By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On November 13, 2021, at least 26 Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres were killed in an encounter by the Commando-60 (C-60, the special anti-Maoist Force of the Maharashtra Police) units, in the forests of Mardintola in Gyarapatti area in Korchi Tehsil (revenue unit) in Gadchiroli District. Four Security Force (SF) personnel sustained injuries during the encounter.
The encounter started in the early hours of November 13, when a C-60 team was conducting a search operation based on specific intelligence that Maoists from ‘company no. 4’, Tipagad Local Organising Squad (LOS), Korchi LOS, Vistaar ‘Platoon’, ‘central committee’ member Milind Teltumbde’s Guard and other Dalams (armed squads) were present in large numbers in the Mardintola forest. The commandos were fired upon by the Maoists and retaliated. Police recovered bodies of 26 Maoists, which included 20 men and six women from the encounter site. A huge cache of arms and ammunition, including five AK-47 rifles, one Avtomat Kalashnikova Modernizirovanniy (AKM) assault rifle, one Under Barrel Grenade Launcher (UBGL), nine Self-Loading Rifles (SLRs), three .303 rifles, nine 2.2 single bore, one INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) assault rifle, one pistol and explosives was also recovered.
Top Maoist leader Milind Baburao Teltumbde aka Deepak Teltumbde aka Sahyadri aka Jeeva, a ‘central committee’ member and ‘secretary’ of the CPI-Maoist ‘Maharashtra State Committee’, carrying a reward of INR five million on his head, was among those dead. Teltumbde was the ‘head’ of the MMC (Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh) confluence zone of the rebels and was instrumental in building the Maoist movement in the State, along the Gondia, Balaghat and Mandla regions in Madhya Pradesh and the Rajnandgaon region in Chhattisgarh, over the last two decades. He was also an accused wanted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Pune Police in the alleged Bhima Koregaon Elgar Parishad-Maoists links case of 2018. The case relates to the violence on January 1, 2018, in which one person was killed and several injured after clashes at the 200th-anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Koregaon near Pune.
The other slain Maoists included Lokesh aka Mangu Madkam, ‘Divisional Committee Member’ (DCM), carrying reward of INR two million on his head; Mahesh Gota, ‘DCM’, carrying a reward of INR 1.6 million; ‘commanders’ Kishan Jaiman and Sannu Kowachi, each carrying a reward of INR 800,000. Among the women Maoists killed in the encounter was Vimla aka Manso Boga, who was the bodyguard of Milind Teltumbde, carrying a reward of INR 400,000 on her head.
The November 13, 2021, encounter is the most successful operation conducted by the SFs in the District, in terms of high fatalities inflicted on the Maoists, since the twin encounters on April 22 and 23, 2018, when 37 CPI-Maoist cadres were killed by the C-60 Police commandos and personnel from Battalion 9 of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in the Kasnasur-Boriya area of Etapalli Tehsil, Gadchiroli.
In the interim, there have been another four encounters which have resulted in five or more Maoist killings. These included:
February 28, 2019: At least eight Maoists, including five women, were killed in an encounter at Savegam Forest in Gadchiroli District.
October 18, 2020: Anti-Naxal (Left Wing Extremist) Squad (ANS) commandos killed five Maoists, including three women, in the Kosmi-Kisneli Forests under Dhanora Taluka (revenue sub-division) in Gadchiroli District.
March 29, 2021: Five Maoists, including two women, were killed while two Policemen were injured, in an operation conducted by C-60 commandos in the Khobramenda Forest area in Gadchiroli District.
May 21, 2021: At least 13 Maoists were killed in an exchange of fire with C-60 commandos in the Paydi-Kotmi Forest in Gadchiroli District.
During the period between April 22, 2018, and November 13, 2021, a total of 117 Maoists has been killed in encounters in Gadchiroli. Another 28 Maoists were arrested. The mounting pressure has resulted in the surrender of 53 Maoists. More recently, on September 7, 2021, the Maharashtra Government extended the Naxal Surrender Policy in the State for another two years. The Policy was introduced in 2005 with the aim of curbing the Naxalite movement in the State. Moreover, the Police in Gadchiroli had taken several initiatives to create job opportunities in Naxal-affected areas, so that the people do not join up with the rebels.
Gadchiroli, SP, Ankit Goyal disclosed, “We had formed a self-help group for those who were into Naxal activities and provided them with different training. For the unemployed from the tribals, we help them in skill development so that they get a job or self-employment opportunities.”
The Maoists have killed 19 SF personnel in four separate attacks during this period. 15 of these fatalities took place in a single attack on May 1, 2019, on the Dadapur Road near Lendali Nullah in Jamburkheda village under Kurkheda Police Station limits in Gadchiroli District. One civilian driver was also killed in the attack.
The overall SF:Maoist kill ratio thus works out at 1:6.15 since April 22, 2018. Prior to that date, between March 6, 2000, and April 21, 2018, the ratio was 1:1.34. The Maoists are evidently facing the heat.
Of Gadchiroli’s total area of 14,412 square kilometres, 11,694 square kilometres, i.e., 78.40 per cent, fall under forest cover. Gadchiroli shares borders with four Districts – Bijapur, Kanker, Narayanpur, and Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh, the worst Naxal-affected Indian State, and two Maoist affected Districts – Adilabad and Karimnagar – of Telangana. The difficult terrain and the location of the district had long made it a safe haven for the Maoists, as the dense forests and hills of the district made the task of SFs’ locating and sanitizing Maoist hideouts difficult. Gadchiroli emerged as the epicentre of Maoist violence in Maharashtra, and at its peak in 2009, had registered at least 99 fatalities, including 52 SF personnel, 37 Maoists and 10 civilians. Since then, however, the situation started to improve.
Nevertheless, concerns remain. Gadchiroli is listed among the ‘25 Most Affected (LWE) Districts’ in eight States of the country, and is also covered under the Security Related Expenditure (SRE) scheme that funds focused operations against Left-Wing Extremists.
Significantly, Gadchiroli District, along with Gondia and Nagpur in Maharashtra, fall into what is designated as the CPI-Maoist’s ‘Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh (MMC) zone’, where the Naxalites have been engaged in efforts to set up a base similar to ‘Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC)’ in the Bastar Division of Chhattisgarh.
An unnamed senior Chhattisgarh Police official observed, on November 13, 2021, “Gadchiroli, after being developed into a strong zone, became the pivotal point in the Maoist dominated areas particularly in Bastar, enabling supply of logistics, medicines and medical treatment to the cadres. The area also offered a safe passage for Maoist cadres and senior leaders of the outfit’s ‘central committee’ to travel to MMC zone.”
Maoists are fighting a last-ditch battle in their earlier strongholds, including Gadchiroli. Sustained SF efforts to completely sanitise the purported ‘Red Corridor’ are necessary to restore an enduring peace in the region. The Maoists must also be denied the opportunity to carry out any major retaliatory attacks, which tend to infuse life – however transient – into the movement. Political and administrative consolidation and measurable improvements in the quality of life available to the people will act as a bulwark against future mobilization by the rebels.
*Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management