Sukma Encounter a Reminder the Government is in Urgent Need of a Maoist Strategy

File photo of an injured CRPF jawan being brought to Raipur for treatmen following a Maoist attack at Burkapal near Chintagufa in Bastar in 2017. Credit: PTI

On Sunday, April 5, as the Central government and its agencies including the security forces, were grappling with the rising numbers of COVID-19 infected people, the Communist Party of India-Maoist offered a ceasefire to enable community health workers to reach out to adivasis in the remotest parts of the forest in central India.

Issued by secretary of the Malkangiri-Koraput-Visakha Divisional Committee (MKVDC) of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), Kailasam, the handwritten ceasefire offer gives the government five days to respond in spirit.

The government should treat this offer for what it represents – an opportunity for cooperation and eventual peace talks. The Maoists have little to lose from the government’s indifference. They can recede into the depths of the forests and lie low. But the state would miss both the chance to test the genuineness of the offer and the opportunity to build its own narrative that it desires peace and well-being for India’s most dispossessed people.

Predictably, cynics have started analysing the ceasefire offer, questioning its “real motive” and timing. Some say that the temporary truce offer has not come from the central committee and hence cannot be taken seriously. Others say that the Maoists have been under a lot of pressure from local people and hence have been forced to take a step back. This kind of analysis betrays a lack of understanding about how insurgencies work.

A deadly toll

Only a fortnight ago, on March 21, the message from Dandakaranya was that in the forests of central India, far from being on the back foot, the Maoists retain the initiative. The modus operandi was tried and tested. The Chhattisgarh police got the information that CPI-Maoists, often referred to as Left-wing extremists (LWE), were holding a large-scale meeting as part of their summer tactical counter offensive campaign (TCOC). A TCOC is carried out every summer in the tribal villages abutting the forest. Something akin to area domination, TCOC is also used to recruit cadre and push the boundaries of their influence.

Hence, based on the intelligence input about a Maoist gathering in the general Chintagufa-Burkapal area of the Sukma district, the police party, comprising Chhattisgarh police’s Special Task Force, District Reserve Guards (DRGs, a cross between better armed and trained Salwa Judum and the Ikhwanis of Kashmir) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) commandos from the Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) launched the operation.

Also Read: Which Are the Wars Worth Fighting? The Case for a Ceasefire in Bastar

The intelligence input was not accurate. The number of the Maoists was higher than anticipated, even though the police party had nearly 600 personnel among them. But in the forests, the advantage is always with the dweller, and in this case, it was with the Maoists. First, they created confusion among the security forces by triggering IED blasts. And before the forces could recoup from that, the gun battle commenced. At the end of which 17 of the police party were dead – five of the Special Task Force (STF) and 12 of the DRGs. Once again, instead of surprising the Maoists, the security forces were surprised.

Though the state government insisted that a sizable number of Maoists were killed in the operation, no dead bodies were retrieved. Subsequently, the Maoists issued a press statement, in which the group claimed that three of its fighters from battalion-1 of the PLGA were killed. It also issued photographs, one of which showed the equipment their fighters had successfully snatched from the security forces. These included 11 AK-47 rifles, two INSAS rifles, one SLR LMG, two UBGLs, 1,550 bullets and six UBGL shells.

As is the drill, the state government ordered an enquiry into the incident. It is likely that the cause assigned for heavy casualties would be the failure in following the laid down standard operating procedure (SOP).

Problem with intelligence

However, whatever else the enquiry finds, two factors are glaringly obvious. First, is intelligence. There is enormous dependence on human intelligence in these areas. And as has been evident in the past also, this source of intelligence remains dubious and sometimes misleading. Worse, intelligence leaks, whether deliberate or inadvertent, from among the security personnel compound the problem. In the past also, information about troop movement, including their weapons’ load, route etc has been shared casually among the personnel and through them inadvertently with locals. The 2010 massacre of 76 CRPF personnel in Chintalnar area of Chhattisgarh was the horrible consequence of this: part of the patrol party had stopped at a roadside eatery, which is where the details of the patrol were compromised. It is well established that the Maoists’ enjoy local support, hence the information traffic is largely unidirectional.

Given this, is it possible that the police were deliberately misled about the TCOC?

“It’s too early to say anything,” a senior Chhattisgarh police officer told me over the telephone. “Unless we complete our enquiry, it will be difficult to say exactly what went wrong.”

