As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks widespread socio-economic disruption across India, what could be its impact on the Left-Wing Extremism (LWE-affected) theatres? Would the pandemic affect the fighting potential of the extremists? Would it aid the security forces’ operations? Is a resolution to the conflict situation on the cards? In the absence of any conclusive evidence and to avoid being speculative in nature, this analysis employs a four-parameter assessment to deduce the possible impact of the pandemic on LWE:
- statement of police officials
- data on violence
- pattern of extremist attacks
- statements issued by the extremists
Several predictions, mostly speculative, have been made in media reports elaborating how the pandemic could be weakening the LWE cadres. Some police officials in Chhattisgarh have cited incidents of extremists looting ration distributed under the Public Distribution System scheme to indicate a possible disruption in the supply chain of essentials to the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist). On the other hand, some officials have provided a contrarian view indicating that the outfit—which carries out its annual ‘Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign’ between March and May—typically stocks up essentials by January, which lasts them for several months, including monsoon. Going by this theory, the group would have been in a comfortable position as far as food stocks are concerned, well before the pandemic arrived in India.
The second parameter to assess the possible disruptive impact of the pandemic is the violence perpetrated by the extremists and assess if there is any decrease in numbers of attacks, which may indicate an impact on their fighting abilities. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, in 2020 (till 09 June), 53 incidents of killings took place in LWE affected states. 27 of those took place between January and March, and the remaining 26, in the subsequent months. Thus, the monthly average of nine incidents in the first three months have in fact increased marginally between April to 18 June. State specific data reveals that violence has certainly come down in Chhattisgarh in the months after March and has increased in other states. So, a marginal impact of the pandemic on the CPI-Maoist, whose core strength is in Chhattisgarh, cannot be ruled out.
The third parameter of assessment is an audit of the pattern of Maoist attacks since the onset of the pandemic and three months prior to it. Any perceptible difference in the overall pattern of attacks may indicate a constrain on extremist activities. In the lone major attack carried out by the CPI-Maoist, which this author examined in a previous column, 17 security forces were killed in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district on 22 March, two days before the lockdown was announced for the first time. Since then, a large number of smaller scale attacks have taken place. On 17 May, two police personnel were killed and three others were injured in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. On 31 May, Maoists ambushed a joint patrol of the police and the Central Reserve Police Force in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district, killing a policeman and a village chowkidar (watchman). Several other small scale attacks, attempts to carry out ambushes, destruction of roads, burning of vehicles, killings of police informers have been reported from various states. There is no noticeable difference in the pattern of attacks between the quarter preceding the lockdown and the quarter following it. This suggests that the pandemic is yet to translate into any operational weakness for the CPI-Maoist.
The last parameter considers statements and diktats issued by the CPI-Maoist with regard to apprehension to the spread of the virus. Three statements relevant to the subject of discussion have come to the fore. In the first week of April, the group offered a ceasefire and elicited the government’s response to it. Prior to this, an Inspector General level officer in Chhattisgarh had spoken of the possibility of a ‘humanitarian’ suspension of operations till the pandemic subsides. New Delhi, however, chose to ignore it. On 13 April, the CPI-Maoist’s Central Committee issued an open letter, accusing the ‘imperialist’ United States for the virus and said ‘destruction of imperialism is the lone way to destroy the virus’. The letter dealt with a variety of issues ranging from the plight of the migrants to the BJP’s ‘mismanagement’ in dealing with the pandemic through a lockdown. While this provides little indication on the pandemic’s impact on the group, a diktat issued by a local Maoist committee in Maharashtra could be an eye opener. On 2 May, the outfit instructed the villagers of Gadchiroli district not to allow any strangers or migrant labourers sneaking into the district to take shelter from neighbouring Telangana. If true, the CPI-Maoist is apprehensive of the infections reaching the villages, especially during the monsoon months when they have to abandon the forest areas and take refuge in the remote villages.
LWE-affected states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha have witnessed a major spike in COVID-19 infections. Among the victims are some police and Central Armed Police Force personnel. The onset of monsoons—when the Maoists scale down their operations due to logistical challenges—is likely to result in a dip in violence. However, till date, there is negligible evidence to support the claim that COVID-19 has indeed placed much stress on the LWE movement. Consequently, there is little pressure on them to consider starting negotiations with the government at this juncture.
This article was also published at IPCS