By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On February 2, 2017, Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres killed a civilian, identified as Dasru Durua, at Bara village under the Mathili Police limits of Malkangiri District.
A day earlier, orchestrating the first violent incident of the current year (2017) in the State, the Maoists triggered a landmine explosion near Mungarbhumi in Koraput District, killing eight Police personnel and injuring another five. The explosion targeted a Police van, carrying 13 Police personnel, on its way to the Police Training College in Angul District. This was the worst attack, in terms of fatalities, against the Security Forces’ (SFs) recorded in the State since May 23, 2011, when nine Policemen were killed in a Maoist-triggered landmine blast in the Sunabeda forest area of Nuapada District.
According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least nine persons, have been killed in Maoist-linked violence in the State in 2017, thus far (data till February 5, 2017). These included eight Policemen and one civilian. No fatality among the Maoists has yet been recorded.
Through 2016, Odisha accounted for 72 fatalities (27 civilians, three SF personnel and 42 Maoists) as against 35 fatalities (20 civilians, four SF personnel and 11 Maoists) recorded through 2015. [According the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) data as against 38 fatalities (25 civilians, three SF personnel and 10 Maoists) recorded through 2015, Odisha accounted for 64 fatalities (20 civilians, three SF personnel and 41 Maoists) up to November 15, 2016.]
Though the increase in civilian fatalities is a worry, there has been significant improvement in the civilian security situation in the State since 2010 when the number of fatalities in this category had stood at 62. The number of civilian fatalities declined through 2011 (36), 2012 (27), and 2013 (22), they increased to 31 in 2014.
In the meantime, SFs achieved a kill ratio of 1:14 in 2016, a dramatic improvement over the kill ratio of 1:2.75 in 2015. Significantly, the Maoists had achieved a positive kill ratio kill ratio of 1:9.12 in 2008, when SFs killed eight Maoists while losing 73 of their own personnel.
In the most successful operations ever conducted by the SFs against the CPI-Maoist, since the formation of the outfit in September 2004, SFs killed at least 30 Maoists in two successive encounters in the Bejingi Forest area, between Ramgarh and Panasput, in the Malkangiri District on October 24 and 27, 2016. Those killed included Bakuri Venkata Ramana Murthy aka Ganesh aka Prasad aka Ramireddy, ‘official spokesman’ of the Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC) and ‘secretary’ of the ‘east division unit’ of the party; and Chemella Krishnaiah aka Bhaskar aka Daya, ‘secretary’ of the Koraput-Srikakulam ‘joint division’ of the AOBSZC.
Other parameters of violence also indicate that the trend of improvement in the security situation established in the State since 2010 continued through 2016. The number of overall Maoist-linked incidents recorded in the State stood at 66 in 2016 (up to November 15, 2016) as against 92 through 2015, and 103 through 2014. As in 2015, year 2016 did not record a single major incident (involving three or more killings) targeting civilians. The last such incident was recorded on April 27, 2014, when the Maoists had killed three villagers in Malkangiri District. The Maoists carried out a single attack on economic targets in the State in 2016 (UMHA data, up to November 15, 2016) as against 17 such incidents in 2015. After November 15, one such incident was recorded on November 18, 2016.
Further, SFs arrested another 38 Maoist cadres, including three ‘commander’ level cadres in 2016 (up to November 15, 2016), in addition to 60 such arrests through 2015. Mounting SF pressure has also resulted in the surrender of another 60 Maoists (up to November 15, 2016), in addition to 73 through 2015, and 100 each through 2014 and 2013.
Following the defection of Sabyasachi Panda from the CPI-Maoist on August 10, 2012 and his subsequent arrest on July 17, 2014 Maoists’ fortunes in Odisha have declined rapidly. Adding to their problems, Nachika Linga, the leader of the Narayanpatna-based CPI-Maoist front organization Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS), surrendered on October 28, 2014, resulting in a further weakening of the rebel formation in 2015. The Maoists further received another shock in their ‘safe haven’ in the Bejingi forest area, between Ramgarh and Panasput, in Malkangiri in 2016. Between 50 and 60 Maoists were reportedly holding a ‘plenary session’, attended by top leaders to discuss their ‘tactical counter offensive campaign’ (TCOC) against the SFs and were reportedly planning ‘something big’ to revive their movement in the region, when SFs launched two successive operations and eliminated at least 30 Maoists on October 24 and 27, 2016.
