Maoists: Tactical Retreat
By South Asia Intelligence Review : The Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) shocked the country in the beginning of 2013, first, by surgically inserting Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) in the abdomens of troopers killed in the Latehar encounter on January 7, 2013, and again by shooting at an IAF chopper on a rescue mission, forcing it to crash land in the Sukma District on January 18, 2013.
Nevertheless, the intensity of Maoist violence declined sharply in 2012, consolidating the trend established in 2011. Data released by Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as well as open source data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) clearly confirm this trend. According to SATP, a total of 367 fatalities - 146 civilians, 104 Security Force personnel (SFs) and 117 Left Wing Extremists - were reported in Left Wing Extremism (LWE) related violence in 2012 as against 602 fatalities - 275 civilians, 128 SFs and 199 Left Wing Extremists - in 2011.
The number of major incidents [each involving three or more fatalities] fell to 22 in 2012, as against 47 in 2011.
The decline in fatalities and acts of violence has variously been explained in terms of either a 'tactical retreat' by Maoists, or as the result of the destruction of the Maoists' power to perpetrate violence. The problem is that each of these the possibilities demands different policy and strategic responses from the state and its agencies.
Interestingly, MHA data on the geographical spread of the Maoist violence gives a somewhat different picture. MHA clarifies that "the influence of Maoists in LWE affected areas is assessed on the basis of both overground activities by Front Organizations and violent activities by Underground Cadres. The profile of both these activities keeps changing in different Districts at different times." MHA data (above) indicates that, while the total number of affected Districts gives the impression of a substantive decline, the decline in the number of violence affected Districts has not been comparable. Evidently, the core areas of Maoist activity remain intact.
According to MHA estimates, moreover, the CPI-Maoist had 7,200 armed cadres in 2006. Fresh estimates of the current strength of CPI-Maoist by the MHA put the 'hard core strength' at 8,600. In addition, there are 38,000 'jan (people's) militia', armed with rudimentary weapons, who provide logistical support to the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), and at least occasionally participate in swarming attacks.
It is significant that, despite the continuous and sustained depletion in ranks due to killing, arrest or surrender, the Maoists have not only been able to replenish losses, but appear to have increased their strength.
Where have the Maoists gone? It is clear that a strategic shift has occurred. After the merger of the People's War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in September 2004, the newly formed CPI-Maoist had embarked on an ambitious programme to "extend the people's war throughout the country", a misadventure that exposed their leadership and top cadres to penetration and exposure. The result was the neutralization of a large number of leaders and cadres in areas far afield from the 'Red Corridor' heartland areas, particularly in urban centres. There is now evidence that this ill-conceived and hasty enterprise has been rolled back. A document recovered by the Police in Hyderabad on July 8, 2011, indicated that the top CPI-Maoist leaders had moved into the forest areas to keep off the Police radar. Further, in the absence of data on 'quality catches', it would be safe to assume that bulk of the Maoists killed/arrested/surrendered are less significant cadres/sympathizers.
Available data suggests that the Maoists have been able to limit the loss of cadres in 2012 to the 2008-09 level - the stage prior to the escalation provoked by the Centre's disastrous 'clear, hold and develop' campaigns in the Maoist heartland. The bulk of CPI-Maoist leadership losses according to SATP data, moreover, occurred in the 2007-11 period, while 2012 recorded the neutralization of just two central level leaders, Sadanala Ramakrishna alias RK and Mohan Vishwakarma, who were arrested last year. RK's arrest was a major setback for the Maoists as it blew the lid off their weapons, especially rocket launcher, manufacture/procurement programme.
The Maoists have suffered dramatic reverses in Andhra Pradesh, and they have conceded their mistakes and vulnerabilities in what was once their fountainhead and heartland region. Their failure to consolidate the political and insurgent spaces that had opened up in West Bengal is also manifest. Their hold over other States in the 'Red Corridor' areas - Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Odisha and Maharashtra - however, remains firm. The expulsion of Sabyasachi Panda, 'secretary' of the CPI-Maoist Odisha State Organizing Committee, from the party, and Panda's decision to form the of Odisha Maobadi Party, has, no doubt, been a setback in Odisha, but it is already appearing to be less damaging than was initially expected.
