Smoke signal: is IAF launching an air offensive against Naxals in Bastar?
On 1 April, the Indian Air Force conducted a live fire exercise in Sukma in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region. Reportedly, the special forces unit Garuda flew three MI-17 helicopters over the district and practised air-to-ground firing.
So surprising was the news that even seasoned analysts initially dismissed it as an April's Fool prank on the social media. But Chhattisgarh's Special DG, Naxal Operations, DM Awasthi and the IAF's Air Commodore Ajay Shukla soon confirmed that the "routine exercise" had indeed taken place.
Indicating that the drill was meant to send a signal to the Maoists, Shukla said, "Such an exercise was earlier conducted in Bijapur last October. This time, it was on a slightly larger scale; the commandos were involved and the number of firings was increased at both remote and thinly populated zones."
The state police too released a statement giving details of the exercise, in which it claimed all senior police officials of Sukma had participated.
While the exercise may have been "routine" as claimed, the circumstances in the Maoist-dominated areas of Chhattisgarh certainly aren't. There are reports of a fresh crackdown by security forces on the insurgents. Indeed, just two days before this drill, seven CRPF men were killed in a Naxal attack in Bastar.
Not surprisingly, many people are asking if there is an all-out war in Bastar necessitating the use of air power?
Caught in crossfire
Local human rights activists believe Bastar has indeed turned into a deadly conflict zone, but insist the war is of the state's own making.
"Chhattisgarh has faced the Naxal problem since its inception. But the government has preferred guns and bullets over any political and social solution. The innocent Adivasis are caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and government forces," says Lakhan Singh, state chief of the People's Union for Civil Liberties.
The state's police officials, on the other hand, claim the Air Force helicopters are only engaged in "rescue operations and providing logistical support to the police and central armed forces deployed in Bastar". They also claim that the helicopters are often fired at by the rebels and the "IAF personnel have only recently been allowed to fire in self-defence".
"The Maoists have tried to target our helicopters in the past, but we have managed to foil their attempts. The MI-17 helicopters used in this exercise are capable of landing even at night and even in dense forests," Shukla was quoted as saying after the drill. "We will neither fire in anger nor in attack. But if they fire on us, then we will reply and reply heavily."
Still, the drill is an ominous sign for the local population, overwhelming tribal, as there are indications that the anti-Naxal operations in the Bastar region will only intensify in the coming days. "The war has already been imposed on the villagers, and the latest onslaught is only going to worsen their situation," fears human rights activist Degree Chauhan.
The latest anti-Naxal onslaught will worsen the situation of Adivasis: Degree Chauhan, activist
The exercise has also triggered speculation that the Indian government might finally launch an air offensive against the Naxal insurgents. The armed forces have reportedly been opposing such a move until now. For good reason, too. An air assault would really be ill-advised.
Apart from the logistical problem of marking out the Maoists from the villagers, there is the moral dilemma of whether a country should use air power against its own citizens.
Social activist Vikram believes an air offensive isn't likely. He feels the drill was a psychological warfare operation to "dampen the spirits" of the Maoists.
"The Maoists are waging a guerrilla warfare to lower the morale of the security forces. Now the government is flexing its muscle to terrorise the Naxal cadres," he says.
The state is flexing its muscle to terrorise the Naxal cadres: activist Vikram on IAF drill in Sukma
What worries Vikram more is the security forces "implicating villagers in false cases and intimidating them". He emphasises that there is "unlikely to be permanent peace" in Bastar, which has a distinct geography and cultural history, unless the state respects the rights of the local Adivasis. "They need to win their hearts and regain the trust lost as a result of the frivolous tactics adopted by the security forces", he adds.
Still, the possibility of air attacks in Bastar cannot be ruled out entirely given the Narendra Modi dispensation is clearly inclined towards using strong-arm methods against the Naxals. Such a mindset is fraught with danger.