By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On May 8, 2020, four Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres and a Police Sub-Inspector (SI) were killed in an exchange of fire in a forested area near Pardhoni village under Manpur Police Station limits in Rajnandgaon District. The four slain Maoists were identified as Ashok Rainu (35), a ‘divisional committee member (DCM) of the CPI-Maoist’s Rajnandgaon-Kanker border division committee, carrying a reward of INR 800,000 on his head; Krishna Nareti (26), an ‘area committee member (ACM), carrying a reward of INR 500,000 on his head; and the two women cadres, identified as Savita Salame and Parmila, both members ofthe Local Organisation Squad (LOS), carrying rewards of INR 100,000 each on their heads. Security Force (SF) personnel recovered an AK-47 assault rifle, one Self Loading Rifle (SLR) and two .315 bore rifles from the encounter spot. .
This was the first major success of the Security Forces (SFs) against the Maoists in the District since August 3, 2019, whenseven CPI-Maoist cadres were killed in a gunfight with SFs in the forest near Sitagota village under Baghnadi Police Station limits in Rajnandgaon District. The slain Maoists were identified as Sukhdev, ‘secretary’ of theDarekasa ‘area committee’ of the CPI-Maoist’s’Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh (MMC) zone’; Pramila, his wife and member of the Darekasa ‘area committee’; Seema, Meena and Ritesh, members of the same squad; and Lalitha and Shilpa, members of the ‘Vistaar (expansion) Platoon No 1’. It was the most successful operation by the SFs in terms of number of fatalities on the rebel’s side since March 6, 2000, when the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) started compiling data on Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-linked violence.
SFs have succeeded in eliminating three or more Naxalites in Rajnandgaon on a total of five occasions, including the two mentioned above, since March 2000. The other three operations include:
May 29, 2018: A Special Police team killed three Maoists at Chandiya Dongari under Bortalav Police Station limits in Rajnandgaon District. The slain Maoists included Azad alias Gopal alias Sudarshan, a ‘deputy commander’ of the Darekasa ‘area committee’ of the CPI-Maoist ‘MMC zone’. Sudarshan a resident of Gondpipari town in Chandrapur District of Maharashtra carried a reward of INR 500,000 on his head. Police recovered one rifle, one pistol, ammunition, walkie-talkies, and other material from the encounter site.October 25, 2017: Three Maoists were killed in an encounter with the SFs in the forest near Kopenkadka village under Khadgaon Police Station Limits in Rajnandgaon District. Those killed were identified as Mahesh, an ‘area committee member (ACM)’; Rakesh, ACM; Pallemadi ‘LOS commander’; and Ranjit, Pallemadi ‘LOS ‘deputy commander’. The trio hailed from the Bastar region of the State and were carrying rewards of INR 500,000, INR 500,000 and INR 300,000, respectively. Police recovered three automatic weapons – AK 47 rifle, one INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) assault rifle and one SLR – from the spot.June 18, 2017: Three Maoist cadres, including two women, were killed in an encounter with SFs at Aundhi village in Manpur Tehsil in Rajnandgaon District. One of the women Maoists killed was identified as Sameela Potai, ‘secretary’ of the local ‘area committee’ who had been active in the region for over a decade and carried an award of INR 800,000. The other woman cadre, identified as Rammo, was a LOS member and carried a reward of INR 100,000. Three weapons – one SLR, one INSAS assault rifle and a .303 rifle were recovered from the encounter site.
All these operations took place during the last four years, beginning 2017.
The success of operations since 2017 has helped SFs consolidate their hold in the District. The SF:Maoist kill ratio since 2017 works out to 1:5.6, a clear indication of dominance of the SFs on the ground. Between 2001 and 2016, an adverse ratio of 11:1 prevailed against SFs, although this was principally due to a single particularly bad year, 2009, when 37 SFs lost their lives, while not a single Maoist was killed.
Successes of the recent years aside, Rajnandgaon is one among 27Districts where the overall kill ratio stands in favour of the Maoists, at 1.53:1.There are 80 Districts across 10 States which have recorded fatalities in both Maoist and SF categories since March 6, 2000. Only 27 of these, spread across six States, have recorded a kill ratio that favours the Maoists.
