The Maoists, or Naxalites of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), suffered a setback on March 1 night when 12 cadres were killed in an encounter in Bijapur district, in Bastar region, Chhattisgarh — the fiercest guerrilla zone in the country.
The Naxalite/Maoist movement in India has a long history and needs to be understood in two phases — pre-Emergency and post-Emergency. Though there has been fragmentation in the 1970s, there has also been a merger of various groups in the later years. The first of the most significant mergers was that of the then People’s War (PW) led by Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, who died unsung in 2002, and Party Unity of Narayan Sanyal alias Naveen Prasad, who passed away in 2017 due to cancer. The two outfits merged in 1998.
Thereafter, on September 21, 2004, the PW and Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) merged at a meeting after protracted negotiations. In between, there were a few other mergers of smaller groups.
With these mergers, there has been a consolidation of forces. These mergers should also be seen against the backdrop of security operations against the rebels, turf wars leading to internecine clashes and the proscription imposed on the rebels from time to time by the Union government and the affected States.
Resultantly, the rebels seem to have realised that ‘strength lies in unity’. The effect the merger would have was explained by Narayan Sanyal in a 1998-interview when he said: “This is the most significant incident in the CPI-ML history after the martyrdom of Charu Mazumdar… It was the desire of the rank and file that there should be a unified leadership so that the revolution can be quickened”.
The Maoists had, themselves, admitted in a 2014-document that their movement had suffered a setback but did not elaborate. Possibly, it could be understood as follows – beginning 2011, the Maoist movement has been on a downward spiral. The rebels have not been able to raise issues that would bring people closer to them. As a result, they have not been able to expand to new areas. Their geographical presence is shrinking and cadre recruitment has declined.
To complicate things, there is a crisis in the highest leadership of the outfit — the all-powerful Central Committee (CC). At the Unity Congress in 2007, 39 members were elected to the CC; it now comprises only 18 members. While some members were killed in encounters, a few have been arrested, some passed away due to illness and two members surrendered.
Members of the Dandakaranya Special Zone Committee (DKSZC) have also surrendered. The DKSZC administers Bastar, the fiercest guerrilla zone in the country. These surrenders at the highest levels indicate a factious leadership. Possibly, the highest leadership is losing faith in Maoist ideology or is simply tired and disillusioned owing to the inability to deliver on promises.
The Maoist leadership is also ageing. General secretary Muppala Lakshmana Rao alias Ganapathy is 67 years old. Nambala Kesava Rao, lynchpin of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that spearheads all armed activities, is 63. The youngest is Chandari Yadav alias Prayag at 49 years. Within the CC, there seems to have been some discussions about a change in the highest leadership given their age but this seems unlikely. There seems to be no consensus, especially on who would replace Ganapathy and the others.
The fatalities from Maoist violence have been steadily declining since 2011. While 710 persons, including civilians, security forces and Maoists, lost their lives in 2011, this reduced to 399 in 2017. Further, for the first time, in 2015, Maoist fatalities were higher than those of the security forces (SFs).
This indicates two things: the Maoists have beaten a tactical retreat and the SFs are gaining an upper hand. This does not mean the Maoists have faded away. They are down, but not out. The Maoists have a presence in 106 districts across the country, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The number of incidents of Maoist violence in some States has more or less been the same over the years, but in some they are declining and in some, there have been zero incidents of violence. This is limited to guerrilla squads torching government buildings or killing innocent people, who they brand as police informers.
Falling Areas of Influence
Maoists’ violence in Maharashtra is now occasional. They have been nearly wiped out from North Telangana, once their flagship guerrilla zone. They have fled to Gadchiroli and Bastar, and possibly to southern Odisha. They have a negligible presence in Andhra Pradesh, limited to Visakhapatnam and Vizianagaram districts.
As one very senior intelligence officer told this author “these are non-resident squads that commit an action and quickly slip away into adjoining southern Odisha”. In southern Odisha itself, Maoist influence in shrinking. The rebels have also vacated space in West Bengal. There has not been a single incidence of violence there since 2014.
Their propensity to commit violence is on the decline in Jharkhand and Bihar, as well. The all-India violence committed by the rebels has seen a gradual decline over the years. From a high of 2,231 incidents in 2010, it dropped to 1,136 in 2013, 1,091 in 2014, 1,081 in 2015, 1,048 in 2016 and an all-time low of 908 in 2017 (see graphics). As of January 28, 2018, the number of incidents stands at 76.
Besides, they have made some attempts to penetrate parts of Assam (especially Upper Assam), Kerala (Sahyadri hills) and Malnad in Karnataka. There have been some attempts to gain a presence in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. All these attempts have been thwarted. Their attempts to mark a presence in urban centres, too, have been a dismal failure.
Can still Recoup
However, the Maoist arsenal is still intact. It is estimated that they might have 4,000 regular (factory-made) weapons –– all looted from the security forces. They still possess sophisticated weapons such as AK series, INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) and LMG (light machine guns). They have also fielded indigenously and ingeniously developed rocket launchers. They also fabricate country-made weapons such as tapancha in their production units that exist in all their operational zones. More importantly, their military think-tank is intact. It now consists of six members, while a seventh surrendered to the authorities in Telangana in December 2017. The armed, underground strength of the outfit is an estimated 6,000.
Besides, Maoist extortion or finances has not seen much of a dent. As has been estimated in 2013 in a study, the Maoists could be collecting somewhere between Rs 140 crore and Rs 160 crore annually. They may have lost several crores of rupees following demonetisation. But, they seem to be making up quickly. For instance, Narayana, brother of Oggu Satwaji alias Sudhakar, a CC member, and an associate were arrested in Ranchi with Rs 25.15 lakh in cash and over half-a-kg of gold biscuits worth about Rs 12 lakh as was reported in the media on September 2, 2017.
The Maoists target businesses big and small and public works contractors. Other targets include petty businesses, absentee government employees and those with ill-gotten wealth.
Nevertheless, while the Maoists may be left with some strengths, to counter the rebels the Union and State governments have been following a four-pronged approach – security, development, public perception management and ensuring the rights of local populace. This has yielded some results.
But there is no room for complacency. While the SFs would have to keep up the pressure, it is all the more important to speed up development in the areas from where the Maoists have been ejected and these areas need to be vigorously monitored.
(The author is Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)