Chhattisgarh: Bastions Breached

Maoist violence has seen a dramatic decline in Chhattisgarh, predominantly in the 'heartland' areas of the Bastar Division, even as the Maoists have lost impact in their erstwhile areas of dominance across the country.

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A file photo of Maoists in Chhattisgarh. Photo: AFP

On April 16, 2024, in the second ever most successful operation in terms of Maoist fatalities in Chhattisgarh, at least 29 Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres, including senior leaders, were killed in an encounter between the Maoists and Security Forces (SFs) in deep forests near the Binagunda and Koronar area under Chhotebethiya Police Station limits in Kanker District. Senior Maoist ‘commanders’ Shankar Rao and Lalita were among those killed, and they carried a cash bounty of INR 2.5 million each. Another cadre, Vinod Gawde, who was active in Rajnandgaon and the bordering regions of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh states, was also killed. Gawde carried an INR 1 million bounty on his head. Three security personnel of the Border Security Force (BSF) and District Reserve Guards (DRG) sustained bullet injuries in the encounter. As many as 22 weapons, including one AK-47 rifle, two INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) assault rifles, one Self-Loading Rifle (SLR), one carbine, three .303 rifles, two 315 bore rifles, two 9MM pistols, two country-made launchers, eight muzzle-loading guns and one country-made hand grenade were recovered from the encounter site. Kanker, however, has not seen significant Maoist armed activity for the past several years, and it is likely that the group that was cornered and neutralized in the Binagunda-Koronar area had come to the area from the more troubled Districts, deeper south in the Division.

The most successful operation in the state was recorded on March 14, 2011, when the Police killed 30 CPI-Maoist cadres in an encounter, after an ambush by the Maoists killed three Policemen and injured another nine in the Dantewada District. However, “Police did not collect so far a single dead body of Maoists and it is probable that rebels have carried away the bodies of their colleagues deep inside the jungle,” the then Bastar Inspector General of Police, T. J. Longkumer, had then said.

On April 6, 2024, three CPI-Maoist cadres were killed during an exchange of fire with SFs in the Karriguta Forests of Pujari Kanker in the Bijapur District. SFs recovered one AK47 rifle, one Light Machine Gun (LMG) and explosives from the encounter spot. The identities of the slain Maoists are yet to be ascertained.

On April 2, 2024, 13 CPI-Maoist cadres were killed in an encounter with security personnel in a forest near Lendra village under the Gangaloor Police Station limits in the Bijapur District. The identity of the dead Maoists was yet to be ascertained, but prima facie, it appeared that they belonged to the Maoist’s PLGA (People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army) Company No. 2, a senior Police official disclosed. Police recovered weapons, including an LMG, a .303 rifle, and a 12-bore gun, along with a substantial quantity of barrel grenade launchers, shells, and other arms and ammunition, from the site.

These were the three recent major onslaughts against the CPI-Maoists in the Bastar Division, the area which Maoists still believe is their safe haven. The Bastar Division comprises seven of the 33 Districts of Chhattisgarh – Bastar, Bijapur, Dantewada, Kanker, Kondagaon, Narayanpur, and Sukma.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 81 Naxalites [Left Wing Extremists, LWEs] have been killed by SFs in the Bastar Division in 2024 (data till April 21). During the corresponding period of 2023, SFs had eliminated just two Naxalites. Through 2023, SFs killed 21 Naxalites, in addition to 31 killed in 2022 and 45 in 2021.

On the other hand, the Maoists have killed seven SF personnel in the Division in the current year (till April 21). During the corresponding period of 2023, Maoists had killed seven SF personnel. Through 2023, Maoists killed 23 SF personnel, in addition to 10 SF personnel killed in 2022, and 45 in 2021.

Since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on Left Wing Extremism, a total 1,376 Maoists and 1,114 SF personnel were killed in the Bastar Division (data till April 21, 2024).

