Chhattisgarh Assessment 2009
Chhattisgarh, the State worst affected by violence unleashed by the Left Wing extremist (LWE) Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) is reportedly initiating a misconceived scheme to engage the rebels in peace talks. In doing this, Chhattisgarh is again ignoring the disastrous experience of the State of Andhra Pradesh, which held parleys with the erstwhile People's War Group (PWG) in 2004, only to find the extremists engaged in massive consolidation across the State, moving about openly with arms, and organising mass rallies under the reluctant protection of the Police. The talks collapsed in a flurry of violence towards the end of the year, even as the PWG and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) merged (in September 2004) to create the CPI-Maoist. Nevertheless, Chhattisgarh's political rulers appear to be investing their faith in talks as the key to peace, even at a time when the Maoists continue to lead a campaign of unceasing terror and violence in one-third of the country's geographical expanse.
On January 27, 2009, Chief Minister Raman Singh first offered peace to the CPI-Maoist. Speaking a day after the country celebrated its Republic Day, Singh declared : "We do not want that there should be a war. We want that the matter should be sorted out with talks and I would welcome the option of talks with the Maoists." Not surprisingly, three days later, Pandu alias Pandanna, a spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the CPI-Maoist responded, stating that the outfit "wants to hold talks with the Government in public interest, provided the government takes positive initiatives," but qualified, further, that, "before starting peace parleys, the Government should create a conducive atmosphere and stop suppressing tribals."
State Police officers dismissed the Maoist response as a 'diversionary tactic', but Chief Minister Singh spoke again on February 12, declaring that peace talks would "bring peace in the region". He, however, insisted that "Maoists had to end violence if they want to come to the table for talks." The Maoist spokesperson rejoined the debate through an mocking February 14 statement: "We invite Chhattisgarh Government to come to Abujhmad forest for peace talks. We will provide the entire Cabinet full security."
Reports indicate that, despite the adverse Police and intelligence assessments, the State Government is seriously considering moving fast on the negotiation front, and is planning to nominate the Director General of Police or someone at a comparable level of seniority for talks with the Maoists.
Any possible cease-fire would certainly provide the Maoists with an opportunity for further consolidation particularly at a time when senior Police officials, including the State Director General of Police, Vishwa Ranjan, feel that the Security Forces (SFs) have registered significant gains in the counter-insurgency (CI) campaign. Such claims have also been endorsed by the Union Home Minister P. Chaidambaram, who noted, on January 19, that "the strategy adopted by Chhattisgarh after 2003 appears to be giving results."
Chhattisgarh: LWE related fatalities 2004-08
Source: Union Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India
The data on Maoist violence does indicate a decline in fatalities inflicted by the extremists, though LWE-related incidents did rise marginally (by about six per cent) in 2008, as compared to the previous year. Overall fatalities, however, registered a 31 per cent decline in the corresponding period, most noticeably in the SF category, where a decrease of over 57 per cent was registered. Fatalities among both civilians and extremists declined marginally by eight and 13 per cent respectively. In addition to the killing of 52 Maoists, SFs have arrested 164 active extremists and 431 sangham (village level organisation) cadres in 2008. Another eight cadres have surrendered in the State.
SF successes received a further boost on January 8, 2009, when the Chhattisgarh Police, supporting Special Police Officers (SPOs) belonging to the anti-Maoist vigilante movement, Salwa Judum, claimed to have killed 19 CPI-Maoist cadres during an encounter in the forested stretches of Gollapalli of Dantewada District, 15 kilometres from the inter-State border between Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. SFs also claimed to have recovered a large cache of arms and ammunition from the encounter site, but, surprisingly, did not recover a single body of the Maoists killed, although they did manage to produce photographs of the slain extremists along with their weapons. The claim has since been contested by villagers in the area who described the persons killed as innocent villagers who had resisted Salwa Judum attempts to force them to desert their villages and move into Government-run camps. On January 10, the Dantewada District Collector ordered a magisterial inquiry into the killing, which is yet to submit its report.
The major incidents of SF success in the State in 2008 included the following.
On August 11, the Chhattisgarh Police raided a CPI-Maoist training camp in the Awapalli Forest area in the Dantewada District and killed three insurgents. Girdhari Nayak, the Additional Director General of Police, claimed that the Maoists suffered more casualties, but only three bodies were recovered.
