By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
An ‘area committee member’ of the Aheri Dalam (armed squad) of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), identified as Mangru aka Ram Chinna Portet (48), was killed during an encounter with personnel of C-60, the Maharashtra Police counter-insurgency commando unit, in the forest area of Kopewancha near Rajaram Khanla village under Aheri taluka (administrative division) in Gadchiroli District on July 23, 2017. One 12 bore gun and some Naxal [Left Wing Extremism (LWE)]-related literatures were recovered from the encounter site. Portet had been involved in the ‘movement’ for more than two decades and had more than 40 offences registered against him. He carried a reward of INR 600,000 on his head. Portet was shifted to Aheri (he had earlier been working in the ‘medical unit’ of the outfit elsewhere) in Gadchiroli as a ‘doctor’ a couple of years ago by senior Maoist leaders in order to help strengthen the base of the party in his home taluka.
On July 12, 2017, two women cadres of CPI-Maoist were killed during an anti-Naxal operation in the Yengao Forest area of Gadchiroli District. Though the identity of the slain cadres was yet to be established, large amounts of weapons, along with ration items, besides a cache of torches and batteries, were recovered from the encounter site.
On July 10, 2017, a woman Maoist cadre was killed in an encounter with the Police near Ranwahi village in Dhanora tehsil (revenue unit) of Gadchiroli District. Following intelligence inputs, the Police descended on the Ranwahi Forest, and the encounter ensued. A press note issued by Gadchiroli Police stated, “During the search operation, Maoists suddenly opened fire on the Police. The Police retaliated. After a while the Maoists, feeling the pressure, decamped. A woman Naxalite was found dead on the spot from where the police have also recovered a rifle and a lot of other material”. The identity of the woman Maoist cadre was yet to be established.
According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Maharashtra has recorded 10 killings, including four civilians, one trooper, and five Maoists, in LWE-linked violence since the beginning of 2017 (data till July 30, 2017). During the corresponding period of previous year, the State accounted for 21 killings, including eight civilians, two Security Force (SF) personnel and 11 Maoists. A total of 26 such fatalities (12 civilians, two SF personnel and 12 Maoists) were recorded through 2016.
The numbers clearly suggest that civilian population is more secure. In terms of civilian fatalities, Maoist violence in the State was at its peak in 2011, when 34 civilians were killed, of which 27 were killed between January 1 and July 30, 2011. Civilian fatalities recorded in 2011 were the highest ever deaths registered in this category in the State since the formation of the CPI-Maoist on September 21, 2004. After registering decline between 2012 and 2014, on year on year basis, civilian fatalities started to rise in 2015, though the increase was marginal.
On the other hand, the SFs continued to record a superior success ratio against the Maoists on the ground, with a positive kill ratio of 1:5 in the current year. During the corresponding period of 2016, the ratio was 1:5.5. Through 2016, the SFs had achieved a ratio of 1:6 trooper:Maoist fatalities.
Meanwhile, SFs continue to arrest an increasing number of Maoists, with at least 10 such arrests in the current year. Most recently, on June 17, 2017, SFs arrested Pawan aka Soma Phoda Weladi (35), a member of the Maoists’ Gariabandh ‘divisional committee’ in Gadchiroli District. The number of arrests through 2016 was two (one on May 23 and the other on September 17). Five Maoists have surrendered in 2017, so far.
Noticeably, despite the Maoists’ call for a boycott of the polls in the Gadchiroli District, about 68.27 per cent polling was registered in the second phase of Zilla Parishad (District Council) and Panchayat Samiti (block-level local self government institution) elections in the four highly restive tehsils of the Aheri Division in Gadchiroli District on February 21, 2017.
Significantly, all the incidents of LWE-linked killing in Maharashtra in 2017, thus far, have occurred in the Gadchiroli District. Through 2016, all 26 fatalities in the State were also reported from Gadchiroli District. In fact, the last LWE-related fatality in Maharashtra outside Gadchiroli, was reported way back on June 19, 2013, when CPI-Maoist cadres killed a medical store owner, identified as Lekhram Sabu Lilhare, in Darekasa village of Salekasa taluka in the neighbouring Gondia District.
