By Ajit Kumar Singh
On May 9, 2012, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Jitendra Singh told the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament), that the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) was seeking to ‘revive’ activities deep in India’s South, in the States of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu:
The CPI-Maoist is making forays into Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu under the supervision of its South West Regional Bureau and is planning to link the Western Ghats to the Eastern Ghats through these states. Their (Maoists’) plan includes creating a base on the border of Kerala and Karnataka and establishing a forest route from Wayanad District in Kerala to Mysore District in Karnataka.
Singh also states that, “The CPI-Maoist are (sic) gradually expanding their activities in these States.”
There appears to be a degree of inconsistency between these claims and the Union Ministry of Home Affair’s (UMHA) own recent claims that Left Wing Extremist (LWE) activities in these States had been on a continuous decline. Interestingly, the MHA, in its reply to a query by the Institute for Conflict Management, under the Right to Information Act, disclosed, on January 20, 2012, that the number of Districts afflicted by LWE violence or activities in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, had declined from 14, 9 and 9, respectively, in 2008 to 8, 8 and 4, respectively, in 2011.
The Maoists’ ‘southern forays’ are nothing new. In their August 3, 2002, Draft Report on Social Conditions and Tactics, the Karnataka State Committee of the then Communist Party of India – Marxist Leninist – Peoples’ War (also known as the People’s War Group, PWG, which merged into the CPI-Maoist in September 2004) under the head The Perspective Area observed:
The Western Ghats, with an average width of about 100 kilometres, runs from North to South for about 2,200 kms… It passes through Kerala, TN, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat…The longest part, the widest and deepest forests of the Western Ghats are located in Karnataka… The Western Ghats that runs through Karnataka is called as the Malnad (sic). The Western Ghats has its strategic significance for peoples’ war in India owing to the forest and mountainous terrain… It would not be an exaggeration, owing to all these factors, to call the Malnad as the strategic midrib of peoples’ war in Karnataka… The Perspective Area falls in the central part of Malnad… Today we have initiated our work in one part of the Perspective Area.
Further, at the time of its formation in 2004, the CPI-Maoist had announced five ‘regional bureaus’, including the South Western Regional Bureau which was to oversee activities in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala.
Karnataka was seen as the gateway for the Naxalites (LWEs) to move deeper South, and a beginning was made in the Tumkur District as far back as in the late 1970s, gradually spreading into the Malnad region, gaining prominence when Kudremukh was declared a National Park in 2001. Reports indicated that the Naxalite presence was noticed in Kudremukh National Park in 1998, while evidence of LWE violence made its first appearance in the region on November 6, 2002, when an elderly woman, Cheeramma, suffered injuries when a bullet hit her accidently during an LWE training exercise at Menasinahadya in Koppa taluk (revenue unit) of the Chikmagalur District. On August 6, 2003, the first encounter took place between the Police and an LWE team spotted near the house of one Ramachandra Gowdlu in Singsar village of Kudremukh in the same District.
These incipient forays, however, suffered a major setback on February 6, 2005, when the Police killed Saketh Rajan aka Prem, ‘secretary’ of the Karnataka State Committee of the erstwhile People’s War Group (PWG), and his aide, Shivalingu, at Baligegudda in Menasinahadya in Chikmagalur District. In retaliation, seven Police personnel and a civilian were killed, and another five sustained injuries, when approximately 300 suspected CPI-Maoist cadres attacked a Karnataka State Reserve Police camp with hand grenades, bombs and small arms at Venkammanahalli in the Tumkur District on February 11, 2005.
On February 28, 2005, the CPI-Maoist formed a new ‘State Committee’, with C.M. Noor Zulfikar aka Sridhar as ‘state secretary’. The Maoist expansion in Karnataka, as well as their efforts further south were however, thwarted for some time. Nevertheless, on September 5, 2006, then Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy disclosed that 13 Districts in the State were affected by LWE activities, and roughly 200 Maoist cadres were operating in the State, of which 60 had formed ‘two or three armed groups’ in the Malnad region.
With many ups and downs, the Naxalites had strengthened their position by 2009. Gopal B. Hosur, then Inspector-General of Police (Western Range), Karnataka, on June 30, 2010, had claimed that the Western Range, consisting of Udupi, Mangalore and Chikmagalur Districts, was ‘worst hit’ by Naxalite violence. According to Hosur, moreover, at least 25 front organizations of the Maoists were operating in the State. Significantly, the Shimoga Superintendent of Police, S. Murugan, was provided Z category security following threats from the Maoists on September 2, 2009. The rising Maoist threat in Karnataka resulted in massive combing operations by the Police towards the end of 2009, which appear to have decimated the Maoist ranks in the State.
On June 13, 2010, the Andhra Pradesh Police arrested Karnataka ‘state committee chief’, Chandrashekhar Gorebal, in the Mahabubnagar District of Andhra Pradesh. During interrogation, Gorebal acknowledged that the Maoists were facing a crisis of both recruitment and resources in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. Gorebal stated, “I’m not sure of the exact numbers. The working cadres will know better. Maybe 20- 25 are full time. The problem is, not all are permanent members… We might not have the capacity to provide weapons to all members.”
