A lapse is a lapse and it needs to be criticised and discussed threadbare.
But it is not a loss.
The recent Maoist attack in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, that left 25 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers dead, has brought back the spotlight on India’s counterinsurgency strategy. It is also raising questions about the country’s preparedness to deal with an armed rebellion that continues to pose serious challenges to the legitimacy of the Indian state and its institutions, ever since it surfaced some five decades ago.
As usual, the daring attack prompted experts and longtime Maoist watchers to pick holes in everything: the state’s counterinsurgency strategy, operational capabilities, standard operating procedures, and so on. While these are reasonable criticisms, several analysts and self-styled experts went on to conclude a “complete surrender of Indian state to Maoists”, and that India’s was a “failing war on terror”. One analyst went to the extent of dubbing India’s current counterinsurgency strategy as “medieval”.
While analysts have every reason to be critical of lapses by security forces and leadership in affected states, they are anything but rational in their assessment of the state’s response to Maoist threats. The same bunch that are dismissive of the current counterinsurgency strategy paid glowing tribute to States and security forces in the aftermath of Andhra-Odisha forces eliminating 24 hardened Maoists in October 2016. The incident prompted many analysts to write obituaries for Maoists and their ideologies.
It is time to call the bluff of the critics and soothsayers.
Bench Strengths Of Maoists
Let’s begin the discourse with the official assessment of the Maoist insurgency or Left Wing Extremism (LWE), as it is known officially. To quote the opening paragraph of the latest Annual Report of Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA):
“The Left Wing Extremism (LWE) scenario, while remaining an area of concern for internal security of the country, exhibited significant improvement over the year. The declining trend which started in 2011 continued in 2016 as well. The last two and a half years has seen an unprecedented improvement in the LWE scenario across the country”.
These official lines aptly sum up the present status of Maoist challenges and success of the Indian state’s counterinsurgency drive against Left wing terror.
However, a comprehensive counter-narrative requires detailed evidence and sources other than the government alone.
The fact of the matter is that the annual report of MHA does not highlight several core dimensions to the ongoing security operations while assessing the threats posed by Maoists. To validate the government’s claims and to expand the scope of our analysis, we have relied on other credible sources including the South Asia Terrorism Portal and Uppsala Conflict Data.
Here is a quick tour of the key developments with regard to the state of Maoist terrorism in India today.
The bench strengths of Maoists
Armed insurgency or for that matter any major social movement draws it sustenance from its leaders. In this context, The Maoist organisation is increasingly getting thinner from the top, raising serious doubts about its sustenance as an armed movement.
To illustrate with details, security forces in recent years have achieved the impossible by eliminating many top leaders including Kishenji alias Koteswar Rao, Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad and recently Serisha, a woman Maoist leader. The elimination of Appa Rao, secretary of the Eastern Division, his wife Aruna, and Gajarala Ashok, the military head of Andhra-Odisha Border Zone, by security forces in October last year has left the outfit with very few leaders.
In addition, the security forces in various states have succeeded in neutralising as many as 22 prominent members of the 39 central committees in the past two years, which bears a testimony to their firepower and effectiveness. Not only this, the combined counterinsurgency operation has led to the arrest of many top leaders and ideologues such as Kobad Ghandy, Pramod Mishra, Amitabh Bagchi, Sabyasachi Panda, and most recently, Central Committee member K Muralidharan alias Ajith.
What’s more important is that security forces in various states have gained a critical upper hand over Maoists by capturing more than 7,000 active cadres in the last three years, while an equal number of Maoists have surrendered before authorities in various states. In 2016 alone, security forces were able to arrest as many as 1,844 CPI-Maoist cadres, while more than 1,442 members of the group chose to surrender before the state authorities.
The biggest gain in the recent times has been the sensational surrender of Gudsa Usendi, the spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee. In other words, loss of top leadership coupled with the arrest of many active cadres has made the once dreaded ultras defensive and desperate.
A sharp decline in Maoist strengths and firepower is amply demonstrated in a drastic reduction in number of violent incidents in the last two years. From a peak of 1,180 in 2010, the Maoist-related fatalities have dropped sharply to 430 in 2016.
