Maoists attack India’s heartland
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (August 2007)
In the best of times Chhattisgarh could have been an adventurer’s paradise: Untamed dense forests, rain-kissed lush vegetation, challenging terrain, gushing waterfalls and the promise of wildlife. The tourist reception centre at Raipur airport’s arrival terminal bravely tries to sell these to the trickle of visitors (mainly business and bureaucratic), who seem to have their eyes fixed on the departure terminal. “It would be very nice if you could also highlight the tourism potential of the state in your magazine,” says the tourist officer, a tad plaintively. “We have problems, but we have a lot of potential for tourism.” Sadly, these are not the best of times for Chhattisgarh; and problems far outweigh the potential. Home to most of the Dandakaranya forest, Chhattisgarh has become the centre of gravity for the worst of Maoist’s violence. Since the resurrection of the Maoist movement in the early Eighties in the form of People’s War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh and Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in Bihar, Dandakaranya forest has been the nucleus that sustains the movement in other parts of India. Intensely dense with heavy undergrowth, comprising hills as well as plains, the forest has been the abode of the most backward and impoverished tribes of India, who are now the feeders for the movement.
Considering that its remoteness ensured that the organs of the government machinery remained at the periphery, the forest has been a haven for Maoists/Naxals to flourish and expand their area of operations uninterrupted. For nearly two decades, when the governments both at the Centre and the state (then Madhya Pradesh) were busy doing other things, Maoists went from strength to strength in the Bastar region of what is now Chhattisgarh, till such time when they could declare a portion, Abujmarh, a liberated zone. On a policeman’s map of Bastar, Abujmarh (in southeast Bastar bordering Maharashtra) stands out as a black mark with hardly any police stations in the entire area. As one drives through the forest of Bastar, from Kanker to Jagdalpur, abject poverty pockmarks the beauty of the landscape. Through the entire stretch of nearly 170km, there are hardly any roadside eating places. On national highways, roadsides eateries or ‘dhabas’ are not only reflective of the prosperity of the areas that the road connects but also of the number and profile of the people who take those roads. What one does comes across are stray posters put up by the Maoists urging the people to observe the first week of August as Martyrs’ Week, in honour of their fallen comrades. According to the posters, Maoists will take out rallies and pay tributes to their martyrs by visiting their memorials. They will also desist from violence during this week. The fact that such posters have been put up implies that Maoists believe that they would be able to mobilise people to observe the Martyrs’ Week without the fear of the police or the Para-military. And obviously, these activities will have to take place within their liberated zone inside Abujmarh where the security forces do not tread.
From the police’ point of view fear is not the only reason that keeps them out. Expediency is another. As Inspector General of police for the Bastar region, R.K. Vij says, “The zone is called liberated because there is no police in the area. Once the police enter the area it will become a war zone like the rest of Bastar.” But Vij is conscious of the fact that waging war is not as simple as talking about it. Consider the odds. Bastar has the total area of 39,000sqkm and is divided into five districts of Kanker, Narayanpur, Jagdalpur, Bijapur and Dantewada, with the latter two being the most affected. The total population of Bastar is approximately 40 lakh largely dependent on farming with a small number involved in handicraft manufacturing. The total sanctioned police strength is 5,000, but the available number today is less than half the sanctioned strength. To make up for the numbers, Bastar has eight battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force, one battalion each of Naga and Mizo, which are a part of the India Reserve (IR) battalion. Of the 500 personnel of the Special Task Force trained at the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare (CTJW) college in Kanker, 250 are deployed in Bastar. There are 80 police stations all over Bastar and most of them do not have more than 15 policemen each. According to Vij, 48 police stations are in the process of being upgraded and in due course will have the strength of 70 personnel each. In time, he hopes that all the police stations in Bastar will be upgraded. However, even this limited number is a misnomer because not all of them are either trained or mandated to carry out anti-Maoist operations. A large number of police personnel do regular police station duties, such as registering complains and First Information Reports and so on. The anti-Maoist operations are carried by the Chhattisgarh Armed Force, the Special Task Force and the Paramilitary (CRPF and IRB). This assortment of troops is the biggest weakness of the police in its war against the Maoists, who operate as a cohesive body. A recent botched-up joint police-CRPF operation in the Dantewada district, while the FORCE team was in Bastar, highlighted this glaring limitation.
