Odisha Assessment 2012
Four officers of the Border Security Force (BSF) – Commandant Jeevan Ram Khaswan, Deputy Commandant Rajesh Saran, Assistant Sub-Inspector Jitendra Sahu and Subedar Ashok Yadav – were killed in an ambush by Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres near Balimela in Malkangiri District on February 10, 2012. This was the first major attack on the BSF in the area and, indeed, the first major attack (resulting in three or more fatalities) against the BSF in Odisha. The BSF has been among the most successful Forces in anti-Maoist operations, despite the relatively small deployment of the Force in Maoist affected areas.
In the February 10 incident, the BSF officers were going to Chitrakonda from their camp at Balimela to assess security arrangements for the first phase of local bodies’ elections on the next-day [February 11] when the SUV in which they were travelling was hit by a landmine. As they came out of the damaged vehicle, the Maoists fired indiscriminately, killing the officers and injuring two troopers accompanying them. Two civilians were also injured in the crossfire.
Just over a month earlier, on January 5, 2012, three Policemen had fallen victim to a Maoist trap in Kotagarh area in Kandhamal District. The Maoists first triggered a minor blast at Badarpanga village in the area on January 4, and let the message spread that a Maoist had been injured while planting a landmine. As expected, the Police, sent a team to investigate the incident, and the Maoists blew up their vehicle en route, on the Kotagarh-Srirampur Road, killing three Policemen and injuring three others.
The bloody beginning to 2012 came after a year of relatively low Maoist violence in Odisha. According to partial data compiled by the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 75 persons were killed in Maoist related violence in 2011, as against 108 fatalities in 2010; 81 in 2009 and 132 in 2008.
Fatalities in LWE/ CPI-Maoist Violence in Odisha: 2006 - 2012*
* Data till February 12, 2012
Source: SATP, Figures are compiled from news reports and are provisional
An analysis of the fatality figures and the pattern of major incidents [both are crude but important indicators] exposes a startling picture of counter insurgency efforts in the State. Out of the total 23 Maoists killed during 2011, 20 had been killed by February. Only three fatalities occurred through the remaining ten months of the year, giving a clear indication of the paralysis that gripped the State leadership, and consequently, the Security Forces (SFs), after the abduction of the then collector of Malkangiri District, R. Vineel Krishna, on February 15, 2011. That crisis came to an end after the state conceded the Maoist demand for the swap of the abducted Collector against Maoist prisoners Ganti Prasadam, a top Maoist leader from Andhra Pradesh, accused in the case of a landmine blast targeting the then Prakasam SP Mahesh Chandra Laddha in 2005; Padma, wife of the Maoist Central Committee member Ramakrishna alias RK; and Ishwari, Sarita and Gokul, who were accompanying Padma at the time of her arrest. With regard to other demands, the state withdrew three cases against Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS) leader Nachika Linga and 44 other tribals.
The listing of major incidents in the State reinforces this impression of paralysis even further. The Maoists suffered significant losses in three out of four major incidents recorded in the State in 2011, with all three incidents occurring in January and February, before the abduction incident. Year 2010 had witnessed eight major incidents. The major incidents of 2011 included:
January 1: At least five CPI-Maoist cadres, including three women, were killed in an encounter with the Police in Jajpur District when Police raided a Maoist camp in the forested area of Jajpur.
January 9: Nine Maoists, including four women, were killed in an encounter with the District Voluntary Force at a Maoist camp in Dabramali village under the Kashipur Police Station limits of Rayagada District.
February 11: At least three cadres of the CPI-Maoist, including an 'area commander', were killed in an encounter with the SFs in Sundargarh District. The exchange of fire took place during a combing operation in the Saranda forest under Bisra Police Station area, bordering Jharkhand. The 'area commander' was identified as Mohammad Musleem operating mainly in Digha and Jareikela areas in Jharkhand.
May 23: Nine Policemen, including the ASP of Gariabandh District [Chhattisgarh], were killed in a landmine blast triggered by the Maoists in Sunabeda forest in Nuapada District. They were part of a 10-member team of Chhattisgarh Police which had crossed the border and moved about 15 kilometres into Odisha following reports of Maoist movement in the area.
SF casualties were relatively low in most of the affected Districts, with the exception of Nuapada, where the Chhattisgarh Police team was ambushed in the May 23 incident. SF fatalities have demonstrated continuously declining trends since 2008, largely as a result of a broad strategy of avoidance of confrontation on both sides, and very limited offensive operations initiated by state Forces. Barring the May 23 incident, there was no major Maoist attack against SFs in 2011, dramatically underlining the significance of the two major attacks that have already occurred in 2012. Indeed, the Maoists attacked just one Police Station (Kotagarh in Kandhamal District on February 11, 2011), as against four attacks on Police Stations in 2010.
