Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel hold a security review meeting in Jagdalpur on April 5
AS ONE TAKES THE highway that goes from Bijapur to the southern edge of Chhattisgarh that joins Maharashtra and Telangana, a turn on the way leads to what can only be described as a road built with blood. Not far from the hamlet of Awapalli, an arched gate with embedded photographs of martyred Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men greets you. This 16-kilometre stretch has literally been paved with the blood of troopers. Landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the very occasional ambush by Maoists made construction difficult even if it was a strategic necessity. But once it was completed some years ago, this patch of land—deep inside Bijapur district—returned to government control. It was not far from the incomplete extension of this very road, one that spills into Sukma district, that 22 paramilitary personnel were killed by Maoists on April 3rd in what was another routine operation.
It was one of those rare operations that had gone bad, ones for which Chhattisgarh is infamous. When news first filtered out of the Silger forest area in Sukma—where the operation took place—on the evening of Saturday, April 3rd, the death toll was pegged at five. It says something about ‘number numbness’ that the story was considered one of those things that happened in remote districts of India. Just days before the incident, another five troopers had died in the neighbouring district of Narayanpur when Maoists remotely triggered an IED on a culvert. But by Sunday, April 4th, when the actual toll became known, the story grabbed headlines and reckless claims about Maoism ‘returning’ gained traction. That day, Union Home Minister Amit Shah was campaigning in Assam. When he heard the news at Sualkuchi where he was alongside BJP leader and state minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, he quickly returned to New Delhi.
The next day, when he interacted with CRPF personnel at their camp in Basaguda—a strategic location at the end of the road from Awapalli—his demeanour was grim but he came out all guns blazing. He told the troopers who had assembled to listen to him at Basaguda: “Even today, I say that if they (Maoists) give up their weapons, they are welcome. But if they have weapons in their hands, then we have no option but to fight.”
In the same address, Shah also delivered what he said was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message to them: “We have to fight this war to victory. This is a fight for the country’s development and prosperity.”
Before he arrived at Basaguda, Shah had held multiple meetings in Delhi and Jagdalpur with those charged with internal security responsibilities, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and state police officers. In his public utterances, Shah was clear that this was a war that was going to be taken to its decisive and logical conclusion. These were not emollient words of a politician responding to a tragedy but a home minister who knew that the Government has a realistic chance to end an insurgency that has been going on since 1980 in this region.
In contrast to Shah’s resolve, the immediate response to the events of April 3rd among commentators and analysts was different. First, there was an intelligence and operational failure; and second, the Maoists were ‘back’. Both represent a peculiar under-appreciation of security successes achieved in South Bastar and the strategy behind regaining control over large swathes of territory. When Shah said that a decisive round to end Maoism was at hand, he was not exaggerating. The context and situation in which the deadly encounter took place in Silger was lost sight of.
Seen from any perspective, the Maoist insurgency has been severely weakened to the point that the insurgents are desperate for an exit. The peak year, in terms of deaths, was 2010. That year 267 security personnel and 264 insurgents died. If one adds 630 civilian fatalities, that was the deadliest year since the Maoists crossed the Godavari River and entered Bastar from Andhra Pradesh in 1980. After 2010, the graph reversed and the number of security personnel dying went down dramatically. In contrast, the figure for Maoists has gone up steadily. In 2020, 44 security personnel died while 134 Maoists were killed; in 2019 this figure was, respectively, 49 and 154.
From 2016, the number of insurgents killed is usually above 70 every year while for security forces, it has never crossed 60. But ‘kill statistics’ are just one part of the story. In geographic terms, the Maoists are now restricted to a tiny corner of three districts of South Bastar. In terms of casualties, Sukma remains the most dangerous district. But even in Sukma, a combination of road-building and an extraordinary security squeeze, with paramilitary camps being established in new areas every year, has resulted in the Maoists getting desperate. An equally remote and difficult district like Narayanpur—with a densely forested area that extends to Maharashtra—has seen far fewer deaths.
Another way to look at the waning insurgency is to see how many ‘big’ incidents have taken place since the peak year (2010). One can describe a big incident as one where, say, at least 15 persons have died in a single encounter with Maoists. Counted that way, such incidents total seven. These are: Tadmetla in Sukma district (2010, 76 deaths); Darbha Valley (2013, 31 deaths including those of top Congress leaders in the state); Tahkwada (2014, 15 deaths); Darbha (2015, 15 deaths); Kasalpad (2017, 14 deaths); Burkapal (2017, 25 deaths) and Minpa (2020, 17 deaths). These expensive encounters number at the most one per year, even if that is an unacceptably high figure.
