By South Asia Intelligence Review IBNS | 2 years ago

The uncertain gains that Maharashtra had secured in its campaigns against the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) through 2012 appear to have been further consolidated in the first half of 2013.

On July 7, 2013, Maharashtra Police's C-60 Commandos, along with a section of the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), shot dead six woman CPI-Maoist cadres, in an encounter near Mandri village in the Etapalli Division of Gadchiroli District. All the Maoists were in uniform. Police feel that the Maoists may have suffered a greater loss, but managed to drag bodies of some of their comrades into the jungles. A carbine, a .303 rifle, five 12-bore guns, 13 hand grenades and 20 rucksacks were recovered from the encounter site. Sources indicated that the Maoists were preparing for a meeting at Sawari village in the vicinity when their plans were leaked to the Police. The success of Security Forces (SFs) was reportedly engineered under difficult conditions, with odds stacked against them, as they had to cross a full flowing river and negotiate thick vegetation. The commandos also crawl some distance in the slush to avoid being spotted.

Since the beginning of 2013, Gadchiroli District in Maharashtra has witnessed several successful counter-insurgency operations, prominently including:

April 12: Four CPI-Maoist cadres and one C-60 Commando were killed in an encounter, in the forests near Sindesur village, Dhanora tehsil (revenue unit), Gadchiroli District. Two villagers were also killed in the crossfire. Several other Maoists were injured in the firing. Bodies of three women and one male rebel were recovered. The slain Maoists belonged to the Dhanora Local Organizational Squad (LOS) and Platoon 15. One SLR and a Bharmar (country made muzzle loading) rifle were also recovered from the encounter site. A month later, on May 12, SFs stumbled on the decomposed body of a woman inside the forest near the Sindesur village. One .303 rifle with 33 rounds, two backpacks and a pair of shoes were also found near the body. Police believe that the body may be of a Maoist killed in the April 12 encounter.

April 4: Seven Maoist cadres were killed in an encounter with Police near Bhatpar village in the Bhamragad Division of Gadchiroli. Police managed to recover five bodies. Police also recovered eight weapons, including one .303 gun, and seven Bharmars.

January 20: Six Maoists, including some senior cadres, were killed by SFs during an encounter near Jimulgatta, in Aheri tehsil of Gadchiroli District. The deceased Maoists included the 'secretary' of the CPI-Maoist Aheri Area Committee, Shankar akaMunneshwar Jaktu Lakada; Aheri dalam (armed squad) commander, Vinod akaChandrayya Kodape; and 'deputy commander' of the Aheri dalam, Mohan Kowase.

Moreover, as a result of the growing strength of their intelligence network, the Gadchiroli Police were able to successfully execute a counter-ambush against a group of 50 to 60 Maoists, who were waiting to ambush Police search parties in Hetalkasa Forest under the Malewada Police Station in Gadchiroli on May 19. After the encounter, Police recovered the body of a Maoist and a small cache of arms and ammunition.

Common to these significant operational successes against the Maoists is the fact that the rebels were taken by complete surprise, a crucial departure from the experience of the past in Gadchiroli as well as most other theatres of Maoist violence. This point is driven further home by the fact that, in these operations, the Maoists did not even have the time and opportunity for orderly withdrawals, as evidenced by the high number of bodies recovered. Maoists generally do not leave behind the bodies of their fallen comrades. Moreover, SF casualties in these operations have been minimal, in sharp contrast to the ratio of fatalities in 2012.

Maharashtra Police has lost three personnel to Maoist violence in 2013, with just one of these killed during an encounter. A second Policeman was killed while he was returning from a hospital with his wife and two children, and the third Police victim was a Police patil who was accompanying the Llyod's Vice President and a subcontractor who were killed near Nender village in Etapalli tehsil in Gadchiroli on June 13. The Maoists carried out the last killing purportedly to protest against the attempt to start mining in Surajagad and Damkodvadavi Hills in the Gatta area despite 'popular sentiment' against mining in the area.

Out of the eight civilians killed in Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-related violence, two were killed in crossfire during an encounter and another two, by Maoists over the mining issue. Three persons were killed by the Maoists as suspected Police informers; one of the three was reported to be 'mentally deranged'. The eighth man, a shopkeeper, was killed by Maoists in Gondia District over some payment disputes with tribals.

All the incidents of killing in Maharashtra in 2013 have been reported from Gadchiroli District, with the exception of one civilian killing in Gondia District.

