Maharashtra Assessment 2009
On February 1, Markegaon village in Maharashtra's eastern District of Gadchiroli became the most recent site of an enormously successful operation by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist). The meticulously planned attack involving over 150 Maoist cadres drawn from three dalams (squads) resulted in the killing of 15 personnel of the Maharashtra Police, including a sub-Inspector. The Policemen were en route to a site where the Maoists had torched a road-roller and a tractor pressed for work on a bridge, when they were ambushed on January 30. After an hour-and-a-half-long exchange of fire, the Maoists fled, looting eight AK-47s, some self-loading rifles (SLRs), one pistol and a substantial cache of ammunition from the slain Policemen. Initial reports suggesting that the Maoists mutilated the bodies of the Policemen have been denied by the Police authorities. However, civilian eyewitness accounts do confirm that a number of Policemen had indeed been overpowered and killed at close range. Police sources initially claimed that seven to eight Maoists had been killed in retaliatory firing, but no dead body of these extremists were recovered.
The Maoists had ensured that the Security Force (SF) personnel were trapped in the village with little help from outside. Even the SF relief party sent to rescue the first team were fired upon, preventing immediate reinforcement. A combing operation involving almost 2,000 SF personnel did lead to the arrest of 13 Maoist cadres from three villages adjoining the attack site. The attack, however, remained a source of shock and embarrassment for the Maharashtra Police, who had made no secret of their successes against the Maoist in recent years.
Maharashtra- LWE related fatalities 2004-08
*2004 - August 2008 data: Union Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India,
**Provisional Data: (September-December 2008)- Institute for Conflict Management
Available data does testify to the efforts of the Nagpur based Anti-Naxal Operations (ANO) unit of the Maharashtra Police. While there was little respite from the Left-Wing Extremist (LWE) attacks in Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkahd and Orissa, Police operations in Maharashtra have resulted in a drastic decline in LWE related activities and resultant fatalities. Between 2007 and 2008 LWE-related incidents dipped by over 56 percent. While civilians killed decreased by over 45 percent, there was a marginal increase among SF and Maoist fatalities. The lone major incident (involving three or more deaths) of 2008 in LWE violence occurred on October 26, when CPI-Maoist cadres ambushed a Police patrol and killed four personnel near Korepalli village under Rajaram Khanla Police Station in Gadchiroli District.
Seven out of the eight LWE affected Districts in the State - Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Bhandara, Gondia, Nagpur, Yavatmal and Nanded - out of a total 35 Districts in the State, are located in the eastern part of Maharashtra [Nasik is the only affected District in the west], in the economically backward Vidarbha region, sharing borders with Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.
The Maoist engagement in Maharashtra is two-and-a-half decades old. State Police sources indicate that, at one point, the CPI-Maoist had established more than 22 units in Gadchiroli, comprising 200 office-bearers, of whom 162 were male and 38 female. These units, reporting directly to the party's politburo, functioned through a further 325 village units, which, together, had 7,825 members. Such domination is, however, a thing of the past, largely due to the process of neutralisation of Maoists, principally through a combination of surrenders and arrests.
The surrender scheme for the LWE cadres, in place in Maharashtra since August 29, 2005, had resulted in as many as 320 surrenders in the State till the end of 2008. As many as 145 of these cadres surrendered in 2008, accounting for 3.8 times the number of surrendered cadres in 2007. A further 123 Maoist cadres were arrested in 2008. Five Maoists camps were destroyed and 270 kilograms of explosives were seized during the year. Clinical operations have reduced LWE incidents in the affected areas, with just 24 encounters between the Maoists and SFs reported in 2008, compared to 34 such encounters in 2007. During the first month of the year 2009, only two incidents were reported in Maharashtra. These involved a lone encounter with the SFs in the Gondia District and another incident in which Maoists stole a Police vehicle in Nagpur District.
In a bid to cut the extremists off from their potential support base within the rural areas, the State Government runs an incentive programme for those villages in five Districts (Nanded, Bhandara, Gondia, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur) which deny entry to the Maoists into their areas. In July 2008, the Maharashtra Police had approved an INR 51.6 million proposal to grant incentives of INR 300,000 each to 172 such villages in the Gadchiroli and Gondia Districts. So far 565 villages in the five Districts have benefited from this scheme.
