India: Democracy’s March In Jharkhand – Analysis
By Mrinal Kanta Das*
On December 17, 2015, the Jharkhand Police killed a People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI) ‘area commander’, identified as Dinesh Sahu (28) in an encounter, at Bandha village under the Tupudana Block of Ranchi District in Jharkhand. He was wanted in at least 29 cases in the Khunti District. Khunti Superintendent of Police (SP) Anish Gupta disclosed, “He (Sahu) was wanted in several cases of rape, murder and extortion. Reacting on a tip-off by one of our informers, we found him and shot him dead.” Four of Sahu’s accomplices, however, managed to escape. Arms and ammunition were recovered from the encounter site. PLFI is a splinter group of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist).
On December 13, 2015, a suspected CPI-Maoist cadre, identified as Basudeo Oraon (35), was killed while planting an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) at Anegada village under Bagru Police Station limits, in the Lohardaga District. Police sources disclosed that it was possible that the man was setting up an IED to target security personnel. Describing the incident as a ‘Maoist act’ Lohardaga Superintendent of Police (SP) Kartik S. observed, “The blast occurred right at the spot where Maoists put up a banner last night urging people to boycott Monday’s polls. There exists possibility of link between the victim and the poll-boycott.”
Further, a ‘sub-zonal commander’ of Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC), identified as Sohrai Mochi aka Harinder ji aka Birsa ji, was arrested on December 16 in Palamu’s Harya village in the Manatu Police Station area. He was earlier with the CPI-Maoist, but left in 2008 to join TPC and rose through the ranks to become its ‘sub-zonal commander’. TPC is a splinter group of the CPI-Maoist.
Left-Wing Extremist (LWE) groups are facing a tough time in Jharkhand. Even CPI-Maoist, the most prominent LWE outfit in India, is finding it increasingly difficult to operate in the State, as in other theaters of LWE conflict in India. Chhattisgarh which is considered as the nerve centre of Maoist resistance is also crumbling rapidly.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, LWE-related incidents have claimed 57 lives, including 16 civilians, five SF personnel and 37 extremists in 2015 (data till December 20) in Jharkhand, as against 97 killings including 48 civilians, 12 SF personnel and 37 LWE cadres in 2014. With just over a week remaining in 2015, we see a 41 per cent decline in total fatality figures as against 2014. Further, civilian fatalities have fallen to a third and the single digit SF fatality in 2015 makes it clear that the Maoists in the State are losing steam. According to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) data, as of November 20, Jharkhand has recorded 287 incidents of LWE violence in 2015, down from 338 incidents over the same period in 2014. It is significant to note that there are 19 LWE outfits operating in and out of Jharkhand.
Meanwhile, the second Panchayat (local bodies) election was conducted in the State in four phases, from November 22 to December 12, 2015. Despite the Maoists’ poll boycott call, the voting percentage stood at a high 72 per cent, as against 70 per cent in 2010. The State Assembly Elections held in 2014 also recorded a 66 per cent voter turnout, as against 58 per cent in 2009, a clear electoral rebuff for the Maoists. Crucially, during the Panchayat election period, there was negligible LWE violence reported in the State, with media reports indicating just two arson incidents and one civilian killing. In comparison, the 2010 five phase Panchayat election conducted between November 27 and December 24 had witnessed much higher level of LWE violence. While the first and second phases of the 2010 elections were peaceful, the Maoists fired at polling party in West Singhbhum District and triggered a landmine blast in Chhatra District during the third phase. During the fourth phase on December 24, 2010 the Maoists opened fire from a hill top in Baridih Kanpur panchayat in Chakulia block of East Singhbhum District. Further, during the final phase of elections, two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers were killed in an encounter in Godda District and the Maoists set ablaze three vehicles in the same District.
Adding to current Maoist reverses, media reports citing unnamed Intelligence Bureau (IB) sources, suggest that some LWE cadres in Jharkhand wish to surrender, including some at senior levels. Throwing light on the state of affairs in the Maoist movement in the State, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) General Secretary Shashi Bhushan Pathak noted, “It would be inappropriate to mention that there is a caste war in the Maoist fold but the commitment levels of some leaders have certainly gone down and hence they are turning renegades.” The CPI-Maoist has acknowledged the difficult situation the party is facing on more than one occasion.
Despite the downtrend, it would be wise not to write off the Maoists in Jharkhand. During the recently concluded Lohardaga Assembly by-election [December 14], after an IED blast triggered by Maoists, a mere five per cent of registered voters came out of their homes at Anegada village, the blast site, to cast their votes, though overall voting per cent was above 66 per cent.
Moreover on December 9, 2015, the Maoists killed a civilian, identified as Penubolu Venka Reddy, (52), in the forests of East Singhbhum District. Suspected LWEs also abducted a stone crusher plant owner on December 13 from Chowka in Seraikela-Kharsawan District.
Though denied by authorities, media reports suggest that Maoists in Jharkhand have asked people in four villages in Palamu, Garhwa, Latehar and Lohardaga District to “spare” one child from each family to join the armed rebellion. This diktat was reportedly issued around mid November 2015. Last year, following similar reports of Maoists demanding children from each village in Gumla District, the Jharkhand High Court had taken suo moto cognizance of media reports and subsequently directed the state to protect the children from being exploited by LWE outfits.
Meanwhile, efforts to further augment Jharkhand Police strength are ongoing. The Force soon likely to get a Special Intelligence Wing (SIW), on the lines of its Andhra Pradesh counterpart, to be used only for the purpose of collecting intelligence on LWEs and conducting operations against them. According to senior Police officials, it will also act as a brain for the Special Task Force (STF). A meeting chaired by Director General of Police (DGP) D.K. Pandey was held at Police Headquarters in Ranchi on December 8 where a thorough discussion took place relating to the formation of SIW in Jharkhand.
At this juncture a new template seems to be emerging in Jharkhand. Clearly the Maoists’ ability to strike at will has been halted for the time being. Under increasing pressure from the SFs, the Maoists have been constrained in their activities. Sustained pressure would further squeeze the operational space available to them. On the other hand, any complacency would be extremely dangerous, as the Maoists have made many a comebacks in the past.
* Mrinal Kanta Das
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management