Bastariya Battalion: New force against India’s Left-wing Extremists by Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray, Director www.mantraya.org
Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray served as a Deputy Director in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India and Director of the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM)’s Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati, Assam. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the South Asia programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore between 2010 and 2012.
Routray specialises in decision-making, governance, counter-terrorism, force modernisation, intelligence reforms, foreign policy and dissent articulation issues in South and South East Asia. His writings, based on his projects and extensive field based research in Indian conflict theatres of the Northeastern states and the left-wing extremism affected areas, have appeared in a wide range of academic as well policy journals, websites and magazines.
Article reprinted by special permission of www.mantraya.org
Bastariya Battalion, a new battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is being inducted into the Left-wing extremism- afflicted Bastar region of Chhattisgarh state. Comprising of tribal recruits, the battalion is expected to add to capacities of the CRPF and bridge the deficiencies that affect its performance. Critics, on the other hand, fear that the induction of a ‘tribal only’ force will lead to brutalization of the tribals in the region. The reality is different. The attempt is continuation of the government’s inability to address the shortcomings of its security-centric counter-LWE approach. Unless loopholes in training, command and control, and intelligence are addressed, countering left wing extremism would remain an arduous task.
In Chhattisgarh state’s Ambikapur, a new battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was commissioned into service on 24 May 2018. The 1000 men-strong ‘Bastariya Battalion’ raised exclusively from the tribal population of the left-wing extremism (LWE) affected Bastar region (comprising Sukma, Dantewada, Narayanpur and Bijapur districts), will add to the muscle of the 59 battalions of CRPF deployed in the state to fight the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) or the Naxalites (also known as Maoists). Home Minister Rajnath Singh, said on the occasionthat the Government of India conceived the idea of raising the Bastariya Battalion having learned about ‘the courage and honesty of the tribal brethren of Bastar’. On the other hand, critics allege that the battalion is part of a strategy that repeatedly seeks to pit tribal security forces against the tribal extremists. The only outcome of this has been the brutalization of the tribal society, they allege. The truth, however, is somewhere in between these two extreme views.
According to government’s claims, last four years (2014 to 2018, tenure of the current regime in New Delhi) has brought about significant improvements in the LWE situation in the country. This apparently is primarily because of a policy which resulted in the elimination of 510 extremists, including 119 killed in the first five months of 2018 alone. As a result, LWE incidents have decreased from 6,524 in the period 2010-2013 to 4,136 between 2014-17. Deaths of civilians and security forces in LWE theatres have also fallen 55.5 percent from 2,428 to 1,081 during the above-mentioned period. Official statistics also denote shrinking landscape under the control of the Maoists, with the number of ‘worst’ LWE-affected districts now down to 30, from 35.The list of ‘affected’ districts, a longer compilation of areas which either witness actual violence or are ‘targeted’ by the extremists and hence, are covered by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)’s Security Related Expenditure (SRE) scheme too has been truncated to 90, from 126.
If data alone is a pointer towards an improving security situation and the current anti-LWE policy is purportedly effective to ensure victory in the coming years, as the government has repeatedly claimed, the rationale behind investing in a new battalion especially for Bastar, arguably the most LWE affected region of the country today and many years preceding it, is difficult to understand. That raising a new battalion costs approximately Rupees 300 crores (US$50 million approximately) and the CRPF is continuously raising more and more battalions are extraneous to the debate. What will the Bastariya Battalion achieve that nearly 80,000 central forces and at least 40,000 state police forces have not been able to achieve? How will 1000 tribals-in-uniform bridge the gap between the current stalemate and victory? These questions are indeed at the heart of the debate of a problem that in reality is demonstrating obdurate signs of longevity and is in the private assessment of the intelligence agencies, ‘nowhere close to being over’.
According to a concept paper prepared by the CRPF in 2016 for raising in Bastariya Battalion, it argued that it would be a ‘useful step’ as ‘the recruits will be mostly tribals who would help address local unemployment issue, provide tactical advantage to CRPF in operations, intelligence collection and language benefits’. The paper, however, admitted that regular recruitment methods may not be effective in a tribal-inhabited region like Bastar where health and education facilities are not upto the same standards as an urban area. Therefore, it proposed that not only a pre-recruitment training should be provided to the local people, but ‘relaxation’ in the height and weight requirement too should also be brought in. As a result, while in case of ‘tribal male candidates’ in rest of the country, the minimum height requirement is 160 centimeters or 5.25 feet) [the requirement is 165 centimeters for ‘general category’ male candidates], candidates from the Bastar region were given a relaxation of 4.5 centimeters. Similarly, a ten percent relaxation on weight requirements (weight is measured as proportionate to height and age) was also provided.The point made here is that the Bastariya Battalion’s troopers, notwithstanding their tribal lineage and familiarity with the demography of region, are certainly not the best men to fight the extremists.
