Role of Language in Counterinsurgency: India’s Dantewada shows the way


There is no gainsaying the fact that language plays a significant role in human lives. Language can eliminate any misunderstanding/miscommunication by being an instrument to transfer idea/knowledge/information to the people. Further, language is a visible and powerful indicator of the identity of a particular group.

In ‘The History and Origin of Language’ by A.S. Diamond, Malinowski suggests that language is "the necessary means of communion; it is the one indispensable instrument for creating the ties of the moment without which unified social action is impossible.”

Insofar as counterinsurgency [CI] in the Indian context is concerned, the primary component is ‘winning hearts and minds’ [WHAM] of the local populace. WHAM can be described as a people-oriented strategy for establishing political, economic, social, and cultural linkages. WHAM-based CI approach has been implemented in the North-East, Kashmir and the Maoist heartland in India.

As a natural consequence, language training is kept as an integral part of the ‘Doctrine of sub-conventional operations’ of the Indian Army, released by the Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence in 2006.

Working knowledge of local language/dialect is imperative to gather ground intelligence as well as to communicate with the local civilian populace – which in turn strengthens the WHAM-centred strategy in CI operations.

When the counterinsurgent speaks in the native language with the local population or attempts to address their issues through their language, the locals feel at ease and are likely to confide more to the counterinsurgent. In that scenario, the police/armed forces would not appear to be foreigners/outsiders in the tribal domain and naturally would have better leverage against the insurgents.

If Mao Zedong is to be believed, the population is the water and the insurgent is the fish in that water. If the counterinsurgent is successful to pump that water out, then the insurgent is isolated and hence could be captured. One of the ways of doing it is to mix with the local population and knowledge of the local language is an obvious tool in that regard.


Dantewada shows the way

In tune with the WHAM approach of CI operations, the police/security forces of the district of Dantewada in the central Indian state of Chattisgarh have commenced a three-month course in the local Gondi dialect from the middle of June this year.  After completing the training for the state police, the target is to focus on the Central Armed Police Forces [CAPFs] deployed in the area.

Dantewada-Bastar region in Chattisgarh is the guerilla base for the Indian Maoists. In this specific case, the ‘water’ is tribal folk and the Gond tribe predominates the forests of Dantewada. So the approach of the counterinsurgent police is spot on. To negotiate the left-wing extremists, especially to combat the ambushes, the police needs to gather viable ground intelligence; which could be achieved through a working knowledge of the local language.

It is within this context of people-oriented CI operations, analysts have conceptualized the making of a ‘Language Enabled Soldier’. Armed with the weapon of language, a soldier/police/counterinsurgent can even eavesdrop during routine patrols or while guarding the prisoners. They can also get friendly with local children who are very much gullible to be entrapped by the insurgents.


As fallout, radicalization could be checked by the counterinsurgent if he is aware of the local language. Moreover, friendly interaction with the children can bridge the trust-deficit between the counterinsurgent and the local people.


Knowledge of the language can make it easier for the Indian police to access any inflammatory literature in local dialect/language. Further, the vernacular press could also be monitored.


It is pragmatic that the structure of the security forces for CI operations should be in parity with terrain of the affected area as well as the inhabitants. And it is the latter that could be targeted better if the local language skills are taught to the counterinsurgent.


Even if the FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency Manual released by the US Army is perused, a separate Appendix C could be seen, dealing with ‘Linguist Support’. The manual lists different category of linguists in which the first category is usually prescribed to be hired locally.

CI is fundamentally an intelligence-driven exercise. The function of intelligence in CI operations is to facilitate understanding of the environment, with emphasis on the local population and insurgents.

A large fraction of the local populace in Dantewada-Bastar (including women and children) are ‘Sangham Sadasya’, i.e. members of the local council of the Maoist party. It is clear that the fulcrum of the Maoist movement in India is the local people/tribals. The security forces ought to gain confidence of the local tribals/adivasis so that they are not weaned away by the insurgents. In this direction, the Indian police in Dantewada have taken a positive and correct step.

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Author: Dr Uddipan Mukherjee