By Ajai Sahni and Fakir Mohan Pradhan
The early triumphalism in sections of the media after the first news of the killing of Maoist Politburo member Mallojula Koteswara Rao alias Kishanji in Burishole forest in West Midnapore District, West Bengal, during an operation on November 24, 2011, was quickly tempered by statements from Security Forces’ (SF) leaders that this incident was unlikely to alter the course of the Maoist movement in the region and across wider theatres in the country. It is, nevertheless, a tremendous achievement for counter-insurgency (CI) Forces in the protracted war against what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described as the “single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country”. The killing compounds the impact of a continuous succession of intelligence-based operations that has progressively decimated the top Maoist leadership over the past years in a silent war of attrition that has far greater significance than the noisy shuffling about of “massive and coordinated Forces” and the flashy “clear, hold and develop” non-strategy that has been projected as the principal state response in the recent past.
Indeed, with Kishanji’s killing, the 2007 Politburo of the Communist Party of India – Maoist (CPI-Maoist) has been brought down from its original strength of 16 to just seven members operating in freedom. These are General Secretary Mupalla Laxman Rao, alias Ganapathy from Karimnagar; Nambala Keshav Rao from Srikakulam; Kattam Sudarshan alias Birenderji from Adilabad; Mallojula Venugopal (brother of Kishanji) from Karimnagar; Misir Besra from Jharkhand; Prashant Bose alias Kishanda from Jadavpur; and Malla Raji Reddy from Karimnagar. Of the remaining Politburo members, Cherukuri Rajkumar aka Azad was killed on July 2, 2010 and Kishanji on November 24, 2011; while Pramod Mishra was arrested on May 11, 2008 from Dhanbad; Akhilesh Yadav alias Jagdish Yadav was arrested on June12, 2011 from Gaya; Amitabh Bagchi was arrested on August 24, 2009 from Ranchi; Kobad Ghandy was arrested on September 21, 2009 from Delhi; Baccha Prasad Singh was arrested on February 9, 2010 from Kanpur; Narayan Sanyal was arrested on January 2, 2006; and Sushil Roy was arrested on May 21, 2005 from Hooghly.
Of equal significance is the fact that the 39 member Central Committee (CC) of 2007 has now been reduced to just 21 members, depleting the resources from which the national level leadership can be drawn. This process has penetrated deep into regional, state and district level leadership structures, forcing the Maoists into a dramatic contraction of their strategic overreach to “extend the people’s war throughout the country”, and this is reflected in current Government estimates that suggest that the 223 Districts variously affected by Maoist activities in 2008 have now reduced to just 180 such Districts. Maoist violence has also diminished dramatically, as the rebels focus urgently on consolidation, recruitment, training and a deepening of influence and infrastructure in their areas of dominance, instead of spreading themselves thin across territories where the ‘revolutionary situation’ is relatively inhospitable, or wasting themselves in unproductive operations against state Forces. Maoist-related fatalities in 2011, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data, have dropped to 563 (till November 27), against their peak of 1,180 in 2010, and 997 in 2009. Crucially, the pre-election ‘deal’ with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress had virtually ended violence in West Bengal – the State that registered the highest number of fatalities in 2010, at 425 – bringing total fatalities there down to just 49 in 2011.
The most significant CI successes have been secured in sustained, cross-State intelligence-led operations, specifically targeting leadership figures, not in blind area domination exercises. Indeed, despite the suspension of operations in West Bengal immediately after Banerjee assumed power, it is clear that SFs continued to intensively and aggressively gather intelligence on Kishenji in full knowledge that the ‘ceasefire’ with the Maoists would, eventually, prove untenable. Senior Police officials attributed this operational success entirely on human intelligence, with Andhra Pradesh intelligence – which has been responsible for a overwhelming proportion of operational successes against the Maoist leadership across the country – claiming that the troops in the Burishole Forest were acting on “a tip-off from within”, and that Kishanji had been “set-up”. The Maoists’ West Bengal State Committee member, Akash is reported to have conceded that Kishanji was aware of infiltration of the Maoist ranks by the intelligence agencies, and had begun to neutralize suspects, but his responses were too little, too late.
Kishanji had been on the run almost continuously since March 29, 2010, when he escaped narrowly after being wounded in a gun battle with SFs in the Lakhanpur Forest in the West Midnapore District of West Bengal, and, despite his high profile projections of the preceding year, had become inaccessible to the media and public since this date. Intelligence agencies and the SFs had, however, stuck close to his heels since, with at least two close escapes in the intervening months, culminating in the fatal encounter on November 24. Indeed, it was the groundwork during the months of ‘ceasefire’ that allowed the SFs to register this quick hit within ten days of the announcement, on November 14, of resumption of anti-Maoist operations in the Jungalmahal area. A Joint Force of some 1,000 troopers drawn from the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and State Police, launched a massive operation on November 22, after getting specific information that Kishanji was in that area along with his trusted aide Suchitra Mahato, the widow of the West Bengal State Committee member Sashadhar Mahato. Suchitra Mahato is believed to have been injured, but escaped, even as the Forces continue to seek out the survivors of the November 24 encounter.
