Don’t be hoodwinked by the latest ceasefire declaration by the Maoists during the coronavirus lockdown. As police operations get nearly suspended or drastically reduced in many areas of Bastar after 24 March, the rebels have been using the time to rebuild and regroup.
The Narendra Modi government has not given careful thought to the impact of the lockdown on various sectors and communities. The Maoists are an issue that the Centre completely ignored and whose ramifications can only be seen once the lockdown is lifted. Even the Chhattisgarh government and its chief minister Bhupesh Baghel seem oblivious to the emerging development.
With the security forces mostly confined to their camps over the past three weeks, the Maoists have been visiting and camping in the areas they had ceded earlier like Todma and Dantewada-Katekalyan main road. They meet villagers, hold meetings, recruit ground-level forces and strengthen their Jantana Sarkars, the people’s councils through which the Maoists run their government in Dandakaranya. They are digging the lanes that lead to police camps and planting landmines in the lanes that have now been deserted, police officers say.
They even killed an auxiliary constable Ramesh Kursam late Wednesday night last week in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district.
This follows the unilateral ceasefire announced by the Malkangiri–Koraput–Visakha Divisional Committee (MKVDC) on 5 April when the committee’s secretary Kailasam said that given the spread of the coronavirus, the rebels would not attack the forces.
What the Maoists did not disclose was that they had been quietly using this period to enhance their cadre base in their capital Bastar, several police officers in Raipur and Bastar tell me based on their intelligence reports.
Increased presence in Chhattisgarh’s villages
Consider a few instances. A series of intelligence alerts sent from Bastar to Raipur Police Headquarters after the lockdown began noted that a strong Maoist group had begun assembling in a cluster of villages in Dantewada district from March-end. Senior cadres including East Division Committee secretary Niti alias Urmila, Amdai Area Committee Secretary Suresh Salam, besides several other Divisional Committee and Area Committee members, camped in the villages of Todma, Mutenulpara, Kohkawada.
For around 10 days, the intel alerts noted how their presence gradually intensified in the area — they held first meetings with villagers for several days before beginning construction work in April. From 15 Maoists in the area in the first few days, the number swelled to 35 by 6 April.
The 6 April alert sent from Bastar noted that “some 30-35 Maoists are guiding the villagers to undertake road levelling work in Todma Jantana Sarkar in Dantewada district. They have also posted their men on roads from Todma to Barsur and Sat Dhar.”
In another village, “Kursinh Bahar of Dantewada some 45 Maoists began assembling from March including East Division Company 6 Commander Chaitu alias Hidma, Platoon One commander Murli”. Similar presence has been recorded in Bijapur and Sukma districts where the Maoists have intensified their activities in large swathes of forests over the last two weeks, including Gorgunda, which is a mere 7 km from Dornapal on NH-30.
Significantly, just a day before the Janata Curfew announced by Modi, the Maoists had killed 17 security personnel in Sukma on 21 March. They looted 12 Ak-47, one LMG, an Excalibur rifle and a large number of round, and an Under Barrel Grenade Launcher (UBGL). They now have an estimated 12 UBGLs with nearly 100 grenades. Once Ramdher, then head of their Abujhmad Battalion, had explained to me the significance of the UBGL for the Maoist armoury. One grenade can severely damage a police post.
They can raise at least two decent squads with the new weaponry.
Re-building the Abujhmad fortress
Over the last eight years, I have made innumerable trips to Abujhmad and those villages that have barely seen the presence of an outsider. On my last visit to Abujhmad a few months ago, I saw some startling developments.
While a road had already arrived for the 18-kilometre stretch between Kurusnar, once the last police post before Abujhmad, and
However, I also found that the jungle had become like a fortress. I went up to the Maharashtra border and found that several villages in the interior looked deserted. Aided by the Sonpur post, the police had increased patrolling in the area, and regularly rounded up young Adivasis, who were now in jails. Fearful, many villagers had fled to Narayanpur — perhaps the first mass exodus from these Abujhmad villages, which had not yet witnessed any police–Maoist conflict. The forested paths that were once used by villagers to visit the weekly Sonpur market were now obstructed by tree trunks and large ditches, and were effectively an even safer haven for the rebels. I found that the Maoists were now better-equipped and prepared for the longer haul.
Listen to Bastar
Some police officers understand the looming threat, but they concede that in the given situation, the forces cannot really resume patrolling, and the situation will remain unchecked for a while in Chhattisgarh. Bastar’s villagers are now following ‘social distancing’, they have erected barriers of tree trunks outside their villages. The police teams have made occasional forays into the jungle since the lockdown, leading to a few deaths on all sides.
The police killed a suspected Maoist, Podiyam Kana, in Sukma on 16 April. The next day, the forces opened fire on a group of adivasis close to a CRPF camp in Bijapur leading to the death of a villager named Dubba Kanaiya. Such killings of villagers at a time when they are facing shortage of ration and are unable to find a market for the forest produce of mahua and tendu patta will only intensify the humanitarian crisis.
The coronavirus lockdown has come at a time when the Maoists, having been restricted in Bastar, had been cultivating new zones in southern India and Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh borders. It might have given them just the breather they needed to return and rebuild their core territory in Bastar.
The author is an independent journalist. Views are personal.