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Shrinking Space For Left-Wing Extremism In India: Forecast 2016

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Left-wing extremism (LWE) in India has more or less ceased to be a national problem. Over the past two years, there has been a significant drop in the extremists’ ability to orchestrate violence, and consequently, extremism-related deaths have decreased.

However, in order to defeat extremism completely, in 2016, the state needs to build on the gains made thus far, failing which this year could well mark the revival of the movement that has demonstrated remarkable survival capacities in the past.

From National to Regional

A far cry from its domination over nearly one-third of the country’s geographical expanse, the influence of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) is now confined to only five states of the country.

Of these, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha cumulatively account for 80 per cent of such activities. While approximately 20 districts in these five states witnessed most of the LWE violence in 2015, six districts (three in Chhattisgarh, one each in Odisha, Jharkhand and Maharashtra) can be termed as the worst affected districts, accounting for witnessing almost 60 per cent of the violent incidents. PReviously a national problem, LWE has now become a regional problem, mostly limited to India’s eastern board.

Since 2013, the CPI-Maoist has admitted to such losses in a series of publications. The CPI-Maoist’s central committee resolution that was adopted in early 2013 spoke specifically about how the mass base and recruitment abilities of the outfit has decreased in the Dandakaranya area. In early 2014, in an internally circulated interview for the Maoist Information Bulletin, General Secretary Muppala Lakshman Rao acknowledged the “loss of considerable number of party leaders at all levels starting from the central committee to the village level party committees” and “weakened movement in rural plains and urban areas.” He termed the protection of its “subjective leadership from enemy attacks as one of the foremost tasks before the party.”

The trend of shrinking space for extremism is likely to continue in 2016 as effective counter-insurgency operations continue in states like Bihar and Jharkhand. However, whether or not such operations can make the outfit completely vacate its strongholds in Chhattigarh, Jharkhand and Odisha remains a key question.

Increasing Desperation Levels

The acute level of desperation among the extremists over a stream of losses of cadres, especially senior cadres, is reflected in the tone and frequency of their appeals to their constituencies and prospective cadres. Not long ago, Maoist propaganda machinery churned out regular press releases detailing the outfit’s agenda and its opposition to the government’s moves. Not only have the sheer numbers of such press statements decreased significantly (the last press statement was issued in November 2015), lately, calls for armed revolution have been missing from the usual vocabulary of defiance. For instance, the 28 November 2015 statement called on the “patriots” to come forward to protect the country’s natural wealth and resource for our future generations.” Not only has the outfit made no secret of its discomfort regarding the use of drones and helicopters by the security forces that further titled the balance in favour of the state, it also appears extremely disturbed about the probable use of aerial attacks on its facilities in the Dandakaranya area. As the state makes further advances, such levels of desperation can become even more acute.

Chhattisgarh’s Problem

Chief Minister Raman Singh has termed Chhattisgarh a “safe state” for investment with “some Naxal activities,” which are “reducing rapidly.” However, extremism related data paints a different picture.

Chhattisgarh accounts for 43 per cent of the violent LWE activities. In 2015, against the general trend of declining Maoist violence, the state registered a significant increase in extremism-related incidents over the previous year: from 326 to 488. According to the security establishment, the rise in incidents is due to the proactive operations undertaken by the security forces, especially by the District Reserve Group (DRG). According to the Chhattisgarh police, the DRG, comprising local youth and surrendered extremists in the Bastar division, carried out 644 anti-Maoist operations in 2015, both individually and in coordination with other state and paramilitary forces, during which they killed 46 extremists. This is indeed a huge achievement, given how 89 extremists were killed in total in the entire country in 2015.

Yet, the extremist stronghold in Abhujhmad, large portions of which is located within the state, continues to be undisturbed and constitutes the ‘liberated zone’ where the janathana sarkar (people’s government) has been established. Chhattisgarh’s Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada districts are among the six worst affected districts in the country.

In 2016, the survival of Maoist extremism will crucially depend on how the outfit manages its control over its strongholds in Chhattisgarh.