The Maoists have successfully defended their base in Abujhmaad in Chhattisgarh against the joint operations initiated by the Centre and Chhattishgarh in 2009-10. The 'massive and coordinated operations' more popularly known as 'Operation Green Hunt' were successfully countered by the Maoists with their Tactical Counter Offensive Campaigns (TCOC), which culminated in the Chintalnar massacre of 75 CRPF troopers. Crucially, the salwa judum movement has been completely defeated both militarily and morally, with the Supreme Court lashing out repeatedly against the State Government for its support to this misadventure.
The Maoists have also been quick to adapt to new technological innovations introduced into the conflict by the state. The shield provided by Mine Proof Vehicles (MPVs) was quickly demolished, as the Maoists applied increasing quantities of explosives to blow up the MPVs. With repeated Maoist successes against the MPVs, the then CRPF director general Vijay Kumar, on October 11, 2011, indicated that the paramilitary force was looking for better ways to counter hidden IEDs, as the MPVs had become "coffin on wheels" in Naxal-hit states. Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) require all units in Naxal-affected areas to patrol on foot, and to use MPVs only in very rare instances. In the absence of any technology that reliably and rapidly detects IEDs, the Maoists have created sufficient doubt in the minds of SF leaders to slow down the movement of troops.
The Maoists have also demonstrated their capacity to target helicopters used in rescue operation. The recent downing of an Indian Air Force (IAF) chopper in Sukma is testimony to Maoist preparations for "self-defence against air attacks".
Meanwhile, it remains uncertain whether state institutions have, in fact, absorbed the lessons of past experience, particularly the much talked about, and much misunderstood, 'Andhra Pradesh model'. The MHA is now placing greater emphasis on this 'model', but it is not clear that its priorities are right. A proposal for the four worst Maoist-affected States - Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar - will raise specialised Forces and acquire modern arms on the lines of Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh, has been cleared by the Centre, with funds earmarked under its Scheme for Special Infrastructure. An internal note of the MHA thus specified,
The Special Force of the State concerned has to be upgraded as per the approved guidelines of Greyhounds. Even if a Special Force has been raised in some form in the State concerned, they are required to be reoriented through the entire process mentioned in the guidelines.... The State will strictly adhere to these guidelines. Only States providing such an undertaking will be considered for funding under the scheme.
It appears that the Centre - and much of India's internal security establishment - is yet to understand that the 'Andhra Pradesh model' and 'Greyhounds' are not synonymous; that what was achieved in Andhra was the consequence of the comprehensive reinvention of the Police and intelligence system in the State, in which the Greyhounds certainly played a part, but, at best, an important, not a definitive role. The idea that Special Forces are all that is needed for an effective rejoinder to the Maoists is counter-productive in the extreme, and unless the role of the General Police Force and the Special Intelligence Branch (SIB) in Andhra Pradesh is better understood, the Centre's current paradigm can only yield further failures.
Earlier, on May 9, 2012, the MHA had disclosed that the Government had approved 21 Counter Insurgency and Anti Terrorism Schools (CIATs) in the Eleventh Five Year Plan Period, in Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura. 17 CIAT Schools are already functional - three in Assam, three in Bihar, four in Chhattisgarh, two in Jharkhand, three in Odisha, and one each in West Bengal and Tripura. Roughly 18,389 police personnel had been trained in these new schools till April, 2012. However, there is paucity of data regarding the deployment of the trained personnel and their impact on counter insurgency operations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a large proportion of this trained manpower is misallocated to duties other than counter-insurgency.
The Maoist gameplan to 'expand the people's war across the country' has obviously failed, and a course correction appears to have been initiated. A statement issued by Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the CPI-Maoist, on July 5, 2012, notes, "a change must occur in our work methods in accordance with the material conditions, level of the movement and our tasks...(We must) guard against losing manpower by amending flaws that have crept into the outfit." The Maoists are currently in a phase of tactical retreat, focusing on a reconsolidation of strengths, the enhancement of recruitment to the PLGA, the construction of alternative communication channels to prevent leakage of information, the intensification of propaganda through mass contacts, and escalating overground activities and protests.
The state must not mistake the decline in intensity of violence as a destruction of capacity of the Maoists to engage in violence. The present and relative hiatus needs to be exploited to create intelligence and response capabilities, particularly within State Police Forces, that will serve to neutralize the next, and imminent, wave of escalating Maoist violence.
(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)