On September 14, 2013, the Odisha Police managed to inflict a severe jolt on the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) when at least 13 of its cadres, including a woman, were killed in an encounter with the State Police Special Operations Group (SOG) and the District Volunteer Force (DVF, comprising mostly of ex-service men) near Silakota village under Podia Block of the Malkangiri District. All the 13 bodies were recovered from the site of the encounter. A cache of arms and ammunition including two claymore mines, several Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), AK 47s, country-made pistols and magazines, were recovered, and one person was arrested on suspicion of being a Maoist. The operation was led by Malkangiri Superintendent of Police (SP) Akhileswar Singh.
The encounter assumes greater significance as the Maoists have lost their vice-like grip over Malkangiri District, and the incident accounted for the heaviest casualty suffered by Maoists in a single incident in Odisha. The lone dampener was the fact that none of the Maoists killed was a senior leader in the Maoist hierarchy. A CPI-Maoist 'divisional committee' member, identified as Rakesh, who was present at the encounter site, managed to escape. His presence was confirmed after the seizure of his diary from the spot. Nevertheless, the sheer number of casualties inflicted is bound to impact adversely on the Maoists morale.
The encounter was a precise, intelligence-based operation, and the Police suffered no casualties. Based on specific information that a group of 30 to 40 Maoists would be crossing over from the Chhattisgarh side [the Darbha Ghati area is close to the encounter site], the Security Forces (SFs) trekked about 10 kilometers from the last motorable road in the night, even as it was raining heavily, and engaged the Maoists early in the morning. However, while one group remained engaged, other Maoists managed to escape. The SFs took huge risks, going into the operation with a lean force of 40, barely matching the expected number of Maoists.
Such incidents of SF success have been few and far between in Odisha. Nevertheless, some significant successes of the past include:
January 9, 2011: Nine CPI-Maoist cadres, including four women, were killed in an encounter with DVF and a special team of the Rayagada Police in Rayagada District.
January 1, 2011: Five CPI-Maoist cadres, including three women, were killed in an encounter with Police personnel in Jajpur District.
November 4, 2010: Four CPI-Maoist cadres were killed in a gun battle with Police in a forested area near Karlakuta village of Malkangiri District.
March 4, 2006: Six CPI-Maoist cadres were killed in an encounter with Police near Kanaguda village in Malkangiri District.
The September 14, 2013, incident has taken place at a time when the Maoists were trying to recover from the 'strategic retreat' they had been forced into, to preserve their strength and regroup, after mounting SF pressure since 2011, and an internal evaluation that underlined the need to reenergize the organisation. On August 27, 2013, the Maoists had trigged a landmine blast on the busy National Highway 26, at a culvert between Sakirai and Kauguntha villages near Ralegada in the Sunki Ghat area, under the Pottangi Police Station in Koraput District, killing four Border Security Force (BSF) personnel and injuring another three. The BSF personnel were moving to Visakhapatnam in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, in a convoy of three vehicles. What had surprised everybody was the timing and the ability to single out the BSF vehicles on a busy national highway.
Earlier, motor boat services to the 150-odd villages of Kudumulu Gumma Block - separated from the rest of the Block by the Balimela Reservoir - remained suspendedfor 10 days from August 21 to 31, due to a Maoist threat, creating a crisis situation in the area, as other routes of transport are too circuitous and difficult to be undertaken by villagers.
These 'morale building operations', notwithstanding, things have not gone the way the Maoists may have wished. In addition to the the September 14 incident, the Secretary of Malkangiri Divisional Committee of the CPI-Maoist, Madhav alias Golla Ramullu, was killed in an encounter with SFs in Malkangiri District on August 23, 2013. He was allegedly involved in over 50 murder cases and carried a cash reward of INR 300,000 on his head in Andhra Pradesh. Again, on September 11, 2013, a woman CPI-Maoist cadre was killed in an exchange of fire with SFs in the jungle near Kandrakabandali village under the Kalyansinghpur Police Station limits of Rayagada District.
Further, at least 25 Maoist cadres and sympathizers have surrendered in Malkangiri alone, over just past two months. More worrisome for the Maoists was the en massesurrender of supporters of the Narayanpatna-based Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS), numbering almost 2,400 according to Odisha Police sources. CMAS is a Maoist front organization.
These reverses were preceded by the greater debacle of the defection of Sabyasachi Panda, the Maoists' Odisha State Committee Secretary, with a small group of his followers, resulting in an almost comprehensive loss of influence in the 'heartland' areas of the Gajapati, Ganjam, Rayagada and Kandhamal Districts. After an increasingly tempestuous relationship with the party over the past several years, Panda was finally declared a renegade by the CPI-Maoist when he abducted two Italian citizens without consulting the 'central leadership', in March 2012. The tipping point came when Panda wrote a 60 page letter to the Party's Central Committee (CC), raising several questions about recent strategic failures, and purported 'deviations' - ideological, tactical and cultural - including allegations of an increasing proclivity to autocratic command, regional partisanship (in favour of Telugu cadres and leaders), the absence of grievance redressal, 'cultural hegemony', intolerance of dissent, "financial anarchy" and sexual improprieties. Panda formed the Odisha Maobadi Party (OMP) in March 2012, but has consistently lost ground and men since then. The split in the Odisha CPI-Maoist resulted in further polarization between locals and the Telugu leadership from Andhra Pradesh, and has triggered a continuous succession of surrenders by Odiya cadres. Since the split, at least 96 Maoists have surrendered in Odisha [till September 29, 2013]. In the latest such incident, six Maoists surrendered before the Odisha Police in Malkangiri District on September 23, 2013.
According to SATP data, levels of Maoist-related violence in Odisha have been dropping steadily since 2010.
With just about three months remaining in the current year, moreover, the Maoists have already suffered far greater fatalities (23) as compared to the previous year (14). Civilian fatalities, on the other hand, have more than halved, while SF fatalities have dropped to almost a fourth of the previous year's figure. Other patterns of violence, including attacks, intimidation, abduction and disruptive activities, have also remained muted.
Encouraged by the decline in Maoist violence, the Odisha Government has asked for the deployment of two additional battalions of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) in the State, to consolidate the gains of the recent past. At present there are 17 CAPF battalions - eight BSF, eight CRPF and one of the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (COBRA) - deployed in Odisha. Additionally, the State Police has 57 SOG teams. However, the Police-population ratio in the State, at 110 to 100,000 which is far below the low national average of 138, as on December 31, 2012, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, and capacities and quality of general policing are poor.
Maoist violence dropped sharply in Odisha in 2012, and is now concentrated mostly in two clusters of Districts: Koraput-Malkangiri-Nabarangpur and Nuapada-Balangir-Bargarh. While the Nuapada-Balangir-Bargarh cluster is emerging as a new Maoist haven, their presence in the Koraput-Malkangiri-Nabarangpur cluster has been long established. The setbacks the Maoists have suffered in Koraput and Malkangiri are, consequently, of great significance, and create expanding opportunities for surgical intelligence-based operations, particularly targeting the Maoist leadership, which have already undermined Maoist capabilities in the State. With the Maoists unambiguously on the defensive in Odisha at this stage, effective policies and operations can go a long way to consolidate recent counter-insurgency successes.
(The writer Mrinal Kanta Das is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)
--IBNS (Posted on 30-09-2013)