‘The crux of the Naxal issue is strengthening the thana. Local boys are the best fit’

Muzamil Jaleel Posted: Jan 29, 2012 at 0044 hrs
CRPF Director General K Vijay Kumar has served as BSF head in Kashmir during the tumultuous years of 1998-2001. In 2001, he headed the STF that nabbed forest brigand Veerappan. In this Idea Exchange moderated by Associate Editor Muzamil Jaleel, Kumar speaks about the CRPF’s counter-insurgency strategies and the force’s versatility as it operates in multiple theatres—Kashmir, Northeast and the Maoist-affected areas

K Vijay Kumar: I owe my last major success (the Veerappan operation) mainly to the provocative press and to none other than The Indian Express Editor, Shekhar Gupta. In 2000, the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments were at their wits’ end because of Veerappan. He was setting terms and they had to negotiate with him. They agreed to release 56 people under TADA. The Supreme Court castigated both governments. For nearly 100 days, Veerappan had held the iconic filmstar of Karnataka, actor Raj Kumar, hostage. Shekhar Gupta wrote an article saying Punjab had an officer like KPS Gill, but Tamil Nadu didn’t have anyone. I was provoked. I wrote to him and mentioned the names of many sterling men—Sanjay Arora, Shankar Bidari, etc. He had the decency to publish the letter on the front page. It seemed that I had offered myself up for a suicidal mission. Within a few months, Tamil Nadu had elections and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa made me an offer to be the chief of the STF. I accepted and within 24 hours, the orders were issued. The rest of the story is well known.

I am going to mainly talk about counter-insurgency, which is the CRPF’s primary role now. Lawrence of Arabia said, “To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow like eating soup with a knife’’. What are the models we can mimic or imitate? Malaya, Vietnam and Philippines. They have handled insurgency in their own ways. The methods differ. Saturating the area with force, that is called the ink-spot theory, where you pepper the place with a lot of troops and expect good results, this is one assumption that has not proven to be right in most places.

In Malay, how did they tackle the problem? By the three-triangle approach. First, take the local guys along. The CRPF alone going into a state cannot be a solution. You have to understand the sensitivity of the people and handle them with nuance. Then, there’s the second triangle, development. They ensured there is a school, a clinic, a shop...the fundamental needs of the local populace. The third triangle, the quality of the troops.

What about India? The three legs—political, developmental and the boot. In 2006, Dr Manmohan Singh named development and security as the most serious challenges in independent India. Like an octopus, the Maoist insurgency has spread out in many places. We speak of a corridor from Kathmandu to Tirupati. It is not a perfect corridor. We are trying to dismantle or disrupt the corridor as much as possible. Their formations are across the states—Bihar and Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and parts of Maharashtra. As for the violence graph, 2008 and 2009 were bad years, 2011 has been comparatively better.

For the insurgent, food, guns, the intelligence are easy. He can throw his gun behind a bush and appear like a farmer or an innocent tribal. But we can’t afford to throw away our guns, so we are more visible and to be more visible is not a good thing in the jungle. He has got a base which is widespread; we have got only a limited base. The company commander has got to spread his influence not by violence and brutal force, he has to do it in a very gentle and different way. The triangle approach is very important: the commander has to be a killer and a diplomat. We are aliens, we stick out there. We are in uniform; that sums up the asymmetry of the whole situation.

Most of our recent operations have been between Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. We have suffered losses. Every loss is regrettable, but the number of losses have considerably come down. After the Kargil war, CRPF was named as the primary or the chief counter-insurgency force. Now CRPF is a force with many faces. It’s more than 71 years old. It’s the most ancient but the youngest because we have recruited a lot of young men. That is a very big plus point.

Muzamil JalEEl: CRPF is fighting in Kashmir, Assam and the Maoist insurgency. Insurgency in Kashmir is different from Maoist insurgency or the insurgency in Assam. How do you deal with them? Also, do you think the security approach will help win this war?

We are in multiple roles. So we have got theatre-specific schools or induction methods by which troops going to J&K undergo a certain kind of orientation. Basically, he is a policeman, he has to secure his back, he has to move in a particular pattern. Certain tactics don’t change, whether it is jungle or an urban area. But there are many other facets of operation which are unique to the soil. So that is ingrained into him by theatre-specific training. But the problem is, we have one theatre which is difficult, one theatre which is more difficult, and the third theatre which is much more difficult. We don’t have anything called a soft posting.

On the security issue, you have to have all the three legs of the triangle—developmental, political, and security. My advocacy is for a combined effort. Security has to open the door, development follows. It can’t be the other way.

Coomi Kapoor: Is the perception true that the CRPF is getting step-motherly treatment when compared to the army and the state police?

CRPF is the biggest para-military force, we don’t like to be compared to any other force. But we are not shy of learning the practices of other forces.

Dilip Bobb: Give us one of the biggest lessons you have learned from your operation against the Naxals.

We have got to be extremely tactical, extremely patient. Between bullets and bombs, last year alone, we lost more people to the bombs. That is one of the major hazards we face and to counter that has been our focus. Also, my emphasis is not just on the preparation of area domination, but to be tactically superb and superior. States now have special troops: the Jaguars in Jharkhand, STF in West Bengal, etc. They have a good bouquet of skills, we sometimes take men from them. Joint training is of enormous value because two different groups working together, training together, eating together and then operating together can be more productive.

Manu Pubby: Is the time right to take out AFSPA from parts of J&K?

I have said that I am going along with the Home Ministry’s stand on AFSPA. What are the immunities we require? We require immunity against arrest. Somebody willfully slaps a charge on you and says this guy did something to me or outraged the modesty of a person, the local police should not be able to arrest you. I’m talking about a willful or a very malicious charge. There is a Section of CrPC that says unless the Government of India gives a specific sanction, we shall not be prosecuted. This is what we are asking for.

