The Bastariya Battalion will soon join the Central Reserve Police Force to counter Maoists in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region. The move, besides adding punch to the fight against the militants by providing improved ground intelligence, would give jobs for tribal youth who may otherwise be misled into joining the extremist group
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has approved a proposal to set up a tribal police battalion to fight Maoists in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region.
The raising of the ‘Bastariya Battalion’ – named after the predominantly tribal Bastar region, which is at the center of the Maoist conflict – is expected to augment the state’s capacity to counter the Maoists.
It is aimed at “overcoming some of the serious operational inadequacies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) by adding local intelligence and capacities,” Bibhu Prasad Routray, an expert on the Maoist conflict and a former Deputy Director in India’s National Security Council Secretariat told Asia Times Online.
Poor local intelligence and lack of familiarity with the densely forested terrain where the Maoists operate have severely hampered the state’s anti-Maoist military operations in Bastar. Indeed, several Maoist attacks on CRPF personnel in the past were attributed to these weaknesses.
“Drawing local tribals into the police force would help overcome these challenges but it hasn’t been easy to recruit tribals,” a retired CRPF official who was deployed in southern district Sukma for several years said.
“Being thin and short, Bastar’s tribals do not meet the physical criteria” for selection to these forces. Physical qualifications for recruitment into the Bastariya Battalion have, therefore, been relaxed. This should draw tribals into the police force and “prevent them from joining the rebels,” he said.
Some experts are doubtful of the benefits that would accrue from the new battalion.
While it would provide employment for around 1,000 tribal boys and could “enlarge the support base of the state among the tribals, the relaxation of physical criteria also means recruitment of sub-par security forces,” Routray said.
“Their capacity to contribute when deployed outside Chhattisgarh would always remain less than what is the norm,” he pointed out, raising the pertinent question whether the Indian state “can afford to burden itself with such mediocrity in the long run, especially in the realm of security.”
India’s Maoist conflict goes back several decades. The current phase began in 2004 when the main Maoist groups united to form the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist). This phase has been the most violent, with the 2009-2011 period being particularly bloody.
Since the peak in 2010, the conflict has been declining; violent incidents and fatalities have fallen for five consecutive years. According to the MHA’s Annual Report 2015-16, 2,213 violent incidents related to “leftwing extremism” left 1,005 people dead in 2010 compared with 1,088 incidents that resulted in 226 deaths in 2015.
However, Chhattisgarh has bucked the trend; violent incidents here increased by 42% in 2015 over the previous year, according to the MHA report. It “remains the worst-affected state,” witnessing 466 incidents and 97 fatalities in 2015.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) attributes the nation-wide decline in Maoist violence to “several factors,” the most important among them being “successful intelligence-based operations” by the security forces, which helped them “neutralize top cadres” among the Maoists.
According to SATP data, between 2010 and 2016, at least 667 leadership elements of the Maoists were “neutralized” i.e. killed, arrested or surrendered.
Would the improved ground intelligence to be provided by the Bastariya Battalion contribute to the Maoists’ weakening in Chhattisgarh too? “It can be expected to have that impact,” the retired CRPF official said, pointing out that future anti-Maoist operations in Bastar would be “based on more precise information.”
However, “violence is likely to increase in the region in the short and medium-term,” he said. The Maoists have warned the tribals against co-operating or working with the state and can be expected to target tribal police personnel.
In fact, some of the worst violence in the Maoist conflict was witnessed in the 2005-2011 period when the Maoists clashed with state-supported tribal militias that went by the name of Salwa Judum, Special Police Officers (SPOs) , Koya Commandos, etc. The bloodletting in Bastar during this period was unprecedented as tribals battled each other, tearing apart families as well as tribal society.
In 2011, when the Supreme Court ordered the disbanding of these “unconstitutional and illegal” militias, the Chhattisgarh government recruited the SPOs as ‘auxiliary constables.’ The Maoists targeted and killed these ‘auxiliary constables’ too.
Those joining the CRPF’s ‘Bastariya Battalion’ can expect to face a similar fate. Indeed, it is their families that will bear the brunt of the Maoists’ ire as they live in the conflict zone but are not provided security.
Thus, the ‘Bastariya Battalion’ while adding to the state’s capacity to counter the Maoists could trigger a surge in violence. It could weaken the Maoists in the short-term but also, it could contribute to another escalatory phase in the violence.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org