In the wake of the derailment of the Maharashtra-bound Gyaneshwari Express in West Bengal, in which as many as 140 people are believed to have died, there are now growing calls in India for use of the Indian Army against the Naxalites, the Maoist organization which has been wreaking havoc in significant parts of the country.
The temptation to use the army in counter-terrorist operations is both understandable and tempting. It’s an understandable reaction because both local police and national paramilitary forces have been found wanting. It’s also tempting because the army can bring much greater firepower to bear against the terrorists and thereby deliver a much-needed body blow to the marauders.
Despite the indignation of India’s public and the frustrations of its politicians, the use of the army in counter-insurgency operations against the Maoists should be seen strictly as a weapon of last resort.
There are compelling reasons for making this argument. First, India has a professional army that is loath to shoot at its own population. It sees the defense of India’s borders as its principal responsibility and ‘aid to the civil power’—to use a phrase from the colonial era—as a distant secondary task. Destroying this distinction can be quite detrimental to the structure of civil-military relations. Over time, the military may be forced, willy-nilly, to effectively administer Naxalite-ridden areas in conjunction with civil authority.
Second, the military rarely possesses the local knowledge of terrain, customs and norms of remote parts of the country. Consequently, they may unwittingly step into a quagmire.
Third and finally, the sheer firepower at its command is better suited to taking on enemies with similar conventional forces. It’s hard to calibrate that firepower when applying it against shadowy terrorists who can easily disappear into the local population. The prospects of ‘collateral damage’, to use the familiar euphemism, when using the army are exceedingly high.
The desire to crush the terrorists is an easily understood emotion. However, a viable counter-insurgency strategy can’t be subject to such human frailties. Instead, it will require careful planning across state borders, the training of police and paramilitary forces for such operations and appropriate weaponry and tactics to tackle a widening menace.