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The Hard Lesson of Chintalnar

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]
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  • May 10, 2010

    Fighting insurgencies can be messy and slow. But the fact that even after six decades of terrain-wide counter-insurgency experience, the Indian state is floundering in its efforts to contain naxal violence seems to be a bit paradoxical. It is not that the conceptual nuances of tackling internal unrest and upheavals are new, but it is the many structural and systemic deficiencies which inhibit the adaptation of counterinsurgency practices that are a cause of concern. This is not to suggest that the use of force is a panacea for tackling insurgencies and rebellions; but what is important is that the force needs to be located in the overall socio-political context – a reality which simply cannot be over looked. More importantly, the containment of naxal violence is contingent upon a supportive local populace and the adoption of tactically innovative and people-centric operations. All these seem to be eluding the state at this juncture.

    The Chintalnar tragedy demonstrates the inability of the security agencies to contain naxal violence. Seventy-six CRPF personnel including their deputy commandant were ambushed by some three hundred naxals in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh while the party was returning from a three day long area domination patrol. Several hundred police and paramilitary personnel have been killed on account of poor leadership and inadequate training. Most worrisome have been the fatalities: 920 in 2008, 837 in 2007, 950 in 2006, 900 in 2005, 653 in 2004, 731 in 2003, and 896 in 2002. The recovery of crude and sophisticated weapons such as SLRs, LMGs, AKs, INSAS rifles and rocket launchers; some two hundred weapon snatching incidents and on an average hundred landmine blasts each year; the blowing up of mine protected vehicles at Dantewada in September 2005 and Malkangiri in July 2008; and synchronized naxal attacks targeting the government officials and assets cannot be disregarded.1

    The hard lesson of Chintalnar is that the central paramilitaries and state police forces have simply failed to absorb the well established counterinsurgency concepts and practices. Even when attempts have been made to infuse organisational competence, the efforts to acquire required skills have been half hearted and marginal. The fact that a well organised paramilitary sub-unit, and in this case Alpha Company of the 62nd CRPF Battalion, which should ideally have been strung over a few hundred metres whilst reeling back to the company operating base is ambushed, and literally massacred without giving back a fight, raises some serious questions of training and adherence to basic tenets of field craft.

    A number of issues assume significance here. They pertain to the repeated failure of the police and paramilitary forces to employ force, their sheer inability to innovate at the tactical level, the lack of vigour at junior levels of command, and the organisational ineptness that prevent learning from past mistakes. A brief discussion on each of these issues may be relevant.

    • Firstly, Chintalnar saw a company level counter insurgent action. Paramilitary companies usually comprise three to four platoons, and are equipped with adequate number of light automatics and support weapons, to undertake independent tactical actions. A company is therefore designed to demonstrate sufficient staying power to fight tactical level battles. The CRPF company at Chitnalnar was a sizeable force and capable of engaging the largely untrained and poorly equipped naxals. The fact that this sub-unit simply crumbled, and failed to beat back the poorly trained and equipped naxals, a tactical situation simply unheard of in counterinsurgency operations, makes the Chintalnar incident a serious study in the failure of frontline leadership and counterinsurgency drills.
    • Secondly, festering insurgencies are fought with ideas as much as they are with men and weapons. Tactical innovation is the key to successful counterinsurgency operations; and gallant action only follows. In that sense, mounting a full company-level operation for an area domination patrol, like the one at Chintalnar was simply unwarranted. And if at all, a large scale operation was unavoidable, the sensible way would have been to trickle down to the area of interest, and fall back in small teams on completion of the mission. A full company marching back in a huddle is tactically sacrilegious, especially when several other ways of planning the operation was possible. Counterinsurgency operations are all about mounting smart and skilful operations. Here the organisational leadership would have to play a key role in creating an environment conducive for innovation. But if the senior police leadership prides itself in `theorising` and `directing` operations from the rear, then the Chintalnar massacre comes as no surprise.
    • Thirdly, it is the junior leadership alone that can inject vigour into operations but that is only possible if they know that their commanders have roughed it out in their time. Unfortunately, such operational backgrounds are missing amongst the senior police leadership. Parachuting from the top and proffering advice to the cadre based rank and file does not work nor does it ensure operational performance. Several organisations like the NSG, the BSF, the ITBP and the CRPF have been victims of this dispensation. Recent incidents clearly indicate that the junior leadership is not motivated, and the senior commanders are bereft of ideas to tackle the naxal problem. The Andhra Pradesh Greyhounds and the special task forces of some other states are the few exceptions to the rule. It is high time that the leadership, both in the state police and the paramilitary forces, learn to build organisational camaraderie through personal example.
    • Fourthly, the organisational process of identifying gaps in performance is important, and has to be an ongoing exercise. These lessons may have to be teased out from the relatively junior officers who are engaged in actual combat. However, when the senior leadership has rarely `tented or footed` out, it could be difficult to inspire cutting edge levels of command. In the aftermath of the Chintalnar incident, the police brass simply did not even show up in time to salvage the situation. Instead one saw a young police officer from the district, who should have actually been leading the pursuit operations, presenting details of the incident to the gathered media. The time to recount naxal characteristics from safe environs of the headquarters has ended. Instead these young police officers need to gear up to lead from the front. Moreover let not the `crisis of governance` become a key concern for the police, as is often lamented by counter terrorism experts from the police community. It would be far more useful to address the `crisis of operational failure` and 'ineffective police action'.
    • And finally, counterinsurgency skills will have to be honed in sweat and blood, and especially across the rank and file, rather than by simply relying on skills gained through a third agency or by way of short duration training capsules. The debate about the responsibility and accountability for pre-induction training that was sparked off by the Chintalnar incident indicates the organisational callousness endemic in the paramilitary and the police forces. It needs to be acknowledged that training is a command function worldwide, and the senior police officers need to accept the blame for lack of it. Their inability to acquire these skills simply cannot be attributed to other factors.

