By Ajit Kumar Singh
Maharashtra witnessed the brunt of the red surge during the year 2009, with the Communist Party of India-Maoist’s (CPI-Maoist) deliberately focusing attention on a single District, Gadchiroli, here all but one Maoist related incidents in the State were recorded. There is evidence that the Maoists are planning to transform this District into a ‘liberated zone’.
A CPI-Maoist manual recovered by the Police in December 2009, which has helped the Naxalites (Maoists) accelerate their activities in Gadchiroli, gives details of the Maoist plan to make Gadchiroli a ‘liberated zone’, establishing Janathana Sarkars (‘people’s governments’) across the area. According to the manual, the Naxals have been fast forming smaller groups, each comprising 10-15 members, for area dalams (squads) to conduct meetings in villages. These groups fan anti-Government sentiments, appeal to villages to join the movement and cultivate hatred against Security Forces (SFs). An unnamed Police officer disclosed, “These area dalams are effective in giving shape to bigger sabotage attacks by combing their strengths, laying traps for cops or working as support with their military wings during encounters, like removing the bodies of their cadres, distracting the cops while fighting and also delaying the reinforcements.” Prepared in late 2008 by Kadri Satynarayana Rao aka Kosa, ‘secretary’ of the Maoists’ Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, the report defined the reasons for the earlier lack of success in Gadchiroli since 2003. Kosa principally blamed inadequate recruitment in the region for Maoist failures and recommended measures, including an intensive militia induction drives, classes for women in Upper Bastar based on a new syllabus, formation of another revolutionary cell of locals, modernisng weaponry, and a progressive shift from guerrilla warfare to mobile warfare. Accordingly, at least 10 area dalams have since been formed by the Naxals in Gadchiroli itself.
Another warning of Maoists plan to up the ante in Maharashtra had been manifested in a January 13, 2009, report, according to which the CPI-Maoist had decided, at a meeting on an unspecified date in the jungles of Gadchiroli, to strengthen their influence in Maharashtra by merging the Maharashtra operations with the larger and stronger Dandkaranya Committee, active in Chhattisgarh. By the merger of the Maharashtra operations with the more powerful Dandkaranya Committee – which is successfully engaging counter-Naxalite forces in South Chhattisgarh, including the Special Task Force, Central Reserve Police Force and the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) – the CPI-Maoist cadres hoped to carry over the operational successes in Dandkaranya to the adjoining Districts of Maharashtra. The Maoists also realized that this would further facilitate their inter-State operations.
The surge in Maoist violence in Maharashtra in 2009 is, consequently, not surprising. Maharashtra in the year 2009 ‘improved’ its rank among the States worst affected by Naxalite violence. In comparison to 2008, when the State recorded a total of 14 fatalities in 23 incidents and stood at number seven among the States in terms of fatalities, the year 2009 witnessed an alarmingly high of 87 fatalities in just 35 incidents, putting it at number four among the worst affected States, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) Database.
The Database recorded a total of 34 incidents in the Gadchiroli District alone, in which 52 Security Forces (SFs), 23 Maoists and 12 civilians were killed. One former Maoist was killed by the extremists in the neighboring Gondiya District. There was, thus, a five-fold increase in fatalities recorded in Maoist violence in Maharashtra and, more alarmingly, an almost ten-fold increase in fatalities among the SFs.
The upswing in violence is more disturbing in view of significantly declining trends since the surge in 2006, in terms of fatalities, according to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data.
The rising graph of the red surge is a clear setback for the Maharashtra Government which, on January 15, 2009, had boasted that activities of the CPI-Maoist had been forced into a decline in Maharashtra, and that the insurgents in the Gadchiroli, Chandrapur and Gondiya Districts were facing a shortage of cadre, following ‘zero-recruitment’ over the preceding years. A drop in CPI-Maoist related crime and political activities had also been recorded over this period, due to cadre shortage and increase in the number of arrests as well as surrenders, the Additional Director General of Police (Anti-Naxalites Operation), Pankaj Gupta, had observed. Maoist-related crime in all major categories, including blasts, attacks on Policemen and civilians, arson, kidnapping, dacoity and robberies, sabotage and other offences, had also shown a downward trend over the preceding four years. Data indicated that just 85 such offences were recorded in 2008, against 114 in 2007, 128 in 2006 and 134 in 2005. Besides, the number of encounters with Maoists in 2008 was 24, dropping from 34, 40 and 24 in 2007, 2006 and 2005, respectively. About 320 Maoists had surrendered since August 29, 2005, when the State Government came out with a Maoist Surrender Policy, Gupta disclosed. A record number of 145 CPI-Maoist cadres had laid down arms during 2008, as against 93 in 2005, 67 in 2006 and 39 in 2007. Gupta stated, further, that the Police had succeeded in killing as many as 41 Maoists between 2005 to 2008, including 22 in 2006, and 11 in 2008. The figures for extremists arrested in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 (302, 93, 138 and 123, respectively) were also significant, considering the stiff resistance and indiscriminate use of firearms by the Maoists, Gupta claimed. Six Policemen had been killed in 2008, three in 2007, four in 2006 and 25 in 2005, according the Maharashtra Police data.
Clearly, the Maoist reorientation, since, has had major impact. Three major attacks in 2009 alone killed around 50 Policemen:
February 1: 15 Police personnel, including a Sub-Inspector, were killed by CPI-Maoist cadres while patrolling the forest area around the Morke village in the Gadchiroli District. “Seven to eight” Maoists were also killed during the encounter that followed the ambush, according to the Police, though the Police failed to recover the bodies of the slain Maoists.
