By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On April 3, 2021, Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres killed at least 22 Security Force (SF) personnel in Sukma District of Chhattisgarh.
Giving details, the State’s Deputy Inspector General (anti-Maoist operations), O.P. Pal, disclosed, “Separate joint teams of Security Forces, over 2,000 in number, had launched a major anti-Maoist operation from Bijapur and Sukma Districts in the South Bastar forests, considered as the Maoist stronghold, on Friday [April 2] night. Around noon on Saturday [April 3], an encounter broke out between the patrolling team that was dispatched from Tarrem and ultras belonging PLGA [Peoples’ Liberation Guerilla Army] battalion of Maoists near Jonaguda village under Jagargunda police station area (in Sukma).”
According to reports, the 2,000-strong contingent of troops was drawn from Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA, a specialised unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), CRPF’s regular battalions, a unit of its Bastariya Battalion, Chhattisgarh Police’s District Reserve Guard (DRG), and others. The Maoists were around 400 in number. However, the Maoist’s had positioned themselves strategically before laying the ambush.
Explaining the ground situation, an unnamed officer said, “The security personnel were caught unaware and were at a disadvantageous position as rebels kept firing from the top of the hills on two sides. It was a U-type ambush.”
In the gunfight that lasted over three hours, 22 SF personnel were killed while another 30 were injured. Though CRPF Director General (DG) Kuldiep Singh claimed that not “less than 25-30” Maoists were killed, the SFs have recovered just a single dead body of an alleged woman Maoist from the encounter site.
Significantly, the April 3, 2021, incident is the worst attack targeting SFs, in terms of fatalities, across India, since the April 24, 2017, attack in which about 200-300 Maoist cadres had killed at least 25 CRPF personnel and injured another six in an ambush at Kalapattar in the Burkapal area of the Sukma District of Chhattisgarh. In turn, the April 24, 2017, attack was the worst since the June 29, 2010, Jhadha Ghati (in Narayanpur District of Chhattisgarh) attack, in which 26 SF personnel were killed.
Between the April 25, 2017, and April 3, 2021, attacks, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 18 major attacks (each resulting in three or more fatalities) against the SFs have been recorded from across India. In three of these 18 incidents, 15 or more SF fatalities were recorded. Apart from the April 1, 2021 attacks, the others in this category include the followings:
May 1, 2019: At least 15 SF personnel of C-60, the Maharashtra Police counter-insurgency commando unit, and one civilian driver, were killed in an ambush by CPI-Maoist cadres in Jamburkheda village under Kurkheda Police Station limits in the Gadchiroli District of Maharashtra.
March 21, 2020: Maoists ambushed an SF group, killing 17 personnel and injuring another 15 in the dense forests of Elmaguda, close to Kasalpad and Minpa villages in the Chintagufa area of the Sukma District of Chhattisgarh.
These attacks continue as no adequate measures were being taken to overcome the inherent weaknesses highlighted on several occasions. Indeed, K.P.S. Gill noted, on April 29, 2017, in the aftermath of the April 24, 2017, attack,
…it is abundantly clear, even from what is publicly known, that flagging discipline, poor training and bad leadership will have contributed directly to the debacle. Suffice it to say that even the most rudimentary imperatives of self-preservation appear to have been ignored by the targeted unit.
In another article, published days later, on May 1, 2017, Gill observed,
There is a surfeit of experience in theatres across India that has demonstrated clearly that the essential template of successful CI [Counter Insurgency] response is police-led. As long as the State Police holds back and seeks to fight through proxies — whether these are undisciplined tribal irregulars or CPMFs [Central Para Military Forces, now known as Central Armed Police Forces] unfamiliar with local population and environment – enduring success will remain elusive, though occasional operational victories may reinforce a false belief that gains are being made. Such convictions, however, are quickly undermined when the other side orchestrates a major incident… The Maoists are presently in great difficulty, and there are wide opportunities for state consolidation. It must, however, be abundantly clear that they will not go down without a fight.
