While Naxal influence in other states has reduced, Chhattisgarh continues to be the Maoist capital Vappala Balachandran, APR 11 2021, 00:30 IST UPDATED: APR 11 2021, 07:35 IST Illustration. Credit: Sajith Kumar In the din of blaring controversies on ...
In the din of blaring controversies on elections and vaccine-politics, what went unnoticed was how a rag tag army could humble the mighty Indian State on April 8 by wresting publicity advantage after the April 3 ambush which killed 22 security personnel on Bijapur-Sukma district border in Chhattisgarh.
The visuals aired by the social media on April 8 on the release of CoBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) commando Rakeshwar Singh Manhas were striking: the low key, non-rambunctious function, unlike an election rally was over in minutes. More than 200 Maoist adivasi men and women, some dressed in worn out battle fatigues, were calmly sitting in a circle in what was called the People’s Court. They were watching their leader who identified himself as DVC “Jagdish” untying the shackles of Manhas and handing him over to unidentified men who were later recognised as social workers.
Talking to a Bijapur correspondent, Jagdish did not fail to deliver propaganda in a calm and collected tone that they are fighting for Adivasi lands and water from `depredatory elements’ who were helped by the “dalal” (middlemen) police. He rejected all surrenders as “bogus” since no true “Maoist” would “surrender”. He also indicated that they were not worried if IPS officer Kalluri, considered as their nemesis, is brought back to operate against them.
What is the inner strength of their intelligence which enables them to deceive the security forces year after year? Maoists did it on June 29, 2008 when they ambushed 65 Andhra Pradesh “Greyhounds” in Odisha’s Balimela reservoir, killing 36, as the police were returning after an infructuous “Operation” based on deceptive intelligence. On April 3, 2021 too, deceptive information was received about the presence of Maoist commander Madvi Hidma at Tarrem, on Bijapur-Sukhma border. When five different teams converged at Junagada, they were ambushed by about 400 insurgents.
This incident provoked several complaints on social media that a sudden operational plan was prepared by a senior officer from New Delhi without consulting the ground level leaders who had to assemble troops from five different areas, who had not done joint training. Also, that the Maoists were monitoring troop movements through a CRPF wireless set which had fallen into their hands after the 2010 Dantewada massacre in which 76 Jawans were slaughtered.
A similar complaint was received from unidentified CRPF sources about the “Kasalpad” ambush on December 1, 2014 when 14 CRPF personnel including two officers were killed while returning from an operation. At that time, a senior military officer had suggested that such unwieldy contingents should not be deployed in jungles to combat Maoists who knew the terrain better. Yet another ambush took place on April 11, 2015 in Sukma killing seven policemen.
On April 8, 2021 another complaint came up that the intelligence for the April 3 “Operation” was received 20 days ago, throwing a doubt whether this was based on any NTRO (The National Technical Research Organisation, a government technical intelligence agency) input through drones operating since 2012. At that time, there were complaints from the ground that visual surveillance inputs from UAVs were usually sent to New Delhi for photo interpretation, resulting in delay. By the time such information was locally received, the targets would have already moved away as Maoists are constantly on the move.
I may mention here we had faced a similar problem in the late 1980s to monitor LTTE movements in and out of South India. Our monitoring stations used to send intercepts, sometimes in codes, to New Delhi for decryption and analysis, causing considerabledelays.
To overcome that, as a special case, we posted crypto analysts along with all Southern monitoring stations so that the output would be decrypted and interpreted immediately and conveyed to the stake holders speedily.
Collecting insurgency intelligence is a challenging subject. It is like almost law and order intelligence where the collectors and analysts need to have sound local knowledge. More often than not, insurgency intelligence is about movements which are short-term and time sensitive. Collecting that would necessarily mean reliance upon human intelligence, which would mean befriending the locals. An adivasi in tribal areas like Chhattisgargh or Jharkhand would not trust a CRPF “handler” from outside the state who does not know the local language.
