By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On October 17, 2021, after a four-day long combing operation, a joint team of Security Forces (SFs) recovered a huge cache of explosives and other articles belonging to the Community Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) from the Tulasi Forest Range in Malkangiri District, Odisha. The recoveries included one Self Loading Rifle (SLR) with three magazines, one INSAS [Indian Small Arms System] assault rifle with a magazine, one AK-47 magazine, 59 rounds of SLR ammunitions 21 INSAS rounds, a Maoist kit bag, walky-talkies, electronic equipment, detonators, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), remote controllers for IEDs, some medicines and Maoist literature. The combing operation was launched on October 14, 2021, on the basis of inputs regarding Maoist presence in the area. An exchange of fire broke out between SFs and Maoists on October 15, following which, taking advantage of the hilly terrain, the Maoists managed to escape. However, the operation continued till October 17.
On October 12, 2021, three CPI-Maoist cadres, identified as Anil aka Kishor aka Muka Sodi, Chinna Rao, and Sony, were shot dead in an encounter in the same area. One SF trooper was injured. The encounter took place following a combing operation that was launched in the region on the basis of inputs regarding the presence of the Maoists in the area. Sodi was a native of Sudhakonda village under Kalimela Police Station limits, and carried a cash reward of INR 500,000 on his head. He was working as a ‘secretary’ of the Gumma ‘area committee’ under the ‘Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee’ (AOBSZC). Rao, a party member of the Pedabayalu ‘area committee’, carried a cash reward of INR 100,000. The lone female cadre, Sony, a native of Chhattisgarh, working as an ‘area committee member’ and a member in the protection team of CPI-Maoist ‘Central Committee’ member Uday. She had a cash reward of INR 400,000 on her head. All the three Maoists were involved in various violent incidents targeting SFs and civilians. One SLR, an INSAS assault rifle, three SLR magazines, one INSAS magazine, two damaged INSAS magazine, 59 rounds of SLR ammunition, 21 INSAS rounds, one AK-47 magazine, one rifle sling kit, three kit bags, 10 electric detonators, and two remote controls for IEDs were recovered by the SFs from the location.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the Andhra Odisha Border (AOB) region which comprises five Districts of southern Odisha (Malkangiri, Koraput, Rayagada, Gajapati and Ganjam) and the four north coastal Districts of Andhra Pradesh (East Godavari, Visakhapatnam, Vijayanagaram and Srikakulam), has registered 10 Naxal (Left Wing Extremist) fatalities in the current year, so far (data till October 31, 2021). During the corresponding period in 2020, the AOB region recorded two Naxal fatalities and in the remaining period of the year, another three Naxalites were killed, taking the total to five Naxal fatalities through 2020.
On the other hand, the last SF fatality in the AOB region was reported on August 28, 2019, when a trooper was killed during an exchange of fire between SFs and the Maoists in the Swabhiman area near Bonda Ghat in the Malkangiri District of Odisha. One CPI-Maoist cadre was also killed in the incident.
The SFs have evidently made considerable gains in the region. Interestingly, in the 10 years, between 2001 and 2010, the SF:Naxal kill ratio was in favour of the Maoists, at 1.49:1, while, between 2011 and 2020, the ratio has favoured the SFs at 1:4.37.
Meanwhile, SFs have arrested one Maoist in the region in the current year (data till October 31, 2021), in addition to nine in 2020, 21 in 2019, and 60 in 2018. Mounting SF pressure has also resulted in the surrender of 17 Maoists in the current year, in addition to 42 in 2020, 43 in 2019, and 51 in 2018. Significantly, since 2001, 1,244, Maoists have been arrested, and 5,606 have surrendered in the AOB region.
Not surprisingly, civilian fatalities, a key index of security in an area/region, have declined continuously on a year-on-year basis, since 2014, when they totalled 32. As against 22 fatalities recorded in this category both in 2015 and 2016, there were 21 fatalities in 2017, nine in 2018, seven in 2019 and 2020, and two in 2021 (data till October 31). During this period (2014-2020), the SF:Naxalite kill was 1:6.70, much higher than the overall (2001-2021) ratio of 1:1.30 in the AOB region.
Since the formation of the ‘AOBSZC’ in 2001, the AOB region recorded at least 839 fatalities (320 civilians, 219 SF personnel, 286 Naxalites and 14 ‘unspecified’, (data till October 31, 2021). Taking the yearly fatalities into account, a high of 96 fatalities (15 civilians, 61 SF personnel, 17 Naxalites and three unspecified) were documented in 2008, while a low of 12 (seven civilians, and five Naxalites) were documented in 2020. Overall fatalities in the region have tended to follow a cyclical pattern.
