At a time when Maoist violence has emerged as the country's biggest internal security threat, Odisha has set an example by drastically bringing down ultra-left wing insurgency in its territory, thanks largely to a strategy of going after high-value targets and encouraging low-level rebel cadres to surrender.
Five years ago, the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) held sway in more than half of the state's 30 districts but over the past three years, the rebels have lost their hold significantly.
"The Maoists are on the back foot, but we have a long-term approach in dealing them. Once development percolates down, people will realise the futility of siding with the ultras," Yashwant Jethwa, inspector general of police, southwest range, told HT.
While states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are still struggling to control the insurgents, Odisha has succeeded in reducing the rebels' presence to negligible levels in most districts except their main stronghold, Malkangiri as well as Koraput and Nuapada.
Despite the success, the government isn't letting down its guard with more than 15,000 security forces engaged in anti-Maoist operations.
"The situation remains challenging in the districts of Malkangiri, Koraput and Nuapada. The CPI (Maoist) still maintains resilience and poses a clear threat to security forces in areas bordering Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand," chief minister Naveen Patnaik said in a letter to Union home minister Rajnath Singh.
The top Maoist leadership is aware of the reversal in fortunes. A review paper circulated among top cadres in September last year expressed concern over what it described as the "surrender of our cadres to the enemy (security forces)" and the rebels' losing their hold over tribals.
On the police radar are at least seven top Maoist leaders operating in the state's southern districts. In the first week of January, Maoist leader Ramkrishna (RK) - a central committee member of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) - narrowly escaped being captured in a joint operation by Odisha and Andhra Pradesh police along with the BSF (Border Security Force) in the forests of Malkangiri.
Recently, a deputy commander of a local guerilla squad under Mainpuri-Nuapada division, Suraj, was killed in an encounter with Odisha police in a forest in Kalahandi district.
A rifle recovered from his possession was found to have been stolen from Rajesh Pawar, additional SP of Gariabandh in Chhattisgarh, when he was killed along with eight policemen in an ambush by Maoists near the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border in 2011.
Police have encouraged lower-level cadres to take advantage of the government's surrender policy. Since January, more than 10 cadres have surrendered.
On their part, the Maoists have been trying to regain lost ground. They have opened new fronts in Kalahandi, Balangir and Bargarh along the Chhattisgarh border and are trying to revive their movement in Sambalpur, Deogarh, Sundargarh and Kandhamal districts where they were highly active earlier but have lately been plagued by an inability to recruit local cadres.
Despite the successful crackdown, a senior police officer warned the Maoists could regroup fast. "It is up to the administration to usher in development in areas cleared of the rebels because it is basically an administrative problem. The Maoist threat may re-emerge if development is neglected," he said.