter-Insurgency operations against the masses, faces “harsh” criticism from the academic arena along with left wing political parties forcing the law enforcement agencies to limit their “effective response” within the nations “principle” values of democracy.

This has created numerous debates between political parties, Left-Wing experts, strategic studies professionals and law enforcement agencies on labelling violent Marxist factions as “terrorists”, retraining even the “force-preferring” strategic experts to “strategically and systematically” crush the Maoists. While addressing the media in the late September 2011, the then Home Minister P Chidambaram, under whose leadership paramilitary units in India launched a massive “systematic” and“ coordinated” operation in 2010, refused to brand Maoists as “terrorists”. Policy makers must understand that, in the light of Maoists resurrection in India, LWE is poses a grave threat to the internal security of India. Earlier political leadership and policy makers drafted strategies focussing majorly on winning the public support while removing any “flexible movement” of para-military units and local law armed law enforcement groups within the draft. This resulted in “unrequired” “undesired” sections within the draft which failed to bring enough clarity regarding paramilitary units, their movements amid other “flaws”. However, there are many stated that continue to reinforce a “military” response against the violent LWE by deploying “special forces” trained units in an effort to effectively and systematically eliminate violent Moist factions, on the contrary, many stated continue to follow a “development-led” approach, on many occasions dialogue, even using negotiations with the Maoists.

Although, every major attack initiated by violent Maoist factions have instigated an aura of “sympathy” and compassion from “LWE sympathisers of Lutyens Delhi who considers Maoists as meagre “peasants in vein” who are “repeatedly and systematically” oppressed and continuously ignored by the state. Moreover, support for LWE extremists have rather increased, particularly from academia and certain factions “foreign” in nature. 

A “development-led” strategy?

India’s principle Ministry in-charge for countering LWE, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) follows a “single edged knife” policy to counter LWE militant factions – enhancing resources, para-military units to counter LWE while reinforcing them with start of the art machineries and equipping them with timely intelligence while accelerating development policies, focussing majorly on infrastructure in Maoists affected regions. Those criticising this “single edged knife” approach call it the “centre’s bluff” to reinforce the para-military forces in their efforts to “systematically” eliminate the Maoists while “flushing out” masses from the regions occupied under Maoists control and transferring the lands to multinational corporations and private mining organizations. In the light of such criticism, the infrastructure development in areas occupied by Maoists while effectively using resources to address the problem faced by the local masses (tribals in particular)remains vital to the strategy. Many political leadership and heads of various government designated committees have extensively focussed on winning the “hearts and minds” of tribal masses who are not only essential for Maoists propaganda structure but also functions as a strong “support” through their systematic “propaganda” in an effort to gain their sympathies.

One of the key development initiatives taken by the then UPA government was the Integrated Action Plan (IAP) which the current NDA government plans to expand. The IAP was launched in2010 and since then their approach have been reached to roughly over 82 districts affected by LWE. The then government also focussed on generating employment schemes and took certain but limited “progressive” decisions. Their focus was largely on rebuilding roads, strengthening the network infrastructure in an effort to connect them with key cities, establishing schools, district hospitals, while connecting the masses (tribal population in particular) with the Public Distribution System in an effort to provide food subsidies to the masses living below poverty level. They also focussed on enhancing “land acquisition” laws before establishing a new industry especially a mining industry in regions with tribal inhabitation. Then focussed on legislations dedicated to protect the access of tribal population in the forests while asking various states to initiate and expand land rights. Effective implementation of such measures were crucial for the government to reinforce their fight against LWE. However, the gap between strategy planning and strategy implementation remained at large, this was coupled with bureaucratic entanglement, followed by a series of disagreements between law enforcement heads and babus at the state which was also coupled with political leaderships short-sighted visions and frequent and aggressive encounter between the para-military units and Maoist factions.

