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Why Naxals continue to hold out in Chhattisgarh

Another Naxal attack, 22 more security personnel killed, more calls for action. Amid this familiar pattern that plays out with alarming frequency in Bastar, The Indian Express on the lessons not learnt, and why Naxals continue to hold out in Chhattisgarh.

Written by Dipankar Ghose , Gargi Verma |
Updated: April 11, 2021 6:01:58 pm
Why Naxals continue to hold out in ChhattisgarhSecurity personnel pay homage to their colleagues killed in the April 3 ambush by Maoists in Chhattisgarh. (Photo: Reuters)

For south Bastar, it was an all too familiar news cycle. On April 2, Friday night, more than 2,000 security personnel entered the forests of Bijapur and Sukma in Chhattisgarh, in areas where Maoists hold fort. By Saturday evening, information trickled through of a gunfight and of five jawans being dead. Disturbingly, but not uniquely over the past few years, many others were reported missing. By Sunday, it was clear why: 22 jawans had been killed, with 14 bodies strewn around Jhiragaon and Teklagudem.

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The Naxal strike rendered the highest number of casualties to security forces in four years. It was the third attack since 2020, and came hardly 10 days after an IED blast led to the death of five personnel of the state’s police District Reserve Guard (DRG).

As if on a manual scoreboard, only the numbers, of the dead and the injured, keep changing; the backdrop — in this case, the forests of south Bastar in Chhattisgarh — has over the last few years remained the same. Twelve years since the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was banned and 11 years since then PM Manmohan Singh referred to Naxalites as the “single biggest internal security challenge” for India, the Naxal challenge has shrunk from its peak in mid-2000s, when over 200 districts were affected, to a 700-km corridor headquartered in Abujhmad in Bastar.

What is it that makes Chhattisgarh seemingly the last stronghold of Maoists? Why is it that every such attack is followed by a familiar set of images — of dead security personnel, of gut-wrenching scenes of families dealing with loss, of politicians calling for “karaara jawaab” — before it is all forgotten? What makes Chhattisgarh’s battle against Naxalism especially challenging for its security personnel, a disparate set of Central and state forces?

The trust deficit

With its forests, undulating terrain, and a fierce Maoist network that remains strong in the districts of Bijapur, Sukma, Dantewada and Narayanpur, the first battle is fought much before security set foot outside their camps.

With few informers, and phone networks still weak, any human intelligence that reaches the security forces is delayed, and barely actionable. That is coupled with the lack of something vital to such operations — trust.

Kamlochan Kashyap, Superintendent of Police, Bijapur, where the April 2 encounter took place, says it’s “demography”, rather than “topography”, that hampers the police more.

“The major difference here is that everyone from children to the elderly work for Maoists in some way. Right from information of troop movement to engaging the security forces on the ground till armed cadres arrive, these villagers covertly and overtly work for them. A massive brainwashing campaign has been on for decades in these areas, which also have a vacuum of government and security forces,” he said.

A government official in the Chhattisgarh government, who has spent several years as a District Collector in one of Bastar’s districts, said the trust deficit was mutual, and apparent.

“Look at the photographs of the release of the COBRA jawan (Rakeshwar Singh Manhas). There are thousands of villagers sitting. In areas deep inside Sukma and Bijapur, that talks of their network… An entire generation in these parts has been brought up believing that Maoists are the true government, and we are the outsiders, the aggressors. We need to maximise outreach, and stop treating them as enemies,” the officer said.

But the old trope of “winning hearts and minds” — no longer just a ‘humanitarian exercise’ but a necessary, strategic one — becomes harder to practise, especially after an attack.

“Every allegation of brutality in Bastar causes further alienation. After an attack, angry forces go and attack a village. There are allegations this week too. I understand 22 people are dead, and there is anger, but what tactical purpose does that serve other than further alienation?” the officer said.

An intelligence failure

Immediately after the encounter, Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel said that the state government would push further into Maoist territory and build new camps.

Those in the security apparatus, however, say there needs to be a review of this strategy — not just on the number of camps needed, but whether their utility is being maximised.

“All these camps have turned Bastar into a war zone, the most militarised place in India. For Maoists, that is a convenient argument to turn the villagers against us. But even if these camps are needed, are we maximising their potential? For example, the Kistaram camp in Sukma has been around for five years, deep inside their territory. Are our jawans just sitting ducks there?” a senior intelligence officer wondered.

“You know what villagers there want most? Veterinarians for their cattle, health camps and outreach through agriculture. Security forces can’t do all this. The state must walk with us. If the government doesn’t exist for them, they go to the one that does. Maoists. This means our networks are growing, but not fast enough,” the official added.

In the absence then of human intelligence networks that rival those of Maoists, much of the focus has been on other forms of intelligence gathering, such as technical interceptions or through drones.

But if the encounter has left any lessons, it is that information that comes through them may not always be sacrosanct.

Sources said that about a year and half ago, the Dantewada Police set up information receivers on a hill, for intercepts. “We have to stop pretending that Maoists are village bumpkins. The code we intercept is only sacrosanct if they do not know we are listening. But it seems they do… In multiple encounters, we find the target area empty, and they attack when the forces are on their way back,” a senior officer pointed out.

Unwieldy operations, multiple agencies

Sources in the Chhattisgarh security apparatus say there needs to be a review of the big, unwieldy operations that have now become commonplace in the state.

