Insurgency is a long drawn out affair and often defies attempts to bring it to a quick conclusion, whether by force, coercion, or strategies that are primarily geared at gaining fame for individual politicians or the leaders of security forces. 2016 proved just that, like the years that preceded it. The Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) continues to be a source of instability in sizeable tracts of India's territory, although their potential for violence has declined considerably, owing partly to state initiatives and partly to its own follies. A comprehensive solution to the problem remains, however, a distant goal.
LWE Status Report
LWE continues to be the source of the maximum number of fatalities in India, compared to other theatres of conflict such as Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and the Northeastern states. According to provisional data by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 2016, LWE was the reason for 433 deaths, whereas 267 and 165 fatalities were reported from J&K and the Northeast respectively. This translates to Naxalites being responsible for over 48 per cent of fatalities in the country. In fact, the 2016 LWE-related figures represent not just a quantum jump of over 71 per cent in 2015, but surpass annual deaths recorded in the last six years. 2016 therefore was the bloodiest LWE affected year since 2011. Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data reveals that territories in five states - Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar and Maharashtra - either continue to remain under Maoist influence or are affected by the outfit's activities. LWE is only marginally influential in parts of states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh, whereas West Bengal, where the CPI-Maoist once used to be predominantly active, continues to be Maoist-free.
On 24 October 2016, in the biggest counter-insurgency (COIN) success of the year, 24 CPI-Maoist cadres from the Andhra Odisha Border (AOB) zone were killed in a security force operation in Malkangiri district. Among those killed were Appa Rao alias Chalapathi, the East Division Secretary of the outfit; his wife, Aruna; Gajarala Ashok alias Uday, the military head of the AOB zone; and Munna, the son CPI-Maoist's central committee member, Ramakrishna. Chalapathi carried an INR 20 lakh reward on his head, and Aruna, another INR 5 lakhs. The killings, the result of a meticulous operation, inflicted a serious blow to the outfit's fledging presence in the area. The AOB zone today is among the weakest operational divisions of the outfit, having endured splits, killings, and alienation from the tribal community. Similarly, other zonal divisions of the CPI-Maoist, such as the Dandakaranya Special Zone and the Jharkhand-Odisha-Bihar Special Zone, too, are under immense pressure.
In addition to these 24 fallen cadres, the outfit lost another 220 members throughout the country in 2016. Cadres suspected of belonging to the CPI-Maoist and other smaller groups accounted for 56 per cent of the total LWE-related fatalities. Of these 244 LWE cadres who were killed in security force operations, 215 (amounting to 88 per cent) were killed in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha. This points to the fact that these three states are the worst LWE-affected in the country, necessitating a greater concentration of counter-LWE operations by the state. The rest of the country, probably with the exception of Bihar and Maharashtra which registered 194 LWE-related incidents, is only marginally affected.
According to the MHA, in 2016 (till 15 December), 1,750 LWE cadres were arrested and 1,431 cadres surrendered, thus severely depleting the strength of the outfit. Since the outfit's capacity to recruit cadres among the tribal population is believed to have been weakened, such loss of cadres should have a telling effect on its activities in 2017. The narrative on surrenders, however, has remained problematic.
Behind these seemingly impressive figures, which many believe have broken the back of the LWE movement in the country, however, is a COIN campaign marked by a range of infirmities. Police in most of the LWE-affected states remain incapable of dealing with the threat without central assistance. As a result, an estimated 109 battalions of the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) are currently assisting the police and providing security to a number of infrastructure building projects that have not taken off due to the extremist threat. Police infirmities, ranging from lack of intelligence and adequate numerical strength, have allowed a dependence on policies that could be counter-productive in the long-run. These include the use of vigilante groups against Naxal sympathisers, persecution of activists and lawyers who have been working to provide legal aid to tribal victims of police atrocities, and overt state support to police officials who have indulged in a number of human rights violations. Most of these COIN facets are witnessed in Chhattisgarh, which remains the worst affected. However, states like Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Odisha are also not immune to these policies. Killing tribals unconnected to Naxalism in fake encounters, including a nine-year old child, sexual exploitation of tribal women by security force personnel and vigilante groups, and burning tribal villages, continue. A number of these allegations have been found to be true by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Supreme Court.
'Mission 2016', Chhattisgarh police project to combat the extremist problem, had raised the hope of a Naxal-free state by the end of 2016. However, in hindsight, it predominantly allowed certain police officials to curb press freedom, generate a rogue band of state loyalists to pursue so-called Naxal-sympathisers among academics and civil rights activists, and create an atmosphere of fear in which none of their controversial actions could be questioned. 'Mission 2016' ended with the Chhattisgarh police claiming the killing of 134 CPI-Maoist cadres. The Mission has since been rebranded, and the 2017 edition has declared 'safedposh Naxals' (white collar extremists) as its principal target.
One of the multiple government strategies to deal with LWE is to inculcate values such as "national integration, patriotism, nation building, and communal harmony" among tribal groups. Strategies to attract tribal youth to the 'mainstream' rather than LWE has led to the implementation of employment generation schemes that include recruiting tribal youth in Bastar to a specially formed battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Scripting a narrative of triumph is also leading the police establishment to organise mass-scale surrenders of just not active Naxal cadres, but almost anybody who chooses to declare allegiance to the state. This primarily explains the reason for the 2.5 fold increase in the number of surrenders in 2016 over 2015. The NHRC, in September 2016, found the allegation of stage-managed fake ‘surrenders’ of well over a hundred ‘Naxal-operatives’ in 2011-12 as "prima facie true." Police in Chhattisgarh's Bastar division boasted of 1,210 Naxal surrenders in 2016, but a screening and rehabilitation committee of the state government held that 97 per cent of the surrenders did not adhere to the definition of “Naxal cadres” and were not eligible for benefits under the Centre or state government’s rehabilitation policy. Such adverse feedback notwithstanding, the Chhattisgarh police force is likely to use the surrender of manufactured Naxalites as a principal element of its perception management strategy. On 29 January 2017, 195 LWE cadres were shown to have surrendered in Narayanpur district.
At a time when its top leadership's interactions with the media has become a rarity, a somewhat honest assessment of the CPI-Maoist's past actions and future strategies was provided by Chalapathi, a few months before his death. In a media interview, he blamed the multi-pronged attacks by the security forces as well as the outfit's own mistakes for its weakened state. He admitted that the outfit's ability to wage a class struggle by mobilising people had not been very successful. Guerrilla warfare techniques, too, have been successfully challenged by the security forces, making the launch of counter-attacks on difficult. He, however, expressed hope for a revival of the outfit's fortunes in the coming months.
It is, therefore, unlikely that the CPI-Maoist will perish without an attempt to stage a comeback. Its new war strategy, in vogue since 2013, includes recruiting new cadres to offset losses; protecting its leadership and cadres from security force operations; and inflicting losses on the adversary in carefully planned operations. An analysis of its pattern of attacks in 2016 demonstrates an attempt to mount small and focused assaults on security forces and police informers within tribal groups. 109 such attacks were carried out on the police in 2016. MHA data indicate a significant increase in the number of police informers killed by the CPI-Maoist in 2016 (162) over 2015 (92). Intelligence agencies also point to a plan of expansion by creating a new guerrilla zone along the Chhattisgarh-Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh (MP) border region, which will serve as an extension of its Abujhmad stronghold.
LWE is certainly on an ebb. But its capacity to delay its defeat by the state would probably be assisted by the state's follies.