By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On August 22, 2022, as many as 150 Communist party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) ‘militia’ (the Maoists’ people’s army) members surrendered before the Police and Border Security Force (BSF) at the Janbai Company Operating Base (COB) under the Ralegada Gram Panchayat (village level local self-Government institution) in the ‘Swabhiman Anchal’ (earlier known as the ‘cut-off area’) under the Chitrakonda Police Station limits of Malkangiri District. Prior to the surrender, a group of ‘militia’ members demolished a ‘martyrs’ memorial pillar’ erected by, and burnt effigies of, the Maoists. The Maoist ‘militia’ members also took pledges not to further help the Maoists in any of their activities, abjuring violence, and to help the Government in all public welfare activities.
The present surrender followed the surrender of 50 militia members before the State Director General of Police (DGP) Sunil Bansal, on June 2, 2022, at the Jantri COB, and another instance of surrender of 295 ‘militia’ members on June 11, 2022.
Indeed, on June 11, 2022, as many as 295 Maoist ‘jan militia’ members, including village committee members, sympathisers and members of the Gana Natya Sangha (GNS), a cultural wing of the Maoists, of villages Dhakadpadar, Dabuguda, Taber and Arlingpada in the Jantri Gram Panchayat under Jodamba Police Station limits in Malkangiri District, surrendered before the Police and District Administration of Malkangiri at the Jantri BSF COB. Being encouraged by the surrender of local ‘militias’ on June 2, and seeing the development works by the Government in the area, they decided to join the mainstream and lead a peaceful life. They exhibited their opposition to the Maoist ideology by burning the Maoist dress materials and raised slogans such as “Maobadi Murdabad” (down with Maoists).
On June 2, 2022, as many as 50 Maoist ‘militia’ members, including two women, surrendered in the presence of DGP Sunil Bansal, at the Jantri Police Camp in the Swabhiman Anchal of Malkangiri District. The ‘militia’ members submitted a joint written letter to the DGP before their surrender, requesting him to close all cases pending against them in different Police Stations of Malkangiri District.
According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 496 Naxalites [Left Wing Extremists, LWEs] have surrendered in Malkangiri District since the beginning of 2022 (data till August 28). During the corresponding period in 2021, six Naxalites had surrendered in the district and, through 2021, the number remained at six. A total of 3,708 Naxalites has surrendered in the district since June 15, 2003, when SATP recorded the first incident of surrender, with three Naxalites, including two women, wanted for their involvement in a number of criminal cases, surrendering before the Police at Malkangiri.
Meanwhile, SFs have arrested two Naxalites in the District in the current year (data till August 28, 2022), in addition, to one cadre in 2021. A total of 303 Naxalites has been arrested since January 2, 2002, when the first arrest incident was recorded by SATP, with the arrest of a Naxalite of the People’s War Group (PWG), who carried a cash award of INR 40,000 on his head, during a joint operation by the State Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Chitrakonda, Malkangiri.
Malkangiri District has not recorded any Naxalite fatality in the current year, thus far (data till August 28, 2022). The last fatality recorded in this category was on October 12, 2021, when three Maoists, including two women cadres, were shot dead in an encounter during a gunfight near Tulsi Pahad (Hill) under Maithili Police limits in Malkangiri District. A Special Operations Group (SOG) trooper also sustained injuries during the exchange of fire. A total of 112 Naxalite fatalities (data till August 27, 2022) have been recorded in the district, since March 6, 2000, when SATP started documenting Naxaliteviolence in the State. The maximum number of Maoist fatalities, 30, was recorded in 2016.
On the other hand, the SFs have not lost any personnel in the current year, thus far (data till data till August 28, 2022). The last SF fatality was recorded on August 28, 2019, when a trooper of the District Voluntary Force (DVF) was killed during an exchange of fire between SFs and the Maoists at in the Swabhiman Anchal area, near Bonda Ghat, in Malkangiri District. One CPI-Maoist cadre was also killed in the encounter, while one SOG trooper sustained bullet injuries in the encounter. A maximum of 60 SF fatalities were recorded in 2008.
Significantly, the overall SF:Naxalite kill ratio has remained marginally in favour of the SFs, at 1:1.03, since March 6, 2000. However, the SFs have been increasingly dominant since 2009; (January 1, 2009, to August 26, 2022), killing 93 Naxalites, as against a loss of 18 of their own personnel, yielding an emphatic kill ratio of 1:5.16.
Malkangiri occupies an area of 5,791 square kilometres, with 2,321 square kilometres, 40.08 per cent, under dense forest cover. The district is located at the troubled tri-junction of the Naxalite-affected States of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. The heavily forested areas encompass the Podia, Maithili, Kalimela Blocks; the Govindpalli areas of Khairput Block; the ‘cut-off areas’ of Kudumulu Gumma Block; the open forest areas of the Korukonda and Kalimela Blocks; and part of the Malkangiri Block. The terrain and geographical proximity of the district to contiguous Maoist-affected regions in neighbouring States (Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh). Specifically, the district shares its borders with Naxalite-affected Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh to the East; Sukma in Chhattisgarh to the West; Koraput in Odisha to the North and East; and Godavari in Andhra Pradesh to the South, making Malkangiri an ideal spot for a guerrilla stronghold and safe haven.
