By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On April 15, 2016, Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres from the Malajkhand Dalam (armed squad) abducted two villagers from Jalda Navhi village under the Pathri Police outpost in the Balaghat District of Madhya Pradesh. They were blindfolded and taken deep inside a nearby forest where they were assaulted and subsequently shot at. While one of the abductees, Rati aka Sunder, a Class 12 student, died on the spot with a bullet in his skull, the other, identified as Rajkumar, faked his death and managed to escape. He later told Police that there were 30 to 40 Maoist cadres and they were repeatedly asking about their linkages with the Police.
On April 11, 2016, Maoists reportedly looted a truck and set it ablaze at Dhiri Murum village in the Mataghat area of Balaghat. Police said a group of 25 to 30 armed Maoists, dressed in green uniforms, looted a truck and then set it ablaze. Before leaving the area they warned other villagers to stay away from Police and Government officials.
On April 7, 2016, a Maoist was injured in an encounter with the Security Forces (SFs) near the Chukkatola village forests in Balaghat District. Dinesh Sagar, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Balaghat, stated, “We received information from the sarpanch [head of Panchayat, village level local self Government institution] that some people, according to him who were Naxalites [Left Wing Extremists], interrupted him on 4 April [April 4, 2016] and demanded to arrange wages payment under MNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] which are due for last several months. They gave him an ultimatum or asked him to resign. While this morning when we were on search operation, Naxalites started firing on Police party near Pathri ghati (valley) under Malanjkhand Police Station area of Birsa tehsil [revenue unit], around 60 kilometres away from Balaghat District headquarters. One ultra received bullet but we could not recover the body as his accomplice might have taken him away, combing and search operation in the area is going on (sic).”
Meanwhile, according to a May 2, 2016, report, the Maoists have released a pamphlet, allegedly published by the North Gadchiroli-Gondia ‘divisional committee’, warning the Balaghat Superintendent of Police (SP) Gaurav Tiwari of dire consequences. The pamphlet also threatened alleged ‘Police informers’ and people working for implementation of various Government schemes in Maoist-affected areas of the District. The pamphlet also urged villagers to emphasise their rights on “Jal, Jungle and Zamin’ (water, forests, land) instead of taking television sets, sewing machines, radio and other items from the Government.”
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, the District has recorded at least four Maoist-linked incidents in 2016 (data till May 8, 2016). The total number of Maoist-linked incidents reported from the District, since the formation of the CPI-Maoist on September 21, 2004, stands at 36. The first Maoist-linked incident in the District was recorded on December 10, 2006, when Maoist cadres had put up posters announcing a bandh (shut down strike) in the Balaghat District in protest against alleged Police excesses.
Among the incidents reported from the District, three involved killings. Prior to the April 15, 2016, incident of civilian killing, a SF trooper, identified as Harish Rahgdale (27), was killed on September 22, 2010, in an ambush by Maoist cadres near Sitapala in the District. Another trooper was also injured in the ambush. One Maoist was killed on May 26, 2012, in an encounter near Bamni village under the Roopjar Police Station area in the District. The body of the slain Maoist was recovered along with a .315 bore rifle and 45 cartridges. Police also recovered explosives, medicines, rifle cleaning equipment, and other materials from the encounter site, left behind by the fleeing Maoists.
Balaghat has also recorded at least six incidents of exchange of fire between the SFs and the Maoists since the formation of the CPI-Maoist. These included one incident each in 2010 and 2012; two incidents each in 2014 and 2016. Four incidents of setting ablaze of public properties were also recorded. Two such incidents were reported in 2010; while 2012 and 2016 accounted for one incident each. SFs also seized arms and ammunition on at least eight occasions. Two incidents of recoveries were reported in 2007; four incidents in 2011, one incident each in 2012 and 2014. Posters and pamphlets released by Maoists have also been recovered on at least four occasions.
In addition, SFs arrested 11 Maoists in nine incidents from the District. Two extremists each were arrested in 2007 and 2008; three in 2009; and one each in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Some of the significant arrests included, two Maoists, identified as Santlal aka Chetram and Saleeta, carrying head money of INR 20,000 each, arrested by the Police on August 31, 2007 from an unspecified place; a woman Maoist cadre, identified as Kamla, wanted in several cases and carrying a reward of INR 30,000, arrested from the Kodhapar Forest area on September 21, 2008; Nirmala (sister of Kamla), an active member of the Malajkhand dalam and who carried a reward of INR 20,000, arrested from Mate village on an unspecified date in August, 2008; a Maoist cadre, identified as Rajkumar aka Ketar aka Hare Singh, carrying head money of INR 15,000, arrested by the Police during a search operation at Tumma village on March 4, 2009; a woman Maoist ‘commander’, identified as Jhinia Pusam (32), arrested from the Lanji area on January 30, 2011; a CPI-Maoist North Gadchiroli Divisional Committee member, identified as Guha Uike aka Dilip (38), wanted in around 200 criminal cases, arrested from the jungle of the Songudda area on May 22, 2015. Dilip carried a reward of around INR 2.7 million including INR 1.6 million announced by the Maharashtra Police, INR 800,000 announced by the Chhattisgarh Police, and INR 300,000 announced by the Madhya Pradesh Police.
