The war in Bastar

Published : Jun 12, 2013 12:30 IST

Security forces personnel carry a body from the site of Maoist ambush of May 25.

Security forces personnel carry a body from the site of Maoist ambush of May 25.

A THREE-METRE-WIDE meandering road, with uneven rocky hills on one side and deep, dense forests on the other along a 25-kilometre stretch, constitutes Jeeram Ghati, a part of the wider Kanger valley in south Bastar, known for its rich natural resources and 90 per cent Adivasi population. This highway in southern Chhattisgarh connects Bastar with Andhra Pradesh, through areas like Sukma and Konta, theatres of a war between the state’s security forces and the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Despite being at the centre of a war zone, this highway has remained by and large immune to conflicts as it is also one of the busiest trade routes in the region. Heavy vehicles and other carriers constantly transport forest produce and other goods through this highway.

It is because of such factors that the CPI (Maoist)’s attack on the Congress convoy on May 25, which killed 27 people, including Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma and State Congress president Nand Kumar Patel, took the Indian security forces by surprise. In its biggest operation since the 2010 ambush on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) platoon which left 78 soldiers dead, the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) of the banned CPI (Maoist) planned the attack on the highway during the Congress’ Parivartan Yatra (rally for change). The Maoists used their familiarity with the rough terrain of the Kanger valley to their advantage and forced the Congress convoy and the security forces into a disadvantageous position by trapping them from both the sides on the narrow, S-shaped road.

The PLGA team had around two hours to complete their operation as the carefully chosen site of attack was at least 10 kilometres away from the two nearest police stations—Darbha and Tongpal—which are on two different sides of the valley. The Congress’ convoy comprised around 25 cars and the attack on it started around 4:30 p.m. The security forces reached the spot by 6:30 p.m. only to find dead bodies, injured people and blasted cars strewn around.

According to survivors Frontline spoke to, the Maoists had blocked the road with a truck in such a way that only one car could pass at a time. The driver of the truck was later found killed. The first car of the convoy, in which State Congress leader Avadesh Gautam was seated, passed through the blocked road without getting hurt. The second car, which carried local Congress workers, was blown off by a strong improvised explosive device (IED). That is when the convoy came to a halt and the Maoists started attacking it. “Most of the Maoists were young and carried wireless sets. Nand Kumar Patel, his son and Sukma’s MLA Kawashi Lakma were in the third car. They were caught when they were trying to escape into the jungle. As the crossfire continued, the Maoists kept looking for Mahendra Karma, who seemed to be their first target. Karma identified himself to the Maoists. But the Maoists took him away only after they verified his identity from other Congress leaders. Once they took Karma into the bushes, the firing stopped. Some rebels gave us water and medicines and asked us to go,” said one survivor who refused to be named. Kawashi Lakma told the media that he and some other Congress workers were let off by the Maoists while Nand Kumar Patel and his son were taken into the jungle.

Avadesh Gautam, who had managed to escape the attack, meanwhile reported the incident at the Darbha police station. He said publicly that he had not been given prompt support, an allegation the police denied. The police said that they reached the spot as early as was possible. By 9 p.m., the CRPF personnel had seized the spot of the attack and the injured were sent to different hospitals. On the morning of May 26, the bodies of Nand Kumar Patel and his son, with bullet injuries, were found in the jungle, 200 metres away from the spot.

Impact of the attack Along with Karma and Patel, former MLA Uday Mudliyar was also killed. Former Union Minister Vidya Charan Shukla was injured and is recovering at a hospital in Delhi. However, in the crossfire, local Congress workers and some civilians were also killed. The reverberations of the attack were felt not only in Chhattisgarh but also in New Delhi as this is the first attack in which Maoists have targeted political leaders and not the security forces. Moreover, the attack came ahead of the State elections scheduled for November 2013.

