The evening news bulletin of Radio Nepal begins these days with the latest body count of \'terrorists', a deadpan voice reading out a press release detailing the arithmetic of encounters between the Maobadi and the defence forces. Occasionally, there is a separate press release from the Home Ministry adding more impersonal numbers.
These announcements are now so customary that we mentally switch off when they begin. We hear the news of death and devastation without actually listening. There is an analogy with the so-called credibility gap of the Vietnam-era five o'clock follies run by the COMUSMACV, the Commander of the US Military Assistance Command. The underlying assumptions of all such spin are similar: those killed on the other side must have been terrorists, everyone held is inevitably a suspect. In the face of the enemy fire, the possibility of human error is considered too insignificant to matter.
But unimportant it is not. The death of even one innocent is morally reprehensible as well as strategically disastrous. Just as every drop of blood from the body of the demon Raktabeej gave birth to hundreds of other demons in the story of Durga in Hindu mythology, every innocent victim breeds many more recruits for the insurgents.
Unlike in a conventional war, inflicting maximum casualty is not a desirable goal in fighting insurgency, mainly because it's almost impossible to differentiate between a friend and a foe while fighting an elusive enemy. Insurgents have a tactical advantage-they can create terror by targeting practically anyone. Security forces can't, because even one misfired shot can alienate the entire population of an area and irreparably damage their credibility. In every insurgency, security forces have to fight with one hand tied behind their back, unable to distinguish between insurgents and the people. This is an unfortunate but inevitable part of fighting a section of one's own population.
As with the Vietcong or the Khmer Rouge, Nepali Maobadi are also composed of cadres that form three concentric circles. The outer ring consists of the people who have perfectly legitimate occupations by day, but turn into deadly fighters by night. In the day, your friendly neighbour could be a simple peasant eking out a living on his unproductive pakho land. He could be a teacher, a shopkeeper, or an NGO worker. He could even be a village council member representing a legitimate communist party. Come evening, and the ferocious face behind the innocent mask comes out to attack the first security personnel in sight.
Occasionally, a part-time terrorist is caught in the dragnet of the armed forces, and then all hell breaks loose in the relative safety of urban areas. Human right activists, political leaders, and sundry other do-gooders make a hue and cry over the excesses of the security forces. The best way to avoid this trap is to minimise the casualty in this category of Maobadi. In any case, these \'terrorists' aren't beyond redemption, and as the experiences in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh in India have shown, many of them can prove helpful in isolating the \'full-time' insurgents.
The inner ring contains the politically motivated and highly mobile cadres who attack isolated police posts and poorly-guarded state installations, loot banks, and spread terror in populated areas. Some may eschew camouflage, but most don't, blending easily into the countryside when pursued. Despite the rural nature of the Maobadi assault, a significant section of these fighters probably come from an urban bourgeois background, originally indoctrinated by aboveground communist parties. Disillusioned by the shenanigans of leaders of these parties, their more idealistic members perhaps strayed into the lethal arms of Maobadi. If the political climate of the country were to improve, many of these young people could easily be weaned over to the mainstream.
The innermost circle is the tough one. Consisting of romantics with suicidal instincts, members of this hardcore group are said to be skilful organisers and doughty fighters. Like Maoist guerrillas elsewhere, they do not expose themselves easily, and do not fight the security forces unless they have an apparent advantage and are fairly certain of winning. Since in the long run insurgents acquire legitimacy from their victories, rather than ideology or votes, this group needs to be smashed to contain insurgency. Unfortunately, these people are near-invisible and the intelligence network of security forces has proven fatally flawed, unable to penetrate the movement to this level. They have acquired an image of invincibility because not one has been apprehended till date.
It is hard to gauge their strength-there is an impenetrable veil of secrecy over their training camps-but educated guesses put the strength of this group at about 2,000, and their weapons are only as advanced as those they looted from army barracks of Dang and Mangalsen. Many of their camps could well exist on Indian soil, but there have to be at least some in Nepal. What is most glaring is the complete failure of security forces in exposing such centres.
Nepali Maobadi have been mercilessly feeding the outer ring to security forces, selectively using their middle ring to create confusion and inflict damage in places as far apart as Salleri and Sitalpati, and successfully employing their innermost ring for decisive victories like Dunai, Dang and Mangalsen. If all war is propaganda, the Maobadi sure know how to wage one with skill and determination. In comparison, the technically superior forces of the state come across as bungling novices.
The news of muskets and socket bombs seized, explosives found, or Maobadi literature confiscated fail to reassure an edgy population exposed to more direct threats like the forced closure of educational institutions. When even the daily body count has apparently little impact, the security forces risk losing their credibility even further in a drawn-out conflict.
In the long run, feeding the news-hounds with faxed news releases may turn out to be counter-productive. The info-war against insurgency badly needs something dramatic, something like the parading of the Nepali counterparts of Gonzalo, Guzman or Charu Mazumdar in front of television cameras. The illusion of invincibility around these elusive leaders needs to be shattered. Only then will the insurgency cease to exert its fatal attraction on desperate people.