Monday, 9 July 2012

Tribal communities in the cross-hairs

By Ali Ahmed
Financial World, 9 July 2012

The outline of the ‘encounter’ at the end last month in the middle of Dantewada forests is by now amply clear. A firefight took place resulting in twenty civilian dead and six CRPF members injured. The furore in wake has witnessed peace activists and the provincial Congress leaders questioning the CRPF version and demanding an inquiry. Since blaming the tools is the sign of a poor workman, the Home Minister in rebound defended his force and left the decision on an inquiry to the state government.

The incident can end up serving as yet more ammunition for motivated use by all parties. However, the civilian lives lost and their numbers – sixteen - suggest that the incident must be invested with greater significance, lest it be yet another landmark merging into an unfolding story.

The establishment side would have it as evidence that the CRPF has finally got its act together after the Chintalnar massacre of 2010 and is able to penetrate jungles, even at night. The Home Minister in standing by the force has sustained its morale, enabling its bolder deployment and employment in future. The state police and CRPF for their part will hopefully go into the details in an in-house inquiry for learning the right lessons, even if for external purposes they stick by their version of the event of a return of fire in self-defence.

The contrary view has it that the firing was into a gathering of civilians being addressed by Maoists resulting in an unconscionable number dying, including women and at least one teenage girl. Even if provoked by Maoists, the principles of discrimination and proportionality seem to have been abandoned by the force. At least some of the six CRPF soldiers injured could be due to friendly fire, intrinsic to the nature of firefights in the dark and in jungles.

Even if the truth is taken as somewhere in-between, there are lessons that need pointing out. Firstly, it is unfair to have the CRPF operate in jungles. The nature of the job and their rotation policy does not suggest that troops when so employed can prove competent. This is an infantryman’s job. Even if the CRPF soldier is up to it, the levels of leadership from the grass root to the supervisory tactical levels are just not up to it. In effect, this is not a job the CRPF can at all rise up to, even if trained for.

Secondly, they operate in support of the state police. The levels of state police capability are well known. These have in this case been supplemented by relying on the erstwhile Salwa Judum or SPOs, now an auxiliary police militia. While their tribal instincts enable a capability for operating in jungles, they cannot be permitted the autonomy they seem to be enjoying. The Supreme Court has frowned on the practice in its judgment last year on using them as SPOs. Therefore, when firefights break out, discipline and fire discipline is liable to break down. Civilian casualties are a natural corollary. The result is a strategic hit-wicket.

Thirdly, the command and control arrangement is not neat. The officer cadre of the police being absent from the frontline, the leadership is missing from the spear-end. The IPS shoulder title cannot substitute either for moral authority or tactical acumen. The idea of expanding the IPS by a mid-career lateral induction exam has lately been jettisoned, suggesting that the ground level leadership deficit will remain indefinitely. Flying visits from the CRPF brass out of the CGO Complex in Delhi can at best serve as eyes and ears for the Home Minister.

The system then happily hides behind the federal structure of the Constitution to claim inability to influence the right wing state government to rethink strategy. Where the buck stops is indistinct. Treating it as a law and order problem implies it is with the state government. Since they don’t have the requisite tools, there is a lack of accountability.

What needs doing? There are liberated zones that need dismantling, a job for the army. Their fixation with Kashmir is not only limiting the potential political dividend there from a retraction of the AFSPA, but is enabling them to duck this national duty staring them in the face. The argument that to use the army is to use a hammer against a fly assumes that the army can only be used as a hammer. Instead, the infantry is capable of much more sensitivity in operations since its officers, right at the frontline, can exercise control and discretion. The lesson learnt from past counter insurgencies and strict adherence to the new subconventional doctrine can dispel fears of a military overkill. Their role can be restricted to vacating ‘liberated zones’, dispersing the Maoists and handing over to the CRPF. 

The tribal communities must be spared the attentions of a force, which, even if stout hearted and well-intentioned, stands misemployed. Call out the army, but ensure its ‘velvet glove’ is on. If that is unthinkable, it is better to go down the peace process route purposefully.