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Anti-Naxal Operations: Putting Heads Together

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM*
Sat, 17 Apr 2021   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

Anti-Naxal Operations – Putting Heads Together

I am commencing this on a frank note. Failure in security related operations or intelligence, which involves out of proportion casualties, is never taken kindly, and it should not. However, criticism of the same from outside the affected organisation isn’t taken kindly either. It’s about time we put away these sensitivities and get down to putting our heads together to enhance effectiveness, and the heads can be of just about anyone. I am referring to the incident involving the unfortunate losses recently suffered against the Naxals in the Red Corridor. For me, losses can take place on a bad day anywhere and by any force. What I abhor, like every Indian who reads this, is to see blood of Indians flow. That is why my fervent appeal; please do not treat this as a commentary or analysis to find fault in any entity. It’s a means of initiating greater effectiveness in the field, and we can debate it to evolve the best option.

The police forces, central or state have done well to contain the Naxal militancy. There was a time when one third of India’s districts were afflicted by this menace. The combined strength of central and state police forces has labored hard to achieve what they have. However, it is the sheer difficulty of terrain and certain inadequacies in equipment, capability and strategy which bring about tragic setbacks as the current one. The jungles are deep, thick and punishing; ideal for rural militancy of the prevalent kind. We may have also not been adequately fair to the police forces in terms of equipment, capacity building and support in terms of air resources and electronic warfare. I remain convinced that the Home Ministry gives immense backing and funding which therefore hardly remains an issue in capacity building. What then could be done to optimise operational capability?

The terrain and the operational environment is very similar to the one that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) encountered in Operation (Op)Pawan in Sri Lanka. The nature of threats and operations to counter them are very similar too. I operated in some of the densest jungles in the Wani area of Vavuniya. Terrain constraints result in low levels of intelligence. I often participated in search and destroy missions in Op Pawan, without an iota of intelligence; not a very good practice. This is jungle bashing as it is known in the Army, an unproductive and relatively unprofessional way of conducting operations. To cover up for lack of intelligence this is often repeated ever so often to achieve what is called area domination, an assumption that an area once searched will leave it unaffected for a period of time. When operating on unconfirmed intelligence many officers would often resort to confidence in numbers; taking a large body of troops with them into operations. Our contacts with the LTTE were many times in strength of a hundred or more; the LTTE being 300 strong or more. It’s extremely difficult to exercise command and control over that many troops once a contact commences. You can only exercise voice control. That is the reason you need well trained small teams under very dynamic leaders who can operate on their own, take their own decisions and rapidly concentrate if the strength of the militants in the contact is high. That happens with very well trained and blooded troops. The Indian Army’s three Parachute Special Forces units of that time, 1, 9 and 10 Para were simply outstanding at this and thus hugely feared by the LTTE. There were some other units also in that mold.

Remember one thing, routinely troops who come into contact with armed militants in the jungle usually resort to returning fire for fire. It’s the most archaic method which fetches no dividends except the ability to fall back on a yarn or two about great experiences in counter insurgency (CI) operations. Foot soldiers when in contact with the enemy (and I count Naxals as enemies of the state and not misguided elements) must fix the enemy with small strength and maneuver with the balance to a flank to enhance the area of contact and force eviction of the offending elements. It’s a difficult maneuver and only well trained troops can resort to this. It is taught as a basic fire drill in the Infantry. I am not sure if any of this is taught or practiced in the operations against the Naxals.

The plethora of ‘commando forces’ which exist must be transported by helicopter to be placed at strategic exit points of the contact to take on maximum retreating militants but there are hardly any rotary wing resources with the police forces. The tendency observed in contacts with Naxals is that they invariably attempt to draw the SF deep into the jungles. They are adept at use of the terrain there and take full advantage of it. The SF, if pursuing militants deep into jungles, invariably suffers from lack of logistics, difficulty in evacuation of casualties and safe withdrawal if the operation does not produce results. Any good Infantryman will tell you that operations deeper into jungles are done from what is called ‘firm base to firm base’; it’s a basic way of securing yourself, ensuring logistics resupply should the operation extend and having helipads to evacuate casualties. Among the lessons my unit and I learnt in Op Pawan included the fact that it is better to shed everything else but carry more ammunition. We never advanced in the jungle after 2 PM because a contact after that time would stretch into the darkness in which we would be at disadvantage.

All the above refers to minor tactics and best practices which the Indian Army cast aside because it did not take the trouble of documenting the lessons of Op Pawan and even today is reluctant to relook at them. As soon as we left the shores of Sri Lanka I was into Operation Rakshak 1 in Punjab and there were many other units which entered J&K. We were more satisfied with the contacts which occurred there; usually 6-10 terrorists or a little more, not the 300 one encountered in Alampil or Neerani kerni in Sri Lanka’s Wani jungle. So even if you send in the Army to engage the Naxals you will find initial casualties but the Army learns quickly. It sets up battle schools and uses its institutions to brainstorm.

