India Embattled

The country can’t contain insurgent movements until it has a comprehensive national plan for tackling them.

By Sumit Ganguly, a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Supporters of Naxalite People’s War Group wait for leaders to address a public meeting in India’s Guntur district on Oct. 11, 2004.
Supporters of Naxalite People’s War Group wait for leaders to address a public meeting in India’s Guntur district on Oct. 11, 2004. Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

Insurgencies, whether on domestic soil or abroad, are notoriously difficult to defeat. The British faced them in British Malaya, Kenya, and in Northern Ireland. In British Malaya, they had a modicum of success putting it down. In Kenya, they courted abject disaster. And in Northern Ireland, thanks to U.S. intercession, the parties brought about a fragile peace. It isn’t just the United Kingdom. The French, who had sought so tenaciously to hang on to Algeria, ultimately threw in the towel. And on April 14, in a televised address to the nation, U.S. President Joe Biden declared an end to a nearly two-decade-long war and then counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

Even fighting insurgencies on one’s home turf can be long, painful, and costly. India’s government received such an unwelcome reminder earlier this month when Maoist rebels, known as the Naxalites, killed 22 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in an ambush in the mineral-rich state of Chhattisgarh in central India. This insurgency has witnessed significant ebbs and flows since 2010, when then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared the Naxalites constituted “the biggest internal security challenge facing our country.” Over a decade later, despite changes of government at national and local levels, the specter of the Naxalites still stalks the land.

India, of course, is no stranger to fighting insurgencies. Since the 1950s, when it confronted the Naga and Mizo rebels in its northeast, it has dealt with a range of other insurgencies, in Punjab, Kashmir, and elsewhere. In the northeast, after wearing down the insurgents, it managed to forge peace accords with both the Naga and Mizo rebels, even though embers of both insurgencies continue to burn. In Punjab, the Indian national and state governments adopted an iron-fist strategy to crush the Sikh insurgency in the 1980s while racking up scores of human rights violations. Finally, in Kashmir, through a massive deployment of troops and firepower, India has brought the separatist insurgency there mostly under control. However, it now confronts the problem of a deeply alienated population, segments of which have resorted to street protests that occasionally veer into violence.

What explains India’s failure to effectively end the Naxalite uprising despite its record of partial success in dealing with other insurgencies? The answer to this question is complex

First, the problems that India confronts are to some extent structural. Since it is a federal state, the national government can only send in its forces when state governments explicitly seek its assistance or when the central government concludes a subsidiary is simply incapable of maintaining law and order. Under such circumstances, it can invoke Article 357 of the Indian Constitution, dismiss the state government for a period of as long as six months, and during that interregnum, rule the state directly from New Delhi

Since most state governments, especially if they belong to an opposition party, zealously guard their power, few, if any of them, are eager to invite national police forces to maintain political order. They usually seek such a lifeline only if they find themselves really under siege. Unfortunately, in that case, it usually means rebels in the state have already acquired considerable steam and are unlikely to be easily contained.

Second, although the Indian Army has had extensive counterinsurgency experience and has, for the most part, acquitted itself creditably, it is extremely loath to be deployed within the nation’s borders. Shooting at its own population is a task the military takes on with supreme reluctance for two reasons. First, it detracts from the military’s principle function: the defense of the nation’s borders. Second, the military is also concerned that repeated deployments aiding civil operations within the country could promote fissures within its ranks.

These are, however, not the only issues that have dogged India’s counterinsurgency strategy. Another important problem is New Delhi has never developed a dedicated counterinsurgency force that can be deployed as needed across the country. Instead, it has a veritable alphabet soup of paramilitary organizations that are not specifically trained to tackle either rural or urban insurgencies.

For example, the Central Industrial Security Force is tasked with guarding static, industrial sites and providing airport security. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) was raised shortly after the 1962 war with China. The ITBP, on occasion, has been deployed in counterinsurgency operations but is mostly placed along the Sino-Indian border. Similarly, apart from its task as a frontline force along India’s troubled borders with China and Pakistan, India’s Border Security Force has sometimes been drafted for counterinsurgency operations

The most frequently relied on entity, meanwhile, is the Central Reserve Police Force. It was originally designed to assist state governments when local police proved inadequate to the task of maintaining law and order. Better trained and armed than most local police forces, it has, on a number of occasions, proven quite effective in curbing urban riots and violent protests. Yet its officers have no routine training in counterinsurgency operations. Nor, for that matter, can a national police organization, regardless of its capabilities, be expected to have the requisite intelligence-gathering features, knowledge of the local terrain, and the ability to adapt to vastly different regional settings. Consequently, it is hardly surprising the Central Reserve Police Force units that were attacked in Chhattisgarh’s jungles were unprepared for the onslaught.

Where success has come, it has been in the hands of local forces, not national ones. In the state of Andhra Pradesh, a state-level dedicated counterinsurgency force, the Greyhounds, has ended of the Naxalite insurgency in the state. This force was specifically designed to tackle the insurgents; it was adequately trained at a special counterinsurgency school and was given suitable equipment for operating in the jungles of Andhra Pradesh.

Some other states have tried to follow its lead, including the neighboring state of Odisha. Nevertheless, setting up such skilled forces takes time, resources, and existing institutional capacity. Not all states are capable of mustering all three. Chhattisgarh, a state that was carved out the larger state of Madhya Pradesh a mere two decades ago, is not known for effective governance. It has failed to either evolve a “hearts and minds” strategy designed to wean the local population away from the insurgents or a kinetic response that seeks to militarily break the back of an insurgency.

The counterinsurgency strategies of India’s states remain as uneven as ever. Despite Singh’s candid recognition of the problem more than a decade ago and current Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah’s remark about giving the Naxalites a “befitting reply” for the Chhattisgarh attack, the national government has yet to devise an overarching strategy to tackle this situation. Unless that changes, and despite India’s substantial experience and occasional successes, it is unlikely the insurgent movements that currently stalk the land will end anytime soon.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.