Buoyed by the nod to raise the Bastariya Battalion in 2016, arguably the first experiment in the CRPF’s strategy of localizing recruitment and operations, the para-military organization in early 2017 went on to propose raising two ‘Kashmiriyat battalions’ comprising youth from South Kashmir. The force proposed to recruit from Tral, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian as these areas, in the words of a senior official, “are worst affected by terrorism.”CRPF already has two battalions comprising youth from Kashmir and these are generically named like other battalions. The spree of naming the new battalions underlining their primary recruitment region is interesting and probably is in line with goes the fetish for catchy nomenclatures of the present government. Till the writing of this article, the MHA had not cleared the proposal.
The contestation between the security forces and the Maoists continues amid claims and counter claims of victory by both parties. While in recent years, the security forces have been able to inflict a series of setbacks on the Maoists, the latter have managed to hit back with revenge seeking and morale boosting ambushes. Among the numerous instances that support this assertion are the following, the most recent cycle of violence.
This year in March, the Maoists killed nine CRPF personnel in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district by placing an improvised explosive device (IED) under a Mine Proof Vehicle (MPV).A month later, in April, in neighbouring Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, police personnel claimed to have laid a trap and killed nearly 40 extremists in two encounters.Maoists, however, claimed that 42people were killed out of which only 22were their cadres, whereas nearby tribal hamlets identified some of the killed as their villagers that included teenagers.In a follow up operation, Maoists on 20 May, used an IED to target a security force vehicle in Chhattisgarh. The IED threw up the vehicle at least 100 metres in air, leading to the deaths of seven police personnel.This trend, where both the security forces and extremists look out for avenging deaths of their colleagues and often succeed, is likely to continue. The government could be hoping to obliterate the CPI-Maoist by simply neutralizing their cadres. This strategy, with the present neutralization rate (deaths, arrests and surrender among the extremists), in the highly unlikely scenario of a zero-recruitment by the Naxals, would take at least take 20 years to succeed. And the CPI-Maoist, estimated to be at least 20,000 strong, has indeed been successful in recruiting, albeit at a slower rate than before.
That’s why the MHA’s periodic claim that ‘the war on the Maoists is inching towards finish’ has begun to sound hollow. The public posturing is probably intended to disguise a concern that’s turning into paranoia of sorts. A number of post-event investigations have revealed that the attacks on the security forces, both the bigger and high-profile attacks and the smaller ambushes, are rooted in three chronic failures of the security forces. First, the security forces fail to abide by the standard operating procedures. This is mostly due to lack of proper training and also, due to the typical operating environment. Second, operations are hampered by serious command and control problems. For instance, the operational leadership of the force often does not lead the forces during operations and the top leadership does not visit the security force camps. And third, in spite of the numerous attempts to beef up ground level intelligence- both TECHINT and HUMINT- the extremist ambushes continue to spring surprises.
Surprisingly, both the political leadership and the short-tenured officials who head the forces have consistently failed to address these shortcomings. Failure of imagination has led to policies that bridge these operational gaps by recruiting more battalions, possibly in the hope that the new ones would be better than the old. Bastariya Battalion, although lauded as an initiative of the government to bring tribals to the side of the state, is indeed a product of that mindset. According to reports, the MHA also has cleared the proposal for Black panther, a new anti-naxal commando force of the Chhattisgarh police.The CRPF too plans to replace 12,000 of its ageing and less motivated personnel by young recruits in Chhattisgarh.As stand-alone measures, these appear as genuine attempts to improve operations, but seen as part of the counter-LWE strategy, they symbolize adhocism.
The Bastariya battalion is supposed to be deployed for five years in Bastar. However, given the track record of government achievements, such deployment can be expected to last beyond the stated. While the tenure of deployment isn’t exactly a matter of dispute, the strategy of using the tribal security forces against the tribal extremists is definitely a source of concern for the civil society. Rights activists fear that the Bastariya battalion may repeat the excesses committed by the Salwa Judum vigilante group or its new avatar, the District Reserve Guards (DRG).The Salwa Judum, comprising tribals and some former extremists, had been supported by the state police and was accused of large scale human rights violations. The Salwa Judum recruits, then known as Special Police Officers (SPOs) were systematically targeted by the Maoists and in turn, participated in operations that led to the killing of a large number of Maoists. However, the criminal excesses they committed on the tribal civilians may also have widened the acceptability base of the CPI-Maoist. As it was disbanded by an order of the Supreme Court in 2011, the Chhattisgarh police adopted them officially, trained them in counter-extremist operations and renamed them as the DRG. The DRG’s ‘success’ has been fiercely contested by several local organisations, who accuse them of continuing the Salwa Judum’s excesses.