Regrettably, however, four years down the line, little appears to have changed and the CAPFs are still working as the lead Force in the fight against the Maoists, with the State Police in Maoist-affected areas unwilling to take the lead, and often operating well under sanctioned strength, relatively poorly trained and ill equipped. For instance, according to the latest Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) data, as on January 1, 2020, in the major Maoist-affected states the Police population ratio (policemen per 100,000 population) remains abysmally low. In Bihar, the Police population ratio is 76.20, followed by 113.68 in Andhra Pradesh and 129.31 in Odisha, However, the two worst affected States, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, have relatively better ratios at 172.18 and 220.53, respectively, well above the national ratio of 155.78. More worryingly, as against the national average 63.63 Policemen per 100 square kilometers, the Chhattisgarh ratio stands at just 47.22 per 100 square kilometers.
State Police Forces not only remain understrength but ill quipped as well. A Comptroller and Auditor General Report released on September 21, 2020, highlighting the existing deficiencies in the Jharkhand Police, noted,
The State police was dependent on phased out weapons for operational purpose due to increase in shortage of modern weapons from 28 per cent (April 2013) to 32 per cent (April 2018). Besides, distribution of arms and ammunition among the field units was skewed… The shortage of BP [Bullet Proof] jackets ranged between 43 and 100 per cent in 12 test-checked State Armed Police Force Battalions, thereby increasing the risk of casualties during operations.
Despite all these shortcomings, most of which are due to the lackadaisical approach of the people at the helm, both at the Centre and in the States, the SFs have succeeded in countering the Maoist menace and have established dominance to a large extent. The Maoists, who according to official statistics, were active across 223 out of 640 Districts spread across 20 states in India in 2008, are now active in not more than 90 districts across 11 States. Maoist violence was reported from 96 Districts in 2010, has been limited to 46 Districts in 2020 (data till September 2020). According to the SATP database, while 64 districts recorded fatalities 2010, the number came down to 36 in 2020. Moreover, overall fatalities which peaked in 2010 at 1,179 (630 civilians, 267 SF personnel, 264 Maoists, 18 Not Specified), dropped to 239 (61 civilians, 44 SF personnel, 134 Maoists) in 2020. 2020 recorded the lowest number of overall as well as civilian fatalities since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling such data.
Other parameters of violence also indicate significant improvement. The number of Maoist-linked incidents have come down drastically. While there were 2,258 incidents in 2009, the number came down to 665 in 2020. This number has remained within three digits since 2017. Between 1999 and 2016 the number had remained over 1,000 each year. The number of killing incidents, at 480 in 2010, came down 138 in 2020. Similarly, there were 34 explosions in 2020, resulting in 46 deaths, as against a high of 187 explosions resulting in 182 deaths in 2009. The highest number of explosion-linked deaths were reported in 2010, when 388 people were killed in explosions.
The significant improvement on the ground has been the result of the operational successes of the SFs. The SFs have eliminated over 1,378 Maoist leadership elements in intelligence-based operations since 2010. Though most of the prominent leaders have either been killed arrested or surrendered, some CPI-Maoist ‘Central Committee (CC)’ members remain active in the forested areas of Sukma and Bijapur. They are protected by an entity called the ‘Central Regional Command (CRC)’. CRC’s ‘Battalion 1’ is led by Maoist leader Madvi Hidma who, according to unconfirmed reports, has been promoted to the ‘CC’.
Dantewada Superintendent of Police (SP), Abhishek Pallava claimed, “The new deployments of CRPF will smoke out the Maoists’ ‘battalion 1’ led by their most wanted leader Hidma, or send them on the run. It will cut their service lines and curtail their movements as well.”
Reports indicate that Hidma led the April 3, 2021, ambush, when the SFs went into the area of attack to ‘smoke him out,’ following intelligence inputs that Hidma was in the area. Though CRPF Director General Kuldiep Singh asserted that there was no intelligence failure, the way the SFs were ambushed does suggest that gross errors in operational protocols, and potentially in the quality of intelligence, have occurred.
Though the Maoist remain at a strategic disadvantage in their fight against SFs and there is no imminent threat of their re-establishing their dominance in the areas they have lost, occasional and major ‘successes’ of the kind witnessed on April 3 are bound to boost the sagging morale of their cadres and are likely to help the outfit to continue its fight to regain ground. The SFs will have to overcome the existing deficiencies in their operational mechanism. The battle is far from over and will linger on, as the political dispensation continues to lack the will and the capabilities to find a lasting solution.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management