For over decades, excessive violence induced by violent Maoists factions posed a grave challenge to the development efforts undertaken by the government, sadly, not much have changed since then. Today, the CPI-Maoists continue to blow schools, government institutions infrastructure, road and rail connectivity, network establishments while preventing the on-going infrastructure development projects through “intimidation, threatening and violence”. Inspite of Maoists “rigorous efforts” in preventing any development, the government continues to provide financial aid and assistance to the state governments countering the LWE. In total, the Government spent on development of over 82 worst-affected districts between 2010-2014 stood at ₹10 Billion. In an effort to win the battle of “heart and mind” while effectively challenging the violence induced by Maoists factions who rigorously and systematically target government development initiatives, the strategy of “first clear, hold and then develop” continues to be the government’s structural framework inspite of the strategies “limited successes”. Although the influx of financial aid poured by the “political-bureaucracy-corporate” connectionin the “seamlessly never-ending war” remains unaccounted.

In-effective COIN operations and over-excessive use of para-military forces

The choice of predominantly using para-military forces against violent Maoist factions do not necessarily mean that a state has an unsuccessful development approach. Although, the frequent “violent” clashes between the Maoists and heavily armed para-military units clearly points to difficulty faced by the states to implement development initiatives particularly in areas with pre-dominant Maoists presence, this has created an aura among the policy makers to draft a strategy which primarily focusses on the elimination of Maoists in the region. The CPI-M have been carrying out series of “systematic” violent campaign specifically targeting armed police patrol units, para-military establishments, confidential informants while brutally killing the masses who share “sympathies” with the state. This has forced para-military units and strategic commands to equip a dedicated counter-insurgency strategy against the Maoists.

Furthermore, India’s previous “significant” successes in COIN/Counter Terror operations (primarily those carried out in Punjab, Mizoram, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh) have been successful because of effective coordination and cooperation within security forces operations, this strategic framework has significant supporters not only in the strategic commands of various para-military units but within strategic experts and defence analysts. Deploying multiple “significant companies” of para-military units in conflict rigged areas has always proved to be an “effective” strategy to control the regions post liberation.

However, the state’s “development-led” strategy on the contrary, continues to utilise unnecessary “valuable” resources, extensive man-power, cost-ineffective and remains a “target” for Maoists.

The “extensive” yet “aggressive” military operations carried by para-military units against Maoist militant factions include “multi-theatre” operations such as Operation Green Hunt, while small-scale yet effective operations such as Operation Anaconda and Operation Monsoon carried by forces in Jharkhand while Operation Maad, Operation Kilam and Operation Podku carried by special forces units of CRPF in Chhattisgarh.

Furthermore, the strategic command did not refrain from using civilian “armed” groups such as Sendra in Jharkhand and the then Salwa Judum of Chhattisgarh, while effectively using reliable HUMINT to locate the whereabouts of Maoists leaders. According to a report published by the Ministry of Home Affairs, over 532 companies of armed central police force units have been “strategically” deployed in Maoists controlled areas and are tasked to conduct joint COIN operations with the state armed police units. However effective in their operations, the successes achieved by joint COIN operations with the state agencies have been rigged with significant flaws. While thoroughly conducting “asymmetric warfare”, security agencies have received heavy casualties while losing third of their most experienced personnel in combat along with technical hardware, hand held communication devices, weapons and significant amount of ammunitions during some “tactfully planned” and “carefully executed” ambushes by Maoists militant factions. During a similar “ambush”, the Maoists militant factions killed a whole company of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Tadmetla area in Chhattisgarh. “Insignificant” training on jungle operations coupled with “inadequate” knowledge geographical topography followed by “ineffective and unreliable” Human Intelligence (HUMINT)has resulted in heavy casualties of para-military personnel and local masses, which further fuels the already “alienation” of tribal populous. Inadequate and ineffective cooperation between para-military armed units and state security forces continues to “compromise” even the strategic operations tactfully drafted by the strategic command. Moreover, multiple “unsuccessful” operations coupled with “aggressive” COIN operations against the Maoists militant factions across multiple states continues to fuel the individuals volunteering for Maoist cadre, allowing these militant factions “unprecedented” and “unchallenged” access in the jungles while establishing “fluid” camps in the hinterlands.

