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'Love Affairs, Disillusionment, Locals Tipping Police': How Naxals Are on Backfoot in Gadchiroli

Intelligence is the crucial factor in the armed conflict; the drafting of local tribals in the fight against the Maoists is paying rich dividends now.

Jaideep Hardikar |

Updated:May 1, 2018, 1:38 PM IST
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'Love Affairs, Disillusionment, Locals Tipping Police': How Naxals Are on Backfoot in Gadchiroli
A Network18 Creative by Mir Suhail.
A one-room brick structure with tin shed which looked like an abandoned go-down that it wasn’t.

This was home to a young tribal couple that was quietly celebrating the arrival of a new member in their family – a baby girl. The husband was a 26-year-old Gond from a remote south-Gadchiroli village on the eastern fringes of Maharashtra. His name: Sukhdev Vadde. His wife, Nanda, slightly younger to him, was a shy, small, but energetic woman from Muria tribe; she hailed from Konta, in Chhattisgarh’s restive Bastar. They lived in this small hut on the fringes of Gadchiroli town, some 180 km from Nagpur. The couple got married in mid-2014 after their parents’ consent – it was like an inter-clan wedding.

No big deal, one would think, except that the two shared a tumultuous past – they totted guns, trudged the undulating terrain of Dandakaranya, the contiguous forested tribal hinterland of central India day in and day out, hid in dense thickets of bamboo and teak, and fought the police in what is today one of the fiercest conflict zones in the country and in between, snatched private moments together.

Sukhdev and Nanda were armed guerillas of the CPI (Maoists), the banned organisation that the former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh once described as the biggest internal security threat to India.

They fell in love, they told me in March 2015, and were disillusioned with their armed struggle that they perceived was not going anywhere. They wanted to raise a family. They were not the only ones to give up arms. In Gadchiroli alone, such couples number over a hundred – erstwhile guerillas, now living a modest life. On April 29, 2018, among a hundred couples that got married in Gadchiroli during a mass-wedding ceremony, two couples were erstwhile Maoists who recently gave up their struggle.

This and many other factors cumulatively paint a changing context in Maharashtra’s far-eastern jungles where the Maoists enjoyed an uncontested domination for over three decades.

Over the past few years though, the rebels’ grip over Gadchiroli looks to be steadily waning in the face of many transformations. Some of their recent setbacks are a glaring pointer.

The latest one on April 22 and 23 is perhaps the heaviest casualty the Maoists have ever suffered. The Gadchiroli police claimed on two days they had neutralised a large number of the alleged rebels in the district’s south-eastern parts along the Chhattisgarh border.

The cumulative toll stands at 40 today – 34 from the April 22 incident and six from the action that the police claimed took place 60 km westward on April 23 in the forests of Aheri.

The two separate ambushes, the police have claimed, were led by the anti-Naxal C-60 commando teams. Among the slain Maoists were three high-ranking Divisional Committee members. Fifteen among the alleged Maoists killed were women, the police said. Identity of 18 of the dead has been ascertained and their bodies handed to their relatives. Since the other bodies are severely decomposed, the police have said they would have to do DNA-tests to confirm their identities.

What is surprising – and a bit mysterious too – is that there was no collateral damage on the police side despite the claim by the forces that a profuse exchange of fire took place on that fateful day.

Sixteen bodies were recovered on April 22; six on April 23. On April 24, reports said, 15 more bodies were found floating in Indravati, a vast river that divides Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh and plays a strategic role in the ongoing conflict. The spot where the ambush was laid by the police is tucked inside thick forests along the river. April 25, during the search operations, the police claimed two more bodies were retrieved from the river; decomposed, disfigured and likely devoured by riverine crocodiles. On April 28, one more body was found – decomposed and disfigured beyond identification – in the jungle.

The police had on day one suspected that Maoists may have suffered heavy casualties – around 40 or so. Almost all of the dead are tribals, mostly from Gadchiroli and a few from Bastar, across the border in Chhattisgarh. At least eight of the 34 alleged Maoists killed in the first ambush may have been new recruits who were being trained by one of the divisional committee members (among the slain Maoists) for a few months, the police have said.

Countering the police story, the Telangana State Committee of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), through its spokesperson Jagan, claimed in a press release on April 28, that cops poisoned their cadres and some innocent villagers before killing them in cold blood.

The Gadchiroli police have now urged the district government hospital doctors, who performed post-mortem on the bodies of the Maoists killed during the ambush, to preserve the viscera of the bodies for chemical analysis. This is to allay the Maoist allegations that their cadres were poisoned before being shot dead

It is difficult to know what and how exactly the two ambushes unfolded – as always, both the versions would stand counter to each other.