Although several claims on “surrenders” are publicised, I have not come across any dependable literature on how Maoists collect intelligence on police. Unless we know this, we could never overcome their methods of intelligence operations. This is the great deficiency in our handling of the Maoist insurgency. Aerial monitoring has its own drawbacks as thick foliage in forest lands prevent clear identification. In May 2010, I had asked Raytheon, which had invited me to deliver a lecture at their Global Homeland Security Meet whether they had any solutions. They were not sure.
On the other hand, one could study details of the intelligence collection by the then outlawed United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) during their period of insurgency from 1996 to 2006 from the papers published by a British NGO which was permitted to be involved in the UN-sponsored peace talks with the Communists. Paul Jackson, a professor at the University of Birmingham, representing NGO “Saferworld”, has published a good paper in March 2019. He concludes that Maoist insurgents had the upper hand during the hostilities because the government intelligence was ineffective. On the other hand, the Communists had also developed “an information strategy to make themselves more acceptable to the local population”.
In dealing with the rump of Maoists in Chhattisgarh, we need to learn how the adivasis were originally brain washed. In 2007, I went to Hyderabad to meet late S R Sankaran, IAS (retired), an authority on Maoist insurgency and to whom two successive Andhra Pradesh governments had to turn for arranging peace talks in 2002 and 2004. The seeds of insurrection were planted in the 1980s by Naxal leader Kondappally Seetharamiah when he sent nine volunteers to the Dandakaranya to spread Naxalite philosophy on a 1+2 principle: one leader, two followers. They used to care for the needs of these neglected segments like education, conducting medical camps during epidemics etc while governments did nothing. Gradually these people started accepting the PWG’s (People’s War Group, a Naxal outfit) parallel government which was also free from corruption.
A tendency to crush the “Naxals” of all hues through brute force was evident after the NDA government assumed power in 2014. This is not going to work in areas like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The only possible solution is a mixture of selective use of force combined with better governance and development.
The only Central minister who understood the problems of Maoist insurgency was UPA government’s Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh who, after visiting 30 of the 78 affected districts, clearly identified the problem as “placing the interests of tribals below that of mining firms in the rush to attain high growth rates”. He recommended a new “Empowered Group of Ministers” instead of tackling it only by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Another solution will be adopting the forgotten the 2007-2010 “Punchhi Commission” recommendation on “localised emergency provisions” under Articles 355/356 to place even part of a district under Central rule for development and intensive counter-insurgency action. However, it is too optimistic for this to be accepted, given the bitter relations between the Centre and Opposition-ruled states now.
(The writer is former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat)
As we were preparing to fight the Naxals, the other challenge that we had to deal with was the trust deficit among locals. Whenever our teams went to villages, we found only old men and women, the others would flee.
Security force personnel patrol after an attack by Maoist fighters in Bijapur in Chhattisgarh (Reuters)
Written by KP Raghuvanshi
IN 1989, Naxal activity was at its peak in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. Many sarpanches, policemen and local Adivasis had been killed. Alarmed, the Maharashtra government came up with a ‘Special Action Plan’ to counter Naxals and a sum of Rs 100 crore was sanctioned for it. But despite the comprehensive strategy, the Naxal menace continued unabated.
Around the same time, in 1990, when I was serving as DCP Mumbai, I was transferred to Gadchiroli as Superintendent of Police. The shift from a metropolitan city to a gram panchayat was a big one for me and my family. When we arrived at the only guesthouse in the area, the temperature hovered around 45 degrees, and it was the promise of ice-cream that kept my restless children in check. Unfortunately, we were told at the guesthouse that much like treats such as bread, cake and cream biscuits, ice-cream too had to be ordered in advance and brought from neighbouring Chandrapur.
Since summer vacations were on, the children soon left to spend time with their grandparents, and I got the opportunity to travel around the entire district, 80 per cent of which was covered in thick jungles, without worrying about the family. (At the time, Naxals had been burning down government buildings to threaten locals). It didn’t take long for me to spot the lack of synergy in the action plan we had adopted.
As a first step, we began discussions with the local police, revenue officers, teachers, reporters, and families of victims of Naxal violence, who were reluctant to speak up. Fear among these sections, we soon realised, was the biggest hurdle for us.