Civilian killings by the Maoists were, however, spread across the year, with a hiatus in March, when a ‘ceasefire’ had been negotiated in wake of the abduction of the Malkangiri Collector, Vineel Krishna. A majority of civilian fatalities were reported from Districts previously designated as ‘highly affected’, including Koraput (10), Malkangiri (7), Kandhamal (5) and Rayagada (3). However, fatalities also occurred in Nuapada, Nabarangpur, Bolangir, Kalahandi and Bargarh, where the Maoists intensified their earlier ‘marginal’ operations and influence.
Fatalities in 2011 were reported from 12 of Odisha’s 30 Districts. The fatalities in the categories of civilian, SF and Maoist, respectively, for each District, in 2011 were: Koraput: 10, 2 and 0; Malkangiri: 7, 1 and 1; Kandhamal: 5, 3 and 0; Nuapada: 4, 9 and 0; Rayagada: 3, 0 and 9; Jajpur: 0, 0 and 5; Sundargarh: 1, 1 and 4; Keonjhar: 0,0 and 3; Bolangir: 2, 0 and 1; Nabarangpur: 2, 0 and 0; Kalahandi: 1, 0 and 0’; and Bargarh: 1, 0 and 0.
In their efforts to disrupt infrastructure development in the State, the Maoists killed at least four contractors and abducted one in 2011, as against an equal number of killings in 2010. The Maoists made six attacks on construction activity (roads, bridges, etc.), setting afire at least 14 vehicles / machinery used in construction works, against three such attacks in 2010. At least 10 mobile phone towers / battery rooms were set ablaze by the Maoists in 2011. Surprisingly, all ten attacks on the mobile phone infrastructure occurred in December 2011.
Other data obtained from the State Police indicated apparent improvements in the security situation. Fifty Maoists surrendered in 2011 in comparison to 44 in 2010. Maoists triggered 37 blasts of all kinds, including landmines, in 2010, but the figure came down to just 12 in 2011. As against 47 guns recovered in 2010, 127 were seized in 2011. 77 IEDs were recovered in 2010, with the number rising to the much higher 258 in 2011. Surprisingly, the Police arrested just 146 Maoist cadres in 2011, down from 214 in 2010. Deogarh which is still regarded as highly affected, has not recorded any significant Maoist-related violence over the last two years. Further, the Police claim that the crucial road link from Koraput to Motu has been secured.
Most indicators suggest that the Maoists were lying low due to the increased presence of SFs, particularly the BSF, in the key areas of Malkangiri and Koraput. Nevertheless, their capacity to inflict high casualties on the SFs seem intact, as demonstrated in the quick targeting of the Chhattisgarh Police team on May 23, 2011, as well as the attacks on SF contingents early in 2012. Worse, there are clear indications that the Maoists are using the lull in violence to regroup and to extend and enhance their capacities. The recovery of a huge cache of 'state-of-the-art' Chinese-made communications and other equipment in Koraput District on December 23, 2011, for instance, points to an effort at a significant technological upgrade as well. The consignment was found buried underground at two locations in five sealed plastic drums. It comprised 41 communication sets and a number of sophisticated "war-like" guns and electric detonators. Sources indicate that the communications gadgetry was beyond the existing interception capability of Indian agencies. Though this consignment was discovered before it could be deployed, there is no reason to believe that this was the first of such consignments. Security agencies believe, moreover, that such high-end communication equipment would be difficult to acquire, unless state agencies in the source country were involved in the supply.
The Maoist influence was also reflected in the ongoing Local Bodies’ election process. The five-phase polling commenced on February 11, 2012, and will end on February 19, 2012. Posters have been put up in several areas, warning people not to contest in the polls without consulting the Maoists beforehand. The Maoist influence has been palpable in the Narayanpatna Block of Koraput District, where most of the candidates have already won uncontested. The winning candidates had the ‘support’ of the Maoist-backed Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS). The CMAS-Narayanpatna leadership operates under the direct control and protection of the Maoists, as its own armed wing, the Ghenua Vahini, has been disbanded due to Police pressure.