    The paramilitaries and the police forces have suffered a slew of setbacks in recent months, but the one at Chintalnar clearly stands out in terms of the scale of fatalities. In the state of Chattisgarh alone, the paramilitaries and police forces combined have suffered several hundred casualties. These operational failures cannot be ignored lest valuable lives continue to be lost. From a purely corrective perspective, the police are simply not investing enough in their frontline leadership and training to tackle the situation they face. It is time that the police leadership addressed the mandate given to them in terms of the broad governmental approach, the framework for counter naxal operations and optimal utilisation of additional resources to undertake meaningful action. These need to be seen at three levels.

    • Firstly, the paramilitary and police forces need to be reconfigured to meet the complex internal security challenges. The paramilitary forces in particular need to recruit, organise, equip, train and prepare themselves to undertake substantive counterinsurgency operations in the future. The new organisational constructs will have to focus on the creation of task specific and tailor-made units endowed with the skill sets required to tackle the naxal cadres. These units will also have to be logistically enabled to undertake and sustain prolonged counterinsurgency operations. The recent proposal to bifurcate the new paramilitary raisings into anti-naxal and law and order roles is perhaps a step in the right direction.
    • Secondly, the proposed infusion of experienced leadership and rank and file from the defence services could be a useful step. Several recommendations to this effect have been made in the past, and requisite modalities could be worked out to recruit servicemen post superannuation. But with a caveat that the recruitment of ex-servicemen cadres is balanced across the rank and file, and includes senior, middle and junior level officers as well, in order to maximise the value of their operational expertise. Lack of balance in injecting this expertise may de-generate the recruited cadres into the existing paramilitary sub-cultures, thus negating the very purpose of this exercise. At yet another level, a duration and task specific secondment of serving military officers to the naxal affected states, the police forces and paramilitaries in advisory capacities could also be considered.
    • Thirdly, the paramilitaries and the state police forces need to seek enhanced opportunities to train with the armed forces. The current engagement could be significantly expanded in content and scope to prepare them for future challenges. Having undertaken only static internal security duties in the other strife-torn states, the paramilitaries need to shed their `garrison` mindsets if they have to operate effectively in the naxal affected areas. They have essentially undertaken static duties in urban and semi-urban areas till date, and lack the expertise to operate in difficult terrain. Officer and junior level training, and acquisition of specialised combat skills, could become an important component of this exchange.

    It is rightly argued that internal upheavals and rebellions are extraordinary security challenges that require a nuanced governmental approach, and one which justifiably addresses the deprivations and tribulations of the affected populace. The central government has done well in recent months to focus attention on the grave challenges that naxalism poses to the integrity and well being of the country. State leaders too, barring a few, have also articulated their strong resolve to contain the naxal threat. The bottom line is that the growing naxal unrest cannot be allowed to traumatise the country. The police leadership needs to rise and act swiftly, imaginatively and decisively.

    • 1. The data has been sourced from the compilations made by Dr. P. V. Ramana, Research Fellow, IDSA.