Exposing the Modi government’s bombastic claims that the terrorism challenge has been confined to the disputed Kashmir Valley, Maoist insurgents detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district on May 1, killing more than 15 security personnel engaged in anti-Naxalite operations. Gadchiroli, which borders Chhattisgarh state, another Maoist stronghold, has witnessed increased violent activity in last few days; the Naxalite insurgents have been targeting the ongoing parliamentary elections.
Naxalism, like many other leftist revolutionary movements around the world, draws its ideological inspiration from Marxism and Maoism. The Maoist guerrillas seek to capture state power through a so-called people’s war, and their military strategy is somewhat based on the teachings of Mao Zedong. India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh witnessed the first seeds of the radical Marxist movement being sown just after India’s independence. In 1967, the first armed uprising took place in the remote Naxalbari village in the Indian state of West Bengal. The uprising was suppressed soon after, but not before it inspired other Maoist revolutionaries across India – and gave Naxalism its name.
Identified a decade ago by then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest threat to India’s internal security, the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency has been continuously evolving its tactics to maintain its previous relevance. It is safe to argue that the periodic Naxal violence in India’s tribal belt – euphemistically called the “Red Corridor,” which is spread across the states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh – may be compared to the flicker of a flame before it completely dies. Sustained counterinsurgency operations have translated into a remarkable shrinkage in the capabilities and space of the Naxal insurgents. The activities of their cadres, both overground and underground, have also decreased. But this has also resulted in large ambushes. The Maoists seem to have perfected hit and run tactics and IED blasts, which have allowed them to avoid direct and prolonged confrontation with Indian security forces.
There may be debates as to whether the attack was in retaliation for the killing of two senior Maoist women cadres in the last week of April this year or was the Maoists’ way of observing the first anniversary of the killing of 40 of their cadres in an encounter by security forces in 2018. Regardless, the attack succeeded due to certain security lapses. One of them relates to the quality of intelligence.
How did the intelligence agencies fail to anticipate that a trap might have been laid for the quick response team (QRT) of the state police when the Maoist guerrillas had set on fire around 30 vehicles? This is what the Maoists have been doing in their asymmetrical fight against security forces: attracting their attention by increased activity and then ambushing with IEDs. And why did the intelligence agencies not a get a whiff of something massive that was about to happen in the midst of parliamentary elections in a volatile region, which has long witnessed a deadly insurgency?
There are strong reasons that seem to have prevented the intelligence agencies from getting actionable intelligence on insurgent attacks in Maoist-affected regions, including the recent one in Gadchiroli. The local tribes have often found themselves caught in the middle of a conflict between the Maoists and the security forces; security forces are routinely accused of committing human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings of tribals, and on the other hand Maoists are also guilty of killing and torturing tribal villagers after accusing them of being police informers. The tense relationship between the tribals and the security forces has been the biggest hindrance in feeding intelligence inputs to the security forces. Most important, because of the extremely difficult terrain, with dense forest cover and great distances from communication facilities, security forces have faced several challenges in mounting effective counterattacks. These operational constraints have allowed the Maoists to target the reinforcing columns of security forces through IED attacks.
These tactics provide the Maoists with a huge advantage; they can cause large-scale casualties to security forces in a single incident. This is what happened in Gadchiroli. It is true that the number of casualties due to IED blasts has gone substantially down with the enhanced recovery of the explosives, but the Modi government has not been successful in ensuring that security forces remain ahead in this cat-and-mouse game with the Naxals.
Very rich in mineral resources, the central and eastern regions of India are mostly home to the tribal population, who are primarily dependent on land for their livelihoods. They are mostly subsistence farmers, and live in abject poverty. They view mining activity, and its environmental fallout, as posing a severe challenge to their existence. It is therefore pertinent to mention that mining and conflict zones coexist in the central and eastern parts of India, making them particularly prone to Naxalism.
It is important to note that the Maoist insurgents have been strange partners with predatory local government functionaries in these regions to extort money from miners; corrupt politicians have also found it convenient to vilify the corporate houses for votes but have shamelessly bribed voters with money from the coffers of same companies. On the other hand, not long ago, many mining companies used to pay huge amounts to elements in the insurgency to cleanse the precious land of its tribal populations. How much of this dynamic has changed? And what has been done to ensure that the Maoists are not able to loot huge cache of explosives in areas where mining is underway?
There is no magic wand for the Modi government to finish off the Maoist insurgency. However, controversies will continue to surround how the Indian state identifies security challenges, prioritizes them, and responds to them. At the national level, the strategy to eliminate Maoist insurgency is clearly formulated. However, the need to formulate different substrategies to suit the developmental and security requirements specific to a particular region seems to have received very little attention from security planners.
The widespread sentiment persists that, regardless of the government in power, critical decisions on internal security have been arbitrary. The top political functionaries of the Modi government want the electorate to believe that past practices have not guided India’s security policy since 2014. But in the absence of the government’s explicit successes, serious flaws in both threat assessment and threat management strategies are severely challenging India’s approach to counterinsurgency in the Naxal-affected areas.
Vinay Kaura, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jaipur, Rajasthan.