Meanwhile, Akkiraju Haragopal aka Ramakrishna aka RK (58), carrying a reward of INR 10 million, a member of the ‘Central Committee’ of the CPI-Maoist and in charge of the AOBSZC, died of chronic illness in the Bijapur District of Chhattisgarh on October 13, 2021. RK, a key ideologue of the party, led the then Communist Party of India–Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) People’s War in the ‘peace talks’ with the then Congress Government headed by Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy in undivided Andhra Pradesh in 2004. The party shifted him to the AOB area after alleged attempts to eliminate him began following the failure of ‘peace talks’ with the Andhra Pradesh Government in 2004.
Apparently, RK had narrowly escaped with his life, though he lost his son Munna aka Akkiraju Prithvi aka Shivaji (27), an ‘area committee member’ of Malkangiri’s cut-off area Local Guerrilla Squad (LGS), in the twin encounters in the Bejingi Forest area between Ramgarh and Panasput in Malkangiri District on October 24 and 27, 2016, resulting in the death of 28 and two Maoist cadres, respectively. The incident dealt a major blow to the outfit in the AOB region.
Indeed, Damodar Gautam Sawang, Director General of Police (DGP), Andhra Pradesh, claimed, on August 13, 2021, that the CPI-Maoist was losing ground in the AOB region, which was earlier considered a Maoist ‘guerrilla base area.’ According to Sawang, there are several factors, such as dwindling public support, lack of recruitment from tribals, discrimination of the top cadre who hail from plain areas towards tribals, series of exchanges of fire, arrests and surrenders in the recent months, attractive surrender and rehabilitation policy of the State Government and the changed scenario on the AOB, where Maoist cadres are shrinking. DGP Sawang elaborated,
These people had formed their own local government in the AOB with structured cells. But today they have lost traction and even the local militia members are not active. Its cadre strength has declined from 140 to 54. Maoist military formations, which are responsible for their guerrilla actions, saw a steep reduction from two companies (50 members) to a mere platoon of 10 members in the last two years.
According to an October 27, 2021, report, however, DGP Sawang warned that this year, 2.9 lakh kilograms of ganja (marijuana) had been seized in the AOB region, so far. A target had been set to destroy the crop in more than 4,500 acres in the AOB region. Sawang added,
It (ganja cultivation) is thriving in the Naxal-hit region along the tri-State borders of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Odisha. The support from the Central and State stakeholders is need of the hour to check it.
It is useful to recall, however, that out of the nine Districts of the AOB region, two – Malkangiri in Odisha, and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh – remain listed among the ‘25 Most Affected (LWE) Districts’ in eight States of the country, while seven Districts, [Koraput, Malkangiri, and Rayagada in Odisha, and East Godavari, Srikakulam, Visakhapatnam, and Vizianagaram, in Andhra Pradesh], are still covered under the Security Related Expenditure (SRE) scheme for conducting focused operations against Left Wing ultras.
Moreover, the Maoists are making efforts to keep themselves relevant among the masses. Thus, CPI-Maoist gave a call for a State-wide bandh (general shut down strike) on August 10, 2021, in protest against the alleged illegal mining of laterite and bauxite in the Agency areas in Visakhapatnam and East Godavari Districts of Andhra Pradesh. The Maoists urged the tribals from the affected villages to take a militant stand, to drive away the mining companies and to destroy the trucks and heavy earthmoving equipment that are being used for mining. The Maoists also urged the tribals not to allow the Police to organise volleyball tournaments and medical camps in their interior villages, arguing that, in the garb of doing, the Police was actually trying to extend roads constructed to facilitate mining and aid the illegal mining companies. The Maoists also demanded that the construction of the road be stopped. However, according to the State Police, the August 10, 2021, bandh call evoked a lukewarm response in the Visakha Agency region. No untoward incident was reported and all shops and establishments remained open, while public transport functioned as usual. The Police further said that there was no response to the bandh in Maoist-prone Mandals (administrative sub-divisions) such as G.K. Veedhi, Pedabayalu, Munchingput or Chintapalli of the Visakhapatnam District.
Earlier, appealing to tribal people and social activists to lend their support and make the bandh called on July 1, 2021, a success, in a letter released by Ganesh, ‘secretary’ of the AOBSZC, the Maoists, claimed they had provided medicines and food to the tribal people during the pandemic. Maoist leader alleged that the State Government had failed to provide medical support in the Agency areas. He also alleged that COVID-19 tests were not conducted properly in the tribal region and there were no doctors to help. The bandh in the AOB area was called in protest against an encounter on June 16, 2021, in which six Maoist cadres had been killed at Theegalametta in Koyyuru Mandal in the Visakhapatnam Agency of Andhra Pradesh.
There is no doubt, the Maoists are losing their erstwhile areas of influence and strongholds across the country, including the AOBSZC. The SFs will have to encash the strategic disadvantages of the Maoists, as the final battle is far from over, and an enduring peace is yet to be firmly established.
*Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management