The recent Latehar incident, in Jharkhand in which nine CRPF jawans were killed, has come as a jolt to the government. A sense of complacency was building up on the Maoist front. The home ministry was patting itself on the back over the sharp fall in the number of violent incidents and the declining figures of casualties. There had been, till December 15, only 1,365 incidents of Maoist violence as against 1,683 in the corresponding period of 2011. Besides, only 409 lives were lost as against 581 in 2011. The number of security forces personnel who had to sacrifice their lives in counter-insurgency operations against the Maoists had also dropped to 113 in 2012 from 141 in 2011. It was claimed that the security forces’ pressure had started showing results.
Not that the government claims were totally unfounded. It is a fact that the Maoists are on the back foot. Their leadership has suffered considerable attrition. Out of 16 members in the politburo, two have been killed while seven are in custody. Out of the 39-member central committee, five have been liquidated while 13 were arrested. The top leaders accounted for in the recent past include Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad, Mallojula Koteswara Rao alias Kishanji and Kobad Ghandy. The loss of important leaders definitely caused setback to the movement. It is also a fact that the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) strength is by and large still in tact. The so-called Operation Green Hunt involving massive deployment of the paramilitary forces in the Maoist-affected areas has been there for nearly three years, but the security forces have not been able to inflict any decisive blow on the Maoists.
The Maoists, on the other hand, have shown that in spite of the reverses they suffered, they retain their lethal punch. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) patrol was actually trailing the Maoists. On January 7, the Maoists found themselves in a position of advantage. They were on higher ground from where they could watch the movement of the CRPF column. They used the opportunity to open heavy fire, killing five CRPF jawans in the first few minutes of the engagement. The CRPF party regrouped and returned the fire, but the logistical disadvantage weighed against them. The Maoists followed up their successful engagement with acts of savage brutality. A live bomb was placed under the body of one of the critically injured and incapacitated jawans. The two civilians who went to rescue him were blown up along with the jawan. Another jawan’s stomach was slashed and a 2.75 kg improvised explosive devise (IED) was planted inside. The intention possibly was to cause explosion in the hospital where the jawan would be taken and operated upon. Fortunately, the device could be detected timely and defused. A third jawan had his eyes gouged and his tongue slashed. The Maoists’ barbarity was abominable. The party leadership would have a lot of explaining to do. The attitude of the human rights groups would also be worth watching.
It is unfortunate that government has yet no strategic plan to deal with the Maoist problem. In 2006, when Shivraj Patil was Union home minister, government announced a 14-point plan, the salient features of which were: deal sternly with the Naxals indulging in violence; address the problem simultaneously on political, security and development fronts in a holistic manner; accord high priority to distribution of land to landless, development of infrastructure and employment opportunities to the youth, etc. The plan, however, never took off.
The Maoists took full advantage of government’s soft approach to expand their influence across the heartland of the country and strengthen their organisation. The terrorist attack in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 led to Patil’s resignation and installation of Chidambaram as the new Union home minister. Chidambaram was down to earth and he understood the gravity of the problem.
The government’s new response was summarised by Chidambaram, in 2009 in three graphic words: Clear, Hold and Develop. It implied a three-stage strategy. In the first phase, the Naxals would be drained out of their swamps by undertaking well coordinated counter-insurgency operations against them. In the second phase, the civil administration would be established in the areas cleared. In the third phase, economic development would be undertaken on a priority in these regions with emphasis on building roads, hospitals and schools. The Union government deployed central paramilitary forces in the worst affected districts towards the end of 2009 and comprehensive operations were started in early 2010.
The security forces have however not been able to achieve the desired results. This has been due to a combination of factors. The state governments have been lackadaisical in giving the necessary infrastructural support to the paramilitary forces. Besides, the states have been indifferent to building up the capabilities of their own police forces. What is worse, every chief minister is following his own policy in dealing with the Maoists. Police being a state subject, they do not consider the Centre’s directions in the matter mandatory. The chief minister of Bihar is of the view that enforcement action alone would lead to greater alienation of such elements ‘making heroes out of the leaders of the extremist organisations and leading to only symptomatic treatment’. Mamata Banerjee has blown hot and cold in the matter. At one time, she referred to Maoists as ‘friends’, though now her approach is pragmatic. Jharkhand government is so riddled with corruption that it just cannot undertake any effective operations against the Maoists. Maharashtra is not serious about the Maoist problem confined to its Gadchiroli district only.
There is also inadequate coordination between the central and the state forces. This has been noticed in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. In Jharkhand, the state police have even registered cases against the CRPF personnel. Coordination among the states also leaves much to be desired.
There is confusion even in Delhi on the contours of the policy to be followed to tackle the Maoist problem. Chidambaram’s perception and approach were not shared by the ruling party, whose general secretary, Digvijay Singh, openly disapproved of his hard line. The security forces, as a consequence, have generally not been undertaking aggressive operations and are content to just dig in and carry out area domination exercises.
The Government of India must come out with a well-defined strategic plan to deal with the Maoist insurgency. It should also seriously think about placing internal security in the concurrent list of the seventh schedule of the Constitution. That would take care of the existing constraints in dealing with problems that have a pan-India sweep or extend to several states.
Prakash Singh is a retired Police Chief and an expert on Naxal affairs