May 21: 16 Police personnel, including five women constables, were killed during a three-hour long encounter with a group of armed CPI-Maoist cadres near the hills of Hatti Tola in Gadchiroli District.
October 8: CPI-Maoist cadre killed at least 18 Policemen, including Sub-Inspector C.S. Deshmukh, in an ambush in the dense forests near Laheri Police Station in Gadchiroli District.
Two out of the three major attacks on the SFs occurred during the Parliamentary and Assembly elections in the Gadchiroli District, when additional forces had been deployed, suggesting that the Maoists sufficiently consolidated their strengths to take the SFs head on.
Currently, seven out of the eight LWE affected Districts – Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Bhandara, Gondiya, Nagpur, Yavatmal and Nanded – out of a total of 35 Districts in the State, are located in the eastern part of Maharashtra [Nashik is the only affected District in the west], in the economically backward Vidarbha region, sharing borders with Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.
Increasing Maoist belligerence was evident on October 17, 2009, when CPI-Maoist cadres expelled Tukaram Rajaram Kerami, chairperson of the Korchi Panchayat Samiti (the local self-government body) from his village, Bellargondi, in Gadchiroli. Police said a group of around 35 armed Maoists reached village Bellargondi late in the night and summoned a meeting of all villagers at the main square. Kerami along with all other family members were taken to the meeting place, where Maoists pronounced their verdict for the expulsion of the Kerami family.
With their influence increasing, reports indicate that a considerable quantum of local support and participation had been consolidated by the Maoists. Corroborating this, Superintendent of Police (Gadchiroli), Rajesh Pradhan, disclosed that around 200 villagers from Morke village had gone missing after the February 1 attack and the subsequent Police action.
Quite in contrast, weaknesses in Police intelligence gathering at the local level have exposed the SFs to major risk and repeated failures, undermining their operational capabilities. The Police intelligence network has been systematically decimated by the Maoists, who have branded and killed a number of persons ‘police informers’ – in many cases arbitrarily, creating an atmosphere of enveloping terror that excludes the possibility of the SFs getting active help from civilians. In one such incident on September 28, 2009, a disabled Police constable, Nagesh Payam (40) and his niece, Sunita (18), were killed by a group of some 25 Maoists in the Kopela village of Gadchiroli District. The victims were visiting their native village, but were suspected to have been Police informers. Again, on October 3, a 60-year-old man was killed by the Maoists at an unspecified location, as his son had joined the C-60 Commando Force in 2008.
Maharashtra boasts of a Police-population ratio (Policemen per 100,000 population) of 141, the best among the LWE affected States in India (though well below levels regarded as acceptable even for peacetime policing). However, a bulk of the State’s 149,571 Police personnel is deployed in the Mumbai megapolis and other important urban concentrations, such as Pune and Nashik. A mere nine per cent of the Maharashtra Police Force is allocated to the ‘Armed Police’ category – which could engage in counter-insurgency and other law and order operations in extreme situations. The comparable ratio for Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are 16 and 37 per cent, respectively, in the Armed Police. According to officials in the Maharashtra Home Department, there is not only highly inadequate manpower in all the LWE affected Districts of the State, but existing personnel lack access to sophisticated weapons and equipment. Meanwhile, according to an October 10 report, there were 3,300 personnel of the Maharashtra anti-Naxal force – C-60 – and the central paramilitary force, deployed to counter the insurgency.
Despite tremendous deficits, the SFs have achieved significant successes against the Maoists. 23 Maoists were killed in at least seven encounters during 2009, more than trebling the number of Maoists killed in 2008 (seven). In one such incident, on April 6, 14 CPI-Maoist cadres and three SF personnel were killed during a three hour-long encounter between a group of about 300 CPI-Maoist cadres and around 30 SF personnel at Mungner village in the Dhanora tehsil (revenue division) of Gadchiroli. Similarly, on October 4, at least six cadres of the CPI-Maoist were killed during an encounter with the Police at Tadgaon in Gadchiroli. Further, at least 28 CPI-Maoist cadres were arrested in the Gadchiroli District and another eight surrendered before the Gadchiroli Police.
Meanwhile, a major and concerted ground offensive against the Naxalites started with the Police forces in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh launching a joint operation on December 25. The initial stage of this offensive included search operations in the interiors of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra and in Maoist-dominated areas of Chhattisgarh. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, had stated, on December 16, “It’ll be bullet for bullet in our fight against Maoists… We will not spare any Naxal in Vidarbha. They have already killed 52 police jawans [personnel] this year and it is high time we take a firm stand… We cannot have any sympathy for them nor can we wait for them to surrender. So many lives have been lost. We will henceforth be more aggressive”. He claimed that there had been a rise in Naxal migration from other states to Maharashtra and that “Maoists from Nepal have infiltrated and provided firearms and logistics support to Naxals hiding in our jungles. We are, therefore, expediting the process of strengthening our Police machinery in Gadchiroli and other Naxal affected areas, and providing more funds for modern weaponry, helicopters and equipment.” The State Government had earlier announced significant allocations and plans for the augmentation of SF capacities in its counter-Naxal strategy.
It remains to be seen how efficient and effective implementation of these programmes and strategies will be. Any delay or half-heartedness at this juncture will allow the Maoists, who have already secured tremendous sway in Gadchiroli and contiguous Districts in Maharashtra, to become more ferocious in days to come. As the Maoists look for new safe havens in the midst of rising apprehensions regarding the rumoured central offensive against them, the vigour and dynamism of State Government responses will determine whether regions in its jurisdiction will fall deeper into chaos, or be recovered to security and civil administration.