The month of May in Chhattisgarh was full of political developments. The attack coincided with the Vikas Yatra (rally for progress) undertaken by the Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister, Raman Singh, to talk about his government’s achievements and the Parivartan Yatra in which Congress leaders were canvassing against the government’s failures in the last nine years. The Parivartan Yatra focussed especially on Adivasi areas. It talked about Adivasi entitlements and their right to jal , jangal and jameen (water, forests, and land).

The disenchantment of the tribal people with the BJP government in the State has particularly been strong in the last nine years owing mostly to the indiscriminate displacement of people and land acquisition prompted by extractive industries that had entered into an agreement with the State government. Along with this, Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt as part of the military strategy against left-wing extremism have resulted in tremendous victimisation of innocent people. The BJP had performed well in constituencies in the Adivasi areas in the last two elections. This led the Congress to target these areas through the Parivartan Yatra.

That is why the ambush, which targeted not only Karma but also the most important leaders of the State Congress, has come as a shock to the Congress. The death of Patel could prove to be an immense loss for the party as he had managed to unite the various factions within the organisation; infighting had left the State Congress toothless for more than a decade. A political observer in the State told Frontline that the consolidation of various ranks in the party under Patel, however, had upset party leader and former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and his aides. This had split the party into two camps—Ajit Jogi and the rest of the State Congress.

The audacity of the Maoist attack has forced the Union government to ask the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe it. Ever since a national daily, while reporting on the NIA’s preliminary investigation, alleged that the NIA had found the involvement of four Congress leaders in the ambush and claimed, on the basis of information from NIA sources, that the Maoists had received intelligence inputs from these four leaders, the split within the Congress ranks has become even deeper. Meanwhile, Karma’s son Deepak Karma told the press that he suspected the involvement of Congress party members in his father’s killing.

State Congress spokesperson Shailesh Nitin Trivedi termed such allegations baseless and part of the “BJP’s propaganda” to escape accountability. However, some observers of the State’s politics believe that the Congress high command’s decision to appoint Chandra Das Mahant, Union Minister and a leader not involved with State’s politics, as the working president of the State Congress was taken only to quell the divisions within the party ranks ahead of the November elections.

The Maoists have since then used the situation to their advantage by issuing several letters of threat to the State administration saying that their next targets would be important leaders of Salwa Judum. In a press statement, the CPI (Maoist), while expressing regret and apology for killing civilians and local Congress workers, explained that the ambush was meant to kill Karma, who had been on the Maoist scanner for the last six years. The banned party had tried to kill him several times before. It was because of this that he was given Z plus security cover.

According to observers, the Maoists have gained on two fronts because of such a high-profile ambush. Firstly, by targeting political leaders, especially Karma, the PLGA has been able to boost the falling morale of its cadre. The recruitment of new cadre has been coming down over the last few years and the number of people leaving the party had also increased in that period. Secondly, on a wider political plane, it has tried to silence its critics, who have constantly accused the CPI (Maoist) of killing only the foot soldiers and innocent people and not what it calls “the ruling class”.

Karma and Salwa Judum The CPI (Maoist) has grown in strength in Bastar primarily because of three factors. One, it fought alongside the Adivasis against the local contractors and ensured that the contractors paid the Adivasis the minimum wages for tendu leaf (used for bidi manufacturing) collection, the main source of income for the Adivasis. It also helped people out of the exploitative Maalik-Makbuja bonded labour system in timber felling. Two, it organised people against the excesses of forest officials who took them for a ride. Three, through force, it distributed the lands of the malguzars (feudal lords) to landless Adivasis.

Karma came from a feudal Manjhi family. He was one of the tribal landlords in the area who, like many other landed people, turned against the Maoists in the 1980s. Because of the land distribution process, initiated forcibly by the Maoists, Karma had always been working to form an alternative front that could fight the Maoists. Therefore, he developed strong associations with big businesses and feudal lords from across party lines. He supported land acquisition by the government, conducted Jan Jagaran campaigns against the Maoists, and advocated industrialisation and mining activities in Bastar. Because of such activities, many Congress leaders too were against him.