Worryingly, Rajnandgaon is one among 48 Districts where the civilian fatalities outnumber Maoist fatalities, out of 99 Districts across 11 States which have recorded fatalities in both Maoist and civilian categories since March 6, 2000. “
Rajnandgaon is also currently among the ’30 worst Maoist-affected’ Districts, across seven States in the country, according to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA). Furthermore, the District is among the 90 Districts in 11 States that are considered LWE affected, according to a Government release of February 5, 2019. Rajnandgaon is also listed as one of the ‘Aspirational Districts’ included in the ‘Aspirational Districts Programme’, which focuses on five main themes – Health & Nutrition, Education, Agriculture & Water Resources, Financial Inclusion & Skill Development, and Basic Infrastructure – which have direct bearing on the quality of life and economic productivity of citizens in ‘underdeveloped’ pockets.
Rajnandgaon covers an area of 8,222 square kilometers, of which more than 11.90 per cent (around 978.87 square kilometres) is under forest cover. The District shares its borders with Kabirdham, earlier known as Kawardha in the north and Durg in the east, both in Chhattisgarh; Gadchiroli and Bhandara Districts in Maharashtra, and Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh, in the west; and Bastar in Chhattisgarh, in the south. All these Districts, with the exception of Durg and Bhandara, are LWE-affected.
The District’s strategic location makes it an ideal choice for Maoists to include it in their scheme of things. According to an August 12, 2019, report, following a decision taken in the ‘Central Regional Bureau (CRB)’ meeting in 2014, CPI-Maoist is trying to develop the ‘MMC zone’. Broadly, parts of Rajnandgaon, along with Kabirdham and Mungeli in Chhattisgarh;Balaghat, Mandala, Dindauri (Dindori) in Madhya Pradesh; and Gondia, Nagpur and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, come under the ‘MMC Zone’. The ‘MMC Zone’ is intended to be developed as an entity like the ‘Dandakaranya (DK) Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC)’ in Bastar, which is predominately tribal, forested and hilly, and consequently suitable for guerrilla warfare. Significantly, a 25-page-long Maoist document, retrieved by the Chhattisgarh Police in April 2017 had revealed the rebels’ plans about the ‘MMC zone’.
Evidently, the Maoists, who are facing severe reverses across the country, including in Chhattisgarh , are struggling to recover the few places where they retain some hold. This is where the ‘MMC zone’ fits in. Senior officers (names withheld) involved in counter-insurgency operations in Chhattisgarh believe there are about 180 armed Maoists now in the ‘Vistaar Dalam’ (expansion armed squad) of the ‘MMC zone’, who are trying to establish their grip in the ‘MMC zone’. The ‘MMC zone’ is said to be a refuge for top Maoists of Bastar and other regions.
Revealing that the Maoists were also exploring the ‘urban support network’, Police arrested 12 ‘sympathisers’ for their alleged links with the CPI-Maoist, in Rajnandgaon District on May 14, 2020. The arrested persons were supplying materials for uniforms, shoes, wires, and walkie-talkie sets, besides cash, in lieu of being allowed to function as road contractors in the Bastar Division. Earlier, an April 24, 2020, report, had given details about the Maoists”urban support network’, after Chhattisgarh Police arrested seven sympathisers from Rajnandgaon (three) and Kanker (four). The ‘sympathisers’ were allegedly transporting a huge consignment of shoes, fabric and walkie-talkie sets, meant for the Maoist rebels.
These disclosures confirm the residual threat of the Maoists in the District.
Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh Director General of Police (DGP), DM Awasthi, on February 1, 2020, asked officials to prepare a strategy for the succeeding five months and to conduct operationsaccordingly. DGP Awasthi later instructed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and Superintendents of Police (SPs) from Rajnandgaon and Kawardha to chalk out a five-month strategy in advance for conductinganti-Naxal operation in their regions. He also told the Rajnandgaon Police to involve the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and District Force in the anti-Naxal operations.
Four ITBP battalions are currently deployed for anti-Maoist operations in Rajnandgaon, in addition to the regular security deployment. Significantly, according to a May 5, 2020, report, the Centre has decided to deploy eight battalions (over 8,000 personnel) of ITBP in Chhattisgarh on a permanent basis from 2021, as a step towards uprooting the Maoists in the region. Over 3,000 ITBP personnel were first deployed in Rajnandgaon District in December 2009. .
The Maoists continue to struggle to recover their erstwhile strongholds, including Rajnandgaon. The SFs need to sustain operational intensities to end any prospect of the rebels making a comeback in the District.
*Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management