However, he accepts that there is too much dependence on human intelligence and given how unreliable it has often turned out to be in the past, there is a need to invest in other forms of intelligence-gathering. But more on that later.

Maoist staying power

The second factor is the resilience and evolutionary stamina of the Maoists as a group. Whenever the government rushes to write their obituary and over-enthusiastic journalists say that the Maoists are on the backfoot, they raise their hand, as if to show that they cannot be pushed off the stage. The senior police officer agrees. He says, “As long as Maoists continue to have support among the people, they cannot be written off. Despite a slowdown in new recruitment, the group continues to thrive as they have adapted to the changing circumstances.”

This adaptation involves moving away to newer areas whenever pressure mounts in the old strongholds and reducing the size of the formation for greater secrecy and better mobility. But this, in no way compromises their lethality. What it does mean is that instead of big high-profile attacks, Maoists indulge in incisive and swift attacks, but only when they are assured of success, as happened in Sukma. As always, they never seek out the security forces in direct confrontation. Masters of guerrilla warfare, they operate by their strengths, using the forest as a camouflage and the tribal as the shield.

According to the police officer quoted above, the Maoists have been trying to create a new contiguous safe zone of operations in the tri-junction of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, called the MCC, since the last couple of years. Aiding in this effort are the number of inter-connected forest reserves that line the western borders of Chhattisgarh – from Gadchiroli in the south-west going up to Malewada and further up north to Dongergarh-Dhara forest. To the west of these ranges are forest reserves of Madhya Pradesh, and to the south, of Maharashtra.

A few years ago, senior police officials of Chhattisgarh had told me that the Maoists were creating a ‘red zone’ as opposed to the ‘red corridor’ (a phrase which was in currency for several years in intelligence circles) in the areas contiguous to the north and northwest parts of united Andhra, southern and eastern Chhattisgarh, western Odisha, Jharkhand and north Bengal. In this version, the entire eastern part of the state of Chhattisgarh, from south to north was badly affected by the Left-wing violence. The police forces of Andhra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha then mounted several joint operations to flush out the Maoists. After lying low for a while, they slipped westwards.

This, however, does not mean that the east is no longer a problem area. A 2018 media report claimed that most of the violence attributed to the Maoists was reported from 251 police stations in 60 districts spread across eight states, as opposed to 330 police stations in 76 districts across 10 states in 2013. So, while the Maoist footprint did recede in five years, the important thing to remember is that an insurgency or resistance is cyclical. In fact, the LWE violence has been the most cyclical of all. People of a certain vintage may still have memories of the heady years of late 1960s-early 1970s, followed by a complete rout and then the resurrection in the 1980s. And so on.

Yet, the government of India, irrespective of its ideological persuasions, has always rushed to write the obituary of the Maoists as a movement. Even at the time when the government accepted that LWE was the biggest internal security threat facing the country, it was quick to claim that the Maoist extremists were on the backfoot. Since then this has been the official position; and the Maoists have supposedly been on the backfoot for over a decade now.

However, between 2006-2018, according to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data, 8,516 people have died in Maoist-related violence. Of these, 1,914 have been police (including the Central Armed Police Forces) personnel. In the same period, 1,908 Maoists have been killed. Interestingly, until 2015, more police personnel were being killed in violence than the Maoists. The trend reversed in 2015, to such an extent that in 2016, 222 Maoists were killed. Only 65 security forces personnel died that year.

Incidentally, this was also the year when several articles emerged in mainstream media about gross human rights violations, especially in Chhattisgarh in which innocent tribals were killed by the security forces and passed off as Maoists. Some in the media also reported how it was becoming extremely difficult, both for the local journalists and human rights activists to report and work in the tribal areas because of excessive pressure from the state government. In its report in 2016, Amnesty International noted that journalists in Chhattisgarh worked under extreme fear, especially, since four of them were arrested from the Bastar region on charges of being Maoist sympathisers.

Quoting the editor of theBastar-based Bhumkal Samachar, Kamal Shukla, the Amnesty report said, “We are always reminded by the state police that our lives will be in danger if we don’t follow the government narrative. And now we have these vigilante groups backed by the state that just makes it difficult for independent journalists to work in Bastar.” Clearly, while statistics may not lie, claims could mislead.

Government in a hurry

Armed with statistics, the government has been insisting that the war against the Maoists has been won; and the mopping-up operation is underway. Three possible reasons can perhaps explain this haste.