On the contrary, the “tactical” operations carried by multiple forces in the jungle, coupled with the centre efforts to reinforce and strengthen the security forces of the state and para-military units, has received “significant” success. Many of the Maoist militant factions have lost their comrades in combat, arrest and large-scale surrender of communist cadres, a fact “largely” published in the cadre’s manifesto. According to a report published by the MHA, over 1,711Maoists militants were killed during 2003 and 2012. Also, over 6,900Maoists militant factions were apprehended while over 1,200 Maoists surrendered between 2010 and 2012.

Furthermore, the areas “significantly” controlled by the LWE extremist factions followed by their “strongholds” in parts of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, have shrunken. While addressing a media briefing in late 2014, the then Director General of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) stated that the para-military forces were in control of over 5,000 square kilometres that were previously under Maoists militant control. Police stations, which were “vulnerable” targets, an easy picking for militant factions to capture arms and ammunitions, was reinforced with critical weaponry to become a “fortress”, severely compromising the “raids to capture weapons” strategy of the Maoists militant factions. However, inspite of significant reinforcement and change of rules of engagements (ROE) in combat, the fatalities received by para-military units, civilians continues to increase.

Maoist militant factions were also “significantly” hit by certain “unprepared” yet acute shortages. “Aggressive” expansion and large-scale recruitment of “inexperienced” and “poor motivated” individuals in cadres resulted in unnecessary expansion of Maoists which severely compromised their supply lines while inexperienced units failed to retain the regions longer in control. Trained heavily in combat, the state agencies then massively introduced turn coat factions while designating them as official partnered units to assist the government in COIN operations against the Maoists. Furthermore, the “inconsistent” ignorance from certain media outlets on Maoists resulted in contentions within the higher cadres, forcing top leadership to “come out of hiding”. This not only cost them their lives but created an aura of instability in the higher cadres.

Case files: The attack at Bastar

Bastar is one of the regions of Chhattisgarh which retains the title of “worst Maoist affected state”. Here,on 25th May 2013, the Maoist carried out a “tactfully” drafted plan to target a convoy of political leaders, social activists of the Indian National Congress. A group of over 350 Maoists militants, comprising of largely women and children began the operation by exploding improvised explosion devices (IEDs) to put the convoy on sudden halt. With outnumbering the security forces 10 to 1 they successfully carried out the mission by “selectively” eliminating their targets. Those killed comprised of Mahendra Karma, whose brain child was Salwa Judum “turn coat” programme, followed by the INC’s Chhattisgarh state leader and his son. During the attack, the death toll spiked to over 30 with no casualties from the Maoist side. A veteran congress leader who was also a former Union Minister succumbed to his injuries on June 11th in Delhi.

It is important to note that, the attack carried by Maoists militant factions was not a “military victory” for Maoists per-se. The convoy comprised of security forces which mostly belonged to personal protection groups, who either ran out of ammunition or were subsequently “heavily supressed” by numerically outnumbered and outgunned Maoists elements. The attack had no political significance or “fulfilled” their desire to take control over the state. The attack occurred in a Maoist stronghold and the “stage” was set within the stronghold premises.

However, the attack not only instigated a series of questions on the then governments inadequate response to LWE the then political leadership too limited the intensity of LWE to “frontal attack on India”, refraining from taking any responsibility on exaggerated claims over “victories on Maoists”. The too “subtle” and “over-optimism” showed by policy makers and top heads of law enforcement agencies coupled by the sheer “Rambo-ness” of the INC leaders resulted in the loss of over 30 lives. Furthermore, less than a month before the attack, an “over exaggerated, over-optimistic” stance of even the Intelligence Bureau (IB) is clear from its internal assessment which stated that, “If the current momentum could be sustained for a period of few more months, it could perhaps lead to decisive tipping of scales in favour of security forces”.

Need to re-assess Counter Insurgency (COIN) strategy

Policy makers must note that, the attack occurred on 25th May 2013, was neither the worst strike by Maoists of all time, nor was it the first ever “violence” induced against politicians. Although, it was a first incident involved killing of parliamentarians on such large scale.

