Chhattisgarh: Biding Time
On January 18, 2013, an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter on a rescue mission to evacuate two troopers who were injured in a gunfight near Puswada in the Sukma District of Chhattisgarh was hit twice by Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) small arms fire. A Chhattisgarh Police radio operator on board took a bullet hit.
By South Asia Intelligence Review/IBNS
The chopper turned back without evacuating the injured troopers but crash landed a few kilometers after it reversed course, at a clearing between the Timal Wada and Chintagufa areas, when its hydraulic system and generator failed. The IAF crew abandoned the chopper and the injured radio operator at the crash site and walked back to a Central Reserve police Force (CRPF) camp in the Chintagufa area, roughly three kilometers away. The incident generated heated controversy over the decision of the IAF personnel to abandon the injured radio operator. The policeman was rescued four hours later, in critical condition, when reinforcements arrived.
Though it was reported to be ‘first incident of its kind’, Maoist firing on helicopters is not new. Some earlier incidents include:
April 5, 2012: ABorder Security Force (BSF) Helicopter, which was flying from Latehar to Ranchi in Jharkhand with two injured personnel, was fired at by Maoists. It was subsequently grounded, on April 11 because of the damages it received in the firing.
December 19, 2011: An IAF helicopter which had been sent to help the Police-CRPF operation in Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh came under Maoist fire and was hit by nine rounds, including two shots in the rotor of the helicopter. However, the pilot managed to fly back safely with five troopers onboard.
May 15, 2009: A Police constable, identified as Laxmi Narayan Dhurv, was killed and another injured when Maoists opened fire at a helicopter and at the Security Forces who were guarding the helipad at Kistaram village in Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh. However, the pilot managed to take off and evacuate the helicopter from the incident site.
November 14, 2008: A non-commissioned officer of the IAF, identified as Sergeant Mustafa Ali, was killed and a Squadron Leader identified as, T.K. Chaudhury, was injured in a CPI-Maoist attack on their helicopter as soon as it took off from Bijapur in Chhattisgarh.
August 30, 2007: Maoists opened fire at the helicopter carrying the Director-General of Police, Viswa Ranjan and Inspector General of Police (Bastar Range), R. K. Vij, in the Chintalnar village area of Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh. But the helicopter was not hit.
Anticipating the deployment of ‘air power’ against them, the Maoists have, in fact, been preparing to counter this new dimension of war. Documents seized from Maoists demonstrate that the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), the military wing of the CPI-Maoist, has been training cadres to counter aerial attacks. The Special Intelligence Branch of Andhra Pradesh Police recovered key documents and sketches with details of how Maoists intended to defend against air attacks and to capture airports. A revamped manual for military training of Maoist cadres, titled Guerrilla Air Defence and written by the ‘central military commissioner’ and senior Maoist, Tipparthi Tirupati alias ‘Devji’ of Andhra Pradesh, was, consequently, introduced into the Maoist syllabus.
The use of choppers for injury evacuation has been necessitated not only to cut down the time for medical aid, but also to avoid ambush and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks, which are frequent.
Chhattisgarh Director General of Police (DGP) Ramniwas believes, “the Naxalite problem was very much under control” in the State. Maoist violence has certainly decreased in Chhattisgarh, in conformity with the all-India trend, but the degree of ‘control’ presently exercised by state agencies remains debatable.
According to MHA data, the state recorded fewer fatalities in Maoist-related violence, at 147 – including 63 civilians, 46 SFs and 38 Maoists – in 2012; as against a total of 238 fatalities – 124 civilians, 80 SFs and 34 Maoists in 2011. The marginal increase in Maoists fatalities, especially in the face of a significant decline in SF fatalities, may be deceptive, as many Maoist ‘kills’ are not matched by the recovery of bodies, and many so-called ‘Maoists’ are, in fact, mis-categorized civilians. In the June 28-29, 2012, Sarkeguda encounter, for instance, it was initially claimed that at least 19 Maoists had been killed; a judicial commission is now enquiring into the matter after widespread allegation that innocent civilians had been killed in the encounter.
Partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) indicates that the State recorded seven major incidents (involving three or more fatalities) in 2012, as against 13 in 2011.
In 2013, up to March, the Maoists had killed nine civilians and one SF trooper, while five Maoists had been killed in encounters with the SFs.
A range of other parameters also indicate a slowdown in Maoist activity in Chhattisgarh. Nevertheless, three significant indicators – number of attacks on Police, arms training camps held and Jan Adalats (‘People’s Courts’, kangaroo courts organized by the Maoists) organized – report no decline. In fact, the number of Jan Adalats held increased from 13 to 16 between 2011 and 2012, indicating greater control over areas in which such kangaroo courts were organized. Moreover, while the number of attacks on the Police rose marginally, the number of encounters with the Police declined, even as did the total number of incidents, suggesting a decline in offensive operations by the SFs.
Indeed, the high profile abduction of Sukma District Collector Alex Paul Menon, exposed the security vulnerabilities of the State. The Government was forced to reach out to the Maoists through a mediator who eventually negotiated Menon’s release. Though the agreement signed did not concede much, it appears, there was an informal understanding not to oppose the bail applications of some Maoists under detention.
