The government is veering around to expanding the role of the armed forces in the ongoing anti-Naxal operations, with a hard look even being taken at whether they should be "directly deployed'' in the fight against the Maoists, reports Times of India.
While an enhancement of their present surveillance, logistical and training mandate is a certainty, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting likely on Thursday will take the final call on whether to enlist the armed forces in a more direct combat role.
The decision will be influenced as much by political considerations as security imperatives. Yet, the possibility of armed forces being asked to take on the Left-wing extremists is no longer being summarily dismissed like before.
Defence minister A K Antony on Tuesday sounded out the three Service chiefs on the sensitive issue, with the 90-minute meeting with Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, Admiral Nirmal Verma and General V K Singh discussing "all dimensions'' of the security situation.
Independent of whether the government decides to push ahead with the idea, the very fact that direct engagement of armed forces is being looked as a serious option is significant.
It marks a critical shift on the part of the government, which had so far shied away from deploying soldiers in the Naxal battle. But a big cause for concern is the increasingly savage and audacious Maoist attacks, which have inflicted heavy casualties on paramilitary forces as well as non-combatants.
In May alone, as many as 172 civilians and 29 security personnel were killed by Naxals, if the derailing of the passenger train in West Midnapore on May 28 is also taken into account.
Though the meeting chaired by Antony examined the "pros and cons of different options'', it's for the CCS to decide on the exact mandate. "But one thing is certain even if the armed forces are deployed in a more direct role, it will be a limited mandate for a limited period,'' said a source.
One possible option could be to divert a few of the 63 battalions of Rashtriya Rifles, the Army's specialised counter-insurgency force operating in Jammu and Kashmir, "for selective missions'' in states worst-affected by Maoist depredations, said sources.
Successive governments have been averse to enlisting the Army in the fight because of the concern that it might lead to a perception about the Indian State not being in control of vast swathes in its own heartland.
There is also the issue of suitability of armed forces, which are trained to kill with heavy force, operating against an adversary who blends into the civilian population and is, in fact, adept at using them as shields.
The top military brass have their own reservations, extending from the lack of familiarity with the terrain and concrete ground-level intelligence to the armed forces being already overstretched in counter-insurgency in J&K and the North-East as well along the long unresolved borders with Pakistan and China.
But underlining the government's resolve to take the battle to Maoists, PM Manmohan Singh on Tuesday said, "In dealing with the challenge of Naxalism, we will pursue a policy that genuinely seeks to address developmental concerns at the grassroots, while firmly enforcing the writ of the state.''
But the dice could still fall either way in the CCS, with the home ministry keen to bolster the fight against the Maoists with "some more help'' from the armed forces but the defence establishment remaining largely reluctant about getting sucked into "yet another internal security duty''.
There has, however, been a significant shift in Antony's position in the last few days, from earlier being a strong opponent of deploying armed forces against Maoists in a direct role to now holding they will "accept'' the government's decision and "implement it with vigour and commitment''.
IAF, on its part, feels it can enhance its "air-support'' beyond the current four Mi-17 helicopters deployed in the region but continues to maintain the use of "offensive airpower'' is not a practical option since it can lead to collateral damage on the ground.
The armed forces, of course, are preparing for the worst-case scenario by finalising action plans to meet any contingency, as reported by TOI last week.
Having already trained around 47,000 paramilitary personnel since 2006 in its counter-insurgency and jungle warfare school in Vairengte and other institutions, the Army is also keen that a separate and dedicated counter-Naxalism training facility be established to train "homogeneous companies'' of police personnel.