The question is whether it would be correct to deploy the Army against the Naxals at the current juncture. In 2010-11 in the wake of the horrific ambush on police forces resulting in 75 fatal casualties the government desired an Army footprint in the Red Corridor. The then Army Chief put his foot down and the reasoning was correct. Army has no problem with tackling insurgency, terror or militancy in border States; those are the very areas where it could be fighting conventional operations – the ‘rim land states’ so to say. The problems of the ‘heartland states’ had to be handled by other forces, which essentially means police forces. At one stage the Army did agree to show its presence in the heartland through some training maneuvers. That finally never happened but the Army did make some basic errors in assuming that it could operate in the Red Corridor with manpower other than Infantry. It would have been a monumental mistake if it had ever materialized.

Can the Army spare some units of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) or the Assam Rifles (AR), the two well blooded paramilitary forces? The RR, one of India’s finest military experiments, is used to a very different nature of militancy/terror. It must not be disturbed for two reasons. First, its 63 units are involved in an ebbing movement which can resurrect if there is any let up. Pakistan’s calibration capability and the J&K terror networks are yet very much alive. Secondly, the RR also has a certain conventional role. In light of Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary now more experienced, blooded and ready for conventional operations we can ill afford to upset ratios on the western borders. AR has commitment all over the North East and the situation although stable has the potential for quick deterioration given events in Myanmar and the Chinese capability to resort to proxy war through the plethora of insurgent groups. At a pinch however, an AR Sector or two could be spared.

Whatever it be, it is clear that the nature of operations in the Red Corridor is near conventional, especially given the type of strengths of militants which are encountered. That requires a military type orientation for large scale operations, with support elements and back up air power along with some light high trajectory weapons, drones and lots of technical intelligence through satellites. The options are to have all these and leave it to the police hierarchy to lead and direct as before. Or the other option is to place some specialist units from the Army, AR, CRPF and State Police Forces together under a quasi-military headquarters in the most affected area and see the effect of this. If the Army is involved then it will lead the operations and bring a military orientation to the operations.
I can expect many furrowed foreheads at some of the assumptions and statements I have chosen to make. However, I am willing to debate and accept all critique because in the heartland of India we cannot afford to have a running militancy which dreams of making India a Communist state by 2046. It is for all of us who have experienced field operations, commanded formations or large quantum of police forces, to put our heads together for the sake of the nation.

Author

Author

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, former Commander of Indian Army’s Srinagar Corps, focuses on trans-national and internal conflicts in Asia and the Middle East with particular emphasis on issues revolving around Radical Islam. He was largely responsible for the humanization of internal conflict through the concept of the ‘Hearts Doctrine’. He is the Chancellor of Central University of Kashmir and speaks extensively at Indian and international institutions on a wide variety of subjects revolving around strategic affairs and leadership.


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POST COMMENTS (13)

Sudershan Mehta

Oct 15, 2021
Hats off to the spirit of a soldier

Pseudonym

Apr 28, 2021
What a brilliant article! The lessons Army has learnt elsewhere must somehow trickle down to paramilitary forces, especially when the domains of action of the two start to overlap. What I say might be highly controversial, but I will say it nonetheless. The problem lies in the recruitment and training procedures. CAPF and other paramilitary organizations need to be freed from UPSC. We don't need academicians who write well and move files. But that is essentially what UPSC seeks in an aspirant. And so the people who get recruited are simply not of that mindset which is required to handle Naxalism and other insurgencies. I suggest a SSB style recruitment for Paramilitary organisations similar to how Army recruits. Second aspect is the training. How well trained are CAPFs? Do they inculcate new learnings from the field into training programmes? Or is it much of red tapism and Bureaucratic mess? I do not know. But this is one area of concern. If Those Special Units of army can train our paramilitary orgs and there is greater co-operation between the two wings, it would be beneficial. A tie up between Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Defence is the need.

Anonymous

Apr 25, 2021
Well written Sir. I do hope someone senior enough is reading your article. If I may, the core of what you are saying: a. Let's pool our past experiences (and we have VERY experienced people) and set up training/SOPs/oversight over our forces operating in the Red Corridor. b. Related to above. We must pool all our experiences together and pull the full resources of the state (including the various Intelligence agencies - if they are not already deployed) and put it all behind the troops operating in the Red Corridor. c. Your point about AR & RR are well taken - we cannot (and should not) spare them. I think the forces operating in the Red Corridor will have to come up to scratch. eg. One of the reason the Khalistan movement was knocked out was because the Punjab Police upskilled. d. Given our past (70 years) of countering insurgencies, knowledge / wisdom must be gleaned dispassionately from all past experienced and used in ALL scenarios - from Kashmir to NE to the Red Corridor (and stored for the future). Thank you again Sir, Best.