In the early 2000s, he founded a group called Salwa Judum (Movement for Peace), ostensibly as a Gandhian movement. But it went on to appoint landed Adivasis as “special police officers” (SPOs) and became a militant force. The State government used the Judum to its advantage as the SPOs helped the security forces in navigating the dense forests. Various civil rights groups strongly opposed the organisation. Many official and unofficial reports claimed that it displaced about 50,000 people from their villages and destroyed 650 villages in the area. Activists claim that constant plundering, torching of villages, rapes and killing of innocent Adivasis became a norm in Bastar. Salwa Judum was disbanded following a 2011 Supreme Court decision that declared the organisation “illegal and unconstitutional”.

Karma has been on the hit list of the Maoists since 2007. In a press statement, which also declared Nand Kumar Patel and Vidya Charan Shukla as people’s enemies, the CPI (Maoist) justified the killings. “With this action we have taken revenge of over a thousand Adivasis who were brutally murdered in the hands of Salwa Judum goons and government armed forces. We also have taken revenge on behalf of those hundreds of mothers and sisters who were subjected to cruellest forms of violence, humiliation and sexual assault. We have taken revenge on behalf of the thousands of Bastarites who lost their homes, cattle, chickens, goats, pottery, clothing, grain, crops... everything and were forced to live a miserable life in subhuman conditions,” it said.

Military strategy The Maoist presence in the area has increased constantly because of continued neglect by the state. Bastar is one of the poorest regions in the country. The health conditions are bad and so are other human development indices. Ever since Independence, Bastar’s development has never figured in the state’s priorities. Inhuman living conditions of the people, coupled with unattended exploitation of Adivasis, gave the Maoists an ideal opportunity to expand their movement in the region.

The governments started giving attention to the area only after left-wing extremism had become strong. In order to rid the area of Maoists, the government devised many strategies over the last few years. However, the prolonged neglect of the region inevitably affected the military strategy of the government.

The administrative and military units remain absolutely unfamiliar with the territory and this is the biggest impediment in devising a sustainable military strategy. The CPI (Maoist) holds control over more than 70 per cent of the area and calls this region a “liberated zone”. Abujhmaad (inaccessible hilly forests) are forests that range from central Bastar to Gadchiroli in Maharashtra to Bijapur in south Bastar. The security forces had never entered this territory until last year. In order to prove a point to the Maoists, the CRPF, along with the State police, entered Abujhmaad last year from three sides in what they called “Operation Hakka”. But the forces could only reach the periphery of Abujhmaad in three days, after which they were forced to come back fearing heavy casualties. This is the area where the CPI (Maoist) runs a tax-based parallel government called Janatana Sarkar. From administrative units to internal security to health and education, everything is governed by the Maoists. Because of its inaccessible nature, this area is almost conflict-free.

It is the region outside Abujhmaad, which includes Sukma, Dantewada and parts of Kanker, which has the war zones. All the major left-wing extremist ambushes and operations by security forces happen in these pockets. These areas are in the plains and can be accessed despite having dense forests. It is here that the State and Central forces constantly try to set up bases. In this process, they face attacks from the Maoists.

Bastar’s Superintendent of Police, Ajay Yadav, told Frontline : “Our military strategy has been to ‘clear the periphery and hit the core’. There is no other way out. After this attack, we are clear that we will increase the number of proactive and reactive operations in the area. In proactive operations, we will force developmental work after clearing the area through force. In reactive operations, we will directly hit the rebels.” Similar strategies have also been echoed by the Central government. However, this is easier said than done.

In the last 20 years, the security forces have kept alive the communication channel throughout Bastar only along the State highways. They have not managed to enter the forests at all. This is why most of the Maoist ambushes happen on State roads as they block the security forces right on the periphery of the highways. The naxalites have planted IEDs and landmines in all these roads and use them only when they plan an ambush. Deep gorge-like ditches have been dug on most of these roads by the Maoists to prevent the smooth movement of security forces.

