In 2016, Chhattisgarh, arguably the state that is the worst affected by left-wing extremism, recorded a sharp increase in both “Maoist Bodies Recovered” and “Surrenders”. Comparative data from police records show 135 bodies of alleged Maoists were recovered in 2016, up almost 200 per cent from 46 in 2015, and 36 in 2014. A record number of 1,210 alleged Naxals surrendered in 2016, up 270% from the 327 in 2015, and a little under three times the figure from 2014 (421).
These numbers, taken together with the fall in the numbers of “Security Personnel Killed” — 43, as compared to 48 in 2015 and 61 in 2014 — and “Weapons Looted” — 2, as compared to 12 and 47 in 2015 and 2014 respectively — suggest that 2016 was a good year for the Chhattisgarh Police’s fight against the Maoists.
Senior police officers attribute the “success” in “eliminating” Naxalites to the police’s new, “intelligence-based operations”. D M Awasthi, Special DG, Anti-Naxal Operations, said, “This year, there were more intelligence-based operations, some of which involved joint forces of a thousand men entering core areas. So we had many more exchanges of fire this year on an equal footing, unlike earlier, when our men would be ambushed several times. We have definitely been on the front foot.”
Opposition parties and activists, however, point out that 2016 was also the year of many alleged fake encounters and dressed-up surrenders. There were at least 15 cases in which families of those killed moved the Chhattisgarh High Court, which served notices to the state government and police. In at least two cases, the High Court ordered an exhumation of bodies, and a fresh autopsy.
Responding to the criticism, Awasthi said, “It is true that there have been some cases where people have expressed doubts, and have even approached the court. Since these are sub judice, I would not like to say anything except that SPs have been instructed to work honestly and sincerely.”
The number of surrenders has also raised questions. Senior officials of the Bastar Police such as Inspector General of Police SRP Kalluri have repeatedly spoken about surrenders being one of the cornerstones of the police’s anti-Naxal policy. The 2014 and 2015 figures of 421 and 327 respectively were called into question by the State Intelligence Bureau, a committee of the state police, which vets surrenders to ensure they qualify under the state and central surrender policies.
In 2014, the panel rejected 316 — 75% — of the 421 cases. In 2013, when a different set of officers led the Bastar police, the SIB had cleared 23 out of 39 — almost 60% — surrender cases put up by the district police. The panel is still working on the cases of 2015, and is yet to start vetting those of 2016. Data obtained by The Indian Express in March 2016, however, showed that until that point, the panel had rejected 91 cases of 2015, only approving 36, with the rest still pending clearance.
Of the 1,210 “Naxals” who surrendered in 2016, many were “sympathisers or villagers who lived in core areas; not serious Naxal cadre”, senior police officers in Raipur concede. Awasthi said villagers had surrendered “en masse” in the initial months of 2016, and “after that, the numbers came down and police in Bastar were told to focus on quality surrenders.
“But,” he said, “there have been some commander-level surrenders as well. The number of arrests and weapons recovered going up are also good indications for us.” The fall in the numbers of “Security Personnel Killed” (43 in 2016 as against 48 in 2015 and 61 in 2014) and weapons looted (only 2), suggest unequivocally that 2016 was a good year for anti-Naxal operations.
“The number of weapons looted being close to zero also means that we have not come under attack this year. The casualties among security personnel happened during attacks on road opening parties or IED explosions,” a senior officer in Bastar said. However, more civilians were killed in 2016 (58) than in 2015 (47) and 2014 (41). This, Awasthi said, was because, “stunned by their setbacks in 2016, the Maoists began to execute those they believed to be informers, more than ever before. At least 45 of the 58 deaths in 2016 are Maoist executions of people they think are working against them. This is them being paranoid, and we are looking at ways to mitigate this.”
Last year, police registered an FIR against professors Nandini Sundar and Archana Vijay and others, accusing them of murdering a tribal in a Sukma village. The Bastar Police was accused of hounding out lawyers of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group and journalist Malini Subramaniam, allegedly with the help of vigilante groups such as the Samajik Ekta Manch.
While the Manch was disbanded, over the last few months of 2016, a new organisation called AGNI emerged, allegedly made up of the same people. AGNI members have been publicly saying that they would not allow “white-collar Naxals” such as researchers, fact-finding teams, journalists and others into Bastar.
A senior police officer in Raipur, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 2016 had been a “good operational year soured by unnecessary excesses”. “The government is doing good development work and even operations are going well. But there is an unnecessary drive by the Bastar Police to break records. It would have been a successful year even without the allegedly fudged encounter or surrender numbers,” the officer said.