Look at the faces of the resting Naxal fighters in the pic above. What do you see? Weather-beaten, battle-scarred, lean and emotion-less faces, their sensibilities deadened by survival tensions and battle fatigue. These are young people just past adolescence, fighting for a cause they believe in but with resigned fatalism etched into their personas betraying no hope or expectation they’ll survive for long, but damned if they are not going to give it their all before going down!
It is such youth who followed Che Guevara and Fidel Castro into the Sierra Maestre mountains in Cuba before springing the revolution on Fulgencio Batista’s military junta in 1959, and were part of the anti-colonial force of the FLN (Front de Liberacion Nationale) seeking freedom for Algeria. They constituted the sharp edge of the Viet Cong, undertaking the most dangerous missions against US MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam), and formed the most lethal element of Pirbhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that slam-banged the Sri Lankan military and almost singlehandedly drove the Indian “peace-keeping force” out of Sri Lanka.
And it is the Naxals led by their young charismatic commander in the Pirbhakaran mould, Madvi Hidma — “Area commander, People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, Battalion No 1, of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist)”, who could be the reason for the new Spring for Naxalism in the country, set as he is to head the party’s Central Military Commission that oversees all guerilla activity against the Indian state.
One thing the Indian government cannot allow to happen is for Hidma to grow his legend as Lord of the Red Corridor stretching from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhatisgarh, Jharkand, Bihar to the borders of Nepal — the route China uses to keep the Naxals amply supplied, besides support equipment like communications sets, satellite phones, and other paraphernalia, with Kalashnikovs and unlimited stock of ammo, needed to sustain a successful rebellion. Indeed, his reputation grows in tandem with the bounty on him announced by the State, which has inreased from Rs 25 lakhs a few years ago to Rs 40 lakhs now. The trouble is this: As any guerilla war primer will tell you it is the growing legend of a fighting leader that, more than any other factor, drives an insurgency. Think Che’ in Bolivia! Such a leader is the magnet drawing new recruits to the cause, an endless line of impressionable youngsters, and not just from the impoverished tribal hinterlands of Bastar, who have nothing to lose. Here can’t get the words of Janis Joplin’s counter-cultural anthem from the Sixties out of my head — ‘Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose”! It is to the jefe maximo’s standard that the young will rally until Hidma’s repeated successes ensure that if the Naxals cannot prevail over the Indian state, they cannot be defeated either.
The core problem is the ‘Special Forces’ sent to overcome this menace, who are special only in name. Look at the pic of SF troops at their ease, below:
What do you see? Well shod and accoutred, well-armed, fairly content SF troopers, each with a hint and more of belly that comes from eating well, being looked after well. It can be safely surmised from one look at such SF (in real life and pics) that they are about as capable of prosecuting decisive anti-guerilla actions as a bunch of pot-bellied Delhi traffic cops parachuted into the Sukma forests (where Hidma cut his teeth) would be!
What’s the problem? Well, for one thing, Hidma’s strategic mindset and tactical nous.
But, let’s start with the immediate situation the government has at hand. Hidma ordered his outfit to wipe out a platoon plus of SF troops — 22 killed, 30-odd injured — an action on April 3 in the forested badlands around Bijapur in Chhatisgarh state that resulted in four of his own cadre dead. This was an excellent outing in terms of exchange ratio, especially considering the Naxals also augmented their arsenal by 14 SF weapons and 2000 rounds of ammo — not a small haul for the guerilla! But, mindful of the Indian state’s perennial weak spot, he also instructed his fighters to capture at least one SF trooper alive as bargaining card. Hence, SF Constable Rakeshwar Singh Manhas is now a Naxal prisoner. Soon enough Hidma communicated, besides Manhas being in his custody, the demand for an official appointment of a mutually acceptable ‘mediator’. And Manhas’ photo in custody has been flashed by media outlets. What the Naxals have in mind to negotiate with, and to get out of, the Indian government, is not as important as how they have always operationally enjoyed the upper hand in the first place.
