By Fakir Mohan Pradhan
To gain territory is no cause of joy, and to lose, territory is no cause of sorrow….. The important thing is to think up methods of destroying the enemy…. – Mao Tse-tung, Basic Tactics
If we do not have a 100 per cent guarantee of victory, we should not fight a battle, for it is not worthwhile to kill 1,000 of the enemy and lose 800 killed ourselves. – Mao Tse-tung, Basic Tactics
On September 1, 2011, Jharkhand Director General of Police (DGP) Gauri Shankar Rath declared ‘Operation Monsoon’ a success. The month long anti-Naxal [Left Wing Extremist]operation was carried out in the Saranda forest by joint Forces from the State, Odisha Police and the Central Reserve Police (CRPF), between August 1 and August 31. Saranda is a dense Sal forest spread across more than 850 square kilometres, covering roughly 700 hills, in the West Singhbhum District of Jharkhand and overflowing into the Sundargarh District of Odisha. It is in Saranda that the headquarters of Eastern Regional Bureau (ERB) of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) has been established. ERB controls operations in all the east Indian States, and top leaders from Andhra Pradesh and other States are known to visit frequently. Maoists use the area to run training camps and hold meetings of their top cadres. The area has, for almost a decade been compared to Abujmaadh (Chhattisgarh), where the presence and reach of the Security Forces (SFs) is severely limited.
DGP Rath disclosed: “The forces destroyed around a dozen Maoist training camps. The rebels may not have been totally flushed out, but we have been successful in establishing an administration… Earlier, forces returned to their base camps within a few days. This time, they went into Saranda’s core, considered the capital of the Maoists after Bastar in Chhattisgarh, and pulled off sustained operations.” Further, the operation prevented the Maoists from planting landmines, as is their practice during the monsoons, when they take advantage of the softened soil to bury explosive devices.
Over 5,000 SF personnel were reportedly engaged in ‘Operation Monsoon’. According to CRPF spokesperson Deputy Inspector General (DIG) (Operations) Bhanu Pratap Singh, “One fully armed jawan [trooper] equipped with food and medicines, on an average walked for 40 kilometres (a day) and cleared the areas after which he rested.” Singh added, further, “For the first time in India an operation has been launched in a specific area for such a long period of time.” Also for the first time, MI-17 and Dhruv helicopters were engaged in the operation, for ferrying troopers, food and medicines into the difficult terrain.
The Police believe that the effectiveness of the Operation was, at least in part, due to the secrecy in which it was executed, with little emerging in terms of detail, at least till mid-August.
Giving further details, DIG (Kolhan Region) N.K. Singh stated, on September 2, “The joint Security Forces met Maoist resistance only five times since the operation began on July 31. Their resistances were brief… They could not match the Police for over 15 minutes at any of these places.” The DIG said a total of 33 Maoists were arrested during the operation and at least five Maoist camps were destroyed. 175 IEDs, 416 detonators, three guns, 225 rounds of ammunition, four wireless sets, 175 kilograms of explosives and various documents and other items were seized during the operation.
In a further ‘success’, it was claimed that the link between the Maoists and the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), the political wing of the Manipur-based People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was confirmed by documents seized during the Operation. The documents revealed that the RPF was supporting the training and technical upgrade of the Maoists in Saranda. The top bosses of the two outfits had held a meeting on October 21-22, 2008, and agreed to “consolidate mutual understanding and friendship and extend full support to each other in the liberation struggle to overthrow a common enemy (the Indian government)”.
DIG Singh also claimed that the Maoist ERB could not hold any meeting in the forest as a result of Operation Monsoon, which hampered their policy decisions. Documents found during the operation revealed that Maoist units had to seek prior approval from the ERB for each activity to be launched in eastern states.
In a significant symbolic victory, for the first time in the past decade, CRPF Inspector General (Operations) D.K. Pandey hoisted the Tricolour at Tirilposhi village in the heart of Saranda on Independence Day, August 15, 2011, at a location where black flags had been hoisted by Maoists on every Independence and Republic Day in the past.
In a further possible fallout, a ‘zonal commander’ Prashant alias Shiva Munda alias Lambu, said to be second in the Maoist hierarchy controlling Saranda, was arrested along with two of his associates and INR 7.6 million in cash on August 11, 2011, in Rourkela (Odisha), bordering Saranda.
Saranda had long been ceded to LWE. Cadres of the erstwhile Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCC), which merged with the People’s War Group (PWG) in September 2004 to form the CPI-Maoist, were first noticed in the District in the year 2000. Subsequently, on November 27, 2001, Manoharpur ‘area commander’ of the MCC, Ishwar Mahto, was killed by the Police at Bitkalsoy village under Manoharpur Police Station, in the heart of the Saranda forest. This was the first time that Police had clashed with members of any extremist outfit in the Singhbhum region. Notwithstanding initial reverses, the Naxalites started strengthening their roots in the area and established a training centre in Panta village under Goilkera Police Station in 2002.
