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Control the narrative

GoI must arrest this trend of  surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals.

Someone once said that al-Qaeda was now essentially a media propaganda machine, with a terror wing.  The same argument could also be made of the Naxalites in India.  As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media wing, has done a remarkable job in news content and propaganda delivery over the Internet — from the indiscretions of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, to disseminating audio and video propaganda from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to regional network stations.

The battle for the “hearts and minds” is a critical aspect of successful COIN campaigns and it is here that controlling the narrative becomes critical.  Propaganda campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab serve as morale boosters to followers and as effective recruitment tools, far beyond the epicenter of the insurgency.  They are also effective in turning public opinion against COIN forces — both in the “besieged” countries as well as in those leading the COIN effort.  U.S. and Western allies have found it significantly difficult to counter this unrelenting propaganda in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Although the differences between the Af-Pak and Naxal insurgencies are plenty, there are lessons for India to draw from the American experience.  Indeed, even in the Indian context, one of the many aspects that makes the Naxal insurgency different from either Kashmir or Punjab is that the government has been so far unable to control the narrative of the conflict.  The leadership structure of the Naxals — which includes among its ranks, suave, highly educated and very eloquent men and women very adept at information dissemination — plays a significant role in denying the government of India monopoly over the Naxal narrative.  Hence the demands ad nauseum from “root cause” advocates and deliberate attempts to obfuscate differences between the treacherous objectives of the Naxals and the legitimate demands of the tribals.

This counter-narrative has also been adopted by some for political expediency, by self-styled “activists” and human rights groups, further diluting the central government’s version on the issue.  Controlling the narrative is important in any unconventional war — more so in one being conducted in remotest and poorest corners of the hinterland.  Public perception during  such operations is important.  But the nature and area of the Naxal conflict has contributed to public sentiment largely indifferent on the issue.  Dantewada, after all, is not Mumbai.

The Indian government has thus far not been capable of countering this insidious propaganda war, and has been religated to fighting on the backfoot. Campaigns such as those launched by as-Sahab and the Naxals aim to achieve one simple objective — demonstrate that the enemy (the U.S. and its allies, and India, respectively) is not morally infallible.  India has involuntarily assisted in partly achieving this objective, through instances of excessive use of police force on the tribals and through ill-conceived ventures such as the Salwa Judum.

To be sure, India’s success in defeating the Naxals depends on a number of factors, including availability and reliability of local intelligence, quality and capabilities of COIN forces, development and rehabilitation of tribals, better local governance, and a government (central and state) willing to see the operations through.  But the government will remain weak, and its objectives, discombobulated and confused, so long as public perception remains apathetic or cluttered.

The  full extent of the state’s resources must therefore be used to both counter existing propaganda and launch counter-offensives to regain control of the narrative.  No doubt, the Indian government will not be able to end the insurgency merely  though the use of media guile, but further losses of life and territory are almost assured if it is unable to arrest this trend of surrendering control of the narrative to the Naxals and their sympathizers.

http://pragmatic.nationalinterest.in/2010/05/12/confusing-considerations/
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Lalgarh and beyond

Since returning to power earlier this year, the UPA has been painting the Maoists as India’s greatest internal security threat.  What started out in Lalgarh as a protest movement against police excesses morphed into an armed popular uprising, thanks to the machinations of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) and the CPI (Maoist).  The frontier regions of West Mindapore district were engulfed in a state of virtual People’s War; the Maoists wouldn’t have it any other way.  The Chairman would have been proud.

The glare of national media, as well as rumblings in New Delhi resulted in the ensuing counterinsurgency operation, which effectively began on June 18.  Lalgarh was retaken by local police, with the aid of the BSF, CPRF and paramilitary units by the end of day 3 of the operation. That the Maoists were able to exert control over Lalgarh in the first place is an indictment of the flippant, almost collusive approach to the problem by the ruling CPI(M).

This should come as no surprise: the CPI(M) is an ideologically bankrupt entity that has driven the two states where it has held power — Kerala and West Bengal — into virtual economic bankruptcy.  Prakash Karat and his ilk do an excellent job at effusively marketing their non-ideology, and taking potshots at other political parties, but when it comes to brass tacks, there is a virtual paralysis in decision making.

However, singling out the CPI(M) for the mess would be unfair.  Other prolific actors, such as the Trinamool Congress (TC) have played a very significant part in perpetuating the Maoist menace in the hinterland.  Ajai Sahni writes of a law and order/moral vacuum that provided an ideal festering ground for Maoist indoctrination and expansion:

Other players have, of course, been critical — the (TC) principal among the veritable armies of ‘useful idiots’ who have been taken along. The backdrop of this increasing ‘joint front activity’ has been augmenting violence and a consolidation of the Maoist presence across West Bengal — something the Communist Party of India — Marxist (CPI-M) state government has sought consistently to deny, underplay and cover up.

CPI(M)’s wishy-washiness when it came to declaring the Maoists as a “terrorist” organization makes one question whether or not they capable of acting in good faith with the interests of the nation at heart.  The need to declare the Maoists “terrorists” was dismissed with the excuse that they (the Maoists) needed to be countered “administratively”.  That’s rich, coming from a party that has left behind a trail of unmitigated administrative disasters in West Bengal and Kerala.

What the UPA must do upon the cessation of military operations is to ensure that there is a mechanism to redress the grievances of the local tribes.  Police excesses and human rights violations must be investigated, and those guilty of excesses must be brought to book.  A distinction must be made between the adivasis and the Maoists, who, for all intents and purposes had no stake in the anti-police agitation but the desire to indoctrinate and recruit tribals for their cause.

The law and order vacuum that allowed the Maoists to establish control over the 17 villages must be plugged.  The capabilities of security forces in the area need to be significantly enhanced, if only to act as a deterrent against any future contemplations of armed popular uprisings in the area.  B. Raman cautions that in doing so, the UPA needs to formulate strategies baring in mind the differences between Maoist terrorism and jihadi terrorism:

Firstly, the Maoist terrorism is an almost totally rural phenomenon, whereas jihadi terrorism is a largely urban phenomenon. Secondly, Maoist terrorism is a totally indigenous phenomenon motivated by domestic grievances and a domestic political agenda….Jihadi terrorism is a cross border threat to national security. Maoist terrorism is not.

The jihadis increasingly attack soft targets. The Maoists don’t. They mainly attack police stations, police lines, camps and arms storage depots of para-military forces in order to demoralise the security forces and capture their arms and ammunition. The repeated success of the Maoists in mounting large-scale surprise attacks on such hard targets speaks of the poor state of rural policing and intelligence set-up and the equally poor state of physical security.

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