Preparations for the endgame—to hear security practitioners tell it—are on in Chhattisgarh, between paramilitary and police, and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The buzz is that the leadership of India’s main left-wing rebel group is planning an alternative sanctuary across the state’s eastern border in Orissa and has tasked a member of its politburo with the responsibility. The area being spoken of in security circles is adjacent to the Chhattisgarh districts of Bastar and Kondagaon—carved out of Bastar in January this year as part of a reorganization plan that created nine new districts in that state.
This indicates a reaction to pressure. Much of the new southern districts of Bijapur and Sukma, carved out of Chhattisgarh’s vast Dantewada district, continue to be in their control, along with a part of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra to the immediate west. A senior Raipur-based security official described this to me as a “liberated zone”. But the area under rebel sway is vastly reduced compared with even six years ago, when the CPI (Maoist) had the run of nearly all of undivided Dantewada, much of the undivided Bastar, and Kanker that lies to the north—a seamless territory that also included Malkangiri and Rayagada districts of south-western Orissa. Action by state police and central government-controlled paramilitaries in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Orissa has squeezed this area of control. (Moreover, to the south, the adjacent area in Andhra Pradesh has for long ceased to be in rebel control.)
With the massing of paramilitary forces, in particular Central Reserve Police Force interspersed with elements of its elite CoBRA, or Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, in these three states, the pressure on the rebels is intense.
Expanding eastward is fraught with risk for the CPI (Maoist). Its key area of operation in Orissa, roughly a large strip along the Andhra Pradesh border, has invited increased security operations. Besides, its mainstay group in Orissa, led by Sabyasachi Panda, broke away earlier this year, essentially over issues of control. It again exposed an inherent weakness in the CPI (Maoist) superstructure. As seen elsewhere in the east, there is reluctance to being dominated by primarily an Andhra leadership.
Any expansion in Orissa for territory and sanctuary runs the risk of being countered by the breakaway. And, in the eventuality of the government of Orissa concluding a peace deal with the Panda faction, the state would be emboldened to use tougher stick with remnants of the CPI (Maoist) in Orissa. This isolation could be further exacerbated by internal pressure.
The alliance of convenience that in 2004 brought together former bitter rivals, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), continues. Indeed, the pan-Indian blueprint of the CPI (Maoist) emerged after the merger. And logically, two groups with similar ideologies may be better off remaining together under pressure. But organizational unity has never sat as easily as party propaganda claims; the CPI (Maoist) has never quite overcome the aspect of territoriality which underscores aspects of dominance as well as control of finances. Such fault lines are made more vulnerable by the tendency of left-wing groups to break along ideological—sometimes, egotistical—and operational lines, especially in times of crisis.
Broadly, the erstwhile CPI (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War and its allies, collectively the People’s War Group, ran—indeed, runs—the rebellion in Andhra Pradesh, and infiltrated the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh and western Maharashtra. This also led to the creation of the Dandakaranya zone, which straddles these two states, and which remains the central Indian rebel redoubt. Western Orissa is part of this turf.
MCC controlled rebellion in Bihar, Jharkhand, northern Chhattisgarh and northern Orissa bordering Jharkhand, and some parts of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. There is great pressure. The rebellion in West Bengal is in remission. Maoist influence in Bihar is reduced. It operates in a few pockets in Jharkhand; several leaders and cadres are driven into the cross-state forests of Saranda in northern Orissa—already heavily policed.
The CPI (Maoist) has nowhere to go except into newer areas, and continually devise ways of survival. But it might soon face the reality of doing so as splintered entities, not as a rebel behemoth.
Besides, engineering splits is part of the ongoing government strategy. This is driven partly by the relative success of splinter groups being transparently used in Jharkhand to hobble the CPI (Maoist); and bolstered by the Panda breakaway that came to Orissa on a platter. There is renewed talk in Chhattisgarh which aims to drive another wedge in the rebellion leveraging propaganda, that “Andhra boys” don’t have the Chhattisgarh tribals’ interests at heart.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.
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