A CRPF patrol in the Pamed area of Bijapur district, February 18 (Photo: ANI)
IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, the spokesperson of the Communist Party of India-Maoist, or CPI(Maoist), ‘Abhay’, issued a press release castigating the Narendra Modi Government for spreading lies about the surrender of Ganapathy, the former general secretary of the party. Calling the story a “brutal lie”, Abhay went on to blame the Centre for most things that ail India: from economic problems to the confrontation with China in the Galwan Valley and so on.
In the diatribe, one paragraph stood out: Comrade Ganapathy had voluntarily taken the decision to quit the responsibility of the party’s general secretary two years ago due to age and common ailments: ‘It is a common thing in everybody’s life. It has no relation with this brutal lie.’ The Modi Government had used this story to deceive the people and sidetrack the entire population, went the claim.
Yet, in the entire release, the surrender was not once denied in explicit terms but only stories about Ganapathy’s possible surrender to the Telangana Police were denied.
It was an unusual release. The Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist) rarely issues press releases and usually its lower rungs do so. About a fortnight later, another release—this time in Hindi—was issued with the identical message in more colourful language by the South Sub-Zonal Bureau of the party.
In the ‘normal days’ of Maoist violence, one could dismiss such notes as propaganda exercises. But these are hardly normal days in south Bastar.
Behind this state of panic lies a perfect storm of coalescing events that have made life very difficult for Maoists in their key stronghold in south Bastar: the area at the tri-junction of Bijapur, Dantewada and Sukma districts. Murders of innocent villagers, the absence of organisational control over armed units and, finally, cases of internecine killings among commanders seen in the last one week have compounded their problems.
Maoists are usually careful about killing villagers in areas of their influence. This is part of their strategy of not alienating their support base. Their survival in the dense forests of south Bastar depends on help from people living in these villages. Yet, in September, there has been a spate of killings in Bijapur, Dantewada and Sukma. Two dozen cases have been reported where villagers were hacked to death on suspicion of being police informers and, in some cases, secret soldiers. In many cases, reports have not been filed with the police as villagers fear retaliation from the Maoists if they do. There are also instances of entire families being ‘externed’ from their villages on allegations of being police informers.
Some cases are particularly gruesome. On September 30th, in two incidents, Maoists killed a former deputy sarpanch, one Dhaniram Korsa, and a ward panchayat member, Gopal Kudiyam, in front of their relatives. The cases were reported from the Jangla area of Bijapur district. Eight days earlier, on September 22nd, another four villagers were killed in the Savnar-Pidiya area of Bijapur district. Once again, the allegation was that the four were police informers.
Often, villagers are taken deep into a forest for ‘questioning’ and they never return. In one such instance on September 4th, two villagers who lived near Kirandul town in Dantewada district were called for ‘questioning’ by Maoists. When they did not return, their families began searching the nearby forests for them. Their bodies were discovered about 10 kilometres from Kirandul near the Dokapara area of Hiroli, a village adjacent to the town. The person who ‘discovered’ the bodies (no relation of the men killed) was later found to be part of the group that had killed the two men. The Gangaloor Area Committee of Maoists from Bijapur district accepted responsibility for killing the two. This area where the duo was killed lies close to the border of Bijapur district. The area committee is the lowest formation in the Maoist hierarchy empowered to carry out executions.
The killings of villagers show firepower is now in the hands of inexperienced commanders. Their predecessors, like former CPI(Maoist) General Secretary Ganapathy, had an idea about the political use of violence
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It is difficult to understand why these killings are happening now—and why these were not seen earlier when there was pressure on the Maoists from police and paramilitary forces. One clue can be discerned in the changing pattern of leadership of these armed units and the hierarchy controlling them. In December last year, Ramanna, the 55-year-old secretary of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC), the formation that controls Maoist activities in parts of Maharashtra, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, died in the Pamed area of Bijapur district. Since his death, that position has not been filled. Other experienced Maoist commanders in the area are either unwell or have reached an age when their ability to effectively control lower-rung cadres is growing weaker.
The result is that firepower is now in the hands of relatively inexperienced commanders. The earlier commanders were careful when they ordered hits and had an idea about the political use of violence, something that made them dangerous adversaries for the state. The new commanders lack this sense and have little idea about linking political objectives (‘revolution’) with the use of violence. This has paid off dividends for the security forces.
In March this year, 17 security personnel were killed near Minpa in Sukma district. This was considered a particularly violent attack in a while. By 2020, encounters in which police and security personnel were felled in large numbers were a faint memory. The Minpa encounter was seen as a reminder that this was not so. But the story received a twist in September when a joint patrol of the District Reserve Group (DRG)—a localised paramilitary force—and a specialised unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) ran into an encounter with Maoists in the Entapad area of Sukma district, not far from the area where the March encounter had taken place. While the Maoists ran away after an exchange of fire, what they left behind was revealing. Documents recovered by the patrol team showed that Maoists had lost 23 cadres in the Minpa encounter compared to the three they had admitted in propaganda videos and messages relayed earlier in the year. In a release, P Sundarraj, Inspector General of Police for the Bastar Range said: “Maoists have admitted they faced considerable difficulties in sourcing supplies during the lockdown period and in many places they even had to face shortages of food items.”