It was in December 20, 2002, that the Naxalites first tasted blood in the area, when they ambushed a Police convoy, killing 18 Police personnel and injuring another 20 at Bitkilsoya under the Manoharpur Police Station. They also looted an estimated 30 rifles and an unspecified quantity of ammunition, setting ablaze 11 vehicles in the convoy.
After this incident, the Naxalites started flexing their muscle in the area. Tendu leaf and mine thekedars [contractors] in the region began to pay regular levies to them, funding the further development of their armed capabilities. Armed training camps were established. The Police had located and destroyed at least two such camps during past operations, at Hendecully on August 22, 2003; and at Bendesoker November 13, 2003. MCC cadres from Saranda also made a daredevil attack on the Bara Jamda Police Outpost on March 31, 2004, and looted 10 weapons. Anti-Naxalite operations were launched after these incidents, but the Police fell into a trap near Baliba village under Gua Police Station on July 7, 2004, where 29 police personnel were killed and more than 30 weapons, including one Light Machine Gun, were looted. With this incident, the dominance of the MCC was further enhanced across almost the entire Saranda region.
Some other major incidents orchestrated by the Maoists in the area include:
January 26, 2006: CPI-Maoist cadres exchanged gunfire with the Police in the Manoharpur area of West Singhbhum District. Bodies of two Police personnel and two Maoists were subsequently recovered from the forest.
June 1, 2006: At least 12 police personnel were killed when CPI-Maoist cadres triggered a landmine explosion in the West Singhbhum District.
June 10, 2009: 11 Policemen, including a CRPF Inspector, were killed and six were injured when CPI-Maoist cadres triggered a landmine explosion targeting their vehicle in West Singhbhum District.
Significant anti-Maoist operations were resumed in Saranda in March-April 2010, but with little success. Just a day after the SFs left Saranda, the Maoists blew up two water pump houses inside the jungles, demonstrating the unchallenged presence in their safe havens. However, on June 13, 2010, at least 10 LWEs were killed and eight camps were destroyed. The operation was jointly carried out by the Police, CRPF and Special Task Force near Bandgaon in the West Singhbhum District of Jharkhand. Six Security Force personnel were injured in the encounter.
This was followed by the five-day long ‘Operation Black Thunder’ in Saranda, starting September 25, 2010. Ten Maoists were claimed to have been killed though only one body was recovered. Four SF personnel were also killed in the operation, which was reportedly carried out by a joint force of 2,000 SFs personnel drawn from the State Police and CRPF.
Short duration operations in Saranda were also carried out in December 2010, March 2011and June 2011.
Evidently, past operations failed to inflict permanent damage on the Maoists in the Saranda Forest, and there is little reason to believe that the outcome of ‘Operation Monsoon’ will be a significant departure on this count. No Maoists were reported killed in the Operation, though two civilians lost their lives. At least one Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) trooper died of malaria and nearly 200 other SF personnel contracted the disease during the Operation. Further, on August 2, 2011, two CRPF personnel were injured in an encounter with the CPI-Maoist cadres at Thalkobad in Saranda. At the end of a month long campaign, the Forces had 33 arrests to show for their ‘success’. Of these, significantly, only an estimated 18 have any prior record as Maoists.
Nor is there reason to believe that the tactical withdrawal by the Maoists and the ‘establishing’ of ‘civil administration’ in the Saranda areas will have any enduring impact. Reports suggest that the Maoists are already returning to the area, and clashes with the SFs have already commenced. On September 2, 2011, just as ‘Operation Monsoon’ ended, two Maoists were killed in the Ranga area under Manoharpur Police limits in Saranda forest. Reports indicate, further, that the Maoists have started regrouping at Patamda, Bodam and Amdapahad in the foothills of Dalma in East Singhbhum District. ‘Area commanders’ from the Ayodhya Hills in Purulia (West Bengal) and those from Dampara on Jharkhand’s border with Bengal, have temporarily secured themselves in Dalma, and a sizeable number of rebels are believed to have sneaked into the two blocks of East Singhbhum from Ayodhya Hills to aid the Dalma squad.
It is a misreading of Maoist tactics to believe that permanent success has been achieve in the Saranda Forest, simply because the Maoists offered little resistance to the large SF contingents deployed, or because a handful of cadres have been arrested. Such occasional operations, devoid of any long-term strategic plan or intent, can only create an illusion of success, even as the quiet consolidation of the rebels goes on uncontested.
Fakir Mohan Pradhan
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management