India’s counter-insurgency conundrum

Ill-trained CRPF was expected to fix a problem ill-trained police forces couldn’t deal with. The price of that misplaced optimism has been paid with blood.

Five decades ago, a French Special Forces officer, ruminating on the ruin of his nation’s once-powerful empire, set out to understand just why its armed forces had lost in a battle to adversaries armed with little other than determination. Unusually for a participant-chronicler of defeat, Roger Trinquier blamed neither politicians nor the inscrutable workings of history.

The problem, Trinquier argued, was that France had persisted “in studying a type of warfare that no longer exists and that we shall never fight again, while we pay only passing attention to the war we lost in Indochina and the one we are about to lose in Algeria. The result of this shortcoming is that the army is not prepared to confront an adversary employing arms and methods the army itself ignores. It has, therefore, no chance of winning.” “Our military machine,” he wryly concluded, “reminds one of a pile-driver attempting to crush a fly.”

Earlier this month, New Delhi laid out new proposals to address the growing Maoist insurgency that is devastating large swatches of India: a unified inter-State command, assisted by a retired Army Major-General. For all the hype, it is unclear just what the new structure is meant to achieve. No retired soldier, no matter how illustrious, has any experience of the ongoing counter-Maoist operations — or even firsthand knowledge of the forces he will be advising. More important, the immediate problem is not that of insurgents escaping pursuit across State lines: it is the growing mass of their forces, and the lethality of attacks.

Behind New Delhi’s anodyne response lies a bitter truth the government will not publicly admit: the principal instrument of India’s counter-Maoist campaign will not and cannot succeed.

A force in ruins

Back in 2003, a Group of Ministers assigned the Central Reserve Police Force frontline responsibility for counter-insurgency operations, in support of police across the country. Its recommendations, part of the seminal Report of the Group of Ministers on Reforming the National Security System, were widely seen as a well-intentioned effort to end the use of the Army and the Border Security Force in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism duties.

In 1999, when the expert group on whose basis the Report was issued conducted its work, the CRPF had 1,67,367 personnel. That number went up to 2,60,873 in 2007 — and is believed to have increased to over 2,80,000 now.

Key to the problem is that the CRPF has nowhere to train its recruits. The organisation has six training centres, each of which was designed to process between 150 and 200 personnel at a time through nine-month basic courses. Today those centres cannot even handle recruitment made to redress wastage — men who retire, for example, or who have to be removed for discipline. New battalions are being trained at improvised facilities lacking in basic infrastructure like classrooms, quality firing ranges and combat-simulation facilities — and by officers who will eventually lead them on the field, not professional instructors.

Worse, the CRPF has a crippling shortage of officers at the cutting-edge Assistant Commandant level — the officers responsible for handling forces the size of a company, or about 125 men. Induction has not kept pace with the expansion of the force. So, most battalions have to make do with just half of their sanctioned strength of Assistant Commandants.

Many of the best officers, moreover, are siphoned off by the Special Protection Group and the National Security Guard early in their careers. Few, thus, develop a personal rapport with the men they return to command. Satyawan Yadav, who led the ill-fated 62 Battalion patrol which was wiped out in Dantewada in April this year, had spent 10 years at the SPG. Internal investigators found that Yadav had defied orders to conduct a long-rage patrol through forests, choosing instead to lie about the whereabouts of his force to his commanders. His transition from the air-conditioned environment of the Prime Minister’s home to a field camp in Bastar had evidently been difficult.

Poor leadership has meant the CRPF has little institutional ability to learn from its mistakes. Despite repeated warnings from the Intelligence Bureau, 62 Battalion failed to secure its headquarters in Rampur against an attack by the Lashkar-e-Taiba in December 2007. Earlier this year, several personnel were held on charges of selling ammunition to organised crime groups in Uttar Pradesh. Later, Battalion commander Prabhranjan Kumar was relieved of his duties and is now facing internal proceedings related to inappropriate personal behaviour.