The Naxals are obviously aware of New Delhi’s ignoble record of capitulating to public pressure. The last time this sort of thing happened was when another BJP government, this one led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, allowed Indian Airlines flight IC 814, ex-Kathmandu, to proceed unmolested to Kandahar in Taliban-run Afghanistan as demanded by the jehadis who had hijacked the flight on 24 December 1999. Vajpayee did so under pressure from hundreds of family members of the passengers on this flight gathered outside the 7, Race Course Road compound, streaming tears, hollering before TV cameras for their safe return. The government muffed another chance of bringing this sorry event to a close at Amritsar by failing to take measures to disable the plane when it landed for refuelling, presumably because Vajpayee’s commitment to save the lives of the passengers superceded the national interest and the anti-terrorism principle of never, under any circumstances or for any reason, negotiating under duress with terrorists, leave alone giving into their demands. It led to the release of Mahmood Azhar and a decade and more of heightened jehadi activity in J&K, which burnished India’s reputation as a soft-state led by soft-headed leaders who can be pressured into doing anything.
With this episode no doubt in mind Hidma has made his demand with Minhas as hostage. As if on cue, Manhas’ daughter and wife publicly and tearfully pleaded with the Indian government for their father’s/husband’s safe return. But all the brave words by Home Minister Amit Shah about a “befitting reply” and such other mush apart, the Indian government is once again up a creek without a paddle.
The main unit featured in this debacle is Central Reserve Police Force’s COBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action). Methinks, some wise guy in the Home Ministry in 2009 when the battalion was being raised, thought up this fearsome name and then configured an appropriate acronym around it! It only underscores the reality that no one in the Indian government (or, going by the record, even in the Indian military) quite understands what ‘commando’ actually means other than as an appelation for some armed unit or the other in spiffy black dungaree uniforms, purple berets, equipped with special weapons to acquire which some babu must have signed off on.
The word commando is of Boer War (1899-1902) origin where the British rulers in South Africa discovered that the Dutch Boers (settlers) they were fighting were making monkeys out of the British forces in the field by operating in self-sufficient small units (the Boer called commando), which were agile, struck fast and hard and then melted away, and left immensely disruptive/destructive outcomes in their wake. Winston Churchill first used the word commando for the British Special Forces (Special Boat Service, Special Air Service, etc.) he established during the Second World War, which he hoped would function like the original Boer units. It is in this sense the word has since come into common usage.
So, who is Madvi Hidma and why does he terrorize the COBRA so?
Hidma, it turns out, has built his reputation on the backs of the COBRA kind of rank-incompetent SF tasked to deal with the Naxals. Some 9-10 years ago I recall being asked by a paramil to contribute an article for their annual journal, or some such thing. I wrote then that they were going about it the wrong way in fighting the Naxals. Having solicited the article, the paramil brass, as far as I know, left it unpublishesd!
What I roughly remember writing, in essay form, was this:
(1) There’s by now ample evidence from all over the world of how effectively to neutralize guerillas.
(2) It requires a commando force that can operate in extremely small groups, living off the jungle, and entirely untethered from the logistics supply chain, in complete radio silence, armed with minimal weapons holdings — knives, and at most small arms with silencers and limited ammo for relatively soundless elimination of the guerilla opponent.
(3) The commando groups are best deployed in designated areas on the basis of as extensive as possible intel gathered from local informants and surveillance mechanisms and technical sensors, about the size of the guerilla force active in that grid area, about their kit, gender constitution of the group, their movement patterns, and the villages identified as sympathetic to the Naxals.
(3) Such commando groups should be out in the field for six months at a time, followed by 6 months off and conducting themselves in a non-splurgy manner with cover of decent jobs in distant cities that only allow for short home visits, etc. — precautions so as to not arouse curiosity among the local people.
In the field, they work incommunicado, and remorselessly to track and hunt down the guerillas following tell-tale signs (camp sites, cooking fires, etc) and execute them unarmed combat style or by knife, rarely using the silenced small arms for the kills, with the kill list prioritizing leaders and would-be leaders. Nothing is more demoralizing for the cadre than to have regular attrition in the leadership ranks.
