By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On January 27, 2018, two Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres were killed by Security Forces (SFs) during an anti-Maoist operation in the forests between Tarmetla and Morpalli villages under Chintalnad Police Station limits in Sukma District. SFs later recovered the body of the two slain Maoists, including one woman, along with two weapons.
A woman Maoist was killed during an anti-Maoist operation in the Kedwal-Tumalpad forest area of Sukma District on January 10, 2018. The body of the slain Maoist, along with some weapons and explosives, was recovered from the encounter site.
Two Maoists, including a woman, were killed during an anti-Maoist operation in the Muduvandi-Kawadgaon Forest area of Bijapur District on January 5, 2018. SFs recovered the bodies of the two slain Maoists clad in uniform, along with one .303 rifle, one 12 bore gun, and one pistol.
SFs have so far killed seven Maoists during five separate anti-Maoist operations in 2018, (data till February 4, 2018).
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), through 2017, SFs had eliminated at least 78 Maoists, adding to the 133 Maoists killed in 2016 in Chhattisgarh. Similarly, SFs had arrested 331 Maoists in 2017 in addition to the 399 arrested in 2016. At least 327 Maoists surrendered through 2017, against 961 in 2016.
D.M. Awasthi, Special Director General of Police (DGP), Anti Naxal-[Left Wing Extremist] Operations (ANO), stated that at least 1,478 Maoists were “neutralised” [76 killed, 1,017 arrested, 365 surrendered] in 2017, including 178 “big cadres” [51 killed+79 arrested+48 surrendered]. He stated, further,
What we define as neutralise is that they were killed, arrested or surrendered. Big cadres are those with a bounty of more than Rs 1 lakh [INR 100,000]. If you look at rewards against some of the Maoists neutralised in 2017, it adds up to about Rs 4.8 crore. This is a record. This year, we have concentrated not on numbers, but quality operations, and this has shown results. We have entered areas such as Tondamarka, and Palodi, which were completely no-go areas in the past.
According to reports, the joint team of the Special Task Force (STF), the District Reserve Group (DRG), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and its elite unit-CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action), initiated an operation code-named ‘Operation Prahar-I’ for 56 hours continuously from the night of June 22, 2017, to flush out Maoists in the interiors of Chintagufa in Sukma District. Vivekanand Sinha, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Bastar, disclosed, on June 26, 2017, “For the first time we conducted an operation in the Maoists’ core area in Sukma… There is a possibility that a minimum of 15 to 20 Maoists were killed in the operation. This is a big morale booster for our forces.” However, no bodies were recovered. Special DGP Awasthi stated that approximately 1,500 SF personnel participated in the operation.
On November 5, 2017, SFs launched ‘Operation Prahar-II’. Special DGP Awasthi disclosed that the operation was launched “across Bastar Division actively in interiors of Narayanpur, Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada. As part of the operation, it was the first time that joint forces of Special Task force, Chhattisgarh Armed Force, District Reserve Guards and CoBRA were out in forests of Dhurbeda and Irpanar. Joint forces of 2000 personnel were out as part of Operation Prahaar II.”
According to the SATP database, at least 66 ‘commander’ rank rebels were neutralised in 2017: 21 killed, 29 arrested, and 16 surrendered.
Chhattisgarh Government data, meanwhile, disclosed that at least 68 weapons were recovered in 2017 in addition to 310 in 2016. The weapons recovered in 2017 included a Light Machine Gun (LMG), AK 47 rifles, INSAS [Indian Small Arms System (INSAS)] rifles, SLR [Self-Loading Rifle], 9 mm carbines, .303 rifles, 12 bore weapons, and .315 bore rifles. An LMG was recovered in the State for the first time.
On January 2, 2018, the ANO unit of Chhattisgarh Police stated that SFs had managed to enter ‘new areas (controlled by the Maoists)’ to “address the security vacuum” and many new forward posts had been established “for strategic advance”, and further,
Construction of 11 roads [under the protection of the security forces] was completed in the year. So was the construction of 75 fortified police stations in LWE affected areas. The construction of the STF hub in Kanker is complete and the construction of STF hubs in Sukma, Bijapur, and Jagdalpur is in progress. Fourteen helipads with night landing facilities have been constructed in Bastar range.
Meanwhile, fatalities in the civilian category, one of the primary indicators of security in conflict zones, recorded a decline from 38 in 2016 to 32 in 2017, suggesting an improving environment for the civilian population of the State. Significantly, civilian fatalities had registered a rising trend, on year on year basis, since 2015.
Buoyed by the SFs’ operational successes, State Home Secretary V.V.R. Subramanium asserted, on January 2, 2018, that Naxalism will be eradicated from soil of Chhattisgarh by the year 2022. Special DGP Awasthi in an interview published on November 17, 2017, had stated, “Our security forces are slowly penetrating into the core areas of the Naxals and establishing camps, in order to reduce the distance travelled by our men… If this kind of persistent operation continues in next two or three years we will be able to contain Naxalism].”
