Chopper ruling raises Maoist tensions

By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE – India’s Maoist conflict could escalate with the government granting permission to the Indian Air Force (IAF) to fire in self-defense if its choppers come under attack from Maoists.

“We were told a couple of months ago that we can fire to defend ourselves,” a senior IAF official said in New Delhi on Thursday.

IAF helicopters are currently used for logistics; mainly the evacuation of injured police and paramilitary personnel engaged in anti-Maoist operations. Over the past two years, its choppers have come under fire twice. In November 2008, a Mi-8 helicopter carrying election officials and voting machines was shot at in Bastar in the central state of Chhattisgarh. A sergeant was killed

in that attack. Then in April 2009, in the midst of general elections, a Mi-17 helicopter came under attack in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra.

In the wake of the attacks on helicopters operating in Maoist areas, Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik requested the government to grant the IAF permission to fire in self-defense. He clarified in October last year that the IAF was not looking to carry out “Rambo-style offensives against the Maoists”, only engage in retaliatory fire.

The government has launched a massive anti-Maoist military operation called Green Hunt in several districts across central and eastern India and has deployed tens of thousands of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and state police personnel. The CRPF and police have come under repeated attack, especially in Chhattisgarh, the epicenter of the conflict.

Several districts of this state fall under what the Maoists describe as the Dandakaranya Special Zone. This is a thickly forested area, vast tracts of which are in Maoist control. Access to these forests, especially to send in reinforcements or to evacuate injured personnel, has been a huge challenge; hence the use of choppers for logistical support.

In the wake of the string of Maoist attacks on CRPF personnel in recent months a section of the country’s security analysts have favored deployment of the army in Maoist areas. This has been ruled out by the government for now, although senior army officers are involved in strategizing.

It appears the government’s green signal to the IAF to engage in retaliatory fire comes with “stringent conditions”. Apparently, the “Garuds” – the IAF’s commandos who are on board the choppers – have been instructed to refrain from firing unless they are certain of the source of the attack. This is to avoid civilian casualties. Besides, the IAF’s helicopters will not be armed with conventional heavy fire power weapons such as rockets but only the sideward-mounted machine guns.

The IAF says that while it has not fired at the Maoists so far.

The use of air strikes, even if only in self-defense, in the Maoist conflict marks a significant shift in India’s counter-insurgency strategy. Hitherto, while air power has been used in counter-insurgency operations for logistical purposes, for instance, India has refrained from resorting to air strikes, the reason for the restraint being that one does not engage in aerial bombing of one’s own people.

Besides, the inevitable civilian casualties that accompany such bombing contribute to deepening anger against the state. Even at the height of the militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, where Pakistan was said to be engaging in a “proxy war” against India, Delhi refrained from using air strikes.

It was only in the northeastern state of Mizoram in the 1960s that India did carry out aerial bombing to deal with a secessionist insurgency. Several towns in Mizoram including its capital Aizawl had been overrun by the Mizo National Front (MNF). On March 5-6, Aizawl was strafed to “soften the situation” ahead of an assault on the town to free it from the MNF’s control. Recalling the impact of the air strikes on Aizawl, General (Retired) D K Palit recalls in his book Sentinels of the North East: The Assam Rifles that they “put paid to the investment. The hostiles melted away.”

While they did pave the way for Delhi wresting control over Aizawl, the air strikes triggered rage among Mizos that is yet to subside. It was not the air strikes, however, that brought an end to the insurgency. It was a political settlement that finally tamed the secessionist movement. Mizoram was made a Union Territory with its own legislature in 1972 but it was not only in 1986, when a peace agreement was signed between Delhi and the MNF, Mizoram was made a full-fledged state and Pu Laldenga, the leader of the MNF became its first chief minister, that Mizo secessionism was by and large quelled.

While India is certainly not considering air strikes in the Maoist areas, the go-ahead to choppers to fire in self defense could lead to escalating violence. It is very likely that if the Maoists fire at an IAF chopper they will do so from the midst of a village. There is a danger then of the IAF hitting civilians. When police operating on the ground are unable to distinguish Maoist from civilians, how are commandos in a helicopter going to be able to make that distinction?

This is a problem that the IAF is grappling with. Following the ambush at Chintalnar in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh in April this year, when 76 CRPF personnel were killed, and a clamor for deployment of the army and use of air strikes rose, Naik pointed out that “The military – air force, the army and the navy – are not trained for limited lethality. The weapons that we have are meant for the enemy across the border.” Therefore, he said, he was opposed to the use of the Air Force to deal with the Maoists.

Naik also drew attention to the problems that the IAF would encounter in Maoist areas. “Let us say that the air force is called in for attack in a Naxal [Maoist] locality and it needs to fire a rocket, which is fired at a minimum distance from 1500-1800 meters … from that distance we are not able to visualize what the target is,” he said. “Unless we have 120% intelligence that they are enemies, it is not fair to use air force within our borders. The basic thing is Naxals are our own citizens,” he said.

There are signs that that Maoists might be reaching out to people across the border – in Pakistan.

On Friday, Bangalore police announced they had unearthed a plot involving Karachi-based underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, who is allegedly supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and is believed to have masterminded the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai. Two Indians with links to Ibrahim have been arrested, allegedly while trying to establish contact with Maoist leaders. The plan was to invite Maoist leaders to Dubai for a meeting.

Maoist sympathizers interviewed by Asia Times Online have dismissed the police allegations ”as an attempt to malign the Maoists” that is aimed at justifying a more brutal crackdown. However, that possibility cannot be ruled out as India’s Maoist conflict provides ISI, which has repeatedly fished in troubled waters in India, with another opportunity.

If the Maoists are indeed considering linking up with the ISI, they can expect funding, weapons and technological input to flow in. However, the move is fraught with risk. It will invite a far heavier response from the government.

What is more, an ISI tag will deprive Maoists of whatever support they have. They will lose the labels like “our boys and our misguided youth” that they enjoy to some extent now. A section of urban India, which does sympathize with the Maoists, will find it difficult to back them.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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