Moreover, fighting and dealing with a foe who is just as mobile and fearless and with no set method in operations of warfare as themselves, is the most difficult thing for the guerillas to handle.
(4) The best commando are recruited from among the same local unmarried youth pool the guerillas hail from, and who are familiar with the terrain and the local lingo. Except they are given specialized training in SF camps far away from their areas of ops. And, most importantly, they are rewarded handsomely with hefty remuneration and should the operative die in action, it should be seen to it that a rich life insurance package reaches his/her family through indirect means, so the families — who are always kept in the dark about the dead trooper’s exact work — do not, in turn, become targets for vengeful Naxals.
The above is a bare sketch of how the entire anti-Naxal commando set-up ought ideally to function. How actually and amateurishly the COBRA, et al work is illustrated by the April 3 massacre. Let’s briefly deconstruct this event from newspaper reports.
- Intel is received by COBRA of a top Naxal leader, possibly Hidma, holed up in the vicinity of a triad of villages — Jonaguda, Jeeragaon and Tekalgudum, located in an elongated U with their backs, as it were, to the hills.
- No effort is made to validate and verify the intel so received, which is difficult to do any way given that the villagers are more in simpatico with the Naxals than with the police and the paramils, and in any case are Mao’s water in which the guerilla fish swim.
- A force of some 1,700 security personnel is mobilized for a combing operation of this entire area on April 2. There’s no encounter, they find nothing.
- Unbenownst to the COBRA SF-led contingent, Hidma had in days previous both cleared the three villages of its residents to avoid needless loss of life of locals which caring and thoughtfulness, in the aftermath of incident, will have won him goodwill and confirmed his standing with the locals. And, he brought in some 350 Naxal fighters from the extended area for this operation, and hid them — how? There’s his genius.
- This last activity — the movement of such a large number of Naxals converging on the 3-villages vicinity is not detected by any police or COBRA or any other intel agency — that’s how effective they are!
- On April 3, some 450 personnel detached from the larger 1700-strong anti-terrorist group that combed that sub-sector the day before, and now presumably on a mission to capture or kill Hidma, proceed towards these villages, and walk la di-dah fashion with eyes wide open quite literally into Hidma’s trap.
- How this fairly large SF contingent advancing in dispersed mode, entirely missed the armed Naxals hiding in the approaches to the villages suggests just how careless and unconcerned these paramil troops were sauntering in, and why they simply did not expect the surprise attack by the Naxal fighters, who began firing at them from the rear over ground they had just traversed even as they faced Naxal fire from the sides and the front.
- Once the SF bulk force was well inside the cauldron, for the Naxals it was a free fire zone with raking AK-47 fire, or picking off of the paramil troopers in the middle individually.
- Even as this fire duel was underway, Naxals began closing the wide open side of the U — the fourth side — to prevent the trapped police from escaping, using this entry-exit channel.
- In the intense exchange of fire the COBRA-led SF had no chance; the ratio of the dead and injured on the two sides reflects it — 55 SF to 20 Naxals for an attrition rate of 2:1 disfavouring the SF.
The obvious conclusion is these COBRA and other groups, far from displaying any commando skills or specialized training, were remiss in not following even common sense rules when engaging with the enemy in known Naxal-infested territory. They did not do the obvious thing of carefully and thoroughly vetting the intel on Hidma, and then equally deliberately moving through the lightly forested jungle landscape towards the villages, which action — had it been diligently carried out — would have ended up revealing the hidden Naxals which, in turn, might have sparked firefights but on a far smaller scale, with next to nil SF dead or casualties if the first ragged SF line advancing towards Jeeragaon had done their job professionally. Instead, confident that Hidma and his cohort were unaware of the fate awaiting them, the paramils advanced without sanitizing the approaches, and met their end.