The year in progress shows even further deceleration in Maoist-related fatalities. Fatalities among security forces have fallen sharply (from 277 in 2010 to 66 in 2016) in the recent years. In fact, in some states like West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, there has been no casualty among security forces in the current year. Besides, there has been a drastic fall in number of major incidents involving three or more fatalities (see Table 2).
Table-2 State-wise break up of Naxal Violence (2011-2016)
A shrinking kitty
What has further weakened the strength of the extremist movement is the rapid shrinking of their financial base. The 2004 merger between People’s War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCC) had helped the Maoists to consolidate their financial position. The usual tactics of levies (euphemism for extortion), protection money from private companies, cess or cut imposed on contractors of public works, salarised employees and even petty businessmen had fattened Maoist purse manifold. A rapid demand for natural resources and minerals in late 2000s came as an advantage to Maoists.
Given that the Left wing extremists sat over a vast geography rich in minerals and natural resources, the mining boom came as a boon. As has been claimed by the government reports (validated by a former police head of Chhattisgarh), in Chhattisgarh alone, Maoists could extort Rs 1,500 crore annually. However, with the affected States having built road and telephone networks and regained physical control over many mineral-rich districts, the Maoists find it increasingly difficult to persist with the old tactics of imposing cess and collecting protection money. What has really dried up their financial base is a sharp decline of mineral and natural base industry, thanks to the global economic slowdown and a court ban on illegal mining.
At one point, nearly 70 per cent of mining operations were run illegally and it is in public knowledge how much cut the insurgents used to take from those operators.
The most lethal blow however, came during the recent demonetisation drive that rendered high value currencies illegal. As has been widely reported, demonetisation forced Maoists to postpone their major activities for several months, until they found alternative sources of cash.
In short, their well-oiled extortion enterprise or a sort of parallel economy as it is popularly known is under serious threat. With drastic reduction in their spatial spread and increasing state presence in their controlled areas, the Left wing extremists would find it hard, if not impossible, to have alternative sources of funds. Needless to say, shrinking finance resource base would hit the organisation hard in getting new recruits, procuring arms, carrying out intelligence activities and meeting their daily needs.
Growing disquiet in the ranks
What most analysts have missed are the growing fissures within the Maoist groups. According to confessions of arrested Maoists and intercepted information, some four dozens Left-wing factions that had opportunistically merged in 2004 to form a hotchpotch coalition, are in now in open war against each other. From the Induvar killing incident in Bihar to the kidnapping of foreign tourists in Odisha, there are plenty of indications that things may soon descend back to an open feud, something that was common in undivided Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.
In Jharkhand alone, there are 16 breakaway groups it is mainly the People’s Liberation Front of India or the PLFI, or the Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC) that challenge the CPI (Maoist) leadership and compete in terms of resources and influence. There have been more than 40 incidents of factional clashes between these groups with Maoists leading to 70 odd deaths in the last few years.
There are similar such factional trends in Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha as well. Before he surrendered to the Odisha police, the Maoist faction led by Sabyasachi Panda (controlling Kandhamal and West Bengal operations) was in open confrontation with the leadership controlled by the Andhra factions. In several states, top and middle ranking adivasi combatants, particularly in the Dandakaranya zone, are openly opposing the once invincible Andhra-based leadership. Gudsa Usendi recently confessed that Maoist cadres are a demoralised lot and key leaders are openly taking on each other. He further said that the Maoist leadership was considerably weaker and the organisation was in dire need of money and new recruits.
Spatial spread checked
The most direct consequence of the elimination of top leadership and surrender and arrest of thousands of cadres is that CPI (Maoist) organisation is finding it hard to retain the control over a vast tract of geography that it dominated in the previous decade. The security forces have now regained control over more than 12,000 sq km of land from the Maoist strongholds. If India’s Home Minister’s recent statement in Lok Sabha (17 March) is to be believed, from a geographical reach of 223 districts in 2008, Maoists are now confined to 68. The security forces have now made a foray into hitherto forbidden territories such as the Saranda forest and Koel-Sankh in Jharkhand.
Significantly, some of the districts which were once under the complete domination of Maoists (reduced from 83 to in 2008 to 35 in 2016), have been freed from their clutches. In fact, after the success of security operations in Odisha’s Malkanagiri, leading to elimination of 24 Maoists last year, it would not be an exaggeration to say that South Bastar (current theatres of attacks) is the only legitimate ‘liberated’ zone of the Maoists.