But, it is indeed rare for the guerillas to be totally stupefied and disarmed to death with no policeman getting hurt. Take, for instance, the April 27 incident that took place in south Bijapur, on Chhattisgarh-Andhra border, where eight suspected Maoists, including six women, were killed. Three security personnel were also injured in the reported gun battle. A joint team of the elite anti-Naxalite force Greyhounds and Chhattisgarh police were conducting combing operations in the forest belt, based on information about the presence of suspected Maoists, when there was an EoF (exchange of fire).

The Gadchiroli incident looks like an ambush, and not an encounter as the police initially claimed it was and points to a reversal of strategic advantage. The level of surprise matches the stunning ambush that the rebels had laid to neutralise 76 CRPF jawans in the April of 2010 in Bastar’s Chintalnar-Chintagufa area, several miles eastward of the Sunday spot. The Gadchiroli incidents are by far a huge dent to the Maoists – never ever have so many cadres been slain in a span of two days.

Between 2013 and 2017, the police neutralised 76 Maoists in Gadchiroli, according to the district police data, highest casualties being 27 through 2013. In the same period, 25 security troopers got killed by the rebels. Over the last 10 years, there have been about 400 surrenders too, the data show.

The surrenders went hand in hand with the arrests and pin-pointed killings of Maoists by the police forces. Such operations followed what the police have repeatedly credited with as real-time intelligence in every single case. Maharashtra Director General of Police Satish Mathur on Monday attributed the success to “accurate and specific intelligence”, the low morale of the Naxals and divisions in their ranks.

The C-60 operations on April 22 and 23 are to be seen in this changed strategic context.

There was profuse and intense patrolling by security forces over the past week in the south Gadchiroli areas, according to sources in Bhamragarh, a small town tucked deep inside south Gadchiroli and close to the village of Kasansur where the first incident took place. It’s considered to be a Maoist hotbed.

Intelligence

This transformation – from the locals tipping the Maoists about the police movement a few years ago to them tipping the police about the rebels’ location – is a strategic tilt in favour of the police in Gadchiroli.

From love affairs to disillusionment with the banned party to a stepped-up pressure from security forces in the areas they once moved freely in, to a very lucrative rehabilitation policy, a number of reasons are at play for the rebel cadres to give up the fight. Alongside, there are broad socio-economic and political changes that are steadily reducing the relevance and the need of an armed movement in the district.

A September 2013 CPI (Maoist) Central Committee (CC) document notes: “Due to series of arrests in the past few years the Maharashtra movement is facing setback...Though the countrywide revolutionary condition is critical, the condition in all the states is not similar. In DK (Dandakaranya) mass base decreased in considerable area, the intensity and expanse of the resistance of the PLGA and people decreased; non-proletarian trends increased in party and the PLGA (People’s Liberation Guerilla Army), recruitment decreased; number of people leaving the party and PLGA increased. As a result of all these this movement is facing critical situation...”

Intelligence is the crucial factor in the armed conflict; the drafting of local tribals in the fight against the Maoists is paying rich dividends now.

In 1992, harangued by its inability to counter the guerilla tactics of the Naxalites, the Maharashtra police created a special crack team of policemen in Gadchiroli. The strategy was to recruit local tribals.

The top boss approved creation of a crack team of 60 tribal boys then. The C-60, as it was called, grew over time and evolved as an elite anti-Naxal force, with about a thousand troops today: trained in guerilla tactics; armed with sophisticated weaponry, and incentivised with promotions and rewards.

While C-60 too suffered casualties, the local tribal commandos who are part of it have leveraged their advantage of knowing local language, people, culture and terrain to combat the rebel guerillas.

Old timers recall how Naxals would kill aspiring C-60 candidates or their relatives in the late 1990s and early 2000s to dissuade them from joining the force, as they rightfully perceived them as a threat to their existence. Over two decades, the C-60 team has managed to lead precision operations against the Maoists, whose foot soldiers are also drafted from among the local tribals.

The April 22 and 23 operations were led by the companies of C-60 commandos, whose own network of intelligence, backed by multiple sources, expansion of satellite phone network in the region, infusion of central paramilitary troops as force-multipliers, and increased patrolling have led to pressure on the guerillas – whose strength is down and who, sources say, face severe shortage of ammunition.

Several successful operations in 2014, 2015 and 2016 were led by the C-60 commandos based on real-time intelligence. Those were not encounters. Those were planned ambushes. Add to all this, a marked reduction in local support to the armed political movement that is now quite glaring. It is highlighted in several intelligence reports and the Maoists’ own admissions found in the recovered documents that the banned party faces declining recruitment of new cadres in Gadchiroli and even north Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.

When Sukhdev and Nanda got married in 2014, several of their erstwhile comrades – who too had laid down their arms and surrendered before the police, joined their celebrations.

Their decision to switch sides – from the armed struggle to daily mundane household chores – looked simple but provided a peep into the many dots that are contributing to the shifting strategic grounds in what is often described as the red corridor.

(The author is a Nagpur-based journalist and a volunteer for the People’s Archive of Rural India. Views are personal)

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| Edited by: Ashutosh Tripathi
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