The reason no state police or paramilitary organizations have a genuine commando is because nobody wants the onerous job of living off the land and tracking and hunting down the Naxals. Most paramil SF on anti-Naxal duty have to have their hot rations — daal-chawal fetched to them by a long and conspicuous logistics line, which also arranges vehicles to carry them in trucks to the edge of the jungle for them to disembark and fight. Such police forces are thus tied to the roads, leaving the rest of the countryside without proper connectivity as the domain for the Naxals to put down roots, indoctrinate the local people, and create a sympathetic and supportive milieu for them to operate in. So while the Naxals are kept well informed by the grateful local people about police movements and other relevant developments on their home ground, the grid for their potential ops is totally terra incognita to the SF troops armed with spotty intel when not fed straightforward misinformation as a lure in this instance.
It is also true that most of the troops selected for SF do not meet particularly rigorous standards and because they are mostly married men having children, are risk averse in extremis, and simply do not want to court any danger.
This is in sync with, and reinforced by, the risk-minimizing mindset of the top paramil leadership, which does not care to reside in the countryside or to lead from the front. This is because the top paramil ranks are exclusively officered, not by the force’s own officer cadre, but by officers on rotation from the Indian Police Service, most of whom acquire minimal policing skills and competence on the job over the years that are not always of high quality. Most such IPS officers, moreover, do not have their heart in the hard and dangerous job of fighting Naxals. After all, IPS officers are those who failed to get into the Indian Administrative Service, and usually have a chip on their shoulder. In any case, they are not hands-on managers of the counter-insurgency effort needed to make successes out of the anti-Naxal campaigns.
An example of a truly effective anti-insurgency commando are the units France fielded in Algeria in 1958-59 — the ‘commandos de chasse’ (hunting commando) with Algerian Arabs comprising some 60% of this force, who were so ruthless and bloodyminded in their actions, especially in the Arab quarter of Algiers — the casbah — that their killing sprees caused so much popular revulsion in France it compelled President Charles de Gaulle to announce Algeria’s freedom.
No Indian commando unit can ever function or be anywhere as effective and efficient in eliminating the Naxal threat as the French commando in Algeria were when tackling the FLN. But there has to be that level of intent and commitment to find from among the tribal people in the red corridor — like the Kuka Parey group of Valley Muslims the state funded in Jammu & Kashmir 20 years ago, whose members were the perfect foil for the cross-border jehadis — who believe in India enough to fight for it.
Absent such option, Naxalism will wax and wane but the Indian state will continue to fail to stamp it out. And Naxals will be the news fodder on the days they achieve spectacular success or, more routinely, when they blow up a culvert here or a transport carrying police with expertly engineered IEDs (improvized explosion devices) there, or when these police — innocents in Naxal-land — step on expertly placed mines on jungle paths, and get blown up.
To divert the attention of the public from their continuing failure to tackle Naxalism, the senior police leaders occasionally deploy helicopters borrowed from the air force to drop their “commando” in some wretched jungle clearing or the other, where the troopers will shoot up some trees and make a show of force, even as the no doubt amused Naxals — invisible to these police, watch on, itching to fire on the easy targets that the whirlybirds offer, and whose use only ends up directing the Naxals to the area where their vulnerable targets have dismounted and can be found!
What the government and the forces fighting the Naxal threat have to bear in mind and reconcile to is this reality that the young, recklessly bold, and highly motivated Naxal fighters are the only true commando in the field; and that subduing them is beyond the ken of the spurious commando proliferating in the state and central police.
Thanks for another wonderful article Mr Karnad.
If China can use Naxals against India , India can also unleash Baluch terrorists like BLA against China in Gwadar. My question to you is that why the Baloch terrorists over the years have not been as hardy or as effective as these Maoist guerrillas ? Is it because the Baloch are not well motivated or not well equipped ? Why the Maoists in India have survived and fared better than the Baloch militants in Pakistan ?
I would love your answers on this one.
Thanks and regards with best wishes
I disagree with you. The Baloch freedom fighters have been very effective despite the Pak army,with help from China, doing the maximum to contain them, Indeed, it is their continued success that have the Chinese worried — Beijing and Chinese companies are unable to find Chinese willing to serve in Gwadar and CPEC-related projects generally.
Sir, DRG force of Chhattisgarh consisting of surrendered naxalites are more effective. Paramil. doesn’t know the nuances and trails of jungle in red corridor + there is lack of snipers. My father (CISF) was posted in Dantewada and told me many things about that area , even local buses run under them.