One, unlike the insurgencies in northeast India and Jammu and Kashmir, which the government blamed on inimical neighbours (China for the former and Pakistan for the latter), it has been unable to create a ‘foreign hand’ narrative for LWE. It was, and remains, a truly indigenous resistance movement by the marginalised, despite ideological inspirations from abroad. Hence, the existence of the LWE movement is an indictment of the government of India’s faulty policies and its failure to correct them. Since a resistance movement draws sustenance from the people who support it, the LWE movement implies that the government has been unable to win the trust of these people.

Two, the Maoist insurgency as we know it today represents a coalescing of multiple movements of the marginalised over the century. From tillers’ revolts against the landholders and the Dalit protests against the atrocities of the upper caste landlords to the tribal resistance against being turned into criminals by government’s policies of nationalisation and appropriation of forest resources, what the government conveniently labels ‘LWE’ is the voice of the historically voiceless. In thir press statement after the Sukma incident, the Maoists asked people to ‘join hands’ with them to fight against the state for their ‘rights and for jal-jungle-zameen’ (water, forest and land). The statement also urged people to stand up to human rights violations unleashed by the government, including fake encounters.

At one level, the government is conscious of the justness of the tribal grievances. And despite its attempts to address them by promulgating the Right to Forest Act 2007, it has been unable to balance the sentiments of the locals with the national need for natural resources, which fuel the economy. So, clearly exploitation of mineral and forest resources will not stop. Protestors will have to be stopped somehow.

Three, the intellectual capital that LWE has earned in India has lent it the heft of righteousness. The government, relying exclusively on muscle and force, has been unable to create a counter narrative. All it has managed is juvenile slogans like ‘Urban Naxal’ to victimise social and human rights activists. Since it has turned those who could have been the bridge between the state and the oppressed into enemies, it has no choice but to employ more force, which leads to further alienation and the cycle continues. Faced with this massive failure, it has no choice but to declare periodic victory to keep the morale of the troops high.

The way forward

Under these circumstances, a semblance of peace and victory can only be achieved by the twin prong of communication and capacity-building. Instead of vilifying the social activists, the government must immediately release the ones it has arrested and urge them to open a channel of communication with the tribals, and Maoists as well. This has happened before, albeit dishonestly. There is no harm in trying to do this with honesty. After all, these are India’s own people, not foreign terrorists. To convey the genuineness of its intent, the government must also stop the mining projects as well as corporate trade in forest produce. These are natural resources. They will not disappear if the government talks with the tribals and make them stake-holders. This would require both patience and empathy.

Hence, in the short term the government needs to invest in capacity-building of the forces engaged in internal security. At my request, the editor of Daily Chhattisgarh sent some photographs after the Sukma encounter. A few of these were issued by the Maoists and included images of dead ultras. Among the photographs that he sent were of the policemen killed during the incident. They all looked the same – poor, hapless and impoverished. The short-sightedness of policies by successive governments has pitted tribal against tribal. The battle against the poor is being led by the poor. They are victims on both sides.

Tactical UAVs

At least on one side, the government should minimise the deaths. As the experience of the last decade-and-half shows, if the security forces have accurate, tactical intelligence, they would not walk into traps. Human intelligence remains unreliable, hence there is an urgent need to equip both the state police, as well as the CAPFs, with tactical, handheld recoverable, unmanned aerial systems with payloads that can see through the foliage. These should be deployed with the users. The ones operated by National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) negate the whole purpose of tactical intelligence as the data is processed by NTRO and then relayed through the government-mandated channel to the local police. By the time the information reaches the field, it is no longer actionable.

“We are processing the case for tactical UAVs,” the senior Chhattisgarh police officer told me. “The contract would include training of our personnel too.” Until the deal is sealed, he did not want to get into numbers or timelines. However, given that in addition to the state police, the central forces are also engaged in counter-Maoist operations it would make sense for the MHA to weigh in with a centralised order for both commonality of equipment as well as competitive pricing.

The other technology that the forces must be equipped with urgently is mine-detection and disablement. Ideally, even these should be unmanned systems; plenty of options are available globally. It is criminal that even today the security forces continue to lose life and limb in IED attacks. Up until now, the focus of capacity-building has been on training in jungle warfare and personnel weapons. But no amount of training or weapons can compensate for being blind-sided or overwhelmed.

The war against the Maoists has to be fought both in the hearts and on the ground. While the former will remain a work in progress, the latter cannot wait.

Ghazala Wahab is executive editor of FORCE magazine