The strategy of using the Bastariya Battalion may or may not succeed, but the apprehension that it would be a repeat of the Salwa Judum may have been little too far-fetched. Unlike the Salwa Judum which was given almost a free hand to stem the tide in favour of the state and which operated with complete impunity, the Bastariya Battalion is an official CRPF formation, trained and subject to the rules and regulations of the organization. It is neither a vigilante force, nor is it to operate without the checks that any designated para-military force is subjected to. Notwithstanding the fact that even the CRPF and other forces have been accused of a large number of human rights abuse cases, tarnishing the Bastariya Battalion even before it operates isn’t exactly fair.
The Bastariya Battalion may not wreak havoc on the tribals. Nor would it be a force on whose shoulders the war on the CPI-Maoist would be won. The battalion only superficially addresses the loopholes that continues to affect the CRPF’s performance. The CRPF may be able to overcome the language barrier in communicating with the tribals and minimally reducing the unemployment rate among the employable tribal youth, but to expect that these tribals-in-uniform would be able to overcome the operational dysfunctions that are rooted with inadequate training, abysmal command and control shortcomings, and leadership crisis may be too far-fetched. And even the existential capacities of the Bastariya Battalion would come under severe strain should the Maoists, in a desperate attempt, selectively target family members of the battalion’s troopers in the remote hamlets sans security cover.
“Naxal-affected areas witnessing rapid development: Rajnath Singh”, Business Standard, 21 May 2018, http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/naxal-affected-areas-witnessing-rapid-development-rajnath-singh-118052101307_1.html. Accessed 1 June 2018.
“Maoist Area Of Influence Shrinks; 44 Districts Removed From Affected List: Union Home Secretary”, NDTV, 15 April 2018, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/maoist-area-of-influence-shrinks-44-districts-removed-from-affected-list-union-home-secretary-1837874. Accessed 2 June 2018.
Although previously, the districts covered under the SRE scheme were 106, the number increased to 126 as a result of creation of new districts, carved out of the existing ones. A survey by the MHA in 2018, in consultation with the states, led to the ‘dropping’ of 44 districts from the list and addition of eight new as a pre-emptive step to check any attempts by the LWE extremists to enhance area of influence.
Author’s interaction with an Intelligence Bureau official.
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Kamaljit Kaur Sandhu, “CRPF’s new Kashmariyat Battalion to tackle terror in south Kashmir”, India Today, 26 July 2017, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/crpf-kashmariyat-battalion-terror-south-kashmir-1026436-2017-07-26. Accessed 12 May 2018.
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Press Statement (in Hindi), Communist Party of India-Maoist: Western Sub-Zonal Bureau, https://www.scribd.com/document/378449040/378417367-Maoists-Statement. Accessed 1 June 2018.
Sukanya Shantha, “One of 40 ‘Naxals’ Killed in ‘Encounter’ Was Child, Say Villagers, 7 More Missing”, The Wire, 1 May 2018, https://thewire.in/rights/gadchiroli-encounter-lost-children-of-gattepalli. Accessed 1 June 2018.
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Although some of the reports quoting interrogation reports of Maoists point at flailing extremist recruitment campaigns, the arrested extremists in recent months have included new recruits of the outfit.
“Chhattisgarh to get Black Panther combat units to counter Maoists : Rajnath Singh”, The Indian Wire, 22 May 2018, https://www.theindianwire.com/news/chhattisgarh-get-black-panther-combat-units-counter-maoists-rajnath-singh-58187/. Accessed 1 June 2018.
“Anti-Naxal operations: CRPF to replace 12,000 older troops with young personnel in Chhattisgarh”, Indian Express, 24 April 2018, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/anti-naxal-operations-crpf-to-replace-12000-older-troops-with-young-personnel-in-chhattisgarh-5150048/. Accessed 1 June 2018.
Dipankar Ghose, “Is Salwa Judum back”, Indian Express, 25 May 2018, http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/is-the-salwa-judum-back-bastariya-battalion-crpf-chhattisgarh-5190001/. Accessed 1 June 2018.
J Venkatesan, “Salwa Judum is illegal, says Supreme Court”, The Hindu, 5 July 2011, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/Salwa-Judum-is-illegal-says-Supreme-Court/article13639702.ece. Accessed 1 June 2018.
© Dr Bibhu Prasad Routray/Mantraya