Assaults and a Slow Burn Strategy

In 2015, 168 civilians and 58 security forces were killed in LWE-related violence across the country. Of the slain civilians, 92 were termed as police informers by the extremists and killed as part of its campaign to establish a complete dominance over the area. Destroying of schools, roads, health centres and mobile towers are other components of this strategy. While targeting the security forces, the extremists resort to morale boosting pre-planned attacks that result in heavy casualties. The January 2016 attack in Palamu, Jharkhand, which killed seven security force personnel, and the April 2015 attack in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, in which 11 police personnel died, are examples.

However, a bulk of the civilian and security force fatalities occur in smaller attacks that go unnoticed due to the limited number of casualties they inflict. This enables the extremists to keep away from the limelight, preserve their cadre strength and at the same time, continue nibbling at the state’s presence in the remotest corners. As the CPI-Maoist deals with its organisational weakness, it will continue to resort to this dual strategy of inflicting serious as well as enduring losses on the state.

Questionable Surrenders

The surrender of a large number of Maoist cadres has been projected as a key to the declining strength of the outfits and also as a reflection of a growing disenchantment with the ideology of mindless blood spilling among the extremists.

According to available data, 11,608 CPI-Maoist cadres surrendered between 2010 and 2015. Combined with the number of Maoists killed and arrested, the total number of neutralised extremists stand at 14,838 in the same period. This is larger than the officially acknowledged cadre strength of the CPI-Maoist, which is about 12,000. The fact that the outfit still survives points either at its continued ability to recruit cadres or raises serious questions regarding the genuineness of such surrenders.

Over the years, numerous reports have surfaced, detailing episodes of fake surrenders in which civilians unattached with extremism or petty criminals have been paraded by the police as extremists. The trend is at its worst in Chhattisgarh, where even senior officers within the police establishment have raised questions about the genuineness of surrenders. However, given the proclivity to project surrenders as achievements and the state government’s willingness to ignore such charges made even by insiders, such policies are likely to continue with the objective of amplifying the state’s achievements.

Human Rights, a Low Priority

The broad contours of the counter-Maoist policies of the government in New Delhi remain unknown. Contrary to the clear elucidation of its policies by the previous government, a great deal of secrecy surrounds the current policy. Yet, as evident from the odd official statements and on ground mobilisation, a force-centric approach now dominates the official line of thinking. Deployment of additional battalions of central forces with an objective to actively pursue the senior leadership of the CPI-Maoist has emerged as a key component of this strategy.

However, such a policy has also led to the state closing its eyes to episodes of violations of basic rights of law-abiding citizens. Increasing use of vigilante movements in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh has resulted in a growing number of cases in which NGO activists, media persons and tribals are being targeted by the state. In Chhattisgarh, where most of such incidents have occurred, local leaders of the ruling political party have reportedly joined the police in targeting journalists reporting violation of human rights. While a clean and just war can only be an idealistic goal in a counter-extremist situation, willful persecution of voices of dissent as a state policy is likely to continue, which ends up justifying the extremists’ narrative of the state being a principal violator of tribal rights.

Conclusion

In spite of the academic and official attention it garnered and the propaganda it sought to indulge in, the CPI-Maoist never posed a pertinent danger to India’s urban centres. Never in its short history of 11 years did the outfit come close to fulfilling its purported objective of overthrowing the government, even in the worst affected states. Attacks were carried out mostly on its near enemy, i.e. the security forces and the civilians intruding into its sphere of influence, whereas the far enemy, i.e. the government structure removed from the conflict zone, has remained unscathed.

However, even with its current weakness, the outfit’s capacity to hold on to its strongholds would pose the real challenge to the Indian state. The state has to deal with an outfit that does not kill many and yet, makes the entry of the state into the remotest areas of many states severely risk prone. In fact, weakness of the adversary must not lead to a state of complacency facilitating a extremist revival. A nuanced policy of making security force operations accountable and governing the reclaimed areas well would form the basis of a future free from extremism.

This article was published at IPCS.

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Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray

Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray served as a Deputy Director in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India and Director of the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM)’s Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati, Assam. He was a Visiting Research Fellow at the South Asia programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore between 2010 and 2012. Routray specialises in decision-making, governance, counter-terrorism, force modernisation, intelligence reforms, foreign policy and dissent articulation issues in South and South East Asia. His writings, based on his projects and extensive field based research in Indian conflict theatres of the Northeastern states and the left-wing extremism affected areas, have appeared in a wide range of academic as well policy journals, websites and magazines.

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