“In a big operation like this, secrecy is impossible. The entire area around knows something big is happening. Rations go in and out of camps, senior officers fly in and out. People are talking on the telephone to their families. How will there be any element of surprise at all? Also, we are now so reliant on drones. There is no drone that is invisible. When Maoists spot it, they know we are interested in the area,” a senior CRPF officer said.

Operationally, Bijapur SP Kashyap said, the challenge is always that the fight with Maoists begins “only after the men carrying more than 30 kg have walked well over 25 km”.

“Our encounters start when our men are exhausted, and haven’t had a full night’s sleep. Even in those conditions, our men fight valiantly and exchange fire with an enemy who has not had to expend much energy,” he said.

Another layer of complexity is the multiplicity of agencies, ranging from the paramilitary force CRPF and its specialised crack team, the COBRA, to the Chhattisgarh Police and its Special Task Force (STF) and DRG.

The DRGs, made up of erstwhile Special Police Officers (SPOs) of the Salwa Judum, surrendered Maoists and local tribal youth, have become the vanguard for the Chhattisgarh Police. While their intricate knowledge of the forests is an asset, their training is often at variance with that of the deeply regimented CRPF.

A DRG recruit is trained for a year in general camps, before being sent for specialised training in the jungle warfare colleges of Bastar or the Northeast for three months. “Formations and positions are very important during a face-to-face battle with Maoists, and these are easily broken if teams are not under the command of their leaders. For the tribal youth who had been fighting on the other side and have now flipped on to our side, all this knowledge becomes tertiary in the face of battle,” said a senior officer from Bastar.

Besides, the paramilitary forces are posted in deep camps, thousands of kilometers away from home. “An average fighter from, say, Punjab gets only 10 days of leave once in three months. He spends more than half of that travelling to and from the base camp, getting to spend very little time with his family,” an officer said.

Since 2018, there have been around 30 cases of suicide or fratricide in the paramilitary forces. On Friday, April 9, a BSF jawan committed suicide in Antagarh.

These multiple agencies also suffer from lack of trust. In the aftermath of numerous incidents, from the Burkapal ambush of 2017, to the Palodi IED blast a year later, the paramilitary and the state police have turned on each other.

The CRPF has also raised issue of chains of command, with the Superintendent of Police at the helm of the district often dwarfing more senior DIG-rank officers of the CRPF. That distrust often filters down the ranks.

The CRPF, for instance, points to a June 2020 incident, when two Chhattisgarh Police jawans were caught selling ammunition to Maoists. “It is not that they are not assets on the field. But yes, trust is a problem. They are former Maoists with few monetary incentives. If they are selling ammunition, what stops them from selling information?” a CRPF officer said.

The state, however, argues that CRPF structures are often unwieldy, and take days to act on information. “They want to plan everything in advance, but time is a luxury that doesn’t exist in Bastar. The reason their men get killed so often is because their SOPs are not designed for the jungle. How many attacks have happened when the jawans were resting? If Naxalism has to end, the state police has to take the lead,” a senior police officer said.

Officers and personnel also point to the need for changes in the way postings are planned. They point particularly to the “disturbing trend” of “abandoning of men or bodies and rushing back to camp during a gunfight”. “In Bijapur, 21 men, including from our COBRA, were left behind. That is unacceptable for a professional force, even under fire,” a distressed senior officer said.

He pointed to structural changes over the last 15 years that had led to a “loss of regimentation in the force”.

Until 2006, the CRPF had a process in place where an entire battalion, with 1,250 men, would spend three years in one camp in a state, before moving to their next location, mostly outside Chhattisgarh.

A COBRA officer said, “Those three years gave the battalion time to understand the area, and besides, the sense of bonding was unbreakable. Now, since 2006, we have had a system where 30% of personnel are moved out every year. That means in the same camp, there are people new to each other and the bond isn’t quite there. They lose regimentation.”

The politics of it all

Many in Chhattisgarh believe the road to peace has been hampered by politicians, not aided by them. For one, given its sparse population, Bastar comes with very little political dividend for parties at the national and state level. While the seven districts of Bastar have an area comparable to the size of Kerala, they have all of 12 Assembly seats. “That is why, there isn’t really any cost attached to the failure to resolve the problem in Bastar. So the political focus is always on the more densely populated, and electorally important, plains,” said an officer.

Second, the officer said, the reactions to an attack often cater to the nationalism argument. “Launching a big operation after an attack is always the reflex, not because it will bring results in Bastar, but because you cannot seem weak to an angry nation. Bastar in that sense matters little. The Bastar Development Authority headed by local politicians, for instance, is toothless and does no work,” said an officer.

In 2006, K P S Gill was appointed special security adviser by the Raman Singh government. He quit after a short stint, alleging he was told to “sit back and enjoy his salary”.

A political leader, who didn’t want to be identified, said, “The truth is that at the local level, all politicians come from the same villages as Maoists. A contractor who is connected to a politician and gets a road contract cannot build it without paying Maoists. Here, there are no clear lines, only intertwined lives.”

***

Fundamentally then, the question is if this latest attack will prompt serious thought, whether the loss of life and the continuing conflict hurt enough to see a change of course.

As a paramilitary officer said, “Every time an attack happens, there is a ray of hope, that there will be good, long-term review of all aspects of our strategy… I am still waiting for it.”

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