Having recently completed 20 years of the formation of People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army or the PLGA, the CPI (Maoist), perhaps the most ideologically committed and dreaded revolutionary movement of Independent India, is facing two huge challenges. First on the organisational front: a lack of trust among the cadres, depleted armoury, and absence of new leadership. Second, the government’s big push towards constructing roads and bridges in the “core area” of Bastar has considerably shrunk the Naxal citadel. Aided by these roads, the Chhattisgarh police has opened as many as 16 new “base camps in the core Naxal area”, which has also led to protests by the local people.
The bloodied decades
While the Naxal movement and violence go back to the late 1960s, it was only after the formation of the PLGA on 2 December 2000, that the rebels decided to launch a frontal assault on the Indian State. Last December, as they celebrated the twentieth anniversary, they also took a detailed stock of the way things are evolving. During my visit to interior Bastar — the Maoist hotbed — last month, I accessed documents prepared by the Central Committee of the Left-wing extremist group that indicates the meticulousness with which the leadership has handled the movement, and at the same time also admitting the sharp decline in their ranks.
While I was aware that Maoist units keep an account of weapons and bullets looted from the security forces, it was surprising to know that scattered across central Indian forests, the guerrilla leaders had the record of every single bullet and rifle looted every year across the country. In the last 20 years, they have looted 3,208 weapons and 1,52,889 rounds of live bullets, with the maximum loot of 556 weapons in 2004 and a staggering 52,056 bullets in 2008.
They conducted 208 major, 318 medium, and 3,948 minor ambush operations on security forces in these 20 years, killing 2,958 and wounding 3,507 security personnel, besides killing 222 politicians. Damage is always on both sides. The rebels, who count the CPM and Salwa Judum as counter-revolutionary forces, also lost a total of 4,483 ‘comrades’ in police attacks, in jails, due to illness and accidents. Significantly, the Maoists also list several popular movements they either created or nourished, including those of separate Telangana, Nandigram, and Niyamgiri.
The year 2020 saw a steep decline in Maoist violence with just one major, seven medium, and 90 minor ambushes, making it, by far, the quietest year in the PLGA’s history. To gauge the decline in violence, consider the combined figures of the preceding two years, 2018 and 2019, when they had as many as 18 major, 39 minor, and 513 minor assaults on the security forces. From the high police casualty of 348 (2009) and 319 (2010) to 131 (2018), the graph slipped to 48 in 2020, according to the document prepared by the Central Military Commission of the CPI (Maoist). Once an AK-47-holder guerrilla was allocated around 100 cartridges, I learnt, now it has come down to around 40-50.
Last September, the Maoists executed Modiyam Badru alias Vijjal, the former member of the West Bastar Division Committee, in a Jan Adalat. He was accused of being a police informer. Vijjal was perhaps the senior-most cadre ever to be hanged in public. Around the same time, the Maoists also killed as many as 25 people after making similar accusations. Most of those killed were their own men. Commenting on these incidents, a cadre told me: “Ab bisbas nahin rah gaya hai (We are losing trust in each other). We don’t know who among us will turn out to be the traitor.”
But perhaps the biggest factor that has contributed to the shrinking base and the decline in attacks is an elaborate road network in the wilderness. A guerrilla attack thrives on a hostile terrain; a dense forest easily enables IEDs and landmines. As the forest is felled for making roads and police patrol teams are able to venture into areas they knew little about, and guerrilla ambushes increasingly become difficult.
Roads and bridges
When I first landed in Bastar, August 2011, to report on a Maoist ambush in which 10 cops were killed in Bhadrakali village of Bijapur district, I crossed river Chintavagu on a boat to reach the spot amid thick bushes. Late last month, I found a fine bridge on the river and a perfectly motorable road that goes to Bhadrakali and beyond. I wrote about a helipad in Sonpur village of Abujhmad in these columns last year, and this year, I found roads in areas where I couldn’t even take a bicycle, as the wilderness that once appeared invincible has been tamed and uprooted to make way for infrastructure and the accompanying police camps.
While these roads are being constructed under the existing central schemes for Left Wing Extremism Affected areas, the Chhattisgarh police officers said that a major push in recent years has come from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The UPA government had launched the Road Requirement Plan (RRP-I) in 2009 for the construction of 5,422 km of roads in LWE states. Of these, 54 roads with 1,988 km or nearly 27 per cent of the total roads were for Chhattisgarh alone. The Narendra Modi government approved another project, Road Connectivity Project in Left Wing Extremism Affected Areas (RCPLWEA), in December 2016. Of the total approved 8,214 km (802 roads) under the scheme, 2,479 km (291 roads) is for Chhattisgarh.
“All these (RRP-1) roads are in the core Naxal affected areas. Out of the 1,900 km of RRP-1 road, we have completed 1,600 km. Remaining 300 km are in South Sukma, South Bijapur and Abhujmad region. We are hopeful of getting these critical 300 km road completed in forthcoming seasons,” Bastar Inspector General of Police, P. Sundar Raj told me.
About the other scheme, he said: “The 291 sanctioned roads under RCPLWEA are relatively in less LWE affected areas. The tender procedures have been finalised in most of these roads, the work has been initiated.”
“In 2020, we opened up 16 base camps to facilitate road construction even in the core areas and now the work is in progress,” he added.
In January alone, a police station came up in Tarrem, on the Bijapur-Sukma border, along with a police camp in Bechapal that overlooks the Bailadila hills. Perhaps the most ambitious ongoing project is of a 650-metre bridge over the Indravati river that connects Fundari in Bijapur to Abujhmad. A camp of 165 CRPF Battalion was set up here a month ago.
The Centre has recently sent five additional CRPF battalions to Chhattisgarh, of which three have been deployed in Bijapur and two in Sukma. Another remarkable change I noticed was the enhanced coordination between the state and the central forces. This was perhaps the first instance when I didn’t find either the Chhattisgarh Police or the CRPF’s paramilitary personnel complaining about each other.
All of this, however, is not without local protests. Protests were held against the Indravati bridge last month, and in Raoghat, Kanker, locals have also been protesting against security camps in the region. In Kanker, locals point out that the camps have come up only to facilitate mining projects. The police, however, dismiss these protests as encouraged by the Maoists. “Maoists know that roads are detrimental for their survival,” says Sundar Raj.
And while roads are coming up, so far, the only other facility visible are police camps. The schools that were closed after the lockdown last year are yet to open. As it takes around Rs 70-90 lakh to construct one km of road, a fraction of the amount that goes towards crisscrossing the wilderness could bring extraordinary change in fulfilling the basic requirements of the Adivasis.
Amid local protests, the Naxal presence as well their fight is now largely reduced to three contiguous zones, in Maoist terminology called Divisions — South Bastar Division (areas of Sukma district), West Bastar Division (some parts of Sukma and Bijapur), and Maad Division (Bijapur and Narayanpur in Chhattisgarh, and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra).
Facing a difficult time, the rebels are on a visible decline. But the question is: When will the Adivasis get to exercise their rights over the forests and rivers?
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency. Views are personal.