A big problem there is that a naxalite can live as a layman villager during day. And if some people think that they remain very low , it’s not like that ,they roam freely at night and even ask for medicines from nmdc Apollo hospital. But they r very good at giving surprise. To kill these professional adivasi naxalite there is a need of real jungle adivasi force to end these red flag holders.
@BharatKarnad Why is it so difficult for India to obliterate this Communist terrorism plaguing India in the form of Naxalite-turned-Maoist Left-wing terrorism? Sri Lanka once it’d decided to obliterate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] achieved it in 2009.
@BharatKarnad Are the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action [COBRA] troops sent to the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare [CIJW] School in Mizoram for training? If not, would that help in obliterating the Communist/Left-wing Maoist terrorism?
@BharatKarnad The outlawed Communist terrorist group the Communist Party of India [Maoist] is already dominated by Telugu speaking cadres and leaders. If the Government of India exploits this, can they be obliterated?
@BharatKarnad I would like to ask you a question unrelated to this post as it seems to exacerbate the growing divide between India and Russia. The Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov said that Russia is going to give Pakistan unspecified/special military equipment. Do you know what it could be? Could it tilt the conventional military superiority that India has over Pakistan?
@BharatKarnad Why are the Government of India and State government security forces in a suicidal selective amnesia mode? They very well know that the media in India has been for years reporting on the U-shape ambush tactics by the Left-wing Maoist terrorists which turns out to be a free-for-all, kill-them-all moment to kill security forces at will.
@BharatKarnad Will the National Security Guard [NSG] Black Cat commandos be able to obliterate the Left-wing Maoist terrorists if they are deployed? The National Security Guard [NSG] Black Cat commandos know both military special forces operations and police special forces operations because they were created on the lines of a military special forces [United Kingdom’s Special Air Service] and police special forces [Germany’s GSG9].
Growing up in Telangana in the ’90s, there was daily PWG (Peoples war group) violence in villages and there used to be regular murders of police officers and politicians. Greyhounds from Andhra/Telangana have successfully eliminated the Maoist menace from the area. They used to operate in small teams and spent a few days/weeks at a time in Jungle and avoided all contact with villagers to maintain the surprise element. Also, the state intelligence bureau was top-notch. Their success is one of the causes for the spread of Maoists into Chattisgarh.
A good analysis by Professor Karnad.
These Maoists indoctrinate the young recruits to revolutionary ideology but actually since the last 15-20 years or so, they have morphed into extortionists.
Various rival groups of these naxalites target the mining companies and other businesses in their sphere of influence and extort money from them.
In Chhattisgarh, they eliminated practically the whole state leadership of Congress. Although there were strong indications that the late Ajit Jogi orchestrated the whole operation to establish himself as the sole power centre of Congress party in Chhattisgarh. There were reports floating around that the late CM of Andhra Pradesh was also killed by the Naxals (shooting down his helicopter).
By email, from Joydeep Sircar, firstname.lastname@example.org, Fri, 9 Apr at 10:17 am
The model of operations adumbrated by you require intelligent leadership, trained manpower, and political will. You should have mentioned Templar and his success in wiping out Communist insurgency in terrain similar to Bastar. The FLN insurgency operated in semi-desert terrain, and ultimately the French failed, unlike the British.
The naxalites are nourished by people outside Bastar who supply money, weapons and other material, and high-level intel, but their political and financial clout make these suppliers untouchable. Many of them are said to belong to the trading community, and are possibly BJP supporters. I am sure they contribute handsomely to police charities. They are not unknown, but they enjoy political protection from major political parties and are invulnerable!
( Have you ever wondered why not a single naxalite bomb was hurled at marwari ‘capitalists’ in Calcutta in the early years of the naxal outbreak in the 1960s?)
Aware of the horrifying political cost of trying to break this nexus , the govt is trying to use the soft option of using their superior police manpower resources as cannon-fodder to fight an attrition battle against a smaller but more skilled enemy in a Boer War type operation, where roads are the principal weapon of area domination. They are content to let the naxals enjoy a 6 to 1 kill exchange advantage, rather than weed out the entrenched nonperformers and retrain a small group for the type of commando operations you are talking of. After all, the govt. has unlimited manpower and financial reserves!
