Sukma attack: How India failed to tackle Maoist insurgency and lost its jawans

Sudharshan R Garg
Sudharshan R GargApr 28, 2017 | 09:09

Sukma attack: How India failed to tackle Maoist insurgency and lost its jawans

Every time there is an ambush of our forces by the Maoists, the usual refrain is “why don’t we send in the military”. The military is not a silver bullet that can solve a counter-insurgency (COIN) issue. There are many reasons why COIN ops are vastly different from conventional warfare.

To begin, we need to first understand the nature of an insurgency. Insurgency is used synonymously with irregular warfare, asymmetrical warfare, unconventional warfare or most commonly guerilla warfare. These all mean the same for the most part and can be used interchangeably as the nature of such warfare, aims, methods and outcomes is vast and diverse.


One common trait to such warfare is the blurring of any distinctions between civilians and insurgents. This is what causes an overwhelmingly stronger conventional force like the Soviets or Americans in Iraq or indeed, India against the Naxals or the IPKF in Sri Lanka to falter.

States are mindful of collateral damage and civilian casualties and have rigid rules of engagements (ROE) that define how they can engage the insurgent. Now contrast this to what the allies did in occupied Germany when faced with stay-behind Werwolf squads.

As they were in a clearly defined war, any village from which shots were fired was considered hostile and artillery fire or air support would be called down on it till the resistance was ended. No modern state facing an insurgency has the same level of flexibility and rightly so, as indiscriminate slaughter of civilians would not be acceptable and would be a propaganda victory for the insurgents as well.

Scott Moore says that any insurgency reflects an interwoven web of three key factors:

Actions: Actions are the events and behaviours that are the visible manifestation of an insurgency. This could be the violence perpetrated by the insurgents, reprisals by the state, counter reprisals by the insurgents, media coverage (favouring one side) driving up tensions.


Broadly, actions are events the state or insurgents undertake forcing the populace to support one of these actors. Actions by their very nature are highly visible but are also very tactical and broadly do not affect the causes or outcomes of an insurgency. The deeper strategic elements come from the other two aspects of an insurgency.

Structures: This is the exoskeleton or the macro level framework that gave birth to the insurgency and continues to nurture it. Usually these are either real or perceived fault-lines in society that are the trigger for an insurgency, with the insurgents aiming to demolish the existing flawed super structure and replacing it with their own.

This could be varied from setting up an Islamic Caliphate (Iraq and Afghanistan insurgencies) to an independent homeland (Tamil Nadu, Northern Ireland) or a more nebulous and vague outcome (Maoists in India). In the case of the Naxalites, poverty and inequality coupled with very low levels of development but high degrees of mineral extraction from the affected areas form the super structure for the insurgency and help keep it going.

Beliefs: Beliefs are the ideologies behind an insurgency that both flow from and determine the structures in place which in turn affect the actions which are the visible manifestation of an insurgency. Beliefs are also the filter through which structures are interpreted. So to a Naxalite, a road could be interpreted as a sign of exploitation of the tribal resources while to a jihadi fighting in Iraq, the state pushing for democracy and western norms could be interpreted as an assault on his religious beliefs.


These three pillars of an insurgency are complex and interwoven into a tapestry, but aside from limited actions operate mostly on a strategic level. At a tactical level though, an insurgent depends on mobility, invisibility and legitimacy to fight against the more powerful state.

At a strategic level, a state to defeat an insurgency needs to tackle all three facets of the insurgency tapestry. It needs to attack the belief structures and provide a robust counter-point to the existing beliefs that gave rise to and fuelled the insurgency; by doing so it would weaken the ideological basis for an insurgency, thus starving the insurgent the support of the native population over time.

This can be done by changing the structures and attacking the underlying, objective cause for the insurgency. In the case of the tribals (associated with Naxalites), guarantees that their resources won’t be exploited, better infrastructure, improved living conditions and greater safety and security to villages that abandon guerrillas would be a strong sign for them to abandon violence and make common cause with the state.

Finally, the state needs to project action while denying the insurgency space to determine actions on their own initiative. Simply put, the state should deny the Naxalites the ability to project violence while maintaining its own ability to project violence on the Naxalites and this can be achieved mostly at the tactical level.

The ground level operations are driven by an implementation of the Oil Spot doctrine, which consists of isolating the enemy (depriving him of access to the strategic structures), confining the insurgents to controlled areas of operations (restrict his ability to project force while the state retains that ability) and finally restriction by interdiction of his supply lines and support bases.

To achieve the above, one needs to consider the three fundamental drivers of a successful insurgency operation: Mobility, Invisibility and Legitimacy.

As Mao said, many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy's rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water, the latter to the fish who inhabit it. How may it be said that these two cannot exist together? It is only undisciplined troops who make the people their enemies and who, like the fish out of its native element cannot live.


Terrain: The Naxalites operate in the very heavily forested Dantewada region (in Chhattisgarh) and other similar forested areas in Odisha, MP and Bengal. This makes it difficult for CRPF and COBRA's to run interdiction patrols. They also use height to spot our police movements from miles out and hide when they are faced with a SAD-type patrol.

Invisibility and Legitimacy

Based on media reports of the Sukma operation, the Naxalites used villagers as scouts. Photo: India Today

Local support: Either coerced or natural, they can depend on local villages for support. This means the state can't easily starve them of food and victuals.

Now the Maoists enjoy mobility almost fully, and the other two partially.

To defeat them, the Indian state needs to adopt modern techniques. Helicopters or drones with thermal imagery to negate the advantages of forests and heights the Naxalites have. We need MRAP vehicles to ensure safe mobility. Most of all we need to have the ability to project force on demand and deny that ability to the Naxalites.

Next comes the legitimacy and invisibility aspect. The maxims of COIN here are:

- Provide vital economic growth and safety to villages in the area of operations. This will deny the Naxalites a support base.

- Infiltrate and weaken enemy structures from within - we seem to be getting this right given the spate of arrests and encounters we have had. That said, our forces are also infiltrated at a local level and we need to root them out.

- Covert ops - we would be doing it, but the degree is in question. This is similar to Operation Phoenix conducted by the SAD of the CIA in Vietnam. Basically assassinate cadre in their bases, assassinate leaders. Mine their travel routes and basically do to the Naxalites what they do to us.

The reason a full blown military engagement won't work is explained by Gaula's maxim, that victory in a COIN op is won not be destroying forces conventionally, but isolation of the insurgent from the local population, enforced by the population and not the state.

If you look at any COIN op, you can easily spot these classical stratagems. If done well, like in Ireland, Punjab, Kashmir or even Veerappan, the state wins. If done poorly, like India against the Naxalites, Vietnam, Germany in Russia or Russia in Afghanistan, it leads to a bloody, protracted war.

The end game for any state should be victory according to Galula's maxim, that a state to win needs to not only destroy the enemy, but isolate the insurgent from the population, an isolation enforced by the population and not artificially enforced by the state. 

Based on media reports of the Sukma operation, the Naxalites used villagers as scouts, used overwhelming force (schwerpunkt) in one area of their choosing to quickly wipe out resistance and then disappeared again.

Classic case of using villagers as scouts (mujahideen in Afghanistan, VC in Vietnam), gathering information (50 jawans and their positions), using overwhelming force (textbook again, used extensively by the VC in Vietnam, Mao in China) and striking.

Ideally, if we had drones on 24 hour standby, our jawans should have spotted the Naxalites grouping up, and disrupted them as they were forming up.

If we had a high degree of infiltration of their units (Britain in Ireland, India in Punjab), we would have, ideally, exposed the scouts and laid a counter ambush.

If our covert ops game was on point, operators in the field should have spotted movements and radioed base with this information. We failed these jawans on all levels.


The Basics of Counterinsurgency, by Scott Moore

Doctrine for Counterinsurgency at the tactical level - a paper published by the French army

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, by David Galulla

Last updated: April 28, 2017 | 09:09
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