Countering Naxal terrorism: police perspectives

The conflict between the Indian State and disenfranchised groups represented by Naxal or left wing extremists is rooted in poverty and inequality. The consequent insecurity has a profound impact on local, national and international communities. In this conflict (ranging over one-fifth of India) law enforcement agencies are, sometimes unwilling, party to the violence and are themselves, the target of terrorist violence. However, research has paid scant attention to the human element of policing; the fact that officers have their individual understanding of the situation and implement strategies in ways that are meaningful in the context of their own experiences and real-life situations in which they operate. The research project is unique in exploring how police discretion affects application of counter-terrorism strategies and its effect on the community. I analysed police narratives to examine how law enforcement agents operationalised counter-terrorism policies and to better understand what works and why.

The research focused on three (of the 10 affected) states in India with quite different operational responses, often involving extra-legal and violent measures. The pilot site was Maharashtra which is perceived as just maintaining the status quo, neither controlling Naxal activities, nor letting them spiral out of control. The next site was Andhra Pradesh, which is perceived to have responded most effectively by raising a professionally trained elite force for anti-Naxal operations, but has been accused of employing controversial extrajudicial methods in the process. The third site was Chhattisgarh which is struggling to contain the problem and has in the past responded by empowering civil groups to challenge terrorists, creating additional problems of governance.

In 2010 and 2011 I travelled to some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the country affected by left wing extremism, visiting remote and highly sensitive police stations to get a first-hand view of the conditions under which police officers are working in these areas. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 89 police officers of various ranks in 16 different police stations and outposts in these three states.

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Overview of police station fortifications in a Naxal affected area.

The most striking findings relate to the difficulties in transferring successful policing policies and strategies across state borders due to differences in leadership, political will, composition and ethos of the police forces. Successful counterterrorism strategies require the local police to take responsibility, and for police and political leaders to support police operations in the field. Lack of clarity regarding the national, state and organisational counter-terrorism policies at the cutting edge ranks of policing further reduces chances of their successful implementation.

Dr Jyoti Belur
University College London

Jyoti was awarded an Early Career Fellowship grant in 2009.