Rakesh Sinha: Will a strong network of thanas at the local level help in the fight against insurgency?

Absolutely. The local boys are the best fit. Our job is to assist them. The crux of the issue is strengthening the thana. They belong to the place, they are the best guys to fight this. Over a period of time, there has been a failure to beef them up. There are police stations with a strength of six to eight who can’t even defend themselves. The Home Minister is tackling it. He is strengthening our battalions, he is also helping the states through various resources.

Muzamil Jaleel: Recently, in West Bengal and J&K, CRPF men killed their own people. Why does it happen?

Such incidents were fewer in 2011. Some were victims of irrational anger or depression, stress. With better communications and the ability to reach out to your home at all times, there is a transmission of all the domestic tensions which didn’t happen earlier. Earlier, we had a reasonable gap before we knew the situation at home. Now everything is fast forward. But I can’t generalise and say that in every case it is a phone call which triggers something. The men are better paid today. But the quality of work, the amount of pressure is much, much more. Stress is a part of a counter insurgent’s life. Some relief has been given but a lot more de-stressing needs to be done.

Shreya (student, DAV Public School, Dwarka): What do you do to tackle these incidents?

This kind of deadly aberration is highly regrettable. What we do in such situations is immediate counselling.

Coomi Kapoor: How do you deal with the credibility deficit? Every time there is an encounter, people see it as cold-blooded murder. Even Kishenji’s.

We are carrying the baggage of many years. For every encounter, there is a charge. To tar the whole force is a generic approach. I think the press should help us to solve this: police shouting from the rooftops that they are clean won’t do. If you want police to be clean, then society should expect good police reforms. All selection should be on merit, above every bias. There is a credibility issue, but sometimes we too feel anguish, pain, helplessness.

R Ashwin (student, DAV School): What challenges do you foresee for the CRPF in the near future?

The main problem is to keep the men motivated and trained. There are issues of basic accommodation, living conditions, leave conditions. There is the problem of internal management, because every state wants CRPF because it is versatile. The Rapid Action Force is one of our groups, COBRA is another. My job is to keep supplying, keep responding to the Centre’s demands. The Centre is always requisitioned by the states and it can never say we can’t help.

Shyamlal Yadav: Why is it so that few youngsters choose the IPS?

There is no dearth of talent in the IPS. It is not as if there is a shortage. I am going to hang my boots sometime this year. If I were to appear again for the civil service exams, I would opt for IPS. I was selected for the IAS and I took IPS.

Sunny Verma: How do you overcome your emotions or even internal battles before a fight?

I am very tense in small situations and I get finicky and fussy. But confronted with a situation, I am fairly alright. Some people found me a little inert. I have not overcome all my phobias but in a gunfight, I don’t get too disturbed. I have been lucky to survive the bullets.

Vijaita Singh: How reliable is the information you get from locals in Naxal areas?

We encourage our people to mix and pick up as much information as possible. I have completely compartmentalised civic action programme from intelligence gathering. Because you are giving them a hospital or medicines or a school, don’t expect dollops of news to follow immediately. It’s unfair or unethical. But you may get some clues and signs out of it. If you have been good with the local public, things will come to you. If you are alert, you will notice it.

Vijaita Singh: Has that kind of information helped you in present operations against Naxals?

I always say that even if a bad incident happens, never blame the neighbours for it. They are not the main accused. They will be the ones to solve the problem later. So keep them on your side. Don’t imagine everyone is hostile to you. There is a very small percentage of the public who is your enemy, the rest are your friends. But to get them on your side is going to take a lot of time. We have a restraint factor which binds us more than it binds the other side. We tell our guys people will never come to you easily. They will wait, watch. Till they come, let it be a steady, patient war.

Unni Rajen Shanker: Can you share an anecdote relating to your Veerappan encounter?

Veerappan was a phenomenon by himself. He was a bandit who formed a group, he ruled by fear. He was a hunter with a gun and good marksmanship. He was a man who could instill fear and inspire confidence. As far as I know, he eliminated 144 people. There were a lot of skeletons which were unaccounted for in the forests. He could hide where nobody could raid and catch him. The forest of about 6,000 km became his turf. When he moved, the STF was behind him by exactly 36 hours. They were unable to catch up with him. The crux of the matter was intelligence. We were able to lure some people into accepting that he was only with four people, that he was no more that formidable a figure. Secondly, he had cataract which was disabling his eyesight. He was not able to move that fast. He was 52 when he died. He got into a claustrophobic mood. He was unable to move from place to place with his previous agility. We happened to have been staying very close to his village. In Gobi, Tamil Nadu, there was a tea shop. The Karnataka STF used to eat from there and the food from the shop used to go to Veerappan. He used to eat chicken korma, hot idlis. But he was not having it so we guessed he must be further than a walking distance of two hours. We camped in every single place possible. I was only 1,500 yards from where he was camping, then 500 m and even then I had no clue. Only after the operation was over, my informants took me to the place and showed me. We got him because we changed our tactics, we saturated the place with small teams. He made the mistake, which I was praying for, of crossing over the river. We had set a trap and we waited. He had his own peculiar difficulties—the diminished size of the team and one of his guys wanted to run away. He was a little shaky. He made a fatal mistake.

Rakesh Sinha: Do human rights groups engage you and what do you tell them?

We don’t try to woo them or do anything special. Human rights are not only for the Naxals, not only for the militants, human rights involve so many other facets of life. They should be concerned about children. But some of them seem to be concerned only about protecting the other side. They think the security force is the prime enemy of the country and these boys are the prime defenders of the country. That is a very odd way of thinking. If there is some symmetry in the thinking, we will be very happy.

Trancribed by Shalini Narayan