The resumption of SF operations against the Maoists in West Bengal was forced by the November 4, 2011, killing of Jitu Singh Sardar, a local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader in Balarampur area of Purulia District, by the Maoists. A month earlier, the victim had formed the Jangalmahal Unnayan Birodhi Pratirodh Committee (Protest Committee against anti-development in Jungalmahal), an anti-Maoist forum and vigilante group, in the Ghatbera area of the District. Again, on November 14, 2011, Maoist cadres killed Ajit Singh Sardar and his son Baku in the same area. The victims were, respectively, the father and brother of Rajen Sardar, who had recently left the Adivasi Moolvasi People’s Committee, a Maoist front organisation, and joined the TMC. Earlier, the Maoists had killed another two local TMC leaders and the Jharkhand Janamukti Morcha President, who was perceived as close to the TMC.
Within hours of the November 14 killings in Balarampur, Chief Minister Banerjee ordered resumption of Security operations against the Maoists. A day later, a Maoist letter calling off the ceasefire reached media. The letter, signed by Maoist State secretary Akash, was dated October 31, 2011, and was addressed to human rights activist Sujato Bhadra and other members of the six-member interlocutor team set up by the State Government, and declared, “The ceasefire period has ended as neither you nor the State Government kept any of your promises.” The SFs secured their first significant success the very next day, when they ambushed the retreating squad responsible for the November 14 incident and managed to kill two Maoists. Two SF personnel were also injured in the incident and one of them succumbed to his injuries on November 19.
As noted by SAIR Banerjee’s u-turn on the Maoists was simply a matter of time, and “the suspension of anti-Maoist operations by the Security Forces (SFs) under an undeclared ‘cease-fire’ is now just waiting to be ‘officially’ declared as withdrawn.” Ironically, the Chief Minister has virtually reconstituted the old team that she had contemptuously disbanded just months ago, to fight the Maoists in Jungalmahal. West Midnapore Superintendent of Police (SP) Manoj Verma had been removed from his post and, to deepen his humiliation, was kept ‘in waiting’, without a new posting. On November 11, 2011, he was appointed as SP Counter Insurgency Force (CIF). Further, the Government has written to the Election Commission seeking its permission to transfer S.N. Gupta, Special Inspector General (IG), Presidency Range, as IG, CIF, before the elections to the Calcutta South Lok Sabha constituency on November 30. Police sources indicate that an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer would be posted at each ‘sensitive’ Police Station in Jungalmahal to oversee CI operations. Land has also been allocated for permanent bases of Central Forces in Jungalmahal. The State has also requested the recall of CoBRA commandos who had been redeployed to Jharkhand after anti-Maoist operations were stalled in West Bengal, and has sought additional force from the Centre.
By all measures, the intensity of operations in West Bengal, and likely in the contiguous States as well, will rise in the immediate future. The Maoists, in the past, also demonstrated fair strength to absorb the shock of falling leaders – losses that are normal and expected in any revolutionary movement. A process of adaptation has been visible. Earlier, for instance, the CPI-Maoist ordered six of its CC members to stay away from a top-level meeting that was convened on the borders of Odisha and Jharkhand in February. The Maoist leadership suspected that these six were under intense surveillance from intelligence agencies, and that their attending the meeting could jeopardize the security of the other CC members. Among the six leaders ordered not to attend were Akkiraju Haragopal alias Ramakrishna, Varanasi Subrahmanyam, Pulendu Sekhar Mukherji, Misir Besra, Malla Raji Reddy and another unidentified person. Incidentally, Varanasi Subrahmanyam, Pulendu Sekhar Mukherji and Vijay Kumar Arya, all CC members, were arrested in Bihar on April 29. There were also reports that SFs had recently almost surrounded a forested area in Odisha, where Akkiraju Haragopal, was believed to be camping, though Hargopal succeeded in evading arrest.
Despite their cumulative losses, and the shock of Kishanji’s loss, the Maoists can be expected to strike back soon enough, and there will be a parallel escalation of their operations, particularly against SFs and TMC cadres in West Bengal, but also across a much wider theatre. The CC has already called for a ‘protest week’ commencing Tuesday, November 29, and a two-day Bharat Bandh (all-India shutdown) on December 4 and 5, 2011, to protest Kishanji’s killing. Past trends suggest that these protests will be marked by significant acts of violence as well. The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) week, celebrated each year between December 2 and 8, may also witness efforts to orchestrate acts of dramatic violence.
This stage will see inevitable operational reverses for the SFs as well, even as successes may well be registered. Some of these reverses could be dramatic and severely demoralizing. Any ambivalence on the part of the State at this stage, any dilution of the operational focus or of the political will, would only plunge West Bengal deeper into another bloodbath. It remains to be seen whether Chief Minister Banerjee has the vision and the will to see the present confrontation through to its logical end, or whether she relapses into the uncertainty and paralysis that has come to grip other political leaders confronted with the challenge of a sustained Maoist onslaught.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management
Fakir Mohan Pradhan
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management