Devastating impact on Maoists, but be prepared for revenge attacks
It is important to recognise that while fatalities in single incidents cause great jubilation or distress, they have little impact on the broader trajectory of a protracted conflict.
At least 37 Maoists were killed in two separate encounters in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra on April 22 and 23. Significantly, at the time of writing, no fatalities have been reported among security forces. Details of these incidents are still hazy. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that while fatalities in single incidents cause great jubilation or distress — depending on which side you are on — they have little impact on the broader trajectory of a protracted conflict.
It is, indeed, within the context of this trajectory that these incidents acquire their greater, and from a Maoist perspective, potentially devastating, significance; they come in the wake of continuous reverses suffered by Maoists over the past years, both in Gadchiroli and across the wider theatre of their erstwhile dominance — the so-called Red Corridor.
Gadchiroli has been the epicentre of Maoist violence in Maharashtra and, at its peak in 2009, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (www.satp.org) database, at least 86 fatalities were registered in the district, including 52 security force personnel, 23 Maoists and 11 civilians, yielding an adverse security forces:Maoist kill ratio of 2.26:1. The current year has recorded 43 Maoist-linked fatalities, including one trooper, one civilian, and 41 Maoists, an overwhelming 1:41 ratio in favour of security forces. Twenty-five fatalities were recorded through 2017, including three security force personnel, seven civilians, and 15 Maoists (a security force-Maoist kill ratio of 1:5); adding to 26 fatalities in 2016, including two troopers, 12 civilians, and 12 Maoists (a security force-Maoist kill ratio of 1:6).
This trajectory mimics the broad trends in belts across India where Maoists are active. From a peak of 1,180 fatalities in 2010, the number bottomed out at 251 in 2015, including 101 Naxalites,57 security force personnel, and 93 civilians. They rose to 433 in 2016, including 244 Maoists, 66 security force personnel and 123 civilians; and 332 in 2017, including 149 Maoists, 74 security force personnel, and 109 civilians; reflecting the largest increases in Maoist fatalities.
At its peak, a total of 223 districts across 20 states were declared Maoist-affected in 2008, with 87 of these recording violence. The ministry of home affairs lists 90 ‘affected’ districts, of which 30 are in the ‘most affected’ category — the latter largely clustered around the Dandakaranya belt, including Gadchiroli, the Bastar division of Chattisgarh, and contiguous areas of south Odisha, Andhra and Telangana; as well as some districts in Bihar and Jharkhand.
The shift from blind and under-resourced ‘area domination’ and ‘clear, hold and develop’ strategies in 2009-10, to more localised intelligence-based operations — founded on the lessons of the Andhra experience and, at least initially, largely on inputs from the Andhra Pradesh Special Intelligence Bureau — have decimated the Maoist leadership.
Crucially, since 2010, at least 21 of 39 members of the top Communist Party of India (Maoist) leadership, politburo and central committee, have been ‘neutralised’ — three killed, 16 arrested, and two surrendered; 219 state level and 736 at the district level have, similarly, been put out of action, including 20 and 106 in each category, respectively, killed. The loss of leadership has been devastating, both in terms of capacity for command, control and operations, as well as morale, feeding into a surge in surrenders: 1,442 in 2016 and 685 in 2017. In addition, 1,840 and 1,888 Maoists were arrested across the country, respectively, in 2016 and 2017. Critically, a number of development interventions by the government are beginning to bear fruit, improving access and communications in the worst affected areas even as some welfare programmes have had an impact on Maoist support base.
The Maoists concede they have lost ground in their heartland areas and are under increasing threat in their remaining safe havens. But their residual capacities are significant and they have targeted security forces successfully. Within the logic of the war they are waging, executing dramatic retaliation for security forces’ success in Gadchiroli will certainly be high among their priorities. Revenge attacks may come wherever and whenever the opportunity presents itself.
(Ajai Sahni is the executive director, Institute of Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal)