Although India has faced insurgencies for decades, the security forces still seem to fight their battles in a half-hearted manner without any overall operational plan. They and their mentors in the home ministry do not appear to have learnt any lessons from the years of battling the subversives in the northeast and in Kashmir and now over wide areas in the interior against the Maoists.
Their approach is apparently the same - the forces sit in the barracks as the rebels consolidate their position and then launch an offensive in which there is as much chance of innocents being killed as the militants. This is what seems to have happened in Chhattisgarh, where there are doubts as to how many of the 19 killed were Maoists and how many were hapless civilians.
It is only now when the security forces are facing widespread criticism that there is talk of providing them with night vision goggles so that they will be able to detect whether there are women and children in the firing line. Yet, ensuring that the forces are adequately equipped - and not with weapons alone - to take on an adversary should have been the first task of the backroom boys in Delhi.
But, just as the gunning down of the jawans by the Maoists in the early stages of the confrontations with them in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, Silda in West Bengal and elsewhere finally persuaded the security forces to learn some basic rules of jungle warfare, including that of not venturing into unknown territory without prior intelligence, similarly, the deaths of minors in Chhattisgarh may compel the authorities to equip and train the forces with greater diligence.
However, there is an unstated reason why the earlier deaths of the paramilitary personnel took place, and why the loss of innocent lives may not make much of a difference among the bigwigs in the corridors of power - it is that public memory is apparently much shorter in India than elsewhere.
As a result, the outrage caused by the meaningless deaths is soon forgotten or is overtaken in public perception by some other scandal. Given the turbulent nature of the political, social and economic scene in India, incidents such as the deaths of more than 80 men of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Dantewada in April 2010 or of the civilians in Chhattisgarh soon become mere statistics, to be dredged up only when a similar outrage takes place again.
There is another probable reason why no long-term plans for tackling insurgencies are prepared. It is the belief that none of these rebellions pose any serious threat. There is little doubt that the militancy in the northeast and in Kashmir is regarded with such insouciance. They are seen as mere pinpricks which may be a nuisance but do not require anything other than occasional offensive forays by the security forces to scatter the malcontents.
The Khalistan movement of the 1980s was different because of Punjab's proximity to Delhi. The state's tactical response was also different. It was based primarily on 'fake encounters' instead of frontal confrontations involving hundreds of security personnel. There is little doubt that the tactic succeeded in ending the menace although innocent lives were lost, as is evident from the more than 2,000 cases of illegal cremations by the police, as noted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Fake encounters - or staged shootouts - were also a feature of the police action during the Naxalite movement in West Bengal in the 1970s and one such has been alleged in the case of the death of the Maoist leader, Cherukuri Rajkumar aka Azad, in 2010. But both the Punjab insurgency and the Naxalite uprising were essentially urban phenomena. If the Maoists have now based themselves in the forested areas, it is because of the lesson they learnt from the mistakes of the Naxalites, who focussed more on attacking constables in towns than landowners in villages. It becomes easier for the intelligence agencies to infiltrate an urban-based movement than one which operates from the jungles.
The Maoists are obviously trying to replicate Mao Zedong's ideal of a peasant army 'liberating' the countryside before attacking the towns. To an extent, they have succeeded in erasing official presence in some of the areas under their control because the government was initially blissfully oblivious of how they were building their bases. That intelligence failure has now made the authorities concentrate on frontal assaults by the security forces.
But, as the Chhattisgarh episode has shown, the pitfalls of such offensives leave the government with no alternative but to change tack. It is better for the security forces to locate the Maoist command centres before attacking them. But such an enterprise requires considerable intelligence inputs which are clearly missing at the moment.