As expected, the incident was received massively by the media. Certain “predictable” statements were issued by political leadership calling for “decisive” and “aggressive” measures against the Maoists. The then Chhattisgarh CM “out rightly” rejected the possibility of peaceful negotiationswhile expressing strong condemnation and vowing “aggressive” action against the Maoists. The then Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde expressed strong condemnation while promising to initiate “extensive” interaction between the state security forces and para-military.

Brushing aside the “expected” expressions of condemnation and grief from political leadership, the May 25th Maoist attack did open numerous questions from the Pandora box, all pointing towards the need to re-assess and restructure the governments COIN strategy against LWE. In an effort to collectively address the issue of LWE while finding effective measures to adequately combat LWE resulted in an all parties meeting on 10th of June. The then Prime Minister inaugurated the meeting by expressing the centres “aggressive strategies” in eliminating the LWE from their strongholds. The then Prime Minister also expressed to “strengthen the defensive and offensive” capabilities of the security forces while assuring the masses of a stringent response from security forces would be sooner. The resolution unanimously passed in the meeting led to the adoption of a “single edged knife” strategy which not only focussed on eliminating the Maoists from their stronghold but also aggressively pursuit of development-led initiatives in former hinterlands.

However, in the light of a new regime with roughly 3 years in power, the “contention and direction” of the government’s strategy remains speculative. Its certain “assertive” measures such as withdrawal of 500Rs and 1000Rs notes was one measure not dedicated to counter LWE but an measures effective in crippling the “hawala” system induced by the Maoists.

While the BJP led government will never deploy the Indian Army to counter LWE, the government too must abandon the policy to use military to counter LWE, while effectively reinforcing and restructuring strategic command while deploying personnel with adequate terrain knowledge and combat skills in an effort to counter LWE. However, the development led strategy indeed will work if it is coupled with the security forces “counter, hold and develop” strategy.

The then Home Secretary RK Singh also concurred on the use of security forces simultaneously with development initiatives as “an ineffective” approach. New Delhi must employ the “force-strengthening approach” while pursue in drafting a unified national security strategy to combat against the sudden “resurrection” of LWE, using the previous government’s strategy of deploying battle hardened companies of para-military units in Maoists stronghold. To reinforce the fight, New Delhi must “refill” the losses of personnel lives by massively recruiting youths in different CRPF ranks to ensure “adequate” deployment of units.


Policy makers must ensure that the new strategy induced, does not use “unnecessary” use of force, taking the scenario back to 2010. The “ambitious” Operation Green Hunt, which began in early 2010, involved roughly over 70 mixed battalions of multiple security agencies and numerically vast battle trained personnel, was expected to pose a “serious” challenge to Maoist militant factions through early yet decisive victories. On the contrary, during the initial months of operations, the security forces suffered from serious “repetitive” setbacks which led to the complete abandon of the operation. “Ineffective and inefficient” civil administration failed to “adequately” full fill the development-led initiatives on time which resulted in limited “focus” of policy makers on certain areas. New Delhi must ensure that the coordination and cooperation between inter-agencies are “adequate” before taking a similar “over” ambitious approach.

However, it is difficult to say whether the new strategies drafted by the current government would be able to sustain on a longer run. It remains possible for security agencies to neutralise top CPI-M leaders with adequate and reliable HUMINTin an effort to inflict solid blows to the Maoists “slowly rising” confidence but keeping in mind the “security forces domination” approach. Furthermore, it is also important for New Delhi to keep a check on the willingness of the state and “aggressively” fulfil the requirements of necessary developments in previously “ignored” regions, as Maoists will likely to re-capture their lost territories. However, the thought of a complete takeover of the state by Maoists remains “obnoxious” even today. Although, without a dedicated national strategy to counter the rise of LWE and its parameters to eliminate the Maoists bases, the government’s “highly positive” goal of retaking the lost territories, too, would remain “rhetoric”, even during the time of “absolute” alertness.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra

is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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