That is when we came up with the idea of creating a special force. Most locals felt that government officers were posted to the region for a short period and had no major stake in their struggle. So we thought of inducting local Adivasis as they were the ones who faced the actual threat. That is how ‘Crack-60 (C-60)’ was created. I visited the Greyhound (special anti-insurgency unit) headquarters and the Inspector General there agreed to train our boys. Of the 100 boys who were selected, 60 were marked for round-the-clock operation.
As we were preparing to fight the Naxals, the other challenge that we had to deal with was the trust deficit among locals. Whenever our teams went to villages, we found only old men and women, the others would flee. Language was a big barrier too. The locals feared they would be branded police informants and killed.
So we changed our strategy. Our teams now started speaking to villagers about problems related to water, health etc. Our Adivasi constables helped. The teams also delivered medical kits and salt, both hard to find in the region, to the locals. Slowly, the gap was bridged. The rate of engagement increased, flow of information improved, and our teams were ready to take on Naxals.
In my two-year tenure, I experienced moving and high-risk situations as well as incidents that made me smile. Once we received information about a Naxal group camping on a hill-top. After travelling all night, when we arrived at the spot, there was no one. We had exhausted our dry ration and there was no water left to drink. Shortage of water was common, and many a time we would drink stagnant water mixed with potassium permanganate when we ran out of supply. One of the Adivasi constables in the group took us to a nearby village and asked a woman for food. She scooped off some ant-like insects from a tree, roasted them and mixed them with salt and offered it to us. Although I am non-vegetarian, I stuck to the rice water, but the insects provided the much-needed protein to my team.
The incident also alerted us about another challenge — dealing with false information. As security officers, we can never ignore any information, but it may be incorrect and expose our teams to threat. That is among the reasons why we are seeing so many casualties these days, particularly in Chhattisgarh.
The dense foliage of Gadchiroli also made patrolling difficult. Half of the district is cut off during monsoons because of overflowing rivers and lack of bridges. During my tenure, Head Constable Tara Chand was kidnapped by Naxals and we received intel about his whereabouts. To get to the spot, we had to cross the Bandi river. We got an inflatable boat but there was no trained sailor to row it. I knew how to swim and asked my team if they would want to proceed. Eventually, six jawans and I got into the boat and went ahead. When we were only 200 metres from the bank, the boat just wouldn’t move forward. We somehow managed to return to our base. Retrospectively, I think it was a foolish step. If Naxals were present on the other side, we would have become easy targets.
There were also incidents that still send waves of grief through me, like the time when one of our platoons was blown off by Naxals near Bhamragad. When I reached the spot, there were bodies strewn all over, some writhing in pain. Sending 13 coffins with security personnel to their villages is among the painful memories of my tenure.
I was transferred out of Gadchiroli in July 1992 and, soon after, Naxal commander ‘Santhosh Anna’ was killed by the C-60 force. It was a big achievement.
A few years ago, I visited Gadchiroli again and was thrilled to see the infrastructure that had come up in the region. The C-60 force had neutralised a majority of the Naxal groups in the area and there was hardly any fear among locals. But it took years for the team to show results; it didn’t happen in one day or one year. We must invest in similar efforts to resolve the insurgency issues of today.
K P Raghuvansh, former ATS chief, set up C-60, tasked with countering Maoists violence in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli
In Jharkhand, State Police have nabbed seven Naxalites and foiled the nefarious plans of the Peoples' Liberation Front of India (PLFI) militants from the forest areas under Chandwa police station in Latehar district. Latehar SP Prashant Anand received secret information about the Maoists activities and launched a combing operation and arrested the insurgents . Police have recovered 2 indigenous rifles, 8 live cartridges and 11 mobiles at the behest of the arrested militants.
Speaking to AIR News, Palamu DIG Rajkumar Lakra said that the insurgents were preparing a strategy to carry out an attack in the forest areas close to neighbouring state Chhattisgarh. Raids were conducted by a team of State Police forces, Jharkhand Jaguars and AG-37
Pandita is the author of Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist movement.
The director-general of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is of the opinion that the killing of 22 security personnel, including seven of his commandos, in a Maoist ambush last week is not an intelligence and operational failure. Perhaps he meant to say that in encounters with insurgent groups like the CPI (Maoist) such casualties are bound to happen.
