Maoism remains India’s biggest internal security threat
In one of the bloodiest battles fought between the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and security forces in the Terram jungle of Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, 22 elite fighters from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and its elite Cobra battalion, District Reserve Guard (DRG) and Special Task Force (STF) lost their lives along with, reportedly, an equal number of Maoists. The five-hour-long fierce encounter on Saturday witnessed the use of light machine guns and AK-47s by the Maoists, with security forces responding in equal measure, deploying under-barrel grenade launchers and mortars against targets picked up by Heron (an unmanned aerial vehicle).
Most deaths and injuries took place when, during the fierce phase of the firefight, security personnel moved the wounded to the huts at Tekulgudam village, unaware that the village along with two others, Jeera Gaon and Jonaguda, had been vacated on the diktat of the Maoists in a well-planned strategy. Once the force was trapped, relentless fire from the enemy positions caused further damage.
This was part of a joint operation launched by the districts of Bijapur and Sukma on late Friday night, on reliable information about the presence of the dreaded Maoist commander in the area, Madvi Hidma. The operation was aimed at targeting multiple locations, and comprised around 2,000 security personnel. The group, which was targeted by the Maoists, was 450-men strong. They did not walk into a trap. Nor were they ambushed. A movement of 2,000 men would surely alert the Maoists and the force has to be prepared for such exigencies. The Heron would have picked up Maoist movements — so it was a fair and square fight where equal numbers were lost on both sides. An enquiry will reveal the real truth and the lapses of strategy and tactics. But the security personnel displayed grit and valour, fighting heroically for five hours till the Maoists broke their ranks and retreated.
This is yet another grim reminder of the capability of Maoist cadres to lie low for long periods, regroup and strike at intervals. An improvised explosive device (IED) mine blasted a bus carrying security men last month, killing three. In March 2020, in an ambush in Sukma, the Maoists killed 17 security personnel.
The downward trend of Maoist violence over the last few years has led the government and some security analysts to declare that the battle against Maoism (or Naxalism, as the terms are interchangeably used) is almost won. According to the annual report of the ministry of home affairs (MHA), Maoist violence was restricted to 251 police stations (PS) in 60 districts of eight states in 2018, in comparison with 330 PSs in 76 districts of 10 states in 2013. In the first half of 2020, it was restricted to 46 districts. The incidents of violence (670) and deaths of security personnel were the lowest in 2019, as per the available official figures.
Despite data revealing an overall reduction in violence, the capacity of Left-wing extremists to retaliate with ferocity indicates that Maoism still remains the biggest threat to our internal security, almost 11 years after then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged and framed the scale of threat in exactly this manner. Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand lie in the eye of the storm. Out of 670 incidents of Naxal violence in 2019, 463, ie 69%, occurred in these two states. The Maoists are entrenched in the jungles in these two states, and intelligence agencies, at great risk, glean their activities and plans, as deliberated upon in their central committee meetings, and share it with other central forces and state police.
But if statistics belie the real situation on the ground, what is lacking in the government’s approach towards fighting Maoism? Is a course-correction in combat strategy also desired? First, senior police commanders will have to rethink the rationale of large-scale operations. The stakes are too high and heavy losses of men are causes of serious worry. It is important to change tactics according to the situation. The Greyhounds of undivided Andhra Pradesh, a specialised force that achieved great success in weakening the Maoists, conducted their operations with small-sized teams, acting on pinpoint intelligence. Even their platoon strength team had a clear chain of command.
Second, there is a complete administrative and security vacuum in such areas to counter the Janatana Sarkar of Maoists run through their Revolutionary People Committee (RPC), equivalent to gram panchayats. For instance, allegations abound of RPCs seizing grains distributed under the public distribution system and distributing it under their aegis. The erosion of State authority is also reflected in the fact that civilians often act as the eyes and ears of the Maoists in affected areas. While extending roads and hoisting mobile towers have certainly helped, CRPF will have to set up its camps deeper in the jungles. The Rural Roads Programme (RRP) aimed at constructing 5,411 kms and connecting 44 Naxal-affected districts, must also be speeded up as most of these districts fall in Chhattisgarh.
And, finally, managing India’s internal security cannot be a part-time job. There are too many challenges, and too many critical decisions to be made on a regular basis. An internal security ministry needs to be hived off from the MHA — the secretary of the ministry must be a specialist, either a serving or retired police officer of outstanding reputation, and this must be supervised by a full-time minister who is hands-on. This cannot afford to wait any longer.
Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer, who served as Central Information Commissioner, secretary, security and special director, Intelligence Bureau.
The views expressed are personal