Joydeep Sircar@ –Are you implying Marwaris were supporting them? Why would they do that? Didn’t they have to leave Bengal during 1960s cause of the Naxals? This is what I’d heard. Why would capitalists ever support the communist insurgents?
They are not paramilitary forces but central armed police forces. Only an outfit like the Assam Rifles which is officered by personell seconded from the army can be termed paramilitary.
Shamsher Singh@ — No. The Government of India lists all the central armed police forces, including CRPF, as paramilitary. See the Government of India portal, https://www.india.gov.in/topics/defence/paramilitary-forces .
They are making a mockery of SF and SF roles which they neither understand nor bother to learn. Nehru set up the one and only SF true SF unit with his est 22. The ones that came after it were little more than better equipped and more ready infantry units, and yes I am including Army SF units in this, say nothing of so called SOF units under MHA. I don’t care about saying this publicly but IA inherently knows this and understands this well. Doctrinally they’ve made a decision to deploy SF for conventional tastings – we saw this both in 99 with 10 Para SF and tiger hill and last year with China again. Army has lost the plot completely, they simply don’t have the resources to train, equip and fight this WW2 behemoth that they have created and so are forced to utilize the few odd better equipped and manned units to achieve conventional tactical objectives. IA will or probably already has gone the way the Russian army did in Chechnya 2002 with its myriad so called spetznaz units. I don’t see this changing anytime soon., do you?
Nice article! I regularly read your posts and was the one to lose the bet on Trump! 🙂
Though what you mention about our para SF (whatever GOI calls them) is for some part accurate, it is the weak, inarticulate and incompetent leadership at both Center and State that is to be blamed.
As some comments mentioned in this section, united Andhra Pradesh was pretty successful in eradicating/driving away these naxals. Though political rivals, Chandra Babu Naidu and YSR as Chief Ministers were impatient and unapologetic about their desire to get rid of Naxals in the state. It is this continued effort that was successful. Sad part was these forces harrased naxal infested villagers which is never good in the long run. Unfortunately, though the naxals fear any misadventure in Telangana and AP even now, they seem to be breeding here and the police are looking away as that is not their problem (which is worrisome). People should look at it as Indian’s problem and not a specific state.
If GOI and the States are serious, at the very least they can bring in the police officefs from AP and Telangana who were ruthless and lead the operations. I bet (this I hope will not lose), offer these officers incentive for every leader killed and make harrasing villagers a punishable offense, the same forces will do wonders.
But again, as often is the case in India, I expect an encounter soon with some naxal heads dead and that will be all for now. So much short sightedness for ‘Vishwaguru’. I hope I’ll be wrong!
although not related to article , any comment on below?
to add on this is part of US 7th fleet which was dispatched during 1971 war (Bangladesh liberation day)
Received by email from Kamal Davar, email@example.com, Fri, 9 Apr at 5:24 pm
A first rate article with doable recommendations. The senior hierarchy of the CPOs for reasons not difficult to fathom are a pampered lot. In the last 12 years or so, they have outgrown and hardly delivered. God bless the Republic!
[Lt. General Davar, was the first Director-General, Defence Intelligence Agency]
It is time for Indian Home Ministry to seek ouside help. At least it needs to be seriously considered. It needs to contact security forces from countries that have had or still have a jungle insurgency and get their Paramilitaries and Army SFs to conduct jungle warfare training for CRPF commandos. The way the Naxals ambushed security forces( u shape cordon) in this latest incident resembles tactics used by guerrilas in Southern Phillipines in Mindanao. This means the Naxals are becoming more sophisticated. There is definitely a need to overhaul the training regime of CRPF, recruitment standards and training must be on par with that in the army. As for
COBRA, I believe they need to be trained by foreign advisors, it is high time. Such collaborations can be done with Colombia or the Phillipines. Or even the SBS and SAS of the UK.