Following intelligence about a Maoist camp, an ambitious operation was mounted jointly by the police and the CRPF. Led by a superintendent of police, the security forces were to enter the forest from three directions to encircle the camp area. The police and the CRPF moved in separately and were supposed to join up at a designated spot well inside the forest. However, owing to bad weather, half-way inside the forest, the CRPF decided to withdraw, despite the fact that the police party led by the SP was already inside waiting for the link-up. Even as there were recriminations at the higher level between the police and the CRPF, the SP-led team was rendered completely vulnerable inside the forest and they had to pull out as well. While the CRPF maintained that all operations are subject to weather conditions, the police side felt that once the operation was finalised by the two sides, bad weather shouldn’t have been an impediment. While this was just one example of lack of coordination and cohesion between the police and the CRPF, the fact is that command and control is also a contentious issue. Though the CRPF is mandated to assist the state police, it also follows its own chain of command. For instance, when the CRPF party decided to withdraw from the operation, it did so, on the instructions of the senior officers at the CRPF headquarters. The police, on the other hand, believe that since the operation was being led by the police, the decision to withdraw should have been the police’s. Perhaps, it is because of these reasons that Director General Police Vishwa Ranjan says, “Eventually, we will have to overcome our dependency on outside forces. It is our war and we have to fight it on our own.”
Ranjan holds Andhra Pradesh as an example, where the state police and its special force, the Greyhounds, have been successful in pushing the Maoists out of the state boundaries without any assistance from the Para-military. “Today, of all the states, we share the best rapport with the Andhra police,” says Ranjan, “both in terms of sharing of intelligence and conducting joint operations on the borders of Chhattisgarh and Andhra.” Chhattisgarh’s STF is modelled on Greyhounds, but Ranjan is aware that the dependence on outside forces will have to continue at least for a few more years. In the Nineties, there was a ban on police recruitment in Madhya Pradesh, which led to accumulative shortfall in numbers over the years. When the state was partitioned on 1 November 2000 and Chhattisgarh was carved out, the most backward and inaccessible areas, which were already home to Maoists, became part of the new state. The division of the police, as well as the bureaucracy also saw the plump share going to the parent state. By the time, the new state government found its feet most of the state (just as Jharkhand, which was carved out from Bihar) was already under the Maoist sway. The police was depleted, demoralised, untrained and ill-equipped. The early encounters with the Maoists, in which the police suffered huge casualties, did nothing to uplift the flagging morale. As violence spiralled out of control, police recruitment started in the right earnest. Today, the state government has sanctioned the additional strength of 10,000. But as Ranjan says, “We first have to fill up our old strength, only then we will start with new recruitment.” Recruitment, however, has its own limitations. The numbers will have to match the training facilities. At the moment, since Chhattisgarh police does not have its own academy, training happens at the battalion level, which severely limits the number of trainees. A select few go to the CTJW college for specialised commando training, out of which the toughest lot is selected for STF.
As opposed to the police, Maoists present a formidable front. While their supporters and sympathisers may run into an unaccountable number, the police believe that the strength of the armed cadre or the military companies (Dallams) is not more than 5,000 throughout India. This group holds heavy weaponry like machine guns, mortars and grenade launchers. However, this number is a misnomer, as their peoples’ militias or Sanghams, which comprise partially armed tribals run into lakhs as Maoists believe in overwhelming their adversaries by attacking in huge numbers. The political class in Raipur likens the violence in Chhattisgarh to the battle for survival for the Maoists, because here they are faced not only with the state apparatus but also the people who have risen against them in the form of Salva Judum. It is true that the level of violence is highest in Chhattisgarh as compared to other parts of India, but the reasons for that may be different from what the state government likes to project. The Dandakaranya forest and the Dantewada area are flushed with rich mineral and forest resources. According to rough estimates, Dandakaranya forest holds 18 per cent of India’s iron ore deposits, with Dantewada sitting on nearly 700 million tonnes of iron ore. In addition to this, there are huge deposits of graphite ore, limestone and uranium in other parts of Bastar. Then of course there is huge untapped forest wealth. For the Maoists, Chhattisgarh, or more specifically Bastar, is the financial capital of their People’s Republic or Janatana Circar. This region, not only meets their manpower requirement, but also their economic needs. This is the reason, they are ready to fight pitched battles here, but will not leave the area. People’s March, the online magazine of the Maoists, which was banned by the government but have since found a new address, in its July 2007 issue list the quantity of agricultural and forest produce which the ‘militia collected in order to meet the personal expenses of its members as well as to meet the needs of the war.’ The number runs into thousands of quintals.