On March 18, joint SFs of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh killed 17 CPI-Maoist cadres, including seven women inside the Darelli Forest under Pamedu Police Station in the Bijapur District. The encounter followed an aerial survey that revealed an ongoing Maoist plenum attended by 60 cadres. Weapons, including an AK-47, three Self Loading Rifles (SLRs), landmines and many single shot weapons, were recovered following two successive ambushes by the SFs.
On February 18, the Special Task Force (STF) shot dead 10 CPI-Maoist cadres inside the Adesmetta Forest under Gangalur Police Station in the Bijapur District, after they were attacked by the Maoists, who used landmines and automatic gunfire.
On January 7, Police in Kanker District killed seven hardcore CPI-Maoist cadres, following a raid on a camp in a forested area under the Koyalibera Police Station. The Police recovered three rifles, 36 detonators, four bundles of wires used for landmines, pipe bombs, tiffin bombs, Maoist uniforms and literature.
However, neither the dip in violence nor such occasional SF successes translate into any 'decisive victory of the Chhattisgarh State over the Maoists' that could be sealed with a peace deal. There is no evidence that Maoist capacities have been significantly eroded in the State, and the decision to calibrate violence at a comparatively lower level may, indeed, as much reflect a tactical shift or hiatus on the part of the Maoists, as any quantifiable gains on the part of the SFs.
Chhattisgarh, in 2008, accounted for 39 per cent of the total incidents of Maoist violence that were reported from the entire country. According to the Institute for Conflict Management database, LWE-related incidents, if not violence, were reported from 11 of Chhattisgarh's 18 Districts in 2008. Of these, at least 20 fell into the major incidents category (incidents involving three or more deaths) . Chhattisgarh also accounted for 12 of the 41 'swarming attacks' involving people's militia that took place in 2008.
A senior intelligence official stated that Maoists were far from a spent force in Chhattisgarh. According to the State Police establishment, Chhattisgarh is home to roughly 10,000 "highly militarised" Maoists, who are backed by another 35,000-40,000 sangham cadres. Nearly 30 per cent of the total cadre strength consists of women who, in addition to actively participating major strikes against civilians and SFs, are also members of Maoist front organisations like the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh (Revolutionary Tribal Women's Front). Chhattisgarh Police reported a massive recruitment drive in the southern Bastar region in the latter part of 2008 and early 2009, purportedly "to fill up hundreds of slots vacated due to mass desertion of CPI-Maoist cadres due to relentless Police pressure".
For a number of years, the un-surveyed and near-impenetrable Abujhmadh Forest area in the Bastar Division (and overflowing into the Gadchiroli District of neighbouring Maharashtra) has been the CPI-Maoist's 'Central Guerilla Base Area', and is the location where the Party Central Committee - including its 'General Secretary', Muppala Laxmana Rao @ Ganapathy - and its various lead formations take shelter. While SFs have managed to carry out intermittent small-scale raids on the periphery of this vast and unchartered region of nearly 4,000 square kilometres, establishing permanent SF dominance has remained an impossible task, given the disposition of Forces and the absence of basic infrastructure in the area. The Maoist control over Abujhmadh (literally meaning the 'unknown territory'), consequently, remains near total and undisrupted.
In fact, over the past three years, after the Maoists strongholds were dislodged from Andhra Pradesh, the Bastar hinterland has emerged as the new citadel and training ground for CPI-Maoist cadres from across the country. The outfit is running four camps in the area, where cadres from several States (Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal) are given 'on the job' training in carrying out attacks and planting explosives. Intelligence reports and documents seized by the Chhattisgarh Police indicate that Bastar is the new epicentre of Maoist extremism and officials suspect that 1,500-2,000 cadres are present in these camps at any given time. While three of these camps are located in the forested areas of Bijapur and Dantewada Districts, one camp is believed to be located in the depths of the Abujhmadh forests.
This Maoist dominance is translating directly into incidents of violence in the area. According to Chhattisgarh Government data, out of the 1,188 incidents of Maoist violence recorded between April 1, 2007, and January 15, 2009, in 12 Districts of the State, an overwhelming 94 per cent were reported from the five Districts in the Bastar Division - Bijapur, Dantewada, Narayanpur, Kanker and Bastar.
