Chhattisgarh: Persisting Disruptions

Despite suffering losses across the country, the Maoists continue to demonstrate significant fighting capabilities, and appear determined to defend their remaining strongholds in Chhattisgarh.

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File Photo of the members of Communist Party of India-Maoist

On January 30, 2024, three Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed and another 15 sustained injuries in a gunfight with Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres along the Sukma-Bijapur border in Bijapur District. The gunfight erupted when the CRPF personnel were working to establish a Forward Operating Base (FOB) – a remote camp meant to facilitate Security Forces (SFs) operating in core Maoist areas – in the area.

On January 20, 2024, three CPI-Maoist cadres, including two women cadres, were killed in a gun battle with SFs during a search operation in the hills near Belam Gutta village under Basaguda Police Station limits in Bijapur District. After the encounter, the bodies of three Maoists, including two women (whose identities are yet to be ascertained), were recovered from the spot, and two muzzle-loading guns, a pistol, five live cartridges, 15 gelatin sticks, five detonators, wires, Maoist uniforms, and literature were recovered from the site.

According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since the beginning of 2024, at least seven incidents of killing, resulting in 11 fatalities (two civilians, four SF personnel, and five Maoists), have already been registered in Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-related violence in Chhattisgarh, thus far (data till February 4). During the corresponding period of 2023, two incidents of killing, resulting in two fatalities (one civilian and one Maoist), were documented. There has, thus, been a considerable surge in LWE-linked violence in the State.

Chhattisgarh recorded at least 66 incidents of killing, resulting in 88 fatalities (37 civilians, 26 SF personnel, and 25 Maoists), in LWE-linked violence in 2023. In 2022, 62 incidents of killing, resulting in 72 fatalities (30 civilians, 10 SF personnel and 32 Maoists) were recorded. The data thus reflected a spike of 22.22 per cent in overall fatalities in LWE-linked violence in the State in 2023.

Significantly, fatalities in the SF category more than doubled from 10 in 2022 to 26 in 2023. The spike is particularly worrying, as fatalities in this category in 2022 were the lowest recorded since 2019 (19).

Moreover, while the SF:Maoist kill ratio remained marginally in favor of the SFs in 2023, at 1:1.04, it deteriorated dramatically in comparison to 2022, at 1:3.2, the second most favorable recorded in a year since 2000 [when SATP started compiling data on LWE violence, from March 6]. The best SF:Maoist kill ratio was recorded in 2019 at 1:3.84. The overall kill ratio since March 6, 2000, is in favor of SFs, at 1:1.16.

Fatalities in the civilian category, a key indicator of security in conflict zones, also increased, from 30 in 2022 to 37 in 2023, suggesting that the civilian population of the State remained at risk. Civilian fatalities have recorded a cyclical trend, on year-on-year basis, since 2000.

Meanwhile, at least 134 Maoists were arrested in the state in 2023, in addition to 76 such arrests in 2022. At least 132 Maoists were arrested in 2021, 99 in 2020, and 134 in 2019. Mounting SF pressure also resulted in the surrender of 187 Maoists in 2023, in addition to 184 such surrenders in 2022. There were 328 surrenders in 2021, 238 in 2020, and 231 in 2019.

The number of Districts from where killings were recorded also increased marginally in 2023. Out of a total of 33 Districts in Chhattisgarh, fatalities were reported from 10 in 2023: Bijapur (18), Dantewada (18), Sukma (17), Kanker (14), Narayanpur (12), Gariabandh (three), Kondagaon and Rajnandgaon (two each), and Mohala Manpur and Dhamtari (one each). Nine Districts recorded such fatalities in 2022 – Bijapur (32), Dantewada (14), Sukma (11), Kanker (seven), Narayanpur (four), Bastar, Kondagaon, Mohala Manpur and Rajnandgaon (one each).

Violence has been substantially confined to a few pockets of the perilous Bastar Division, which spans over 40,000 square kilometers, and comprises seven districts – Bastar, Bijapur, Dantewada, Kanker, Kondagaon, Narayanpur, and Sukma – in the southernmost region of the State. According to SATP, in 2023, the Bastar Division accounted for 92.04 per cent of total killings reported in Chhattisgarh, as against 97.22 per cent in 2022. Since 2000, the ‘Bastar Division’ has accounted for 91 per cent of all fatalities in the State – 3,307 out of a total of 3,634. The Division accounts for 29.39 per cent of the total of 11,250 fatalities recorded across the country since 2000.

Other parameters of violence also indicate that the Maoists retain significant operational capabilities in Chhattisgarh. At least four major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) were recorded in 2023, compared to two such incidents in 2022. There were 44 incidents of exchange of fire between SFs and Maoist in 2023, compared to 37 such incidents in 2022. Further, the Maoists orchestrated at least 30 incidents of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blasts in 2023, compared to 16 such incidents in 2022.

According to the SATP database, an analysis of underground and over-ground activities of the Maoists in 2023, indicated that five Districts (Bijapur, Dantewada, Kanker, Narayanpur, and Sukma) could be categorised as highly-affected; five (Dhamtari, Gariabandh, Kondagaon, Mohala Manpur, and Rajnandgaon) as moderately affected; while Bastar, Balrampur, Jashpur, and Khairagarh-Chhuikhadan-Gandai, remained marginally affected. By comparison, in 2022, three Districts (Bijapur, Dantewada, and Sukma) were categorised as highly-affected; six (Bastar, Kanker, Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Mohala Manpur, and Rajnandgaon) were moderately affected; while four (Gariabandh, Kabirdham, Dhamtari, and Jashpur), were marginally affected.

