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Maoist attack in Sukma: Smoke and mirrors

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-04-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

Whenever there is a significant attack by Maoist rebels on security forces, as there was on 25 April, when 26 troopers of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed in an ambush by several hundred rebels in southern Chhattisgarh, some responses have become standard.

To diminish inadequacies of governance and boost morale of troopers, ministers in New Delhi and state governments—in this case, Chhattisgarh—mouth variations of “Their sacrifices will not go in vain.” Some media echo the government line of Maoists committing “cold-blooded murder”. Some security analysts insist the Indian Army be deployed to combat rebels. The army plays it down, because this rebellion is a policing and governance operation, a war fought on account of livelihood, dignity and opportunity with no layering of secessionism or “foreign hand”.

Some analysts rail about “intelligence failure”. If rebels employ explosives to blow up “mine-resistant” troop carriers, there are calls to make troopers walk. If a foot-patrol is attacked, as happened earlier this week in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district, often the same social network and network television pundits insist troopers be driven in such troop carriers. Some insist they ought not to have stopped for a quick meal, providing Maoists an opportunity to ambush. (It was an eerie replay of an attack in April 2010 when rebels attacked and killed 75 CRPF troopers as they similarly took a break.)

And those actually doing battle over the hearts and minds of citizens to secure their respective interpretations of the idea of India will go about their business of attack and counter-attack in a terrain of both physical and emotional geography, gaining ground or ceding it in a battle of will and wiles in guerrilla warfare—about the only element of Mao in this home-grown and home-fed and -watered Maoism. It has been this way for five decades, as Maoism Mark I extends to what I term Maoism Mark V.

Southern Chhattisgarh is today the country’s most militarized patch (or policed and paramilitarized patch, as it were) after Jammu & Kashmir and certain parts of northeast India, in response to the area being part of the biggest remaining stronghold of Maoism Mark V.

Beleaguered as the Maoists are, having lost across India several hundred cadres and leaders each year for the past several years to deaths, arrests, surrender and rehabilitation policies of various state governments, they still pack an occasional punch. And, as they see their operational geography shrink to a combination of armed response, governance and non-violent, civil society initiatives through robust democratic demand of rights and accountability, rebels some years ago decided their approach. It is known to security forces. Indeed, I wrote about it in this column over four years ago.

A major meeting of rebel leadership took place in September 2012 to focus on military aspects of the rebellion, and the action plan, as it were, tasked to the military chief of the forested, mineral-rich Dandakaranya zone, a four-state area that includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Telangana and Maharashtra. It was a re-thinking exercise.

To secure existing areas and strengthen new areas (and make their depleted numbers more effective) rebels planned to mass in strengths of not less than hundred cadres for operations. That was demonstrated within weeks in the core area of this action in the three southern Chhattisgarh districts of Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur.

The heart of the approach in a way underscored a back to the basics—the operating standard of the rebels’ Dandakaranya playbook: to inflict casualties for the primary reason of gathering weapons and ammunition to augment a squeezed supply line. To this end, the tried-and-tested practice of luring security forces into ambush with diversionary tactics—false information about movement and numbers of rebels, and such—would continue to be employed in addition to intelligence and opportunity. This is pretty much what the security establishment has learnt to mirror, also with varying degrees of success.

While the Maoist intent has remained clear and quick-footed—shore up strength in Chhattisgarh and break into and consolidate newer areas to delay a backs-to-the-wall eventuality—the response from security forces, comprising the police of various states and paramilitaries controlled by the ministry of home affairs, has remained relatively stolid and complicated. Chhattisgarh in particular hasn’t exactly been a model of coordination and cooperation between paramilitaries and the state police, unlike, say, West Bengal and Jharkhand.

Altogether it takes a lot more than television outrage and Twitter patriotism.

Part of an ongoing series about the history, trajectory, the state, and implications of leftwing extremism in India on the 50th anniversary of the Naxalbari uprising. Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

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