Nevertheless, residual Maoist capacities and capabilities continue to present a significant challenge in the State. Crucially, civilian fatalities and the number of incidents of civilian killing increased from 20 and 18 respectively in 2015 to 27 and 23 in 2016. Civilian killings were reported from six Districts – Koraput (nine), Malkangiri (seven), Kandhamal (six), Kalahandi (three), Nuapada (one), and Rayagada (one) – in 2016; as against four Districts – Malkangiri (16), Kalahandi (two), Angul (one) and Balangir (one) – in 2015. Overall fatalities in Maoist-linked violence also increased from 35 in 2015 to 72 in 2016.
The Maoists also engineered at least 10 arson-related incidents in 2016, in comparison to seven in 2015. The Maoists were also involved in six explosions in the State, as against five in 2015; as well as 24 exchanges of fire between SFs and CPI-Maoist through 2016 in nine Districts, in comparison to 14 such incidents in six Districts in 2015.
Further, the number of bandh (total shut down) calls given by the Maoists in 2016 remained the same (10) as in 2015. The number of bandh calls stood at two in 2014. Out of Odisha’s 30 Districts, fatalities were reported from eight: Deogarh (two), Kalahandi (eight), Kandhamal (six), Koraput (12), Malkangiri (39), Nuapada (one), Rayagada (two) and Sundergarh (two) – in 2016; in comparison to seven Districts – Angul (one), Bolangir (one), Kalahandi (three), Kandhamal (two), Koraput (one), Malkangiri (25) and Sundergarh (two) – in 2015. Indeed, on December 5, 2016, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik informed the State Assembly that 19 of the 30 Districts of Odisha remained Naxal [Left Wing Extremism (LWE)] prone. According to UMHA’s list of 106 Maoist-affected Districts in the country, 19 fall in Odisha.
Meanwhile, the State Election Commission was forced to issue a notification dated January 21, 2017, to either postpone or cancel General Elections for three tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) in some highly vulnerable areas of Malkangiri District. The decision came “after considering the joint report of Collector and Superintendent of Police, Malkangiri, to the effect that the process of election was vitiated as the Election Officers could not perform their duties in some Gram Panchayats [village level local self Government institution) due to law and order situation and conduct of free and fair election is likely to be affected in the present scenario in Chitrakonda Block [Malkangiri District]”. The February 2, 2017, civilian killing in Malkangiri District was related to these scheduled elections. The deceased was the only candidate for Ward No. 7 of the Bara village in Kartanpalli gram panchayat under the Mathili tehsil (revenue unit) in Malkangiri.
Significantly, the Maoists have long had a strong presence in Malkangiri District – a strategic location that shares borders with Maoist affected areas of both Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The latest developments show that, despite the reverses they have suffered, they continue to maintain a significant presence in Malkangiri. The PRI elections are scheduled to be held in five phases – February 13, 15, 17, 19 and 21, 2017. Posters and banners threatening people with dire consequences if they participated in the elections have been put on several occasions in different areas of the State. The Maoists had also created problems during the last PRI elections held in the State during the five-phase polling that commenced on February 11, 2012, and ended on February 19, 2012. The Maoist influence was palpable in the Narayanpatna Block of Koraput District, where most of the candidates ‘won’ uncontested during those elections.
Finding the existing deployment of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) [eight battalions each of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Border Security Force (BSF) and one battalion of the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), a specialized unit of the CRPF] insufficient, Odisha Chief Secretary Aditya Prasad Padhi stated, on June 21, 2016, that the Government would ask for two more battalions of CAPFs to tackle LWE in the State. No further information is available in this regard.
Past experience has shown that, while normalcy can be attained in insurgency affected areas with the help of CAPFs, it can only be sustained by improving the strength and quality of the State Police. Worryingly, however, the strength of the State Forces remains abysmal. According to Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) data for 2016, the police-population ratio in Odisha was 130.95 (as on January 1, 2016) as compared to a poor national average of 137.11 [over 220 policemen per 100,000 population are considered necessary for ‘peacetime policing’]. Vacancies in the leadership, i.e. at the Indian Police Service (IPS) level, stood at 79, with a sanctioned strength of 188 IPS posts. Unless these deficits are addressed, the residual threat of a Maoist revival will persist.
The Maoists in Odisha are down but not out, and their activities indicate that they will certainly continue to challenge the security environment in the State. The absence of a strategic thrust to improve State Police capabilities and an enduring dominance of the entire State jurisdiction speaks poorly of the administration’s assessment and comprehension of the problem, as well as of its response.
* Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management