Such was the domination of the Maoists and the remoteness of the Cut-off area, that a bridge that was planned to connect 151 villages with the rest of Odisha by road in the 1980s, could not be built till 2018. What is now the Swabhiman Anchal area, was a virtual liberated zone for the Maoist rebels, who fiercely guarded it against the entry of SFs into the region. According to a statement by the paramilitary forces on April 2, 2022, it was very difficult on the part of the civil administration to move into interior areas in the years of Maoist dominance. Thus, the BSF deployed in the Malkangiri area, stated,
Even police with limited resources could not access remote areas. Vehicles did not ply during night hours, shops closed in the evening hours, business was affected and development activities of Central and State government schemes were beyond imagination.
However, the security scenario improved after the successive twin encounters of October 24 and 27, 2016. In the twin encounters in the Bejingi forest area, between Ramgarh and Panasput, in the Malkangiri District the Maoists lost 30 leadership elements, as well as their sense of authority and liberty in their erstwhile safe haven and long-time stronghold. Finally, on July 26, 2018, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik inaugurated the Gurupriya Bridge, the 910-metre bridge that ended six decades of isolation of 30,000 villagers in the ‘cut-off area’ of Malkangiri District.
Since, several other parameters also suggests that the Maoists are losing their sway in Malkangiri. Apart from the mass disillusionment of Maoist ‘militia’ members, there has been visible decline in the other indicators of the Maoist activities. Just two major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) have been reported since the October 2016 twin encounters (one each in 2018 and 2021). At peak, five such incidents were recorded in 2015. There has also been a decline in incidents of explosion orchestrated by the rebels, with three in 2017, two in 2019 and one, one each in 2020 and 2021. At peak, 17 such incidents were recorded in 2010. Nine arson related incidents have been recorded since the October 2016 twin encounters, two each in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020; and one in 2021. At peak, 13 such incidents were recorded in 2009.
Significantly, the BSF, which has been deployed in Odisha’s Malkangiri and neighbouring Koraput District – considered, at one time, as a CPI-Maoist bastion – has asserted that the region is now free from of Maoists. After visiting Malkangiri District, particularly the Swabhiman Anchal, the erstwhile Maoist hot bed, Inspector General Satish Chandra Budakoti of the BSF observed, on March 17, 2022,
The Swabhiman Anchal which used to be a liberated zone of Maoists has almost been sanitised. With the support of Odisha police, we fought and the Maoists fled away from the area. We ensure that developmental work takes place in the area. Now the roads, bridges, schools and health facilities have changed the ground situation. New mobile towers are now installed in interior areas with support and cooperation of the BSF.
Further, on March 25, 2022, addressing the State Assembly, Odisha Governor Ganeshi Lal, declared that LWE had been dealt with firmly during the preceding five years, and added,
The turnaround in the situation in ‘Swabhiman Anchal’ of Malkangiri District, which once was a Maoist bastion, has been the most redeeming feature in the success achieved in the anti-LWE front in the State.
The Government – both at the Centre and in the State – has taken several measures to further developmental and security measures in the region. Indeed, on June 19, 2021, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) included Malkangiri in its list of ‘25 Most Affected Districts’, from eight States across India. Further, UMHA included Malkangiri, along with nine other Districts of the State (Bargarh, Bolangir, Kalahandi, Kandhamal, Koraput, Nabarangpur, Nuapada, Rayagada, and Sundargarh), among the 70 Naxal-affected Districts in 10 States across India, to be covered under the Centre’s ‘Security Related Expenditure (SRE)’ scheme, which funds focused operations against the rebels.
Regrettably, some Maoist violence against civilians persists. According to SATP data, one civilian fatality has already been recorded in the current year [data till August 28, 2022]. The latest incident occurred on January 15, 2022, when CPI-Maoist cadres killed a civilian, Ananda, after holding a ‘Praja Court’ (‘people’s court’, a kangaroo court organized by the Maoists), at Kerimiti village under the Mahupadar Block (administrative unit) in Malkangiri District. Ananda was allegedly beaten black and blue by the rebels and then a ‘death sentence’ was pronounced against him. He was subsequently burnt alive.
The total number of civilian fatalities in the district, since March 6, 2000, is 138, with a maximum of 18 such killings recorded twice, in 2013 and 2014.
Currently, 29 BSF Companies (each deploying about 80 personnel on the ground), along with eight teams of the SOG and 68 DVF units, are deployed in Malkangiri to counter the Maoist rebels.
The Maoist menace cannot yet be written off in Malkangiri, despite the most successful twin operation ever conducted by the SFs against the CPI-Maoist on October 24 and 27, 2016, and the sustained consolidation since. The Governments and security establishment will have to sustain pressure against the rebels, to ensure that the little residual activity that remains is finally eliminated.
*Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management