Slippery situation

The Centre’s grant of permission to the Indian Air Force (IAF) to fire in self-defence if its choppers come under attack from Maoists could result in a dangerous escalation of the conflict. Helicopters are being deployed currently to evacuate injured CRPF and police personnel in Maoist areas. They have come under Maoist fire twice over the past two years.

In November 2007, a Mi-8 helicopter was shot at in the Bastar region killing an IAF sergeant. Five months later, another chopper was attacked in Gadchiroli. In the wake of these attacks and the spurt in Maoist violence last year, the IAF had requested the government for permission to hit back if under attack. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had ruled out such permission then. Now the government has changed its mind.

Although the government has ruled out deploying Indian Army troops in the battle zone, it is now not averse to allowing the IAF to engage the Maoists. The government’s decision marks a significant shift in India’s counterinsurgency strategy. Hitherto, it refrained from using air strikes to tackle insurgents.

The only time it did so was in 1966, when the Mizo National Front had taken control of almost all of Mizoram. The IAF then strafed the capital Aizawl. This was never repeated thereafter, not even at the height of the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. There was a general consensus that using air strikes was untenable in a counterinsurgency situation as it would lead to high civilian losses, deepen local discontent and thus prove counter-productive in the long run. That perception seems to have now changed.

The IAF says that the government’s permission for retaliatory strikes has come with stringent conditions. It is likely that the IAF will exercise utmost caution. Still, it is highly likely that the Maoists will hit one of its choppers to provoke it to retaliate. Can the commandos in the chopper distinguish Maoists from civilians from a height when it is impossible to make this distinction from the ground? It is likely that the Maoists will fire at choppers from amongst villagers. Will the IAF strike back then?

India is entering dangerous ground by using air strikes, even if only in retaliation. The Maoists seem willing to engage in talks. The government must explore this option seriously instead of quietly escalating the conflict. Eliminating Maoists is of no use, if that comes with high civilian casualties. The government must rethink its decision.

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