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#2981, 12 October 2009
Aerial Support for Countering Naxals
Radhakrishna Rao
Freelancer, Bangalore
e-mail: rkrao1950@gmail.com

India’s Home Minister P Chidambaram has made it plain that security forces would engage Naxalite groups till they abjure violence and surrender arms. Without divulging details of the proposed plan to involve the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the operations against Naxal hideouts in the states of Chattisagarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal along with the Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the state police forces, Chidambaram said that IAF would take counter measures if Naxalites open fire upon its helicopters. Currently, IAF choppers are deployed for either para-dropping security personnel in Naxalite-infested areas or evacuating those injured during the ground operations.  

In light of the recent attack on an IAF chopper by the Naxalites in Chhattisagarh, resulting in the death of an IAF personnel, the IAF chief Air Chief Marshal PV Naik sought permission from the Defence Ministry to open fire in self defence if the IAF helicopters or crew operating in the Naxalite dominated areas come under attack. Security experts have hinted at the possibility of collateral damage in the event of IAF’s stepped up involvement in anti-Naxalite operations. This could add further to disaffection against the government and strengthen the Naxalite movement. Indian Defence Minister AK Antony has said that the question of expanding the role of IAF in anti-Naxalite operations is being examined.

The gruesome murder of Jharkhand police official Francis Induwar in early October followed by the gunning down of 18 policemen in the forest stretches of Gadchhiroli in Maharashtra by Naxalites has firmed up the resolve of the Indian Home Ministry to invigorate the offensive against Naxalites. Even as there is a widespread recognition of the need to improve the socio-economic conditions of the areas under the spell of Naxalite movement, the government of India is under tremendous pressure to   intensify its operations against the Naxalites.
Meanwhile, a report carried in a leading multi edition English daily quoting Union Home Secretary GK Pillai pointed out that IAF will fine tune its offensive strategy against Naxal hideouts by making use of satellite data to be made available by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This proposal, if given a practical shape, would involve the deployment of India’s first all weather microwave imaging satellite RISAT-II to pinpoint the support bases and movement of Naxal groups in the depths of the forests. RISAT-2 equipped with an X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and launched this year in April is capable of providing high quality images even under the cover of darkness, cloud and haze.
ISRO describes RISAT as a satellite meant for monitoring floods, land slides, cyclones and agriculture-related activities. However, military analysts point out that this satellite realized by ISRO in association with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) would help Indian defence forces and security agencies heighten their vigil against terrorist activities and troop movements along India’s border with Pakistan and China. Designed for a lifespan of two years, RISAT-II will be in a position to revisit an area in about 4-5 days. This quick revisiting capability is critical to intelligence gathering and surveillance. Moreover, the highly agile RISAT-II can be manoeuvred to change its viewing angles as per the requirements of the users. From a strategic perspective it implies that the satellite is ideal for monitoring human movement with high degree of precision. RISAT-II, therefore, could prove really beneficial in zeroing in on Naxalite hideouts in the depths of forests and carrying operations with minimum collateral damage.
Incidentally, the Special Task Force (STF) set up to capture the notorious forest brigand Veerappan, who from his hideout in the forest stretches on Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border was killing elephants and felling sandalwood trees with abandon, had made use of the data from the IRS earth observation spacecraft of ISRO. But the proposal to use satellite data and air power against Naxalite groups could have wider political ramifications .A section of politicians have already questioned the propriety of using the “country’s defence forces against its own people”.
Keeping in mind that majority of the tribals and rural poor are drawn towards Naxalism not out of ideological compulsion but as a means to express their resentment against their continued victimisation, experts have underscored the immediate need to step up developmental activities in the areas prone to Naxalite influence. Clearly and apparently, the powers that be are yet to realise that the threat posed by the Naxalites is political, social and economic in its nature. And the use of armed forces to tackle this manifestation of the socio-economic unrest could prove to be counter-productive. More importantly, the government agencies involved in anti-Naxal operations should give wide publicity to the fact that a section of Naxalite leadership has been indulging in loot and extortion to   sustain its ”well heeled luxurious lifestyle” than out of sympathy for the “poor, downtrodden and exploited.” “While the cadres are forced to face the bullets, the top level Naxalite leadership indulges in all the material comforts that money can buy,” should be the refrain of this campaign.

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