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Always in the Line of Fire

Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army. The author can be contacted at harinder41[at]
Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 22, 2010

    For some weeks now there has been a growing chorus for the employment of the armed forces to combat the ever growing Naxal threat. With every Maoist strike the demand gets shriller and the opposition also becomes equally vociferous. There is an urgent need to address this dilemma because there has been a tendency among civil society to root for the armed forces every time the country faces a crisis situation; whatever its origins and objectives. But use of the armed forces would be counter productive and severely stretch their resources that are meant to be used to face external threats.

    While the threat of Maoist violence has indeed become increasingly menacing and has spread to a sizeable expanse of the country, the state response has been less than adequate. As a result, there exists an atmosphere of despondency and helplessness sometimes bordering on desperation. The reasons for this less than optimal response are not far to seek. An enduring lack of consensus between the central and state governments, accompanied by the inability of the state police and central paramilitary forces to contain the threat, are the main causes for the worsening of the problem. Compulsions of coalition politics both at the state and the centre and the unholy nexus between some elements in the establishment and exploitative elements in civil society has allowed the Maoist leadership, ideologues and their sympathisers to capitalise on the genuine grievances of the tribals - since Maoist affected areas are also rich in minerals and natural resources - and at the same time question the legitimacy of the state apparatus and response. Employment of the army also cannot guarantee a lasting solution since the problem is essentially political. As seen in Jammu & Kashmir and the North East, the army had brought the situation under control over a decade ago but the regions continue to be plagued by civil unrest and poor development.

    Ironically, the Indian state boasts a strength of 716,0001 paramilitary forces – a whopping 60 per cent of the strength of the army. Here, we do not include the 65,000-strong Rashtriya Rifles (RR), because the force was specially raised to fight the insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir, remains manned by army personnel and is under the control of the Ministry of Defence. The 64,000 troops of Assam Rifles (AR), a true paramilitary force officered by the army but controlled by the Ministry of Home Affairs, are deployed in the Northeast. Of the remaining forces, 208,000 BSF personnel are primarily deployed to guard the international borders, whereas 230,000 CRPF, and 94,000 CISF men are currently employed in various other sundry security tasks wherein they perform only static, VIP security, watch and ward, and guard duties at vital installations. As a result, they find themselves completely incapable of undertaking counterinsurgency operations involving guerrilla tactics in difficult terrain. Absence of suitable and appropriate training and organisational structures prevent their ability to respond to such threats and hence the confusion and reluctance on the part of decision makers to deploy them in strength. Very often aged and yet inexperienced leadership is employed in a knee jerk fashion resulting in avoidable failures and casualties. Lack or at times complete absence of local intelligence exacerbates the problem.

    Under these circumstances the clamour for immediate and massive deployment of the armed forces would appear natural. This would, however, have serious and long term consequences and carry the risks of further stretching the capacity of the armed forces to face external threats and defend the nearly 5000 kilometres of disputed and live border almost all of which falls in difficult mountainous terrain. Inhospitable and hostile terrain in these border areas compel the armed forces, especially the army, to periodically rotate their personnel from forward areas to peace time locations to ensure adequate rest and recuperation with their families and training to continuously enhance and update their skills. The soldier’s rest and recuperation time has already reduced to a level where he spends a mere 18 to 24 months in peace location before he is once again due for a three-year long field tenure. The over two decade long insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir and the Indian Army’s involvement has increased the total time spent by a soldier in field areas from about half to two-thirds of his total service career of 17 to 20 years. The army has already witnessed a higher level of dissatisfaction and unhappiness due to the soldier’s inability to find enough time to resolve pressing familial issues back home. Insensitivity and indifference if not total apathy of civilian officials at the district level further exacerbates this problem and affects the morale of the troops. This, therefore, leaves a very small number of reserve forces for deployment in other contingencies. It is therefore axiomatic that the additional burden of combating the Maoists shall aggravate the army’s difficulties. There is also the risk of the armed forces inviting more criticism from civil society, especially from the Maoists sympathisers if and when allegations of excesses are made. This would be fodder for those vehemently opposing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) without which the army simply cannot be expected to function.

    Our past experience clearly shows that the army has invariably fought internal disturbances and insurgencies with one hand tied behind the back and suffered avoidable loss of life. The myth of an insensitive army unleashing disproportionate violence on hapless civilians and taking shelter under the so-called draconian AFSPA needs to be exploded here and now. It is not as if the army is beyond law but it certainly dislikes being dragged into concocted allegations and litigations that are often politically motivated. The Indian Army has always taken the most stringent action against wrong doers. The truth is that the army has all along shown the utmost distaste to get involved in any operations directed against fellow citizens. Unlike the Pakistan Army which routinely uses offensive air power and heavy weapons to quell civil protests and insurrections the Indian army has mostly resorted to softer methods. Past experience shows that long term deployment in counterinsurgency operations affects the mindset of the soldier and requires re-orientation for the primary role of fighting conventional military threats.

    This, however, does not mean that the armed forces cannot make a useful contribution in combating this grave national threat. The army can help train in reasonably good time a sizeable number of paramilitary forces including young officers to lead them from the front. It can also run short term courses for middle and senior level paramilitary leadership to sensitise them to the gravity and magnitude of the problem and the inescapable necessity of addressing it on a war footing. Fighting the Maoist threat can no longer be treated as a part-time task. Another very cost effective and efficient way of building paramilitary forces is to immediately begin or allow the lateral transfer of ex-servicemen to quickly build their capacity. Currently some 50,000 thirty five to forty year old servicemen retire every year, and of these a sizeable proportion is already trained and experienced in counterinsurgency operations, providing a readymade and willing element for almost immediate deployment. The reason why this economical option has not been used in the past, we believe, is the problem of granting the ex-servicemen the necessary and well deserved seniority, perks and status that their true worth actually demands. It is time that the civilian bureaucracy overcame the fear of being swamped by the military. Such a mutually beneficial enterprise would undoubtedly help the paramilitary to absorb specialist military skills at no additional time and cost.

    Yet another area of useful contribution that the army can make is in providing training for logistical support operations. Here the experience of RR battalions is relevant. Traditionally a RR unit consists of personnel with various assorted skills such as signalmen, mechanics, doctors and paramedics and maintains its own accounts and stores records enhancing the overall efficiencies and the ability to instantly react to a situation. We also recommend the use of helicopters and where possible UAVs for reconnaissance, surveillance, air mobility and casualty evacuation. Even a relatively small force of helicopters seconded or owned by the paramilitary (BSF already has a few) can provide almost instantaneous reinforcement in crisis situations raising the determination and morale of the CRPF and its sister organisations. Finally, it is imperative that the senior paramilitary leadership learns to function from operational command centres on a 24x7 basis to be able to provide timely guidance, support and oversight. The one critical attribute for success in anti-Maoist operations, however, is the availability of reliable and accurate intelligence for which the services of local police and CID/IB and state intelligence operatives is inescapable and unavoidable.

    In short there are no short cuts to overcoming this grave threat to our democratic way of life. Broadening the mandate by handing over the problem to the army is neither fair nor efficacious.

    • 1. IISS Military Balance, 2009, p. 349. This document actually shows the strength of India’s paramilitary forces to be 13,00,586 but that is because the figure includes Defence Security Corps, Civil Defence, Home Guards and Rashtriya Rifles.