Not surprisingly, three weeks before the February 1 attack, Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan sounded both confident and convincing at a meeting of Chief Ministers of LWE-affected States convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. On January 7, Chavan declared emphatically, "I am happy to say that Maharashtra has been able to contain Naxalite-related activities in the Districts of Gadchiroli and Gondia. The number of attacks on Policemen and civilians has declined. The State follows a twin policy of conventional Police action of arrests and encounters, coupled with one to win the hearts and minds of the local population."
The February 1 attack, while it can hardly constitute a complete rebuttal of the measures adopted by the Government and the consequent gains, nevertheless makes it clear that even the seemingly best of efforts are bound to be inadequate unless anti-LWE policies address the enduring strengths of the extremists and the persisting weakness of the State.
Geographical contiguity with, and the 'spill over' from, the Maoist affected Districts of Adilabad, Karimnagar and Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh, as well as Rajnandgaon, Bastar, Kanker and Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, have been described as the principal reason for the extremist mobilisation in eastern Maharashtra. This remains an undisturbed phenomenon. As a result, the periodic 'sanitisation' of Maharashtra's territory secures, at best, temporary gains, with fresh incursions from neighbouring States into Maharashtra following inevitably. Investigations conducted thus far into the February 1 attack at Markegaon have revealed the role of the Maoists from Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Media reports in early January 2009 had, in fact, indicated a CPI-Maoist Central Committee decision to strengthen the outfit's influence in Maharashtra by merging its Maharashtra State operations with those of the larger and stronger Dandkaranya Committee, active in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This tactical decision aimed to carry over the Maoist successes, particularly in Chhattisgarh, to Maharashtra. Maharashtra Police reports confirm the movement of large numbers of armed extremists from Chhattisgarh to Maharashtra. In November-December 2008, the Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh Police did organise a joint anti-Maoist combing operation in the inter-State border areas. While there is no information currently available on the impact of this exercise, such operations have remained intermittent and incapable of securing long-term results.
Maharashtra boasts of a Police population ratio (Policemen per 100,000 population) of 141, the best among the LWE affected States (though well below levels regarded as desirable even for peacetime policing). However, a bulk of the State's 149,571 Police personnel are deployed in the Mumbai megapolis and other important urban concentrations such as Pune and Nasik. A mere nine percent of the Maharashtra Police Force is allocated to the 'Armed Police' category - which could engage in counter-insurgency and other law and order operations in extreme situations. The comparable ratio for Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are 16 and 37 per cent, respectively, in the Armed Police. According to officials in the Maharashtra Home Department, there is not only highly inadequate manpower in all the LWE affected Districts of the State, but the existing personnel lack access to sophisticated weapons.
Even as the vulnerabilities of the State and the inadequacies of the response mechanism were demonstrated in the November 26 multiple Islamist terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Markegaon attack has exposed the insufficient preparedness of the Police in Maharashtra, despite a series of successes against the Maoists over the past years. It is significant that the airlifting of bodies of personnel killed at Markegaon at 11.30 AM on February 1 to Nagpur could only take place late in the evening, after a helicopter had been requisitioned from a different Department. The chopper allocated to the ANO had not been flight-worthy for the past several months. Maharashtra Home Department officials have now questioned the rationale of locating the ANO Headquarters at Nagpur, and not in either Gadchiroli or Gondia, which have been the hotbeds of LWE activity. Gadchiroli and Gondia are at a distance of 170 and 160 kilometres respectively from the ANO headquarters at Nagpur.
Fire fighting measures in the aftermath of the attack include a host of measures announced by the State Government. On February 4, just three days after the attack, the Maharashtra Government approved an INR 138.6 billion Special Action Programme for LWE-affected areas in the State. The programme, scheduled to cover six Districts - Gadchiroli, Chandrapur, Gondia, Nanded, Yavatmal and Bhandara - is to focus on infrastructure and other development projects. A detailed report on the projects to be carried out in these Districts is being prepared by the State Home Secretary. The State Government has approved the construction of an airport at the Amaravati District Headquarters at an expense of INR 2.79 billions. The Government has also approved an airstrip at Gadchiroli.
Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has promised a 'befitting reply' to the Maoists. But an adequate response depends, not only on the sincerity and efficiency with which Maharashtra acts, but also on the prevailing state of affairs in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, where the Maoists continue to enjoy a virtual free run.