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Discontent among Maoist cadres the reason behind rising attacks on CRPF

Brewing dissent over Telugu domination of Maoist groups, the ascendance of a younger generation of rebels and the abandonment of the traditional ‘drought raids’ led to the massacre of 25 jawans in Chhattisgarh.

india Updated: May 06, 2017 13:23 IST
GS Radhakrishna
A total of 25 CRPF jawans were killed in a Maoist attack in Sukma in Chhattisgarh on April 24.
A total of 25 CRPF jawans were killed in a Maoist attack in Sukma in Chhattisgarh on April 24.(PTI)

The latest episode in the long-running conflict between CPI (Maoists) and the Indian security forces claimed 25 CRPF jawans on April 24 in Sukma, Chhattisgarh. And for the first time, a statement from the Maoists made its way to the media in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in Hindi on April 27. Maoist spokesman Vikalp said that they had targeted the CRPF as revenge for the gang rape of tribal women, mutilation of activists’ bodies and vulgar display of the women soldiers to the media.

“We have not sold out to MNCs and land-hungry politicians, and are stiffly opposing the mafia, fanatic Hindu vigilantes and police goondas who fleece the tribals and the landless,” Vikalp said in his 19-minute statement, the audio of which was sent via WhatsApp to journalists in Khammam and Visakhapatnam.

Since the ghastly ambush of October 24, 2016, in which 30 Maoists were killed by commandos, the rebels seemed to have improved their strategy by attacking the CRPF in broad daylight, swiftly and precisely on a road project in Sukma.

The massacre is one of the worst in seven years since 2010, when the rebels killed 75 CRPF troopers in the same region.

A surprise ambush

On April 24, the Maoists timed their attack on the CRPF during lunch when sentries were relaxed and the main force disengaged their arms. After they received the signal from operatives posing as road construction labourers that the food van had arrived, they took positions on both sides of the road in the Burakapal-Chintagufa area, a hot-bed of ultras in Sukma.

Unsuspecting, the CRPF considered them labourers under MNREGA. The Maoists waited until almost 80 percent of the troops dispersed for water and food and bolted toward the vans to attack.

“The surprise worked in our favour. The CRPF never expected us to attack in the afternoon, as normally such ambushes are during wee hours in the morning or late evenings,” Azad, a Maoist spokesman of the Andhra-Odisha Border (AOB) unit whose team was also part of the operations, had told Telugu scribes over phone. The latest attack also silenced talk that the Red Corridor was shrinking and that the Maoists’ control over the forests was waning.

The Chintagufa and Chintalnar areas have been virtual strongholds of the Maoists since 1982-83 where they ran a parallel government after sundown. In the recent massacre, the ultras grabbed whatever weapons, shoes, water cans and ammunition they could find.

“The corporate mafia was spreading mala fide reports that Maoists cut the private parts of dead jawans. Monday’s strike was also against the Centre’s growing intolerance and the Raman Singh government against tribal and Dalit movements across the country and for creating a ‘fascist’atmosphere in Chhattisgarh,” said Azad.

Internal strife led to attack

In a circular after the March 11, 2017, attack on the CRPF (where 12 jawans were killed), the Central Committee (CC) of the CPI (Maoists) had found fault with their militia’s attacks on the CRPF, police stations and vehicles and VVIPs in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. “Such attacks will only increase attacks on tribals and hapless women,” said the circular.

But sources also contend that the commanders of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) in Telangana and Odisha, and their front organisation convenors, had differed with the CC and were keen on revenge. “If these roads and bridges are completed in these districts [roads are being built in eight Chhattisgarh districts] and the security forces get access to the area, then we have to give up our movement and look for new areas for survival,” a senior member of the AOB and Jharkhand area militia division told this reporter over phone.

The Telangana state police intelligence says that after two attacks in February and March on the CRPF in Bastar and Dantewada, the CC directed the militia and other field operatives to end such attacks on the CRPF. “What if they build a good road; we can also use it and destroy it whenever needed. Instead, we should organise tribals to stall the road work and stage protests with workers,”the CC had advised.

The 80 km Sukma road from Dornapal to Jagargunda is considered a ‘death trap’ for the CRPF –from a hotbed of cattle smuggling to fierce encounters between Naxals and security forces, it’s the only way to Jagargunda, with the Maoists cutting off the other three access roads. It comes as a major relief in moving supplies and also helps back up forces during operations.

Police claim that except for four to five top leaders, including Muppala Lakshman Rao alias Ganapati and Mallojula Venugopal (Kishenji’s brother), the old guard had gradually lost control over the militia and special teams since the 1990s, after the formation of the Greyhounds in united AP, which undertook operations against the Naxals.

Thirty two-year-old Madvi Hidma, a Khoya tribal well-versed with cyber technology and explosives, and the current chief of the first battalion of the PLGA is suspected to be behind the 2017 Sukma attack (and three other ambushes from February to March).

Two years ago, Hidma was 17th in the party hierarchy. As age caught up with several top leaders, along with arrests and deaths of others, Hidma had quickly risen in 2015. “He held several positions in PLGA, its cyber team and also counter-intelligence. He was also the personal guard of Ganapati and Kishenji in the past,” said a senior police official.

Though they discount a split, a churn is definitely underway in the country’s biggest Maoist group. Almost 80 percent of the CC has leaders over 50 years of age and most of the women members are their wives. “The young guard has decided to stop road work and also avenge the October 24 attack at Malkangiri where the second-rung leadership [six commanders, including two CC members] was killed,”says a Maoist source.

