SUNDAY’S big encounter in Bhamragad tehsil in Gadchiroli may deliver a crippling blow to the Maoists in this thickly forested area at the tri-junction of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. There are several reasons for this — the most significant being that the encounter has eliminated the two most senior and experienced commanders of the movement, who had been operating in the area for more than 15 years, and were popular with the local tribal population.
Sunday’s successes for the police follow the killings of two other dreaded Maoist leaders in the area in the recent past — Aitu in December 2017, and Sunil Kulmethe earlier this month. The elimination of Srinu and Sainath in the encounter on Sunday morning has effectively wiped out the Maoist military leadership in Gadchiroli. All four were high-ranking cadres, and members of the South Gadchiroli divisional committee of the CPI (Maoist).
Sunday’s operation also established the willingness and ability of the police to strike at the Maoists in their most remote and safest havens. Kasnasur village, where the Maoists were ambushed, reportedly while having breakfast, is in an area where the rebels have felt secure for decades. That the police managed to reach them underlines an improvement in gathering solid intelligence of the kind that was hard to obtain until a few years ago.
“It is definitely a very big success, and it will boost the morale of the police very high. With this and some previous encounters, the major striking strength of the Naxals has been largely vanquished and it will be very difficult for them to regain it. They are already facing a huge crunch of fighters, and the new leadership will have to go through the task of rebuilding their strike force all over again, brick by brick. Sunday’s encounter will demoralise them further,” said Ravindra Kadam, who has led several successful anti-Maoist operations, and was Deputy Inspector General of Police (Gadchiroli Range) from 2012 to 2016.
After suffering their worst debacle in 2009 when they lost 55 personnel to Maoist violence, police in Gadchiroli have clawed back — and ultimately gained the upper hand — working on strategy and tying up loose ends. Their progress has been steady, if slow — neutralising explosives materials, building intelligence networks and, most importantly, building the courage and ability to enter the heart of Maoist strongholds in the course of the hunt.
Concrete results began to be visible in 2013 when, led by Superintendent of Police Suvez Haq, the police killed 27 Maoists. The figure was 13 in 2014, five in 2015, 12 in 2016, and 19 in 2017. In the first four months this year, Maoist casualties have already reached 22. Police casualties from 2013 to 2017 have, on the other hand, been 6, 11, 2, 3, and 3 respectively. No policeman has died this year so far.
After the killing of the four divisional committee members — DVCs in Maoist parlance — the rebels’ strike power is down to probably its lowest in Gadchiroli in recent history. Only one South Gadchiroli DVC member — Muddela Sailu alias Raghu — is now alive.
It is possible that the Maoists will now attempt some spectacular attacks to boost the morale of their cadres and supporters. This is likely to require the import of some commanders to Gadchiroli from South Bastar. The Maoist leadership will also take stock of the reasons for the reverse on Sunday. “Responsibility for the debacle will be fixed, and some suspected informants may be executed. Since big attacks may be difficult, they might carry out smaller hit-and-run strikes using action teams,” said a source. “But a large number of surrenders could also happen,” the source added.
The Maoists had started to use Gadchiroli in the 80s as their transit passage from Andhra Pradesh to the upper parts of the country. Slowly, they made the heavily forested eastern areas of the district their regular operational bastion by taking up issues like the price of tendu patta, exploitation of local tribals by moneylenders, as well as government officials and the police. Although the latest government assessment still puts Gadchiroli in the list of districts “most affected” by left-wing extremism, the repeated reverses suffered by the Maoists constitute significant success stories for the police and security forces.