According to the SATP database, out of a total of 472 fatalities (161 civilians, 143 SF personnel and 168 Maoists) reported from Maharashtra since September 21, 2004, 455 fatalities (154 civilians, 134 SF personnel and 167 Maoists) were in Gadchiroli District alone, i.e. a staggering 96.39 per cent. The remaining 17 fatalities were reported from Gondia [14 fatalities (five civilians, and nine SF personnel], Aurangabad (one civilian), Bhandara (one civilian) and Nagpur (one Maoist).
Gadchiroli is the epicenter of Maoist violence in the State. The reason for the strong Maoist presence here is that the District serves as a transit between Telangana [shared borders with two Districts, Adilabad and Karimnagar] and Chhattisgarh [shared borders with four Districts, Bijapur, Kanker, Narayanpur and Rajnandgaon], which are strategically crucial for the Maoists. Moreover, the District has a 78.40 per cent forest cover, i.e. 11,694 square kilometres, out of a total area of 14,412 square kilometres, making the task of locating and neutralising Maoists hideouts quite difficult.
Moreover, the Maoists are escalating their efforts to increase influence and areas of operation in and around Gadchiroli. According to a May 20, 2017, report, Waman Mandavi (19), a member of the Chetna Natya Mandali (CNM), the CPI-Maoist cultural wing, who was arrested from Gondia District in the last week of April 2017 (no specific date was mentioned), revealed that the old North Gadchiroli-Gondia-Balaghat-Rajnandgaon (NGGBR) zone/division has now been converted into the Gadchiroli-Rajnandgaon-Balaghat (GRB) zone/division. This is an effort to widen Maoist presence in the whole of Gadchiroli, and not just its Northern part, as in the past, and is expected to provide an opportunity to ‘utilize’ the facilities available in strong Maoist ‘base areas’ of the bordering Districts of Chhattisgarh, such as Kanker, Narayanpur and Bijapur, falling under the Bastar Division of Chhattisgarh, the epicenter of Maoist violence. The Maoists are already reported to have started surveying and recruiting in the GRB zone/division, which is currently headed by Surendra, Dama and Santosh, who were earlier associated with the Malajkhand and Tada dalams in the Balaghat District of Madhya Pradesh.
Governments – both at the Union and State – have recognized the consequent imperatives of further strengthening the security apparatus to counter the potential threat. In a review meeting of LWE-affected States held in New Delhi on May 8, 2017, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had pointed out the need for better connectivity to fight Naxalism. Fadnavis disclosed that, while the State Government had installed 37 mobile towers in the LWE-affected areas of Gadchiroli and Gondia in a first phase, which was launched in December 2014, work on another five was to be completed by end-May. No update is available regarding the completion of the five mobile towers. The state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s (BSNL) had decided to install 42 mobile towers in the first phase in these two (Gadchiroli and Gondia) Districts. Apart from BSNL’s usual capacity addition plans, another 40 towers for connectivity in LWE-affected areas of the State are to be installed in the second phase. An unnamed BSNL official disclosed on May 10 2017, that the second phase, work on which was to be launched ‘soon’, was expected to be completed by March 2018.
In addition, according to a April 19, 2017, report, Gadchiroli District will have Closed-Circuit Television (CCTVs) in around 25 villages for surveillance on Naxalites. These cameras would make the images of these remote places — from Kamlapur in the Aheri division to Hedri in Etapalli division — available at the local Police Station as well as at the District Police control room at Gadchiroli, more than 100 kilometers away. In the first phase, the more sensitive south Gadchiroli is being covered, with distant villages like Challewada, Kodselgudam, Tarigudam and some others already connected.
Further, according to a January 23, 2017, statement Maharashtra was to get 40 anti-mine vehicles worth INR 12.5 million each, and 146 imported night-vision cameras and 76 thermal imagers, among others, to assist SFs in night combat operations, by February 2017. No update is available regarding the actual acquisition and transfer of this equipment to SFs. Earlier, on January 22, 2017, Additional Director General of Police (ADGP, Special Operations), Bipin Bihari, had disclosed, “With only 15 outdated night vision cameras, which are seldom of any use, we were reduced to conducting night operations merely banking on ground experience, making the force vulnerable.”
If the promised measures are implemented as a priority, in a time bound manner, they will go far in enabling SFs to contain the Maoist efforts to engineer a resurgence in the troubled Gadchiroli District. Any loss of this focus at the present stage, which finds the Maoists in a state of extreme weakness, would result in unacceptable future costs in lives and resources.
* Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management