From the counterinsurgency perspective, CPI (Maoist) dominance is now restricted to few districts in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Odisha and West Bengal have gained significant upper hand in the fight.
Notwithstanding many valid criticisms, Chhattisgarh too has shown a greater sense of purpose in restricting Maoists to South Bastar, a mountainous and heaviy forested terrain not easy to manoeuvre for security forces.
At one point, 14 out of 18 districts of the state were under Maoist influence. While in 2010, Maoists had control over as much as 20,000 sq km of the state, it has come down to 5,000 sq km. In short, security forces have been able to drive out Maoists from most of their zones. Only Abujmarh, the present headquarter of CPI (Maoist) remains in their control. No wonder, they are desperate to disallow road works that would help security forces to corner them further.
How was such a turnaround achieved?
The Centre, with active involvement of the affected States brought the turnaround. As has been documented by diverse sources including the government, the turning point in the state response was the 2010 Chintalnar massacre of 76 CRPF men by Maoists. That massacre sent shock waves across the security establishment and Maoist-infested States prompted the Union Government, particularly P Chidambaram, then Home Minister, to create a Unified Command (unofficially called Operation Green Hunt) with the involvement of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and Maharashtra to take on the growing threats from ultras.
The two-pronged strategy – equipping and empowering the state police, deploying more paramilitary forces, providing technical and military support to create special forces to fight ultras apart from the emphasis on central support for district officials to address development and governance deficits in critical areas of road, education, health facilities, drinking water among others – helped to arrest the growing spread of Maoists.
The centre went a step further and created another important institutional apparatus—the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM), under the chairmanship of the Home Minister, to oversee the coordinated government responses to counter Maoist threat.
Other crucial institutional mechanisms such as the standing committee of chief ministers of Maoist affected states, creation of a Coordination Centre headed by Union Home Secretary, Task Force headed by Special Secretary (Internal Security, MHA) with senior officers from intelligence agencies, and central paramilitary forces and state police forces too aided the counterinsurgency process.
In 2010 alone, the Centre dispatched 70 CRPF battalions to the affected States. Further, to assist States financially and address their capacity building requirements, in the past few years the Centre has pumped thousands of crores into different areas. From police modernisation, security infrastructure to improving development indicators, the Centre is in thick of things.
The clearest vindication of the Centre’s keenness to help states fight Maoists is its decision to raise the security related expenditure. Similarly, creation of a flagship Integrated Action Plan (by the erstwhile Planning Commission) that allocates substantial resources to more than 50 Maoist-infested districts is another proof of the Centre’s seriousness to end the dominance of Left wing insurgency.
An effective and purposeful response from the Centre encouraged States to be on the same page. Despite resource constraints, low capacity of forces leading the operations, the five worse affected states, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Odisha have shown remarkable resolve to take on Maoists in their strong holds. After years of denial and half starts, the Maoist-affected States worked in tandem to improve intelligence coordination and put up joint combat operations against the Maoists.
The most recent evidence of such coordination was the Malkanagiri incident, where the Odisha and Andhra police forces put up excellent coordination and tactical exchanges to eliminate 24 hardened Maoists, including several top leaders.
If forces continue to maintain their advances in the last frontier and connect adjoining blocks and districts with paved roads, the Left wing extremists would find it hard to regain their hold and may wither in matter of few years.
Of course, such an impressive turnaround is not without frequent flip-flops and blunders by the Centre and States. On numerous occasions, the Maoists have found holes in the counterinsurgency strategy and their operational resolves. The massacre of top leaders of the Congress Party in Chhattisgarh in May 2013 is the best illustration of this. Often lethargy and disorganisation have overtaken consistency and professional efficiency of the forces deployed. The post of the chief of CRPF, the key elite force in the forefront of anti-Maoist operations, remaining vacant for more than a month undermines the Centre’s claims of recognising the gravity of the situation.
Thus, the lapses and occasional state dithering or disorientation should not lead analysts to dismiss the counterinsurgency success and call it “medieval”. One hopes the experts would take a proper tour of facts and evidence before jumping to conclusions next time.
Niranjan Sahoo is Senior Fellow with New Delhi based Observer Research Foundation and author of forthcoming book Exclusion and Insurgency in India’s Heartland.