By Anirudh Prakash
Over the years, the IAF has accumulated some experience in the employment of air power in counter-insurgency operations. In 1956, Toofani jets of the IAF were employed in Nagaland against the rebels and Vampires operated against insurgents in the North East Frontier Agency in 1960. In 1966, Aizwal, the capital of Mizoram was overrun by the forces of the Mizo National Front and the response by the Central government included employment of Hunter and Toofani combat aircraft. IAF helicopters have been part of the United Nations Peace Keeping Missions and have operated in foreign countries in counter-insurgency (COIN) role, with “Operation Khukri” in Sierra Leone being a well documented mission. Attack helicopters Mi-17 and Chetak Light Utility Helicopters have participated in the UN Peace Keeping Operations.
The threat posed by Naxalites and Maoist in some parts of the country today constitute problems and challenges that are completely different from those that have been experienced in the past. There has been considerable and frequent debate in the media and public forums on the employment of air power in anti-Naxal and anti-Maoist operations. To begin with, Naxalites and Maoists are Indian citizens who have taken to violent means to attain their avowed objective of overthrowing the duly elected government by 2050, a somewhat over optimistic aspiration. The prime minister Manmohan Singh has termed these as, “the gravest threat facing our country today”.
In 1967, the Communist movement in India went through a turbulent period eventually culminating in a split which resulted in the emergence of a splinter group called the Communist Party of India (Marxist & Leninist) or CPI (ML). That year also saw an attempt by the tribals in Naxalbari, a remote village in West Bengal, to repossess their lands taken away by the landlords. In the ensuing clashes, apart from the several tribals killed, one police officer also perished. This incident thus acquired visibility and attracted support from the revolutionary elements in Communist parties in several states. Although the Naxal Movement was largely contained, soon a coordination committee resolved to carry the movement forward.
In 1968, they came out with their cardinal principle of “Allegiance to Armed Struggle and non-participation in elections”. Criminal neglect of tribal areas, dispossessing the tribals of their lands and forests and alienation of landless peasants through total lack of governance were the main propellants fuelling the Naxal movement. It has been more than 40- years since the movement began. However, there has been no serious effort or focussed approach to solve the problem. Grabbing of tribal land for the purpose of mining and setting up of industries without a credible rehabilitation plan or adequate compensation for the displaced population has resulted in the movement spreading to many parts of the country. At one time, 180 districts of the country, spread over the 10 states of West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka were affected by this so-called “Red Menace”. In 2006, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) estimated that there were about 50,000 regular cadre Naxals in addition to 20,000 armed cadres.
With so many sympathisers and funds received as contributions, the Naxals have been able to obtain arms and ammunition steadily. Low level raids of poorly defended rural police outposts supplemented their weapon stock. Contact with ideologically compatible elements in Nepal and China have helped the Naxals train their armed cadres. Naxals are “sons of the soil” with an excellent understanding of the terrain they operate in.
A police force from outside would find it extremely difficult to track, locate and eliminate the armed cadres. On the other hand, the local security forces would find their near and dear ones threatened with dire consequences including death if they acted against the Naxals. And in the event of police action, the Naxal cadres would “melt” away into the tribal villages. All this has encouraged them to progressively expand the scope of their war against the state.
Andhra Pradesh with its Greyhound Force has had notable success against the Maoists. This 2000-strong force is well-trained in jungle warfare, has modern weapons compatible with its task and moves in small groups to disrupt and destroy the Maoist hide-outs. The force adopts guerrilla warfare tactics and is well-versed in survival techniques. The “Greyhounds” operate in tandem with the local police forces and have good intelligence gathering capabilities. Trained to operate at night, one of their main objectives is to eliminate the Maoist leadership. These measures have resulted in a steep decline in Maoist activity in Andhra Pradesh. If other states also raise similar forces and deploy them in Maoist/Naxal infested areas, the success rates would show a remarkable upward trend.
Another aspect that needs attention is development of tribal areas that are currently not affected by this problem. Unless there is real progress in these areas, more and more tribals could inevitably be drawn to the Naxal movement and adopt the path of violence.
But the Maoists have also wreaked havoc with deadly attacks in some states. In April 2010, 76 security personnel were killed and 50 wounded at Dantewada in Chhattisgarh in a Naxal attack. In May 2010, 15 policemen and 20 civilians were killed close to the same area. In June 2010, 26 CRPF personnel were killed in Narayanpur district, Chhattisgarh. In late 2011, the security forces succeeded in eliminating the Naxal military commander “Kishenji”. In retaliation, the Naxals abducted two Italians and an IAS officer in 2012. While all three were subsequently released, the kidnapping demonstrated the changing strategy and reach of the Naxals. In March 2012, 12 CRPF personnel were killed in a landmine blast in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. The government has to use air power to neutralise insurgents in affected parts of the country as ground operations have not proved effective to eliminate rebellion by Maoists all over the country. INAV