By Indrajit Sharma*
On April 19, 2020, cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) shot dead a civilian, identified as Raj Kishore Gope (35), a resident of Bhalurungi village in the Sarjamburu Forest under Goilkera Police Station limits in West Singhbhum District. The Maoists killed Gope suspecting him to be a ‘police informer’. Superintendent of Police (SP) Indrajeet Mahatha disclosed that about 20 Maoists intercepted Gope in the forest area while he was returning home late in the evening and shot him dead. Before fleeing, the rebels planted three Improvised Explosive Device (IED)-fitted arrows near the body to target the Police, who they believed would reach the incident site. The IEDs were, however, detected and subsequently defused by a Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS).
On April 4, 2020, three women cadres belonging to the Suresh Munda squad of the CPI-Maoist were killed in an exchange of fire between the Maoists and Security Forces (SFs) at Chirung village under Gudri Police Station limits in West Singhbhum District. SFs recovered over 500 rounds, arrow bombs, two IEDs, and Maoist literature from the incident site. SP Indrajeet Mahatha said that the rebels were present at the village to motivate the villagers to join their movement.
These two incidents of killing have been reported in West Singhbhum during the current year (data till May 10, 2020). During the corresponding period in 2019, no fatality was reported in the District. However, three civilian fatalities were reported in two separate incidents in the remaining period of the year in the District. West Singhbhum recorded two fatalities (both civilians) in 2018.
Since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-linked violence across India, West Singhbhum recorded 177 fatalities (55 civilians, 75 SF personnel, 43 Left Wing Extremists, Naxalites, and four Not Specified) in such violence.
There are 80 Districts across 10 States which have recorded fatalities in both Maoist and SF categories since March 6, 2000. Only 24 of these, spread across six States, have recorded a kill ratio that favours the Maoists. West Singhbhum is one such District, where the overall kill ratio stands at 1.74:1 in favour of the Maoists.
This is despite the fact that the District saw its last SF killing on September 3, 2013. In that incident, a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) trooper was killed in an encounter with the Maoists in the Tebo Valley of West Singhbhum District. SFs suffered 18 fatalities in 2002, 20 fatalities in 2004, 15 fatalities each in 2006 and 2009, five fatalities in 2010, and one fatality in 2011.
It was in 2010 that the Maoists suffered their maximum of 21 fatalities (in the District) in a year, including 10 fatalities each in the month of June and September. Since September 2010, the SFs have suffered only three fatalities.
The successful offensives launched by SFs in the District in 2010 dealt a major blow to the Maoists who, since then, have failed to take on the SFs directly. Sadly, the Maoists have increasingly directed their violence against civilians. Of 55 civilian fatalities recorded in the District since May 2000, 38 were reported between 2011 and 2020 (data till May 10). Between 2000 (since March 6) and 2010, nearly the same duration, there were just 17 fatalities in this category.
Located at the Southern part of Jharkhand bordering Odisha, West Singhbhum is the largest District in the State, covering 5,351.41 square kilometers, of which 53 per cent (around 2836.24 square kilometres) is under forest cover. The District borders Khunti in the North; Saraikela-Kharsawan in the East; Simdega (all three in Jharkhand) and Sundargarh (in Odisha) to the West; and Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj Districts of Odisha on the South. The steep mountains and deep forests in the District make it a formidable challenge for SFs.
Significantly, all these bordering Districts (barring Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj) as well as West Singhbhum, are among the 90 Districts in 11 States listed as LWE affected, according to a Government release of February 5, 2019. Further, Khunti and Simdega, along with West Singhbhum, fall among the ‘30 worst Maoist-affected’ Districts, across seven States in the country, according to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA). West Singhbhum is also listed as one of the Aspirational Districts included in the ‘Aspirational Districts Programme’. The programme focuses on five main themes – Health & Nutrition, Education, Agriculture & Water Resources, Financial Inclusion & Skill Development, and Basic Infrastructure – which have a direct bearing on the quality of life and economic productivity of citizens.
Not surprisingly, the Maoists always had a strong base in the District. However, after facing reverses in their erstwhile stronghold in the Saranda Forest in the District, the Maoists reportedly shifted to the adjoining Sundargarh District of Odisha. Several Maoist cadres hid themselves in the villages in Saranda in the guise of cultivators.
Worryingly, however, a November 25, 2019, report observed that the Maoists were trying to re-infiltrate the District through the porous Sundargarh border linking up to the Saranda Forest. Working on a changed strategy, the Maoists move in small groups, occasionally using the forests under Bisra Police Station limits and the Bonai sub-division on the Sundargarh side of the border, as hideouts.
Indeed, a February 4, 2020, report observed that, in an attempt to step up activities and violence in eastern India, particularly Bihar and Jharkhand, prominent CPI-Maoist leaders such as Nambala Keshav Rao aka Basavraj, held a meeting in Saranda forests of West Singhbhum District, in which they decided to replace the aging Prashant Bose aka Kishan da (74) with Ranjit Bose aka Kabir (63). The latter is known for his expertise in mobilising masses against SFs, and carries a bounty of INR 10 million on his head.
Meanwhile, Raj Kumar, Inspector General (IG), Jharkhand Sector, CRPF, stated on April 7, 2020,
The recent incidents in the District vis a vis the State demonstrate that they (the Maoists) are active. The tri-junction of Ranchi, Khunti, and West Singhbhum Districts, the Parasnath Hills in Giridih and Budha Pahar in Bokaro, are some of the rebel hotspots in the State.
Further, according to an April 5, 2020, report, intelligence sources have revealed that the Maoists have restarted influencing the local residents in the District to come into the LWE fold. The report mentioned that the rebels were targeting areas in Sonua, Goelkera and Porahat region of West Singhbhum District to extend their base.
Following intelligence inputs, SFs have now been asked to intensify anti-insurgency operations in the District. On April 6, 2020, Jharkhand Finance Minister Rameshwar Oraon categorically stated, “The Police have been given complete freedom to rein in crime and Naxal incidents.”
On the ground, the administration has increased Police patrolling in the border areas of the District and has also deployed increased numbers of paramilitary personnel in areas of potential attack. Further, a May 4, 2020, report noted, the State Police has set up six CRPF camps at Saranda and another six are in the process of being installed.
The Maoists are desperate to regain their stronghold in West Singhbhum, creating a resurgent challenge for the SFs along the poorly governed inter-State border areas.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management