Police claim the low level of Maoist violence during the November 2008 elections to the State Legislative Assembly and a 53 per cent voter participation in the Maoist affected Bastar region reflected a declining militant capacity to take on the might of the State. The absence of violence has, however, never been the true parameter for assessing Maoist dominance or capacity. While only 13 persons, including 10 SFs and three political activists, were killed in six incidents during the entire electioneering process, a residual Maoist threat ensured that only 21, 36 and 45 per cent voters cast their ballots in Bijapur, Narayanpur and Dantewada, the Districts worst affected by LWE. During campaigning, candidates contesting in the 12 constituencies of the Bastar region (out of the 90 seats in the entire State) refrained from visiting the interior areas due to the fear of the Maoists. Leader of Opposition and Congress party candidate Mahendra Karma, who contested from the Dantewada constituency, stated, "Campaigning is not possible in a terror-like situation, it needs a political atmosphere." Similarly, Rajendra Pambhoi, a three-time Congress Party legislator from Bijapur noted, "For two decades, contestants in Konta, Dantewada and Bijapur have skipped campaigning, but this time the situation is more volatile. I don't think any candidate or even star campaigner will dare to risk his or her life in the interiors." Security concerns even forced the Election Commission to change the timing of polling in the Bastar region to between 7am and 3pm instead of the usual 8am to 5pm.
Media reports in early January 2009 indicated the CPI-Maoist's decision to merge its operations in neighbouring Maharashtra with that of the larger and stronger Dandkaranya committee, active in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. While this decision reflects a strategy to carry over operational successes to Maharashtra - a decision that resulted in the killing of 15 Police personnel in the Gadchiroli District on February 1, it was also indicative of the near absence of pressure on the outfit as a result of SF operations in Chhattisgarh.
Chhattisgarh's Police population ratio (Policemen per 100,000 population) at 128 is marginally better than the national average of 125, but by no means adequate to deal with the problem of extremism. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, moreover, the State has a vacancy of 27 per cent in its Police force, and its 29,970 Police personnel are spread thinly across an area of 135,191 square kilometres, at a ratio of just 22.2 personnel per 100 square kilometre. The dependence of the State on central paramilitary forces (CPMFs) is, consequently, perennial. Despite the presence of 18 battalions of CPMFs in the State, however, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh uses every occasion to plead for additional deployment of Central forces in the State.
Recent anti-Maoist measures initiated by the State Police include the January 10 setting up of an Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) to tackle anti-Maoist insurgency operations during any emergency. The State Police Chief has announced that the ATS will consist of commandos upto the age of 30 years who would receive "tough training". The SF setup in Chhattisgarh has also been augmented by the proposed deployment of two battalions of the newly formed Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA). By the first week of February 2009, 400 COBRA personnel had already been deployed in the Bastar District. Another 650 personnel are scheduled to be deployed by April 2009.
The State is also in the process of setting up anti-terrorist control rooms in 18 Districts to deal with possible Maoist attacks. In February 2008, a Unified Command Structure (UCS) coordinating the activities of the State and Central forces was put in place in Chhattisgarh under the leadership of the Chief Minister. Coordination between Chhttisgarh and neighbouring States affected by LWE activities - such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra - has increased, impacting on the free movement of Maoists across State borders. The Chhattisgarh Government is also considering a proposal to divide the State into three administrative zones for transfer and posting purposes and to make three-year postings in each of these mandatory for all officers and employees. This proposal is intended to take care of the resistance among Police and administrative officers to be transferred to Maoist-affected areas.
The State Government also allocated INR 9.41 billion, a hike of 22 per cent from the 2008 allocation, for the modernization of the Police force. On February 9, 2009, Chief Minister Raman Singh, after presenting the budget in the State Legislative Assembly, declared that his Government was "committed to combat Maoist or Naxalite violence. The steep budgetary hike of 22 per cent for the Police is made with special focus on security related infrastructure needs in the worst affected District of Bijapur and Dantewada." The State Government claims that the Police strength at each outpost will go up to 27, as against the earlier figure of just eight, and at Police Stations the number will touch 65 as against the existing provision of 32.
The peace talks offer by the Chief Minister represents a disconnect between the existing state of affairs in Chhattisgarh, where the Police Force is still being prepared to tackle the Maoist challenge and an extremist outfit whose strength remains more or less intact, and the long-term goal of the State. It reflects the impractical desire to abruptly settle the issue, without going through the painful, arduous and necessary process of dismantling the Maoist infrastructure, and it is not surprising that Maoists are rather keen to take advantage of the situation.