Meanwhile, according to the SATP database, SFs have already arrested 33 Maoists in 2024 (data till April 21) in the Bastar Division, in addition to 125 in 2023. 3,296 Maoists have been arrested in the Division since March 6, 2000. Moreover, at least 24 Maoists have surrendered in 2024, in addition to 187 in 2023. 3,994 Maoists have reportedly surrendered in the Division since March 6, 2000. The total number of arrests in the State is 3,598 since March 6, 2000, while 4,150 have surrendered.

Clearly, the SFs have achieved tremendous success in recent times in the Bastar Division in their fight against the Maoists.

Civilian fatalities, however, have been following a cyclical trend without significant respite. 13 civilians have been killed in the Division in the current year (till April 21). During the corresponding period of 2023, Maoists had killed 12 civilians. Through 2023, Maoists killed 35 civilians, in addition to 28 civilians killed in 2022 and 23 civilians in 2021. As pressure builds on the Maoists, they have been targeting civilians, suspected by them of being ‘informers’ or ‘agents of the Police’.

Fatalities alone do not give an adequate assessment of the Maoist threat to the civilian population. In a recent case in Bijapur District, on April 18, 2024, the Maoists threatened local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers and leaders to stay away from campaigning for the General Elections, declaring that they would be killed if the directive was overlooked. The Maoists reportedly threw several threat letters in the jungle area, issuing a direct warning to the BJP leaders, even as they held the BJP leaders responsible for the killing of 29 Maoists during the encounter with the SFs in Kanker on April 16, 2024. In the warning letter, the Maoists threatened anyone who overlooked the order with the same fate as Katala Tirupati, a BJP leader, who was killed by the extremists in Toynar village in Bijapur District on March 1, 2024. Several pamphlets were thrown at various places in the Cherpal area of Bijapur and nearby areas under the Barsuru Police Station area.

Meanwhile, speaking on the recent successful encounter against the rebels in Kanker, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Bastar Range, Sundarraj P., disclosed,

We made tactical adjustments drawing from our previous experiences that have helped us limit damage in this operation and the other recent ones including the Bijapur incident where 13 Maoists were killed. On each occasion, we effectively cordoned off the areas where Maoists were present. It was around 2 p.m. that the gun battle started and it lasted for two hours. We surrounded them from all four sides and had a backup team which made their escape difficult and only a few who fled at the initial stages managed to escape. The encounter on Tuesday (April 16) has inflicted a heavy blow to the North Bastar division committee. However, there is a lot more left to be done to completely eliminate it and we are heading in the right direction.

It is pertinent to recall here that, soon after coming to power on December 28, 2023, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Vishnu Deo Sai adopted a hard line against the rebels, declaring,

As we are in power again and have our government in the Centre also, we will strongly fight the Maoists, and definitive steps will be taken to end Maoism in the state.

In the interim, on April 18, 2024, deputy Chief Minister and state Home Minister Vijay Sharma stated that the Chhattisgarh government was working on a new surrender policy in which CPI-Maoist cadres who give up arms may have their First Information Reports (FIRs) quashed, but the terms would not be lenient for hard-core ‘commanders’. He thus stated, encourage more insurgents to give up violence, join the mainstream and avail benefits of the state’s progress.

On being asked if FIRs against Madvi Hidma, ‘central committee’ member, who is also a ‘commander’ of the Maoists PLGA Battalion 1 and a member of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC) that leads the Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh, or other such top Maoist ‘commanders’, would also be quashed if they give up arms, Sharma added,

It’s Maoist ‘central committee’ members who have fanned the fire of violence and launched this unending conflict in society. We are ready to talk with anyone, be it Hidma or any of the central committee members. They can surrender, but the provisions will not be the same for them. Quashing their FIRs will be difficult because of the harm they have caused. But there’s no ill-feeling towards them, we welcome them to surrender.

Maoist violence has seen a dramatic decline in Chhattisgarh, predominantly in the ‘heartland’ areas of the Bastar Division, even as the Maoists have lost impact in their erstwhile areas of dominance across the country. However, the current onslaught against the Maoists cannot be considered a victory, since the rebels still retain significant operational capacities in the Bastar Division, the location of some of their last bastions, which they will struggle to protect.

Deepak Kumar Nayak

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

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