Where does the encounter in Silger rank in terms of deaths and other characteristics on this list? The count, it goes without saying, is high. But there’s another feature that marks it as a routine operation that went haywire. Most of the anti-Maoist operations in Bastar start in March and tend to be completed within a month-and-a-half at most. This is the time when Maoist redoubts are most accessible, with vegetation at a level that does not affect visibility. Once it begins to rain (around June 10th to 15th ), these areas get cut off for quite a while. All the operations that resulted in heavy loss of life took place in the March-May period. Thus, the Silger incident was nothing extraordinary but another of those operations that went bad against a backdrop of a waning insurgency.
F ANYTHING, THIS shows that Maoists are on the backfoot. After the attack in Silger forest on April 3rd—which may have been a ‘success’ from their perspective but was nothing short of a tactical blunder politically—Maoists gave ample hints of suing for peace.
Soon after Amit Shah left Bastar, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) issued a press release. The format of the release was formulaic: struggle against a ‘fascist’ government for the rights of Adivasis to their land, water and forest; salutation to fallen martyrs and calls to strengthen the ‘people’s movement’. But buried in the release was a cryptic statement that said a necessary condition for talks was the creation of the right atmosphere. The note was signed by ‘Abhay’, a spokesman of CPI (Maoist).
On Tuesday, April 6th, another note, issued by ‘Vikalp’, a spokesman of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the party, had an interesting line: ‘A word about talks: We are always ready for talks. The government is not honest. In the past, those engaged in arms struggles never gave up their weapons. The responsibility to create the right conditions for talks lies with the government.’ The statement goes on to say that if the Government does not gather troops, create new camps and also stops offensive operations, then talks are feasible. The last line of the note adds: ‘the government should first release the names of mediators then we will release the captive we are holding. Until then he will remain in the protective custody of the people’s government.’
There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about the Maoist desire for talks. A party that is committed to an ideology of destroying the Indian state is unlikely to undertake a ‘revolution through talks’. The most reasonable interpretation is likely to be the search for room to breathe against the relentless ‘closure’ of space available to Maoists in South Bastar.
If the events since April 3rd are seen from this perspective, Maoists find themselves in a hole. As Shah made it clear at Basaguda, if Maoists give up their weapons, they are welcome; if they don’t, they face the unappetising prospect of a further escalation in offensive operations. From all three geographic directions—Basaguda in Bijapur, Dornapal in Sukma and Kuwakonda in Dantewada—Maoists are between the hammer and the anvil. It does make sense for them to talk of peace in this situation.
In terms of strategy, however, this option is off by at least seven to eight years if not a full decade. Back in 2009-2010, there was intense pressure from ‘intellectuals’, human rights activists and other groups—favourably disposed towards Maoists—on the Union Government to hold talks with the insurgents. The environment had been carefully prepared for that purpose. In May 2006, an Expert Group was established by the Planning Commission to study ‘Development Issue to deal with Causes of Discontent, Unrest and Extremism’. The group issued a report in 2008 titled ‘Development Challenges in Extremist Affected Areas’. This report blamed loss of land, forests, livelihood issues, social oppression and mis-governance as reasons for the rise of ‘extremism’ in leftwing extremism (LWE) affected areas. Issues such as Maoist ideology and their political goals were ignored in this analysis.
The report led to sterile debates like ‘development versus security’ when in reality the experience in Chhattisgarh showed that one could not proceed without the other. Roads could not be built without first establishing paramilitary camps. The situation was so dire that even as recently as 2016, contractors, labourers and even gravel and construction material had to be sheltered in CRPF camps in the more troubled areas. But the report and the ‘debate’ spawned by it were sufficient for the legion of intellectuals to push for talks with Maoists. Books, magazines, opeds were all pressed to that end. At that time, Maoists were picky while the Government was on the backfoot after a large number of casualties in encounters like the one at Tadmetla made it seem helpless. What happened at Silger on April 3rd is the polar opposite of the situation in 2010. Maoists want talks and a resolute Union home minister wants decisive action.
It is worthwhile to conjecture what would have happened if the Maoist press releases had been issued at another time, when ‘intellectual India’ had political traction. By now, a fullscale campaign would have been visible to ensure that ‘misguided youth’ were not killed at the hands of a brutal Government. In all likelihood, global human rights groups and non-governmental organisations would have jumped in. A major internal security threat would have been transformed into something else. For all its ideological acumen, the CPI (Maoist) is now trying to revive a political opportunity that is well past its expiry date.