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Reds in retreat

A recent Naxal communication admits the rebels are on the backfoot

Naxalites, Maoists

Dandakaranya (the forested area of the Chhota Nagpur plateau), (our) mass base decreased in considerable area, recruitment decreased, and the number of people leaving the party and the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army increased,” says the resolution of the central committee of the banned (Maoist) which met earlier this year. The dismal tone of the report card is hard to miss; the movement, it says “is facing a critical situation”. It would be premature to see this as admission of defeat by the Naxals, left-wing extremists who Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India’s biggest internal-security threat; but it’s safe to conclude that the security forces have met with success in the war against red terror.

The incidents of Naxal violence are down. In the 17 blocks of Jangalmahal of West Bengal, which were till recently a stronghold of extremists, there hasn’t been a single killing in the whole of 2012 and first eight months of 2013, compared to almost 300 in the preceding two years. In Chhattisgarh, the police have been able to recover some territory lost to the Naxals, though they are yet to make headway in the 4,000-square-kilometre “liberated zone” of Abhujmaad. And in Orissa, the rebels have been pushed to the districts on the borders with Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh. On September 15, 14 were gunned down at Silakota in the Malkangiri district — it is being hailed as a game-changer. Of the 19 districts identified as Naxal-affected in Orissa five years ago, the situation is near-normal in nine, according to Orissa Director General of Police Prakash Mishra.

Of the 14 members of the party’s politburo, two have been killed and five have been arrested. And of the 25 central committee members, eight are in jail, two were killed, one died and one has surrendered. Amongst those who have been killed are politburo members Mallojula Koteswara Rao (Kishanji) in 2011 and Cherukuri Rajkumar (Azad) in 2012. And amongst the Naxals in police custody is politburo member and ideologue Kobad Ghandy who was picked up from Delhi in 2009. This has happened because the government has decided to strike at the top — deprive the Naxals of their leaders and ideologues and the fighters will run out of steam. “If you cut the head of the snake,” says K Vijay Kumar, special security advisor to the union home ministry, “the body dies on its own.” The strategy is working. The Naxal resolution admits that the “Bihar-Jharkhand region suffered (a) setback due to heavy losses to the leadership”.

The second strategy of the war against Naxals is to destroy their supply chain of arms and ammunition. Here, the breakthrough came in April 2012 when Naxal techie Sadanala Ramakrishna was arrested from Kolkata. A mechanical engineer from Warangal, Ramakrishna repaired weapons and fabricated high-precision spares, even for rocket launchers, in the city. His arrest was supposed to cripple the Naxals’ firepower. But, evidently, the Naxals have repaired the supply chain and are not short of arms and ammunition any longer. A Chhattisgarh intelligence officer points put that at the Darbha Ghat ambush in May, in which Congress leaders Nandkumar Patel and Vidya Charan Shukla perished, the Naxals were not stingy with bullets and fired indiscriminately.

The third strategy is to arrest as many foot soldiers as possible. Even if they spend a day in police custody, these men and women are ostracised by their leaders who suspect them of having become police informants. They become untouchables. “The top leaders lose faith in the cadre; so these people walk away on their own,” says Chhattisgarh Deputy Inspector General of Police GP Singh. This has reduced the Naxal strength.

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The red corridor is heavily policed. Close to one lakh personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force, and Indo-Tibet Border Police have been deployed in the affected areas of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. These nine states have contributed another 2 lakh men to the operations against 8,000 or 9,000 Naxals — that makes at least 33 security personnel chasing each Naxal. They are equipped with Kalashnikovs, Insas rifles, satellite phones, unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles and Air Force helicopters.

More than anything else it is human intelligence that wins these wars. Slowly, the intelligence agencies have been able to place their moles amongst the Naxals. The recent Orissa operation, in which the security forces had precise information of the whereabouts and firepower of the Naxals, has been credited to the information provided by a mole. Similarly, it was reported that the police were tipped off on Kishanji by Suchitra Mahato, a one-time trusted aide of the slain leader. The rumours got amplified when Mahato’s husband, Prabir Gorai, got the Trinamool Congress ticket to contest local elections in the Bankura district. (Mahato surrendered in 2012.)

Fissures amongst Naxals have also been caused by love. Shivaji, a youth in his mid-20s, was a senior commander with the divisional committee of the party in south Bastar, Chhattisgarh. He fell in love with a comrade and last year sought the central committee’s permission to marry. When several months had passed and there was no word from the committee, his patience snapped. Shivaji married the girl and the two went underground to escape the wrath of their incensed superiors. Last month, they surrendered before the authorities. The police learnt from Shivaji about the simmering discontent amongst the Naxal foot soldiers over the “marriage act”, and their leaders, most of who are from Andhra Pradesh. It’s us versus them.