The recent spurt in Maoist activities in Balaghat District has not come as a surprise. The dramatic contraction of Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) – in terms of geographical areas of influence, violence and capacities – in neighbouring areas has been the principle reason for their regrouping in areas which are on the peripheries of their strong holds, which have come under extreme pressure over the past few years. In order to intensify their activities and reassert their presence in central India, the Maoists have carved out a new zone ‘North Gadchiroli Gondia Balaghat Divisional Committee’ for their operations, comprising Gadchiroli and Gondia in Maharashtra and Balaghat in MP. The Maoists appointed Pahad Singh as the leader of the unit on December 10, 2012.
Balaghat is a strategically important District for the Maoists. It has all that is needed to facilitate rebel activities – difficult terrain, dense forests, vulnerable populations and extreme backwardness. Balaghat occupies the south eastern portion of the Satpura Range and the upper valley of the Wainganga River. The total area of the District is 9,245 square kilometres, with about 85 per cent under forest cover.
The District Development and Diversity Index Report for India and Major States published by the US-India Policy Institute and Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy (CRDDP) in January 2015, found that, among the 599 Districts across India under purview of the Survey, Balaghat was ranked 439th, i.e., among the most backward. The Report took composite development — measured in terms of economic development and indices of health, education and material well-being – into consideration.
Adding to the problem is a porous border which adjoins Chhattisgarh [Rajnandgaon and Kabeerdham Districts] and Maharashtra [Gondia and Bhandara Districts], two States in which the Maoists have long been active. On January 31, 2016, Balaghat SP Gaurav Tiwari stated that the Madhya Pradesh Police have started a house-to-house survey of 40 Maoist-hit villages in Balaghat District to ensure sympathisers in the area are unable to hide rebel leaders: “We have started surveys in 40 villages in Baihar and Lanji areas of the District, where people are known to be Maoist sympathisers over the years… The rebels use these villages to hide when they are on the run from security forces in the neighbouring Districts of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. Once they are in these villages they hide their weapons, and it is difficult to identify them… In Balaghat, there are two main Maoist dalams or local units of the rebels with more than 30 active members, who keep moving between the three States.” At least five incidents of such inter-State crossings have been recorded in the District since 2004, according to SATP.
Notably, Rajnandgaon and Gondia are among 106 Maoist-affected Districts across the country listed by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. Balaghat is also one among them.
Madhya Pradesh has a total of 51 Districts. Apart from Balaghat, six Maoist-linked incidents have been recorded from four other Districts since the formation of CPI-Maoist in September 2004. These included two incidents each from Bhopal, the State capital, and Shahdol; while one incident each was reported from Sehore and Singrauli. These incidents alone do not demonstrate a significant Maoist presence in the State, outside Balaghat. Yet, State Home Minister Babulal Gaur warned, on February 9, 2014, that a total of 10 Districts have been hit by “red-sponsored terrorism”, hampering development in these areas.
These are disturbing signs. With the Maoists under extreme duress in neighbouring States, MP offers tempting areas for relocation, particularly with the poor Police profile in the State. MP has the fourth lowest number of Policemen (27.3) per 100 square kilometres among all States in the Country, less than half the national average of 54.7 according data last released by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2014. The State also has a relatively low Police-Population ratio, at 112 per 100,000, well below the national average of 141 (which itself is far from satisfactory according to international standards), and fifth from the bottom among all States.
According to an August 12, 2015, report, the State Government has decided to form a Special Indian Reserve Battalion (SIRB), a force that can be deployed across the State for maintaining law and order and to fight the Maoists. A total of seven companies and 1,107 posts are to be created in the special force. State Home Minister Babulal Gaur disclosed, “The SIRB is being established in MP to combat the Naxalites. Its headquarters will be at village Kanki of Balaghat District, neighbouring Naxal-hit Chhattisgarh.” No further information on the current status of the Force is available.
The Maoists are in sharp retreat across their traditional areas of dominance, and it would be unfortunate if they are able to carve out a new sphere of operations due to the lackadaisical responses of the MP Government. A sense of tremendous urgency – of which there is little present evidence – must attend the responses to this, as yet, emerging challenge in the State.
* Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management