President Pranab Mukherjee has safely returned from Chhattisgarh after mouthing platitudes at the formal inauguration of Naya Raipur, the state’s new capital in the making, and its new airport terminal. Perhaps more importantly, he has safely returned from a quick trip on 7 November to an ashram run by Ramakrishna Mission in Narayanpur district to the state’s south. This is significant for several reasons, all related to the Maoist rebellion, which is in a classic Mao-school “the-enemy-advances-we-retreat” phase. This rebel retreat is a busy one with boosted recruitment and training. A relatively quiet autumn and a relatively quiet oncoming winter could be the precursor to a violent, well-organized spring in 2013. But before we visit that possibility, a minor digression.
Besides the area around district headquarters, where Mukherjee visited, and limited radii around a handful of police stations, this vastly underdeveloped district bordering Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district is still Maoist operational territory in letter and spirit. However, while the administration, both central and state, went on overdrive to secure the presidential visit over concern that Maoists would try to make a spectacular statement by staging an operation to disrupt it—like the 8 November attack on Mahendra Karma, one of the key leaders of the controversial Salwa Judum vigilante movement targeting Maoists rebels—there wasn’t any real danger. The reason is not the relatively reduced circumstances Maoists find themselves in at this time: badly bruised and severely embattled. The area around Narayanpur district headquarters is sanitized, in state security terms; and the fleet of choppers tasked with ferrying Mukherjee followed precise routing and landing and take-off procedures to minimize risk of attack.
Moreover, even a hint of attacking India’s president would invite uninhibited steamrolling by police and paramilitary across all areas of Maoist operation in India—the inevitable corollary of non-combatant casualties—collateral damage—be damned. Even the army, largely bystanders in this game, might then be actively used in anti-Maoist operations. Maoist rebels are anything but stupid.
Ergo, it was easier to throw about some pro-forma handbills protesting Mukherjee’s visit, and swallow pride when the president blessed a couple of hostels for tribal students of the area, and some buses and bicycles. In terms of a public relations victory, the government clearly won this round against the rebels. The presence of India’s head of state in one of the seven districts that make up the remaining Maoist redoubt in the Bastar region—the other six districts are Kanker, Bijapur, Dantewada, Sukma, Bastar and Kondagaon—is literally a big hit.
I had discussed in detail in this column in end-September and early October (A survival test for the rebels and The Maoists’ plan of action) the Maoists’ tactical reorientation in Chhattisgarh to prepare for massed attacks, and to bolster its activities to create a sanctuary corridor in Orissa to the contiguous east to punch access through to areas of north-western Jharkhand—this to fuel an operations and weapons pipeline.
While this plan moves speedily, helped along by key Maoist leaders and cadres reassigned to this area that is under the newly created Chhattisgarh-Orissa border state committee, the rebels continue to work diligently in their core areas in Chhattisgarh and renew efforts in other nearby areas to ensure this plan isn’t undercut either for lack of recruits or training of existing rebel militias and armed cadres. Cadre formations have been training vigorously in the recesses of Bijapur and Sukma districts. Equally, rebel militias are receiving training from the organization’s remaining specialists from Andhra Pradesh. Typically, militias are likely to be used in active support roles to main cadres, carrying out functions such as planting explosives—IEDs, or improvised explosive devices,—sabotage, harassing attacks on camps of paramilitary and police (“the-enemy-camps-we-harass”), and what are, in parlance, small team attacks on government and security posts. This kind of sets up “the-enemy-tires-we-attack”.
To further bolster its southern Chhattisgarh territory and the adjacent Orissa corridor to Jharkhand, rebels have also boosted recruitment in the south-central Chhattisgarh districts of Dhamtari, Gariaband and Mahasamund—Dhamtari shares a small southern border with rebels’ corridor area in Orissa, Gariaband its southern and eastern borders, similar to Mahasamund’s exposure. This brings the ambit of the conflict appreciably closer to Raipur—or Naya Raipur, the new administrative hub.
At nearly every step in this re-energized approach, the rebels, even with their vastly reduced leadership, cadre base and footprint compared with two years ago, appear to be a step ahead of their stated enemies. Ahead too of their new satellite reconnaissance grid that can track rebel movements and phone conversations. This is one battle lull that isn’t.
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.