Pressure to perform has, of course, forced the SFs to engage in some offensive operations, and at least one of these went terribly wrong. In the intervening night of June 28 and 29, 2012, at least 19 ‘Maoists’ were declared to have been killed. During the operation, three encounters were reported – at Silger, Sarkeguda and Chimlipenta – in Sukma and Bijapur Districts. The overwhelming proportion of fatalities occurred in the Sakeguda encounter, where 17 ‘Maoists’ were killed. However, there were widespread allegations that most of those killed were innocent villagers. Even the CRPF eventually claimed that only seven of the dead were ‘known Maoists’. Following public outrage, Chhattisgarh, on July 5, 2012, ordered a judicial enquiry into the episode, by Justice (Retd.) V.K. Agarwal. The enquiry could start only in December, as the office for the enquiry commission was not made available till early November. The initial deadline for filing of complaints was January 14, 2013, but was extended to February 12, 2013 on the basis of applications and affidavits filed by the villagers under the Basaguda Police Station area. The inquiries of the commission are still ongoing.
Earlier, between March 5 and 20, 2012, an anti-Maoist operation, variously codenamed "Maad", "Kilam" and "Podku," was carried out in the Abujhmaad Forest, considered to be the CPI-Maoist ‘central guerilla zone’ and headquarters. IG (Operations), Chhattisgarh, Pankaj Singh, disclosed that 33 Maoist cadres were arrested during the operation.
Further, after the lid over the Maoists’ weapons manufacture programme was blown off with the arrest of Sadanala Ramakrishna alias RK in Kolkata, SFs raided the premises of two transporters in Raipur and seized a huge quantity of materials reportedly meant for manufacturing rocket launchers and grenades.
According to SATP, incidents of killings were reported from at least 11 Districts (out of a total of 27 in the State) – Bijapur, Kanker, Sukma, Rajnandgaon, Dantewada, Kondagaon, Gariabandh, Raipur, Narayanpur, Raigarh and Dhamtari. Most of the incidents of arson, abduction and blasts triggered by Maoists were reported from these Districts. In 2011, 14 out of a total of 19 Districts were Maoist-affected (existing Districts were subdivided to add eight new Districts in 2012).
Worryingly, after a gap of three years, there was a visible rise in Maoist attacks on persons associated with Salwa Judum (a state-backed anti-Maoist vigilante group) in 2012. At least seven civilians associated with Salwa Judum were killed in 2012, as against one in 2011. Among those killed were Lachhuram Kashyap, a prominent Salwa Judum leader of Mirtur; Chika Mazi, who actively participated in Salwa Judum in Bastar; and Chhinnaram Gota of Bijapur District. Further, Mahendra Karma, who led the Salwa Judum in the State, had a miraculous escape when his convoy hit a landmine on November 8, 2012. The renewed targeting of Salwa Judum leaders suggests that the Maoists are ‘comfortable’ with the present level of engagement with the SFs, as they would be unlikely to renew old enmities if they were under extraordinary pressure from the SFs.
Further, on February 11, 2012, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) recovered two IEDs (one weighing 40 kilograms and the other 20 kilograms) hidden three feet below the surface on the busy Kohka-Manpur Road (a black-top road) in Rajnandgaon District. The Maoists also blew up a Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV) killing a CRPF trooper and injuring five in Dantewada District on August 6, 2012.
State authorities may assert that ‘Naxal situation is very much under control’, but Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh warned, on July 1, 2012, "Abujhmaad is a liberated zone where Governments have not been able to reach. It is not possible for our Ministry to carry out any development programme there." While the Minister’s definition of ‘liberated zones’ may not coincide with the classical Maoist notion – even the Maoists do not consider Abujhmaad a liberated area – the difficulties of carrying out developmental activities in Abujhmaad are manifest. [For the Maoists, the concept of a liberated area is much broader than mere disruptive dominance in an area].
It is, of course, the case that Maoist disruptive dominance remains widespread across Chhattishgar. According to the July 2012 report of the Chhattisgarh Public Works Department (PWD), in the preceding three years, only two of 30 roads sanctioned, have been completed under the MHA’s development programme. While 15 of the 30 projects approved in 2010 or earlier are stuck at various stages of bidding or awarding of tenders, in the remaining 13 projects contractors have stopped execution of works, allegedly due to Maoist threat. According to an unnamed senior Union Home Ministry official cited by The Hindu, however, “The contractors themselves burn their machineries in some cases or fund renegade Maoist groups to do that, after taking an advance. If an interest free work advance of 20 crore is returned after three years, without even a scratch on the road, imagine how much [money] the contractor is making by investing it in the market in the name of Maoists.”
Meanwhile, the Centre was worried that the Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh would have to be closed down over the next three years, as it runs out of iron ore supplies. Such a situation has arisen due to bitter Maoist opposition to mining in a new area called Rowghat, as well as to the construction of a railway line to transport the iron ore from Rowghat to the plant. The new mining project involves deforestation in an area of over 2,030 hectares in Kanker and Narayanpur Districts. Further, the proposed 235-km railway line would have to run through the Abujhmaad area. All of these areas are Maoist strong-holds.
The decline in violence notwithstanding, the Maoist threat in Chhattisgarh remains vibrant, and the State’s capacities to counter it, limited. The dangers of escalation, by either side, are ever-present, and state adventurism, without adequate preparation and capacity-building, may well lead to disasters comparable to the many debacles of the past. The essentials of a coherent strategy – a reality based assessment of threat, of capacities and resources for condign response, and a deployment of these within a calculated framework of response – remain conspicuous in their absence.
(The writer Fakir Mohan Pradhan is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)