Thus, while the marriage requests of locals are put on the backburner, the leaders readily find girls to marry. More so, the leaders get the privilege to keep their wife in the same Dalam (formation), while the cadre is required to follow strict rules: if the husband is working in one Dalam, the wife will be deployed in the other corner of the region. “The matter is fast emerging as a major issue propelling the youths to revolt and leave the outfit,” says Bastar-based Suresh Mahapatra, an expert on Naxal issues.

Sabyasachi Panda, the face of the Naxal movement in Orissa, was the first to raise the banner of revolt, for which he was expelled from the party in August 2012. He had red-flagged the discord between the local foot soldiers and the leaders from Andhra Pradesh. In a communication to the top leaders, Panda recounted how Telugu food habits were forced upon the cadres, which, he says, has been responsible for many members quitting. His departure dealt a body blow to the Naxals and weakened their control over large parts of Orissa.

The differences have now started to spill out into the open. “There are three main issues that have created the rift between the Telugu and non-Telugu Naxals,” says Kamal Lochan Kashyap, a police officer who works in the anti-Naxal cell in Chhattisgarh, “marriage, finance and fighting.” The leaders from Andhra Pradesh control the purse strings. In Chhattisgarh, even an area committee of the party is headed by a leader from Andhra Pradesh. In the Dandakaranya divisional committee comprising 20 members, 17 are from Andhra Pradesh. Kashyap insists that the locals carry the impression that the leaders use them as a shield in the skirmishes with the security forces. “If the cadre is trapped, the leaders escape from the scene; and if they inflict casualty on the forces, the leaders take all the credit,” he says. All this has created bad blood between the leaders and their followers.

A tactical mistake made by the Naxals, which cost them public support, was the abduction of Malkangiri Collector Vineet Krishna and Sukma Collector Alex Paul Menon. These men were seen as well-meaning officers who were working for the betterment of the locals. The central committee communication acknowledges this loss in the fight for mindspace. “Portraying the persons in our custody as ‘people’s servants’, they (the government) rallied various sections of people against our actions and brought pressure on us,” it says. “We faced more losses than political gains through these incidents.” Their support base has also been eroded by the instances of extortion, infighting and killing of innocents that have come to light.

That apart, most states have offered incentives to Naxals who give up arms and return to the mainstream. In West Bengal, any rebel who surrenders is offered a monthly stipend of Rs 2,000 for three years. On the day he surrenders, the government opens for him a fixed deposit of Rs 1.5 lakh which will mature in three years’ time. According to West Bengal Home Secretary Basudeb Banerjee, about 15,000 youths in Jangalmahal have been recruited into the Home Guard; the regular income, it is hoped, will stop them from joining the Naxals. Chhattisgarh has offered to pay Rs 3.5 lakh to any Naxal who surrenders with an AK-47 and Rs 4.5 lakh to those with a light machine gun. But most Naxals prefer to surrender in Andhra Pradesh which has a more generous rehabilitation policy — the compensation is more than three times. Leaders choose Andhra Pradesh to surrender in also because it is their home and they expect lenient treatment from the police. Ever since a militant who surrendered at Dantewada in undivided Madhya Pradesh in 1999 was killed, the trust in Chhattisgarh police has been low.
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Is this, then, the beginning of the end of the Naxal movement? Not really. According to the central committee document, for the next two years, the Naxals want to secure their top leadership, intensify guerilla warfare, create new urban forces, better their work style, improve relations with people, secure the release of their comrades, and bargain hard for the prisoners they take. “They still have the potential to launch terrible attacks,” warns MA Ganapathy, joint secretary (Naxal management) in the Union home ministry. The fear in the security establishment is that the Naxal tentacles have spread to Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and the northeastern states of Assam and Manipur. There are as many as 128 organisations that support the Naxal cause, which makes the task of monitoring the Naxal and Naxal-sympathiser network difficult. “The urban phenomenon is a cause for worry. But we have started to crack down on them as well,” says another home ministry officer. Most experts agree that the Naxals are capable of regrouping from here, and the government should use the current period to reach out to the tribes in the affected areas through developmental work.

In Chhattisgarh, Naxals are aware that they face a leadership crisis, and that’s why they want to indoctrinate young boys and girls in the areas they control. The rebels have started Basic Communist Training School to impart ideological lessons to young impressionable minds. Muppalla Laxmana Rao, aka Ganapathi, the general secretary of the party, reportedly monitors these schools personally. The intelligence establishment has information that four batches, each comprising 35 to 40 students, have passed out from the schools. The students are taught the Naxal ideology, rather than concentrating on guerilla warfare, which seems to hint at a new crop of leaders being groomed.

The Naxals may be down but they are certainly not out.

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