The problem begins here. It is not that soldiers do not die in gun battles. The problem, as many CRPF officers would tell you in anguish, is that they do not have to die so senselessly. That will only stop when we stop lying to ourselves and look at cold facts staring at us.
Consider the Bijapur ambush in Chhattisgarh, laid so well by the Maoist guerrillas that the troops had no inkling of it till they found themselves surrounded. The teams of security personnel had been sent out on an operation based on “intelligence inputs” that the elusive Maoist commander Madvi Hidma and a large number of his fighters had gathered at a village on the Sukma-Bijapur border. When the teams reached the location, they found nothing there. As they were returning, some of them came under heavy attack from a big group of Maoists, armed with grenade launchers and at least one Light Machine Gun. The “intelligence inputs”, of course, did not specify any of this. If it did, why were the forces not ready for it?
Also, according to the CRPF chief, the security forces also managed to kill an equal amount of Maoists. There is no evidence of it so far; only one body of a female Maoist guerrilla could be recovered from the site, while the Maoists have acknowledged the death of four fighters. But, let us go by the DG’s numbers, and assume that 22-23 Maoists were killed as well. That is a terrible ratio of 1:1. As at least one former Cobra veteran has pointed out that counter-insurgency operations aim at a ratio of 8:1 (eight insurgents to one soldier), that too when soldiers are chasing insurgents on a specific input. But there is clear indication that it was the other way round. The Maoists had set up a trap and some of those in the operation fell into it.
Why did this happen?
This happened because there have been
no learnings from several such mistakes in the past.
no investigation, and no post-mortem of what went wrong.
In the absence of any serious inquiry, body bags keep coming. Speak to any CRPF officer on the ground in Sukma or Bijapur, and he will tell you that such ill-fated operations are planned by officers who have no understanding of the Maoist heartland other than the PowerPoint presentations they carry on their laptops. Sometimes, buoyed by their ‘performance’ in other sectors like Kashmir, they think that the same models of counter-insurgency can be replicated in villages where it has taken years for some security personnel to develop a little understanding. But officers who have far better wisdom on Maoists and their surroundings because of their on-ground experience have hardly any role to play in planning such operations.
A CRPF officer once told me about an operation several years ago that went wrong on similar accounts like the one in Bijapur. “If I put T in the plan, my senior, who had come on deputation, would remove it and put K,” he said. And when it finally got implemented, it led to a botched-up operation in which several CRPF men lost their lives.
The irony is that the state is bound to win the war against the Maoists. In the last few years, their strongholds are falling one by one. For instance, in the so-called cut off area in Odisha’s Malkangiri district, from where the Maoists abducted my friend Vineel Krishna in 2011, the building of a bridge over Gurupriya River has been a game-changer. In Sukma itself, the road from Dornapal to Jagargunda and beyond it is ensuring that the Maoists are pushed further back. Better connectivity means that the Adivasis, especially the younger ones, who have lived under the shadow of Maoists, will get a chance to see how vast (and, hopefully, promising) the outside world is. In areas like the one Hidma operates in, there are still pockets of sympathy for Maoists. And, no matter what the state would like you to believe, a lot of it comes from the government’s support to mindless and vicious plans like the Salwa Judum.
The Maoists will be defeated eventually. But setbacks like the one in Bijapur, where hundreds of Adivasis witnessed a Cobra commando tied in ropes, will stagger this process.
Pandita is the author of Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist movement
The cradle of the Naxal movement first saw Maoist rebellion in 1967, but it was quickly put down. The phenomenon raised its head again in the 1990s. By the 2000s, Maoists had influence in 18 districts of the state.
Today, the Maoist hold is limited to Gaya and neighbouring districts. In 2020, the state recorded 26 incidents, with eight civilian deaths.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), from a peak of over 200 districts being affected by Maoist violence in the mid-2000s, the numbers are down to just 90, with the worst-affected districts only 30. While Chhattisgarh, and to an extent Jharkhand, continue to struggle in the battle against Maoists, other states, apart from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have managed to restrict Naxal activity