In the vast swathes of Dandakaranya forest, Maoists also collect tax from miners and government officials which add to their coffers. According to the state police, the Maoists have laid landmines throughout Bastar, many of which have since been covered by black tar roads. “Only the Maoists know where the mines are as they have mapped the entire network,” says a middle-level police officer. “So the police movement even on the roads is not safe, let alone the forest,” he adds. The inaccessibility of the area can be gauged by the fact that the two UAVs that the state police had borrowed from the Indian Air Force failed to bring about any qualitative difference in their operations. One, the thick forest cover greatly limited the UAVs’ surveillance capabilities and two, even when the UAVs gave real time intelligence about the presence of the Maoists or their camps, the location required the security personnel to walk for four to five days to reach, thereby defeating the whole purpose of real time intelligence. As senior police officials point out, the UAVs could have been successful had the police been provided with helicopters as well to insert and extricate their men inside the forest. The UAVs have since been returned. One officer rues, “We do not even get air support to rescue our injured.” Even the Maoists are aware of this weakness. The current issue of People’s March mentions an incident on 26 April 2007 when the Maoists attacked a police party travelling in a state transport bus in civilian clothes. The Maoists were tipped off about the clandestine police operation and they ambushed the bus killing five on the spot and injuring several others. The journal writes, “The policemen ran 10km to reach Durgkondal police station to save their lives. Even the seriously injured had to walk 10km… It took the whole night for one who had fractured his leg to reach… All the tall claims about airlifting the injured police personnel proved rubbish when it comes to ordinary policemen.”
One can only imagine the level of police morale. Since the Maoists operate in large numbers, the police also have to mount attacks in large numbers, which run the risk of compromising the secrecy of their movement, hence ambushes and IED blasts. However, the threat from the Maoists is not so much because of their military might or their numerical strength. The threat, which the state government grudgingly admits, arises from the fact that their ideology has the potential of attracting the vast multitudes of India’s impoverished. The ambitious Red Corridor stretching from Nepal to Tamil Nadu is no longer a fable. There may be many gaps in between, but it exists. To make up for the gaps in between, the Maoists have been widening it in areas where possible, for instance, Maharashtra in south west, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana in the north and West Bengal in the east. State home minister Ram Vichar Netam says, “Naxalism is not the problem of one state alone. We can only try and control the situation in our state, but to completely eradicate the problem, the Centre has to show the will and evolve a concerted policy.” And there lies the problem. Though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called Naxalism/Maoism the biggest internal threat thereby indicating the will of the government, there is no clarity about tackling the issue. Two years ago, the government had announced its twin approach of hard policing and hard economics, but even today, at the ground level, there is excessive focus on hard policing. IG Bastar, R.K. Vij admits, “The pace of development is painfully slow. The PWD says that no contractor comes forward to bid, hence they are helpless.” In the absence of the state infrastructure, the Border Roads Organisation is now constructing a 200km road connecting Jagdalpur in south east Bastar to Bhopalpatnam in the west. However, the progress is very slow and only 40km has been built so far. In Chhattisgarh, the state government and the police are convinced that no developmental activity can take place unless the area is made Maoist-free, because, unless there is security, nobody would venture inside the forest. While this may be the fact, the other unfortunate fact remains that unless there is economic activity and development, unless the impoverished tribals feels that they have a stake in development, they will continue to fill the ranks of the Maoists. The lessons of the crushed Naxalbari movement should not be forgotten. While the state force crushed the overt manifestation of the movement, it continued to thrive underground till it surfaced once again in the late Eighties. Force can do only that much, the focus should be on ensuring that people have no reasons to sympathise or join ranks with the Maoists.
This is true not only of Chhattisgarh but of all the 182 districts in 14 Indian states where Maoists are spreading their influence. While Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa have impoverished tribals dependent upon agriculture and forest resources, Bihar has the backward classes. While Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have poor landless peasantry, Maharashtra has distressed farmers who have been committing suicides in hundreds. States like Kerala, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Punjab also have a large number of disaffected people who feel left out of the prosperity that the rising Sensex seems to suggest. Clearly, a unified approach cannot address these issues, because the Maoists’ narrative for all these areas is different. In West Bengal they are one with the victims of the Nandigram violence, in Maharashtra they are closing ranks with the farmers, in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh they are giving voice to the tribals who were rendered fugitives by the Forest Act of India, in Bihar they are sitting with the lower and backward castes and in Andhra they are one with the landless peasantry, helping them rise against the feudal landlords. In the absence of creative ideas, the government is handing out aid, which, given how entrenched corruption is in India, never reaches the right quarters. Moreover, aid seeks to make tillers and workers dependent on the state, which is not a long-term solution, because despite poverty, people want the power to change their destinies, they do not want to mortgage their lives to the state. Hence, required are reforms, agrarian, social and economic to ensure that these people can go back to their natural habitat and primary source of livelihood. Farmers should not only be able to earn their living through cultivation, but should be able to generate enough wealth to ensure security of their children. This is the dream that the Maoists are selling. Who can resist it?