If this were not enough, a police programme encouraging Maoists to ‘come back home’—dubbed lon varratu in the Gondi language—has begun yielding results. In Dantewada district alone, 112 Maoists, with 27 having rewards on their heads, have surrendered since the programme was launched in July.
THE STANDARD ‘WAVE’ explanation for Maoism in India is that it occurs in different phases—the one seen currently in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and parts of West Bengal is the third phase (1980 onwards). Theories of these kinds look at the state of ultra-Left politics and try to correlate them with the possibility of mass mobilisation at any given time in India. These theories find it hard to explain how the earlier phases ended except by resorting to bland statements about ‘state repression’. What is being seen in south Bastar is very different. Far more than ‘state repression’, a host of other factors have come together to create a climate of unviability for Maoism.
Recent events demonstrate that something else is at work. Villages like Gampur and Gangaloor (in Bijapur district), or Hiroli and Potali (in Dantewada district), were at one time considered remote and inaccessible by the state police. Without proper roads—Maoists either blew them up or did not allow them to be built in the first place—even a distance of 30-40 km became impossible to traverse. With an extensive road network––constructed at great human and material cost over the last decade–– one that reaches even ‘remote’ villages, there is, literally, no place left to hide for the Maoists.
Since Ramanna’s death, his position has not been filled. Something else is at work too. Villages once considered remote are now accessible. With an extensive road network, constructed over the last decade, there is no place left to run and hide for the Maoists
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Most of the killings mentioned here have taken place in villages that lie in an arc that spans a radius of 40 km from Jagargonda in Sukma district. This area has parts in Bijapur district that lie to the northwest of Jagargonda and in the northeast direction, extending to the area just beyond Aranpur in Dantewada district. A decade ago, this entire area could only be accessed by helicopter. The roads either did not exist or, if they did, it was extremely risky to drive on them. In the last one year alone, a number of security force camps have been established in places once considered ‘impossible’. For example, there is now a camp at Potali at the southern edge of Dantewada district close to the border with Sukma district. Anyone familiar with the terrain and the political situation in the area would attest that even two years ago this was considered an extremely difficult proposition. Today, Potali is a village where Maoists are on the backfoot. In July this year, they ordered villagers in Potali to dig up a road that led to a newly established police camp. Instead of meekly obeying, the villagers refused to follow the diktat. Among the two men who refused were Maoist workers from the village. In retaliation, the two were killed and another 15 villagers were brutally beaten. Usually, such punishment is sufficient to make an entire village fall in line. It is a tactic seen across the region. But it did not work this time—the village is not your usual spot for a morning stroll but neither is it under Maoist control. The presence of a paramilitary camp has turned the tide in Potali.
In March, 17 security personnel were killed near Minpa in Sukma district. By 2020, encounters in which security personnel were felled in large numbers were a faint memory. But the story received a twist in September when a security patrol ran into Maoists in the Entapad area. The Maoists ran away after an exchange of fire but left behind documents that showed they had lost 23 cadres in the Minpa encounter and not three as they had claimed in propaganda videos
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All this is part of a well-thought-out strategy of area domination by the state police, the CRPF and the DRG acting in unison. In contrast to the reckless and counterproductive tactics of the Salwa Judum era, efforts made in the last five six years are paying off. In the Sukma area, for example, the road from Dornapal to Jagargonda is now dotted with security camps, making it possible to focus security operations in areas where Maoists have been on the run in the last six-odd months. This is the tri-junction area that links Bijapur, Dantewada and Sukma. In southern Dantewada, a string of camps is being laid from Sameli in the southeast across the dense jungle that touches the tip of Kirandul town. While this will take some time—and interior areas such as Kondasawli village will remain out of easy reach—the writing is on the wall for the Maoists: they have nowhere left to run. Earlier, the whole south Bastar area was one contiguous and huge stretch of territory under their control. Now, there are island-like patches of territory controlled by them. In the south, in Bijapur, Pamed is one such area. In the west, Abujmad—the great dense forest that cuts across Chhattisgarh into Maharashtra—is another. But in south Bastar proper, the security forces have thrown a grid-like control. The end cannot be far.
Sympathisers of Maoists and ideologues will paint a different picture, one of unrelenting oppression by the government that has forced Maoists to retreat somewhat. It will also be said that as long as oppression remains, Maoist ideology will inspire people to rise against the state. The facts on the ground are different. A series of tactical mistakes, weaknesses in grooming the right kind of leaders and the slow but steady mastery of terrain by the security forces has turned the tide against the Maoists in Chhattisgarh.