No in-house intelligence

It doesn’t end there: the CRPF does not have an in-house intelligence organisation. It recruits on a national basis, meaning it has few personnel familiar with the language, culture and terrain of the areas in which it operates. It does not even have a higher-command school dedicated to counter-insurgency tactics. Bluntly, everything that could conceivably be wrong is wrong.

For most of its history, the CRPF served as a resource provider, sending out company-sized forces to assist the police across the country. Few commanders had frontline combat roles until the CRPF was drawn into the Punjab insurgency. Bar a brief commitment in Jammu and Kashmir, the force had no independent counter-insurgency commitments till five years ago — when it was handed a role it was neither prepared nor equipped for.

“We can’t teach the CRPF how to walk,” Chhattisgarh Director-General of Police Vishwa Ranjan said of the series of errors in fieldcraft that led to the massacre of 27 personnel in a fire-engagement last month. His words may have been harsh — but their accuracy cannot be disputed.

“Policing a country of over 1.1 billion people,” Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram said in June, “is not an easy task.” He pointed out that in many of the States worst-hit by Maoist violence, “there are police stations where there are no more than eight men; and even these eight or less men do not hold any weapons for fear of the weapons being looted.” He called on the States to “enhance the capacity of training institutes to at least double the present capacity, and to recruit at least double the number of policemen and women being recruited at present.”

Ever since Mr. Chidambaram took office as Home Minister, India has seen a concerted effort to enhance police staffing. In December 2008, the National Crime Records Bureau reported, India had 1.13 million police personnel — about 128 for every 1,00,000 people, just over half the United Nations-recommended norm for peaceful societies facing no major challenges. The government now claims that the public-police ratio has risen to 1,00,000:161.78. The figures have aroused some scepticism, implying that 3,84,000 personnel have been hired in just 18 months — not counting the replacement of those who retired or were otherwise lost.

Leaving aside the statistical dispute, though, it is clear many Maoist-hit States are not the beneficiaries of force expansion. Bihar still has just 85,545 posts, of which 23,889 are vacant. That means there are 74.29 officers for every 1,00,000 population. Orissa still has just 135.8, and West Bengal just 100. Elsewhere, the increases are more marked, but still well short of international norms. Jharkhand, which had just 136 police personnel per 1,00,000 population five years ago, now has 206.98, according to the Union Home Ministry. Chhattisgarh’s police-population ratio too has risen from 128 to 226.3: 1,00,000.

Moreover, force expansion is not solving the problem it was intended for. Nagaland, which now has a staggering 1,677.3 police personnel for every 1,00,000 population, Jammu and Kashmir 742.3, and Manipur 669.6 — some of the highest population to force ratios in India — but none has succeeded in relieving the military of counter-insurgency responsibilities. Mizoram, which has no insurgency, has 1,268.6 police personnel per 1,00,000 population, suggesting that the problem in essence is serving employment-generation imperatives.

Even if all States were to expand their forces to these levels, it is far from clear if the facilities and instructors exist to make the recruitment meaningful. The benefits of facilities like Chhattisgarh’s school of jungle warfare at Kanker are evident. From January to June this year, the Chhattisgarh police claimed to have killed 37 Maoist insurgents, compared to just 10 by the CRPF, eight of those in joint operations. Notably, the police lost 29 men in combat, as against 117 fatalities suffered by the CRPF. Few governments, though, have followed its lead. In his speech, Mr. Chidambaram announced that nine counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism schools would be up and running this year, each equipped to train 1,000 personnel a year. He made clear, though, that these schools would in no way meet the needs of India’s burgeoning forces.

“We hope,” Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai said in 2009, as the CRPF began to surge deep into Chhattisgarh, “that literally within 30 days of the security forces moving in and dominating the area, we should be able to restore civil administration there.” New Delhi hoped that an ill-trained CRPF would help fix a problem ill-trained police forces weren’t able to deal with. The price of that Panglossian optimism has been paid with blood. Both New Delhi and the States need to get down to the hard work needed to build credible counter-insurgency forces — and, meanwhile, consider strategies that are consistent with their capabilities.

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