Col Shivaji Ranjan Ghosh

Apr 24, 2021
Sir, the problem lies in the mindset and modus operandi of the civil administration. They do not believe in a hammer and anvil approach where the security forces provide the hammer while, at the same time, the administration works on the anvil of good governance and welfare. Unfortunately, once the security forces are in, the root cause is pushed back on the back burner, and the problem continues to fester. Force can only be a temporary solution, not a permanent one.

Col (Veteran) Shivaji Ranjan Ghosh

Apr 24, 2021
Sir, the problem lies in the mindset and modus operandi of the civil administration. They do not believe in a hammer and anvil approach where the security forces provide the hammer while, at the same time, the administration works on the anvil of good governance and welfare. Unfortunately, once the security forces are in, the root cause is pushed back on the back burner, and the problem continues to fester. Force can only be a temporary solution, not a permanent one.

Col Alok Asthana

Apr 21, 2021
You left out one option i.e. for the state to genuinely work for the welfare of the tribals, not for the Adanis and Ambanis out to exploit them. If that is done, insurgency would stop by itself. The way to stop fire is not to pour more water, but to stop the source of fire. Fighting insurgency is NOT a military/police jobe but an administrative/political one. Fauzis always talk of the gun, never the pen. That's why their solutions never last. Too bloody-minded. Another point. Let us not do what we did in Sri Lanka. We failed there and pulled out tmaely. Only because armies NEVER quell insurgencies.

Hemant

Apr 17, 2021
Its work of paramiltary force not police withdraw so called Police forces (CRPF,BSF,ITBP,SSB&CISF) from Counter insurgency , its work of paramiltary force to fight not police forces so we can use police force in policing role not in fighting proxy wars . 😉 we would happy my family member will be safe serving in policing role instead of getting called police while doing job of paramilitary.

Harish Ratnaparkhi

Apr 17, 2021
I wanted to request you to kindly give your expert view on the subject but you pre empted me. I was involved in raising the Sub Area there as Brig Adm of the Area. The footprint was created but involvement of Army was later ruled out. As the area is not on the borders with Ltd outside support, it won't be difficult for Army/AR/RR to control the naxalites within next year or so. The final solution however is a political one. It involves economic development and prosperity of the masses. Army can only control the Naxals and final solution is however political.

BN Sharma

Apr 17, 2021
The influence & control of Maoists in red corridor has no doubts continuously been shrinking, CAPFs, especially CRPF & it's CoBra units have been doing well. The operation comprising of different forces, must be intelligence based & based on a sound plan. Participating forces must be well conversed with the basics of fighting in jungle the warfare needed to succeed. A spl operation planned against naxals may not ens in killing or apprehension of naxals but turning into suffering huge loss indicates lapse in planning by leaders or execution or coordination at ground level.. Spl operations need special forces, specially equipped, trained and committed force led by dedicated leader. Setbacks suffered due to own neglect always leave demoralising effect on the men. Time some serious deliberations done at the highest level. Law & order problem is totally different from fighting with naxals. Merely putting on disruptive uniform by the senior leadership does not really help.

Nityanand

Apr 17, 2021
Please study the successful strikes carried out by greyhounds GH in CG, Orissa. There are several but they were nearly 5 years back. Why is that knowledge and skill base not getting tapped into. Their intelligence gathering too were tremendous. Going by news stories then, successful strike in ballimela trijunction was outcome of state police intelligence of Orissa but key force was GH. My fear is more of political intransigence involving different states, centre.....

Sadanand Shivagunde

Apr 17, 2021
Thanks Sir. It is a set back for the Police forces. They have been doing a great job. The Army should not be involved, but veterans may be brought in as advisors and top brass laterally. The Army and AF could provide logistics support. Jai Hind 🙏

Arun Satsangi

Apr 17, 2021
A very well balanced write up without any bias. A healthy discussion on the subject matter of the write up is the need of the hour. Apparently it’s the matter of coordination of involved stakeholders and due deployment of funds & resources accordingly.

Sudarshan Rawat

Apr 17, 2021
A very well analysed article.. My two penny contribution:- The success of Army in CI( I concede that there are a few reverses also) is due to our platoon and Company level operations are led by Young Officers. Unfortunately, this is not the case of our troopers in Dandakarnya region. This needs to be addressed.

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