Operation Green Hunt mobilized close to 50,000 paramilitary personnel and turned a little known place in the center of India into one of the world's most militarized zone. Bastar, turned into the eye of the storm in the all out offensive that the Indian government launched against the Naxals (Maoists) in September/November 2009. And the Indian government denies its' existence.
"Yes. I want to become a Maoist if this is the model of development. But I can't at this age" - V.P. Singh, Former Prime Minister of India (And he instead gave India the Mandal Commission)
The heavy concentration of paramilitary forces, also gave the Naxals a unique opportunity - to inflict a death toll on the central forces, the likes of which India hadn't seen in close to fifty years. The Home Minister, P Chidambaram, had called the Naxals "cowards enacting dramas", which would be a grave insult to any self-respecting fighting force the world has seen, let alone one which stretches across half the sub-continent and have automatic weapons. The Naxals had long been used to being ridiculed in New Delhi, V.P Singh's mockery included.
In response to Operation Green Hunt, the Naxals planned and executed The Dantewada massacre, in which the Naxals, for the loss of eight, killed 76 security personnel. It was the largest casualty the country had suffered in any one attack.
Naxalism, or violent Maoism, has often been identified as the gravest threat to the nation. Yet it is seldom a topic of national interest, or debate. The Naxals have declared large swathes of land as "liberated zones". This implies no government interference and no government presence. Perhaps because these zones exist in the forests and tribal belts of India, far away from the eyes of the Indian media which is surprisingly uncritical in its research and discussing topics of national importance.
Naxalism has deep roots in India and is present across large swathes of West Bengal, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and now Telangana. Only one state has been remotely successful in countering the growing tide of Naxalism and that was erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. It is often a model that the Center asks the other states to employ, without knowing the elements which made the Andhra chapter successful. The Center has implored other states to create "special forces" from within their state police forces, modeled after the hugely successful Greyhounds of AP Police. Home Minister P Chidambaram said in 2009 that he would "eradicate" the Naxals in the next two to three years, without knowing that the one successful example he had of "victory" took more than a decade.
The Andhra Pradesh government's home run wasn't the formation of the Greyhounds unit, nor was it the employment provided to the tribals, but intelligence gathering. It is one of India's rare examples of effective intelligence gathering and processing. Special Forces units all over the world depend on precise and actionable intelligence. It is the basis for all their operations - there would be nothing special about them if they are inserted into a conflict zone and turn into sitting ducks because of poor intelligence. With the deep penetration of Naxals that the Andhra Pradesh government achieved, intelligence was well sourced and could strike at the heart of the State's Naxal apparatus.
The Maoists have long used "talks" with the Government to retrench and regroup - deep inside the forests. The Dandakaranya forest, which covers nearly 50,000 sqkm, stretches across Maharashtra, Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, is an area so fiercely guarded that it hasn't been topographically surveyed - ever. This liberated zone also serves as the Military HQ of the Naxals. The strategy of using talks to regroup isn't new and was deployed to devastating effect in Dantewada. It is said that at the time of the massacre the Naxal leader Kishanji had even given the Home Minister P Chidambaram his mobile phone number to further ceasefire talks. It only served to lure an unsuspecting column of 80 soldiers deeper and deeper inside the forests the Naxals consider their own. 76 of the 80 were killed.
The Andhra Pradesh government was well acquainted with this strategy and never stopped embedding newer elements or collecting intelligence from existing sources, during the cease fire and peace negotiations, which on paper at least would stretch for years. This is what ultimately helped the government eradicate the Naxals from large swathes of land when the talks broke down. The government largely believed in kick-starting any offensive with Intelligence-based operations as opposed to massive area-domination exercises. Not only do area domination exercises without proper intelligence and maps raise the specter of a Dantewada like massacre, they serve little purpose if the police outposts in these regions are not further fortified and become logistically well served. The biggest lesson learned from the Andhra episode is that preparation and intelligence gathering should never cease. Years, sometimes even decades, of information gathering provide the state enough evidence to authorize a special forces strike.
"The Maoist movement is a symbol of the divide between rural and urban India. The movement cannot be solved by police action at all. There could be a time when Maoists could overrun urban citadels" - M.K. Dhar, Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau
Development programs are imperative for any "hearts and minds" strategy and the Andhra Pradesh government launched two such programs in the late 2000's. The first initiative was known as Remote Areas Development Programme; and the second is known as Remote and Interior Areas Development Programme. Both these programs focused on developing the areas which had been Naxal infested for almost all of Independent India's history. Not only were the Naxals disenfranchised from the growing economy, perhaps by choice, but so were the tribals in these areas because of Naxal pressure - and this was seldom a "choice" they got to make. Stories of Naxal brutality against informers and republic sympathizers would make one shudder. Other development programmes such as Jalayagnam and Indiramma were also initiated, which ensured the state finally had a service delivery mechanism which reached these interiors. Whilst these programs brought about inclusiveness for the people living in these areas, they also served as the arteries to transport weapons, services and personnel to the chronically understaffed and under-protected police outposts in the region. By strengthening the police outposts, the state also sent out a message to informers, defectors and those wishing to give up arms, that it could protect them.
Another leg of the strategy was the Surrender and Rehabilitation program. Large sections of the Naxal's fighting force are known to have been coerced into joining them. It was these sections which the Government targeted. Even if they didn't turn into informers for the state, the government knew that they could only be "successful" if they could rehabilitate the ones who gave up arms. Stories of police brutality, after all, travel much faster in India. Between 2003 and 2006, 1848 Naxals gave up their ideology and surrendered to the state. The rehabilitation programs then included them in the mainstream economy, rather than letting them go back to the lives they earlier led. Victim Reassurance Policies such as civilian rehabilitation, and also police rehabilitation, played its' part in a successful strategy against the Naxals.
If other states, and the Center, continue to think that merely forming special forces groups in their police force would ensure victory then Andhra Pradesh has another lesson. The Greyhounds Unit was formed in 1989 and Naxalism wasn't curbed until well into the millennium. Odisha and Chattisgarh, then, are at least another decade away from freeing their liberated zones.
PV Ramana is an expert of the issue of Naxalism and his work gives this post a factual backbone. One of his important seminars' can be found here.
The National Identity V: Sikh Extremism
The National Identity IV : The day the Indian Army nearly went rogue
The National Identity III : The Cold Start doctrine