Despite the state’s ‘go slow’ approach, and the apparent lack of will in the political and Police leadership to fight the Maoists, some dogged intelligence operations resulted in significant catches. The most important among these was the arrest of Chenda Bhusanam alias Ghasi, a top leader of the Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC), who carried a reward of INR 1 million on his head; Prashant alias Shiva Munda alias Lambu, the second in command in the Maoist hierarchy controlling the Saranda Forest in Jharkhand; Girish Mahato, who had been assigned to revive the organisation in the western Odisha Districts of Sambalpur and Deogarh, with a reward of INR 400,000 against him; Rama Mahanta alias Dadhi Mahanta, ‘area commander’ for the Digha and Bhalulata areas; Kunduru Luhar alias Golapa, an 'area commander' in Digha; Pitabas Singh Thakur, who worked with the Daraba Dalam (squad) of Chhattisgarh and was a close associate of Surendra, the Daraba Dalam commander who had allegedly masterminded the killing of 76 SF personnel in Dantewada District on April 6, 2010; Satrughan Biswal alias Mangu alias Mohan, the second-in-command of the Maoist’s Odisha State Committee, who was operating in three Districts, Bargarh, Nuapada and Bolangir; and Deben Marandi, an expert bomb-maker and close aide of Maoist squad leader Jayanta.
Further, the Police killed Chitrakam Reddy alias Sitru, an ‘area commander’, on January 26, 2012, at Badamathur village in Bandhugaon area in Koraput District, in an intelligence-based operation. Sitru was behind recent civilian killings by Maoists in the Bandhugaon area.
Significantly, a BSF camp has been set up at Janbai in the Chitrakonda area of Malkangiri District. The Janbai area remains cut off by the Chitrakonda reservoir, and has been established as a safe haven for the Maoists. All attempts to construct a bridge at Janbai have been repeatedly thwarted by the rebels. Construction work has now commenced under BSF protection. The BSF personnel have also destroyed a large ‘martyrs memorial’ constructed by the Maoists at Janbai and have erected a sentry post on the same platform as a stamp of their authority.
Nevertheless, the Maoists have been successful in opening up new fronts in the State. The hitherto unaffected or marginally affected Districts of Bolangir, Bargarh, Kalahandi, Nuapada and Nabarangpur have come under the increasing sway of the Maoists, creating a near uninterrupted Maoist ‘corridor’ from Abujmaadh in Chhattisgarh to the Saranda Forest in Jharkhand.
The Maoists in Odisha operate through:
As on May 5, 2011, five battalions of the BSF, seven battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), 50 units of the State Police’s Special Operation Group (SOG), four battalions of the India Reserve Battalions (IRB), and one battalion of the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), had been put into service across the Odisha’s Maoists-affected Districts. While the BSF was deployed in Malkangiri and Koraput, CRPF troopers were posted in Rayagada, Gajapati, Sundergarh, Kandhamal, Mayurbhanj, Deogarh and Keonjhar. Further, in June, the Centre had agreed to send an additional five Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMF) battalions to Chhattisgarh and Odisha, for joint operations, specifically along the inter-State borders. On July 29, 2011, the State Government had also announced its decision to strengthen the elite anti-Naxal SOG by raising another 35 units, in addition to the existing 50. The Government had also decided to fill up 788 vacant posts of Police officers and about 5,200 posts of constables, in 2011. While the target has not been met, the recruitment process is ongoing. Interestingly, the Police Population ratio of State had declined to 106 per 100,000, as on December 31, 2010, against 108 on December 31, 2009. The national average for the Police population ratio was 133, as on December 31, 2010.
In a clear indication of a rising Maoist threat, despite declining violence, the State has demanded the inclusion of another four Districts – Nuapada, Bargarh, Balangir and Kalahandi – under the Security Related Expenditure Scheme (SRE), in addition to the existing 15.
In a long delayed move, the State has also decided to restore direct recruitment of Deputy Superintendents of Police, which have been suspended since 1976, and an entire layer of Police leadership is now absent. Despite this decision, however, little immediate relief is likely, with litigation and bureaucratic obstruction expected to delay the recruitment process for at least another few years.
The state’s capitulation in the wake of the Vineel Krishna abduction, and the abysmal failure of efforts to bridge development deficits underline the glaring absence of political will to address the Maoist challenge at all planes. The present tactical deceleration of Maoist operations cannot be confused with any diminution of, or permanent damage to, their capacities. Weaknesses in the Police leadership and a polarization along ‘insider-outsider’ lines, have further deepened the paralysis within the Odisha Police command, with the top leadership failing to demonstrate the will or vision to overcome parochial divisions. Past efforts at operational escalation have resulted in failure due to poor planning and a failure to reconcile deployments with objectives and the magnitude of the challenge, and have been easily neutralized by the Maoists through a comparable escalation, or through devices such as the abduction of Vineel Krishna. Fresh attacks on the SFs in 2012 can only go further to test the nerves of Odisha’s leadership. Eventually, the decision to fight the Maoists will have to be taken by the Government, or will be forced upon it.