By Ajai Sahni
In quick succession, three disruptive incidents have shocked India out of the complacency that had set in, as the policy establishment celebrated sharp declines in violence and fatalities engineered by the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist), over the past year.
The worst of these incidents was, of course, the March 27, 2012, improvised explosive device (IED) attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) transport at Pustola in Gadchiroli District, Maharashtra, which killed 12 and injured 28. In their enthusiasm during CRPF Director General Vijay Kumar’s visit to Fulbodi Gatta to inspect a Community Outreach Programme, the troopers had ignored standard operating procedures (SOPs), driving over a road that had not been sanitized in advance. The Maoists were quick to take bloody advantage.
A loss of lives among SF personnel, however, is easily ignored and quickly forgotten by the Indian state. The abduction of foreigners and the inevitable international media carnival that follows, tends to be far more embarrassing, for much longer, especially when the ‘hostage drama’ extends over weeks. The ‘arrest’ as the Maoists chose to describe it, of two Italians – a tourist and a tour operator – on March 14, 2012, in the Daringbadi Block of Kandhamal District, Odisha, has, consequently, shattered the illusion of an ‘improved internal security situation’ to a far greater extent. While one of the hostages, Claudio Colangelo, was released on March 25, 2012, the second, tour operator Paulo Basusco, continues to be held hostage by the rebels at the time of writing. The abduction occurred while the Italians were moving in areas of Maoist influence, officials claim, against the advice of the administration.
Even as the Italian hostage drama was being played out, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), tribal leader Jhina Hikaka, from the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), was abducted on March 24, 2012, near Laxmipur in Koraput District, Odisha, when he chose to ignore security procedures, to travel through Maoist dominated territories from Semilguda to his constituency, Laxmipur. Hikaka’s vehicle was stopped near Toyaput, and he was abducted after he identified himself.
The Basusco and Hikaka abductions remain unresolved at the time of writing.
Crucially, all three actions were incidents of opportunity, reflecting enduring Maoist capacities, rather than strategic intent or planning, and demonstrating quite clearly that a decline in fatalities is not synonymous with a decline in rebel capacities or with an improvement in the ‘security situation’. Indeed, despite the significant reverses inflicted on the Maoists, especially at the leadership level, as well as some contraction in their areas of operation, the rebels’ disruptive capabilities in their core areas along the purported ‘Red Corridor’, remain substantially intact.
Despite many claims of the cumulative ‘improvement’ in the capacities of central and State Security Forces (SFs), the state’s vulnerabilities remain largely unaddressed. At least some claims of such ‘improvement’ are, in any event, largely falsified or fabricated – including the Union Ministry of Home Affairs’ (UMHA) November 30, 2011, claim that the police-population ratio had been raised to 176 per 100,000, from an National Crime Records Bureau figure of 133 per 100,000 as on December 31, 2010. Others, such as UMHA’s claims of “significant measures taken to strengthen the Indian Police Service” (IPS) remain something of a smokescreen, since existing deficits in the Service will take decades to fill, even with dramatically accelerated intakes. UMHA also claims that “Number of CAPF (Central Armed Police Force) battalions deployed in LWE (Left Wing Extremist) affected States increased from 37 in 2008 to 73 in November 2011, glossing over the fact that this has roughly been the level of deployment since the disastrous ‘massive and coordinated operations’ were launched by the Centre in end-2009. That these Forces have, along with State Police Special Forces, largely been frozen in a passive defensive posture since the Chintalnad massacre of April 2010, and that offensive operations against the Maoist have now become more and more the exception among demoralized SF contingents, remains unsaid.
On the other hand, the anecdotal evidence of state vulnerabilities and disarray is mounting. In one devastating disclosure, the UMHA conceded that as many as 46,000 officers and personnel took voluntary retirement from the CAPF between 2007 and September 2011, while another 5,220 officers and personnel resigned from service over the same period. 461 suicides and 64 instances of fratricides were also recorded. Worse, UMHA noted that the rate of increase of cases of resignation in the CRPF and Border Security Force (BSF) was “alarming”, at more than 70 per cent in 2011, over 2010.
If this dry data was not sufficiently disconcerting, Rahul Sharma, an IPS officer, serving as a Superintendent of Police in the Maoist afflicted Bilaspur District, in the country’s worst affected State, Chhattisgarh, committed suicide on March 12, 2012, blaming his seniors and the political leadership for his decision. Sharma had reportedly confided in a friend that he was frustrated because Police officers were required to do what he called ‘forced labour’ (begaar), and ‘extortion’ (ugahi) and that ‘targets for election expenses’ for the scheduled 2013 Assembly Elections had ‘already been set’. This incident provides extraordinary insight into the use and morale of the Police leadership in the State worst affected by the Maoist insurgency.
Nor is Chhattisgarh an exception. In the wake of the March 27 incident in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil complained that Police officers were ‘unwilling’ to work in the Maoist afflicted Gadchiroli and Chandrapur Districts, citing the recent example of four Police Sub-inspectors, who resigned from the Force after completing training, when they were posted to Gadchiroli. Patil had nothing but a litany of complaints to offer after the Gadchiroli incident, blaming the Centre for a failure to give advance information of Maoist attacks. Unsurprisingly, Maharashtra saw an increase in Maoist related fatalities to 69 in 2011, over the 2010 figure of 40, even as the all-India fatalities almost halved (from 1180 to 602).
The other principal Maoist affected States, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar suffer from equal and endemic deficiencies in their security structures, as well as from both ambivalence and infirmity in their political leaderships.
In another shock to the system, and testimony to the incompetence and incapacity of the state establishment, Kobad Ghandy, a CPI-Maoist Politburo member and top party ideologue, was discharged by a Sessions Court for offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), due to procedural defects in the prosecution. Ghandy was a prize catch, trapped in Delhi on September 20, 2009, after a protracted operation led by the Andhra Pradesh Special Intelligence Branch, and involving the Intelligence Bureau and Delhi Police. The Sessions Judge, Pawan Kumar Jain, observed,
I am of the considered opinion that there is sufficient material on record to make out a prima facie case for the offence punishable under Sections 20 and 38 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against accused Kobad Ghandy. But since the cognisance order dated February 19, 2010, qua the offences punishable under the UAPA was not in accordance with the mandatory provisions of Section 45(2) of the UAPA, I hereby discharge accused Kobad Ghandy for the offences punishable under Section 10/13/18/20/38 of the UAPA. Similarly, I also discharge accused Rajinder Kumar for the offences punishable under Section 10/13/18/19/20 UAPA. However, there is sufficient material on record to make out a prima facie case against both the accused for the offences punishable under Section 419/420/468/474/120B Indian Penal Code.
Some augmentation of capacities – recruitment, arming, fortification and modernization – has, no doubt, occurred across the board, both in CAPF and State Forces, but this has had, at best, limited impact on SF capacities and operations on the ground as a result of an incoherence of approach and strategy, as well as gross deficits and deficiencies in leadership.
The declining trend in Maoist-related fatalities has, nevertheless, continued into the early months of 2012, with a total of 96 fatalities between January and March, as against 174 over the same period last year. The ‘incidents of opportunity’ in March 2012, however, are evidence of abiding Maoist strengths, and the continuing infirmity of state responses. Declining trends in fatalities and occasional reverses not-withstanding, it appears that the initiative remains firmly in the hands of the Maoists, and that State leaderships are still to find the will and the clarity of perspective that will allow them to secure any enduring dominance over areas of rebel disruption.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & SATP