Indeed, the improving performances of SFs on the ground over the past few years provide grounds for hope. It is, however, imperative that the State and Central Governments to remain equally decisive in their approach, as the Maoists still possess the wherewithal to inflict significant harm. According to the SATP database, the Maoists killed 59 SF personnel during 2017, the highest number of fatalities recorded in this category since 2011, when 67 SF personnel had died in LWE-related violence. There were 39 SF fatalities in 2016. Though the SFs acknowledged that a rise in personnel deaths was “disturbing and unfortunate”, an unnamed security officer added,
The number of personnel deaths is definitely higher, and this is because of two massive Maoist ambushes in Bhejji and Burkapal in March and April, which claimed 37 lives. In active exchanges of fire, the numbers are not that high. As we push deeper into Maoist territory, it is to be expected that there will be heavier exchanges of fire.
Significantly, the Bhejji and Burkapal incidents were marked by gross negligence and an abject failure to follow even the most rudimentary precautions by the personnel deployed for the protection of road construction teams. On March 11, 2017, at least 12 personnel of the 219th Battalion of the CRPF were killed and another four injured when CPI-Maoist cadres ambushed a road opening party in the forests near Kottacheru village under Bhejji Police Station in the Sukma District. Again on April 24, 2017, at least 25 personnel of 74th Battalion of CRPF were killed and six others were injured in an attack by an estimated 300-400 CPI-Maoist cadres near Burkapal village within Chintagufa Police Station limits in Sukma District
Indeed, writing in the aftermath of Burkapal incident, K.P.S. Gill had reiterated,
…there is an urgent need for the CRPF to study and understand what is going wrong, and to address the visible failures of orientation, training and leadership that lie at the source not just of these two, but of the long succession of incidents in which the Maoists have been able to successfully target our forces… Structural and operational deficiencies of the force, including irrational and protracted deployments, inadequate training, almost no retraining, poor leadership, strategic and tactical stasis, fatigue and indiscipline, and an overwhelming posture of passive defence, have also played a crucial part.
As on several occasions in the past, he argued further,
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] 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.
Indeed, the CRPF has initiated some corrective measures. An order on May 4, 2017, directed the “immediate” transfer of the command headquarters of its Central Zone from Kolkata (West Bengal) to Raipur. The headquarters of the Central Zone, an operational field formation, which was raised on August 7, 2009, and was tasked to oversee CRPF troop deployment across the entire ‘Red Belt’ from West Bengal through Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, was moved to Kolkata (from Raipur) in July 2010 in the aftermath of the Chintalnad incident of April 6, 2010, in which 75 CRPF personnel (and one State Police trooper) were killed.
Moreover, Special DGP Awasthi in an interview published on June 26, 2017, admitted:
Knowledge of local language, climate, terrain and culture is very important… For success in counter-insurgency, you must use your own force. In Chhattisgarh, we must use Chhattisgarhi forces. Since I joined last year, I have changed the strategy and all hit teams include both the DRG and the STF. Sometimes we have combined with CoBRA and that has always been very successful when there are backup forces to cut off reinforcements. The DRG is a local force of mostly tribals. It includes surrendered Maoists and direct recruits who are specially trained and used for these anti-Naxal operations. We are trying to increase the focus on DRG.
State Home Secretary Subramanium disclosed, on January 2, 2018, “Between 70 to 75 thousand troops from the State and the Centre are fighting Naxals in the State. Four new battalions will be deployed by March .”
Meanwhile, according to the latest Government data at least 115 districts across 28 states in India were categorized as “backward districts”. Ten of these districts fall inside Chhattisgarh, including all seven districts of Bastar Division, where the Maoists still retain a significant presence. To consolidate SF successes, an urgent focus is required on several aspects of development in these areas.
According to a Chhattisgarh Government release dated January 31, 2018, NITI Aayog has given ‘in principle’ approval to various proposals related to roads, telecommunication, education, Ujjwala Yojana (a Central Government scheme which aims to safeguard the health of women and children by providing clean cooking fuel) and expansion of banks for overall development of the Bastar region. Giving details, Chhattisgarh Chief Secretary Ajay Singh disclosed that ‘in principle’ approval had been given for construction of an additional 600 kilometers of roads in Bastar under the Rashtriya (National) Road Project-2. Approval was also granted for the sanction of INR 650 million for expansion of telecom services and increasing connectivity in remote areas. The amount will be utilized for expansion of District to Development Block connectivity in Bastar and to expedite execution of 402 telecom towers in the first phase and 1,028 telecom towers in the second phase. In a bid to strengthen the education system, in principle approval was given for the declaration of 10 LWE affected Blocks (not identified in the release) as Educationally Backward Blocks. Approval was also given for the provision of housing under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Prime Minister’s Housing Scheme)’ to 1,555 surrendered Naxalities and those whose names do not figure in the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011.
The time-bound implementation of these development measures along with sustained and successful operations by SFs on the ground can restore an enduring peace to the State. Successes of both these measures need strong political will – which has been sadly lacking, or fitfully forthcoming in the past, as SF successes have repeatedly been frittered away. It remains to be seen whether the present cycle of SF successes will encourage greater and more enduring political sagacity.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow; Institute for Conflict Management