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Aim: strike fear in troops

New Delhi, May 19: The wave of Maoist attacks on security forces since February this year has been so brutal and so sweeping in its breadth that the rebels’ “Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign” (TCOC) is making the Centre and the states pause and ponder.

For nearly a month now, aggressive patrolling and raids by state and central security forces on the ground in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have become infrequent.

In Chhattisgarh, particularly, there have been instances of CRPF troopers refusing to stir out of their camps after the Mukram killings of April 6.

Today’s attack in Kadashole, the village near Lalgarh where Maoists and the CRPF were engaged in a firefight outside a jungle as the security forces sought to encircle the zone in June last year, also emphasises that the rebels are demonstrating an ability to strike in areas that have apparently been cleared.

The Telegraph had reported on February 16 that the Maoists had launched their latest TCOC — with the attack on the Shilda Eastern Frontier Rifles camp — and a spurt in violence was inevitable.

Since then the attacks have swung from the north of the Eastern Ghats to the western borders of Chhattisgarh with Maharashtra, cutting a swathe through western Orissa. (See map)

The attrition rate among security forces in the last 95 days of the TCOC is more than one per day — unacceptable to any conventional military outfit in any war. Not only that, the victims of the Maoists have included a variety of security personnel — state and central forces plus quasi-official units like the special police of the Koya commandos recruited from the vigilante Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh.

In none of these attacks have the security forces, despite the determination shown by leaders at the Centre and in the states, demonstrated the ability to recover and hit back with force, violating a cardinal principle of counter-insurgency operations — never to lose contact with the adversary.

“Yes, as of now, the Maoists do indeed have the upper hand. The weak is striking at the strong because the state forces cannot be equally strong in all places,” admits Brigadier B.K. Ponwar, who heads the Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in Kanker, Chhattisgarh.

The level of disruption caused by the Maoists’ TCOC is also unmatched by the multiple insurgencies in the Northeast and the militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. For the two-day strike called by the CPI (Maoist), for instance, the railways have had to cancel/reschedule several trains.

All this paints a misleading picture of advancing Maoist forces. The reality is quite the opposite. The Maoists’ TCOC, security experts believe, is a posture in aggressive defence. In their official documents, too, the Maoists call the current phase in their guerrilla war a period of “strategic defence”.

“In Andhra Pradesh, it took 10 years for the police to gain the upper hand and 15 years to clear the Maoists from all but Khammam and Visakhapatnam,” says P.V. Ramana, researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. “By targeting security forces, they are trying to strike fear among the troops.”

Some of that has worked in places like Mukram/Chintalnaar and also after Monday’s blasting of a busload of SPOs and civilians near Sukma in Dantewada. Both, the CRPF on April 6 and the SPOs on May 17, were too shell-shocked to chase and inflict substantial casualties on the rebels after being ambushed.

In Shilda, the EFR camp was overrun and that attack provoked the chief of the force to blame superior officers, demonstrating a lack of co-ordination in the administration.

The wave of attacks by the Maoists will necessarily force the police to organise their own security first, and thereby consume more manpower, before they are able to implement the Centre’s mandate to provide security to civilians.

In the security establishment, there is a consensus that more attacks are possible — the Maoists have threatened them in repeated media statements — and on the rebel’s access to firepower.

An exact estimate is well-nigh impossible, but two instances can give an idea of how the Maoist arsenal is stocked. In the April 6 Mukram killings, the Maoists stripped the CRPF of 76 automatic rifles and two 2-inch mortars, enough, says Brigadier Ponwar, “to start an insurgency”.

Needless to say, there have been armoury raids before and after that incident.

Second, the Maoists’ weapon of choice has been the improvised explosive device (IED), indicating that they have magazine loads of ammonium nitrate, gelatine sticks and detonators.

The devices are also proving to be increasingly lethal. Just to illustrate — 20,000 tonnes of explosives can be used to make 2,000 IEDs of 10kg each. A 10kg IED used effectively can blow up a vehicle capable of carrying up to 10 passengers.

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