During a 2016 cultural drive by CRPF in the Dornapal–Jagargunda belt, the security forces chanced upon tribals who were divided between Telugu and non-Telugu Maoists. Further probe revealed that the Telugu-speaking tribals near Venkatapuram, on the border of Khammam in Andhra, owed allegiance to the old order of PWG (People’s War Group), now holding top positions in the CPI (M). They resented the Maoists of the local cadre (who speak a dialect which is a mix of Telugu and Hindi) and kept away from them. Similarly, local factions of Maoists in Odisha and Jharkhand are opposed to the Telugu domination within the CC.

Odisha’s top Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda, who was expelled in 2012 by its CC, had hit back at the leadership accusing it of being anti-tribal, anti-minority and anti-people. He was also opposed to the formation of the AOB unit and instead wanted it to be controlled by the Odisha wing.

The CC nixed his plan and appointed many Telugu commanders for the AOB when RK (Akkiraju Hargopal) took over the AOB area. “Panda’s exit had weakened the AOB and opened it up for attacks by Chhattisgarh and Odisha rebels,”says a police intelligence official in Andhra Pradesh.

Police also blame Panda for the Maoists’ loss of top leaders in AP during the October 2016 encounter in AOB, where Gajarla Ravi alias Uday and Chalapathi alias Appa Rao were killed. Munna, the son of former PWG secretary RK, was another loss, besides Daya, Venkat Ramana, Bengal Suresh, Ganesh, Latha, Mamata, Budri, Rajesh, Swarna, Madhu and Murali. Police say the encounter dealt a severe blow to the Maoists, who were pushed to the Andhra-Odisha border after being driven out from Narayanpatna and Bandhugaon in neighbouringKoraput.

Analysts in the police intelligence and experts on left-wing extremism (LWE) in the Ministry of Home Affairs contend that a new young, urbane and cut-throat order that was well-versed with modern warfare has been gradually taking over since the failure of AP-Maoist talks in 2007, and gaining ground especially since 2010. This order, aged between 30 and 50, also openly differs with the old, which championed organisational expansion rather than fighting.

Analysts also say that the Telugu speaking or the ex-PWG cadres were slowly losing control of the militia. Rifts are showing in Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Maharashtra, though they retain a semblance of loyalty in AP and Telangana.

“As the strength of Telugus in the organisation is gradually on the wane due to surrenders, arrests or encounter deaths, the Maoists are looking at a new leadership from mostly the northern states and non-Telangana or AP cadres,” says an analyst, who prefers to remain anonymous.

“But as the Maoists’ strength is dwindling in the north, the Telugu leadership cannot be written off easily as they hold the weapons and purse,” says a senior Maoist analyst and a former IG in the Telangana police.

Demonetisation and its effect on Maoists

A state-wise breakdown of LWE between 2011 and 2017 shows that both Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh compete when it comes to the number of reported incidents and deaths. In the last six years, 784 deaths and 2,484 incidents of violence have been reported in Chhattisgarh, making it the worst affected state.

Interestingly, the number of Maoists surrendering has also gone up significantly. In 2016 alone, 1,142Maoists surrendered — the highest in the last five years. In the same year, nearly a month after demonetisation, it was reported that a record number of 564 Maoists surrendered. This was attributed to their inability to conceal old currency notes to pay for medical treatment and food, followed by crackdown of security forces.

Sources in the police and Maoist circles contend that demonetisation has also hit the resource base of the ultras to launch their ‘drought raids’ in 2017. In 2015 and 2016, Maoists conducted nearly 110 drought raids in tribal belts and in the interiors of Mahbubnagar, Karimnagar and Srikakulam in Telangana and Andhra to loot grains from shops and distribute it among poor and tribals.

“We have seized over Rs 12 crores worth old notes. The Maoists used to get lorries at double the rates for their activities and now they do not have the cash,” says a senior police official in Visakhapatnam.

Under the surrender-cum-rehabilitation scheme, all LWE-affected states have been providing an immediate grant of Rs 2.5 lakh for high-ranking LWE cadres and Rs 1.5 lakh for mid and lower-level cadres. There is an added incentive if a Naxalite surrenders with arms.

Surrendered weapons such as Light Machine Guns, Rocket Propelled Grenades, Sniper Rifles and Rocket Launchers can fetch Rs 35,000 each while AK 47, AK 56 and AK 74 rifles fetch an additional Rs 25,000. A monthly stipend of Rs 4,000 is also given for 36 months, until they find employment.

In Telangana and AP, the surrendered activist is also eligible for health cards, a house, 3-5 acres of land and his bounty is also given to him in an escrow account. Maoist sources say that many cadres had surrendered because they wanted money for necessities.

The tribal continues to suffer

Since the launch of Operation Green Hunt in November 2009 and the deployment of CRPF in large numbers, life has been difficult in Chhattisgarh. Earlier, if one had to travel by road from Bhadrachalam to Jagdalpur, even in government buses, people faced the scrutiny of the anti-Naxal brigade, Salwa Judum at Cherla, Konta, Errabore and Dornapal. Now, deemed illegal, the Salwa Judum has been replaced by the CRPF.

For people in Bastar and Dantewada, the killing of tribals, ultras and security forces is simply routine. People do not travel after sundown in Chhattisgarh’s four districts. “We are scared of the security forces who ask too many questions and detain us for hours,” says Gosim Pandu of Errabore near Konta in Dantewada.

The Khoya and Konda Dora tribals are affected the most as they are suspected of carrying essential goods and passing on information to the Maoists, popularly known as ‘annalu’ (elder brothers in Telugu) in these parts of the Dandakaranya forests. Particularly after the October 24, 2016, massacre in the AOB, the CRPF has tightened security on tribal movements. The Maoist underground network often releases pictures and visuals of CRPF harassment of tribal women and farmers, though the government denies it.

What will happen next? A security forces crackdown is perhaps inevitable. Loss to life is a given. With neither side prepared to blink first, the distressed tribal is stuck in the crossfire between the Maoists and the government.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)