Fatality data alone makes it amply clear that the balance is gradually tilting in favour of the SFs in Maharashtra in 2013. Even, in the second-half of 2012, though the number of encounters with Maoists increased, the Maoists had failed to inflict any fatalities on the SFs.

Media reports in February 2013 cited a senior officer of the Aheri Police in Gadchiroli, stating that the Maoists used to deploy around 75 to 80 persons in their 'company' formations in the District. This strength has come down to around 55 to 60 at present. The officer was relying on interrogations of several Maoists in custody. Similarly, the platoon formations have also lost considerable manpower, with average strength declining from 25 to 30 members to 12 to 16 cadres, and even less in some cases. The dalam's earlier strength was around 15, but it has come down to around 8-12.

The pressure on the Maoists is also visible in other patterns of Maoist violence. Just one incident of abduction (of three persons) and three incident of arson, have, thus far, been recorded in the State, all in Gadchiroli District, in 2013. On the other hand, at least four Maoists have been arrested and another 28 have surrendered in the District. Maoists belonging to different dalams in Gadchiroli and border areas of Chhattisgarh have surrendered before Gadchiroli Police as a result the 'Campaign Navjeevan' [Campaign New Life] initiative, under which senior Police officials visited the families of Maoist cadres and appealed to them to surrender, assuring them of fair treatment. The campaign was quietly launched in December 2012. It is significant that, in the past, surrendering Maoists generally preferred neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, which offers a better 'surrender package'.

Explaining the turnaround, Maharashtra Additional Director-General of Police (ADGP) (Special Operations), Prem Kisan Jain, told media, "We have reorganised the setup within the Department, in which all anti-Naxal operations, including intelligence, training and action, have been brought under one chain of command." Further, Jain claimed that increasing the duration of the stay of the forces in the forests to 3 to 5 days, instead of short durations, had helped them immensely in disrupting Maoist logistics: "we have not only managed to confine Maoists in their areas, but have also been able to penetrate into hitherto impregnable areas, which has put them on the defensive." Coordination among the State Police Force, the special force (C-60) and Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), had also improved dramatically. Advanced training centres, manned by Army personnel, were set up and more specialised equipment has been provided to the counter-insurgency (CI) troops. The "economical use of ammunition" has also helped the Police, with better firing skills and restraint in the use of ammunition during encounters. In the past, panicked and indiscriminate firing by SFs had often resulted in units running out of ammunition during an ambush or encounter.

In addition to operational improvement, there has been a visible transformation in the capacities and processes of intelligence gathering. While surrendered Maoists have provided crucial operational information, Police appear to have infiltrated Maoist ranks in Gadchiroli.

On a downside, an Assistant Sub-Inspector, Omprakash Singh Thakur, who was in charge of the Jungle Tactics and Survival Course, was arrested on July 4, 2013, after an investigating team found out that he had pilfered arms and ammunitions that were found in a well behind the Gadchiroli Police Headquarters. The Police are now investigating if the pilfered weapons were meant for the Maoists. Further, Gadchiroli Police have registered cases against Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellow (PMRDF) Mahesh Raut and his friend Harshali Potdar from Mumbai after two arrested Maoists revealed that the pair were travelling with them to meet top Maoist leaders.

As things appear to change in Maharashtra, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is mulling a tactical shift in anti-Maoist operations, with greater emphasis on intensive intelligence gathering leading to the setting up village-level database at Police Stations in all affected Districts in the country. The proposed changes are reportedly to come up for discussion at a meeting called by the MHA in July-end. The meeting is to bring together Superintendents of Police of the 26 worst-affected Districts across seven States and officers of the CAPFs. The District Police Chiefs would be urged to take the initiative to collect information about each village, its residents, amenities and infrastructure available. The Andhra Pradesh Police had benefitted immensely from such village-level data bases in its effort to develop an effective intelligence network at the grassroots and to plan effective operations against the Maoists. The MHA, keen to go beyond the 'Greyhounds' model that it has been harping on for the past several years, and to replicate more nuanced elements of the success in Andhra Pradesh, now wants to "go back to basics and revitalize Police Stations".

Despite dramatic improvements in Gadchiroli, there is little scope for complacency. After killing 14 Maoists in 2006, the Police had claimed, in 2007, that the Maoist movement in most affected Gadchiroli and Gondia districts had 'weakened' with some of the dalams operating in the area virtually winding up due to a cadre crunch and no fresh recruitment. But the Maoists came back even stronger in subsequent years. The Maoist capacity for revival has been repeatedly underestimated in the past, and far greater consolidation is necessary before the present gains can be thought to be irreversible.

(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)

(Posted on 16-07-2013)