Thereafter, the State Government continued to claim that Maoist activity in Karnataka was on the decline. On February 1, 2011, then Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa stated that Karnataka had “almost eliminated” the CPI-Maoist menace, though “a handful of Maoists” remained active. Similarly, on December 30, 2011, the then State Home Minister R. Ashoka claimed, “Naxalism in Karnataka is on the decline”. More recently, on May 2, 2012, the Director General of Police (DGP) A. R. Infant, disclosed that no more than some 40 CPI-Maoist cadres were estimated to be active in the State.
Nor have the Maoist efforts in the other southern States met with any exemplary success. After their ‘social investigation’ of Kerala in 2004, the Maoists established an ‘urban area’ of activity in Kochi, and a unit each in South and North Wayanad. On October 23, 2007, the then State Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan observed that some Naxalite activities had been noticed in the State: “There are reports that Naxal leaders frequent and stay in the State to hold meetings, and Police have been asked to be vigilant.” On December 17, 2007, the Central Committee member of the CPI-Maoist, Malla Raji Reddy aka Sattenna, was arrested from Angamaly town in the Ernakulam District, Kerala. Further, a November 14, 2011, report suggested that at least half a dozen Maoist cadres from Kerala had been sent to Jharkhand for military training. Nevertheless, the Maoists failed to establish a significant presence in Kerala. On May 2, 2012, Director General of Police, Jacob Punnose, claimed, “It is suspected that extremist elements are present in the forests in Kerala. There could be groups having links with Maoists from states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha in state’s forests”. However, he stressed that there was no evidence to show that they were directly engaged in any ‘extremist activity’ within the State.
As in the cases of Karnataka and Kerala, the Naxalites have had some presence in Tamil Nadu since the 1970s. The Naxalites established contact with the Tamil Nadu Communist Party-Marxist Leninist (TNCP-ML), which was formed in 1984-85 after a split between the Communist Party of India–Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML) and its Tamil Nadu unit. On November 16, 2006, then Director General of Police, D. Mukherjee, stated in Chennai that the Tamil Nadu Police had increased surveillance in four Districts of the State bordering Andhra Pradesh, where Maoists were believed to have established a presence – Vellore, Thiruvallore, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri – to prevent the infiltration of Maoists. However, the rebels’ efforts have borne little fruit and, on November 29, 2011, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Director General K. Vijay Kumar asserted that Tamil Nadu was free of the Maoist menace, and there was no need to carry out any search operations against them in the State. On April 24, 2012, Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa stated that there was no Maoist or Naxalite activity in Tamil Nadu.
The Security Related Expenditure (SRE) Scheme, under which the Centre compensates the States for expenditure on certain categories of internal security activities, has been expanded to cover 103 Districts across the country, with effect from April 1, 2012, up from the earlier 83 Districts. Significantly, not a single District under the SRE Scheme falls under any of these three States. Districts ‘worst affected’ by Maoist activity are included in the SRE scheme.
The Maoists’ ‘southern foray’, consequently, is old hat, and has been visibly unsuccessful. There is, however, little space for complacency, and the Maoists have certainly not given up on the possibility of reviving their activities in this region. Indeed, the success of the mobilization in Karnataka under Saketh Rajan in the early 2000s should be warning enough of the potential of Maoist mobilization under sustained efforts and propitious leadership.
Moreover, despite significant reverses, decline in violence, some shrinkage in operational areas, and a dramatic attrition at top leadership levels, the Maoist threat across India remains grave, and the rebels’ capacities for a strategic resurgence have been repeatedly demonstrated in the past. Evidence of a determined push to establish capabilities in India’s chronically troubled Northeast is very real and disturbing. On May 9, 2012, four Maoists, including top ‘commander’ Siddhartha Buragohain, were killed in Assam, and three AK-47s, and quantities of grenades and ammunition were recovered, dramatically underlining a strengthening Maoist presence in the State. The data made available to ICM under the RTI query to the UMHA indicates that Maoist-affected Districts in Assam have risen from just four in 2008, to 10 in 2011. Significantly, UMHA data indicates that even the national capital, Delhi, has seen an increase in the Maoist presence, with the number of affected Districts increasing from three in 2008, to seven in 2011. On May 8, 2012, UMHA also disclosed that the Maoists command a 46,600 strong ‘army’ across the country – including 8,600 ‘hard core’ armed cadres, and 38,000 jan (people’s) militia.
Tremendous caution is, consequently, necessary, and the UMHA’s effort to “sensitize” the “state Governments of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu” and to advise them “to take preventive and pre-emptive measures to foil the efforts of the CPI-Maoist aimed at revival of its movement in these States”, are not misplaced, despite the reverses the rebels have suffered in these States. Incoherence and a continuous falsification of assessments have undermined the responses of State Governments in many of the Maoist-afflicted or targeted States, and India has already paid a terrible price for such distortions. Constant vigilance is, consequently, an imperative, even where the dangers appear, on visible indices, to be receding.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management