Meanwhile, signs of augmenting risk are emerging.

According to a January 31, 2024, report, SFs unearthed a 130-metre-long and six-foot-deep well-concealed tunnel with an opening of four to five feet, constructed by Maoists in Tadopot – a village on the banks of the Indravati River in Bijapur District, where at least 100 armed cadres could easily hide in this tunnel, stockpile arms and ammunition, and use it as a staging ground for ambushes. Such tunnels provide both offensive and defensive advantages in guerrilla warfare. Acknowledging the discovery of the tunnel, Dantewada Superintendent of Police (SP) Gaurav Rai, observed,

The tunnel is strategically located – it’s almost equidistant (35km-40km) from Dantewada and Bijapur, and a mere 10km from Bhairamgarh Police Station. It gives Maoists easy passage near Indravati river. Tactically, Indravati river is a geographical hurdle for security forces.

Further, in the latest attack on the Security Forces in Bijapur District on January 30, 2024, the Maoists are said to have inflicted employed snipers. An unnamed security officer involved in the counter insurgency operation, thus disclosed,

The Maoists were 400-500 fighters strong, including 200 from one of their most dangerous battalions, the Battalion 1 of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) headed by their new chief Barse Deva. Wearing helmets and bulletproof jackets, Maoist fighters fired at security forces using Barrel Grenade Launchers, AK47s, INSAS rifles and LMG guns. They also had around six sniper teams. Even as the CoBRA battalion managed to fight back bravely, the sniper team took down two of them, as well as a CRPF constable.

Several security measures have been taken during the course of 2023 to counter Maoist violence, in addition measures adopted in the past. According to a December 31, 2023, report, three battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF) were moved from Odisha to Chhattisgarh, and an equal number of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) units into the Maoist stronghold of Abujhmad, as part of a strategy to intensify anti-Maoist operations in their last bastions. The ITBP, which currently has about eight battalions located in the Narayanpur, Rajnandgaon and Kondagaon districts of Chhattisgarh, has been asked to move one unit further inside the core area of Abujhmad. According to the same report, there are around 800-900 active cadres under the Maoists’ Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee leadership in the state.

Meanwhile, on January 21, 2024, Union Home Minister (UHM) Amit Shah, reviewing the Maoist situation in Chhattisgarh, directed the SFs to financially choke the ultras. He also directed officials to prepare a blueprint to end Left Wing Extremism. UHM Shah also stressed the need for expediting development in LWE-affected areas, and directed that all welfare schemes of the central and state governments be implemented in these areas with renewed vigour.

Regrettably, even as the battle against the Maoists in Chhattisgarh continues, the State Police Force, the first line of defence against any kind of internal threat within a state’s borders, continued to face deficits and deficiencies. According to the latest Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) report, as on January 1, 2022, the State had 64,573 Policemen, as against a sanctioned strength of 78,698, leaving at least 14,125 posts, i.e., 17.94 per cent, vacant. In this highly Maoist-afflicted State, the Police/Area Ratio (number of Policemen per 100 square kilometers) is 47.76, as against the sanctioned strength of 58.21. The all-India Police/area ratio stands at 63.70, as against a sanction of 81.80. Moreover, of a sanctioned strength of 142 apex Indian Police Service (IPS) Officers in the State, 23 posts, i.e., 16.19 per cent, remained vacant, considerably weakening executive direction of the Force. Bewilderingly, 22 of 434 Police Stations in the State are without a telephone connection. In order to assist the State Police, 286 Companies of Central Armed Police Forces (BSF, CRPF, CISF, ITBP, etc.) have been deployed in Chhattisgarh.

Interestingly, on January 10, 2024, taking a step towards restoring peace and stability in Bastar, the newly formed Chhattisgarh government extended an invitation to the CPI-Maoist to engage in unconditional talks, suggesting that such dialogue could take place through video conferencing, if Maoist leaders were reluctant to come for physical meetings. The aim of the dialogue would be to restore peace and stability in the tribal region. Chhattisgarh deputy Chief Minister, Vijay Sharma, who holds the home portfolio, thus stated,

We are prepared to provide Naxalites [Left Wing Extremists] an online platform to express their grievances, ideas and desires. I am open to discussions with the young cadres any time, 24×7, without any conditions. I am available for any topic the Naxalites wish to discuss, but they must be willing to engage.

However, he also issued a warning:

If they fail to grasp the importance of dialogue, they will have to pay for the pain they have inflicted on our people (‘dard ka hisaab hoga’). They must understand that peace talks cannot occur with guns and bullets. A well-ordered society is not governed by firearms.

The Maoists, however, are yet to respond.

Despite suffering losses across the country, the Maoists continue to demonstrate significant fighting capabilities, and appear determined to defend their remaining strongholds in Chhattisgarh. This can only mean that SFs will intensify operations, both to protect the civilian population, and also to ensure that the gains of the past are consolidated, and that the remaining stretches of region afflicted by LWE violence are brought under the uncontested sway of the state.

Deepak Kumar Nayak

Deepak Kumar Nayak, Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India

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