Military strategists have always said that only when the security forces set up their camps inside the forests in a grid-like pattern will they be able to make some gains. A grid pattern means a horizontal system in which security camps are set up parallel to each other, in a longitudinal series. The bigger the grid, the better the penetration of the security forces. So far, the state has only developed a longitudinal series of camps in the interiors of south Bastar.

A mid-level CRPF official told Frontline : “In a grid-like pattern, we can encircle the Maoists from all sides. But that has not been possible.” It has not been possible because the Maoists know the terrain too well to allow the forces to get inside. Ever since this audacious ambush, police personnel have been on the defensive. One of their efforts to set up a parallel camp along a horizontal line at Minapa in Sukma district met with heavy casualties, following which the CRPF had to wind up that unit. This happened after the ambush. Yadav, however, told Frontline that the Minapa camp was an experimental one, a temporary base.

A police official, who refused to be named, told Frontline that in such a situation, there was growing frustration among the security forces as they knew that the government’s present military strategy would not work and the risk of being killed was immense.

In such helpless circumstances, the government has been indirectly trying to exploit the contradictions among the Maoist cadre, said the official. He said that the State police, through its detectives, had been trying to create some kind of a rift between the Telugu-speaking naxalite leaders and the Gondi leaders and their supporters. Salwa Judum was also promoted to create that rift. Operation Green Hunt, the impact of which has been disastrous in the last few years, is another such exercise. There are reports from civil society organisations that Operation Green Hunt is less of a military drive and more of a displacement drive, just as Salwa Judum was. Human rights violations, plunder and rape, thus, are not isolated events but desperate moves by the security forces to exercise some sort of control on an unknown territory.

In such a context, more unplanned operations by the security forces could lead to further human rights violations as their chances of success are remote. An adventurist military strategy by the security forces could also lead to further consolidation of left-wing extremism and alienation of Adivasis. The torching of three villages in 2011 (“Terror Force”, Frontline , August 26, 2011), the Sarkeguda fake encounters (“Firing in the Dark”, Frontline , July 27, 2012) and, more recently, the Edesmeta (Bijapur) killings, where eight innocent villagers, including three children, were shot by CRPF personnel while they were participating in their seed festival, are some cases in point.

On the other hand, the Maoists have used their guerilla tactics strategically. In the last few years, the CPI (Maoist) has employed its Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) in the peak summer months from April to July before the monsoon arrives. The weather in these months is the most hostile for the security forces and, thus, most of the big Maoists ambushes have happened in these months. In 2010, as many as 78 soldiers were killed in the month of May; Paul Alex Menon, the then District Collector of Sukma, was abducted in May 2012. The attack on the Congress convoy also happened in May. Security analysts believe that a big ambush or abduction is usually planned around the time when the Maoists need to channel the taxes collected to buy goods, arms and other requirements. Since this is also the season of tendu leaf collection and trade, it is the best time to facilitate this process. However, it requires a ceasefire-like situation, which the Maoists achieve through an aggressive ambush or the abduction of an important government official.

The CPI (Maoist), which runs a parallel government in south Bastar, sees the Indian security forces as encroachers. Like any state, it believes that the mines of natural resources amidst which the Adivasis live belong only to the people living in that territory. The State government’s intention to allow intensive mining in the area is, therefore, the biggest threat for the Maoists. The impact of even limited private mining activity here has been immensely threatening to the environment and the livelihood of the Adivasis. Indiscriminate industrial drive and also non-implementation of laws like the Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, or PESA, have only strengthened the support base of the CPI (Maoist).

The conflict in Bastar has to be understood in terms of a war between two states and not as mere insurgency. For the Indian government to make any inroads into Bastar, it has to necessarily couple intelligent policing mechanisms with a developmental approach that is participatory in nature, where Adivasis take their own decisions. Only such inclusive policies can help the government to tackle the left-wing extremism.

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