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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Winning the long war against the Maoists

The bloodbath in Sukma notwithstanding, the Indian state has been successful over the years in pushing back militants

Last week’s Maoist assault on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRFP) contingent in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district that left at least 25 personnel dead in what was one of the deadliest attacks in recent memory has turned the spotlight back on India’s long-running battle against left-wing extremism (LWE). A number of arguments have been made in the aftermath of the attack: This was an operational failure; the security agencies don’t coordinate effectively among themselves; the state is wrong to follow medieval counter-insurgency tactics. These have merit. Much can and should be done to strengthen the security forces. That being said, it is also important to take a step back and look at the larger picture.

Historically speaking, India’s counter-insurgency campaigns—in Punjab, Kashmir and the North-East—though qualitatively different from each other, have resulted in the state being able to assert its control to a large extent. However, every campaign has also been messy, with tensions continuing to simmer below the surface (and sometimes bubbling over, as is happening in Kashmir right now). The Sukma attack is a reminder that India’s fight against Maoists is following a similar pattern. Two points need to be made in this context:

First, last week’s bloodbath notwithstanding, the Maoists are on the decline. After 2004, when the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre, the two largest insurgent groups at the time, merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist), there was a steady uptick in violence up until 2010. That turned out to be a particularly bloody year: In February, Maoists shot down 24 personnel from the Eastern Frontier Rifles in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district; in April, they killed 75 CRPF personnel and a state police official in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district; and in June, they took down another 26 CRPF jawans in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district.

However, after 2010, as the Union and state governments cracked down on the insurgents in a more proactive manner, the situation has slowly but steadily reversed. According to the Union ministry of home affairs, the number of incidents has dropped consistently: 1,760 in 2011, 1,415 in 2012, 1,136 in 2013, 1,091 in 2014, 1,089 in 2015 and 1,048 in 2016. The number of civilians and security personnel who have lost their lives to LWE has also been on a downward trajectory, even though in 2016 both figures did rise compared to the previous year. Concurrently, the number of militants killed or surrendered has risen.

In terms of state coverage, today only Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar are considered to be severely affected while West Bengal, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are partially affected and Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are considered slightly affected. This is quite an improvement from 2009, when the government declared as many as 223 districts across 20 states to have been affected by Maoist violence.

Of course, progress has not been uniform across the country. Different states have pursued different strategies with different levels of effectiveness. For example, while Chhattisgarh has struggled to clean up its part of the so-called “Red Corridor", Andhra Pradesh’s Greyhounds, an elite anti-Maoist military unit raised in 1989, have done a stellar job of not just chasing the Maoists out of the state but of keeping them out as well. The Greyhounds have also inspired similar units raised specifically to fight asymmetric wars in jungle terrain, including the CRPF’s Commando Battalions for Resolute Action (CoBRA). In fact, CoBRA is part of the Union government’s anti-Maoist campaign launched in 2009, commonly referred to as Operation Green Hunt—a search-and-destroy campaign to clear out the jungles—which prompted massive retaliatory attacks on security forces. Still, there is enough evidence to argue that the government has in fact succeeded in degrading the Maoist movement and diminishing its impact.

Second, it is because the Maoists are being cornered that it makes sense for them to carry out spectacular attacks such as the most recent one in Sukma. Such attacks ensure the movement remains relevant and can attract new recruits. Importantly, the Maoists also use them to logistical advantage, seizing arms and weapons from the security forces—as happened at Sukma.

Indeed, it is worth mentioning in this context that although the Maoists may have been cornered, they have still continued to innovate at the tactical level. For instance, during the latest attack, they successfully placed improvised explosive devices on arrows, which was used for the first time.

This innovation has, unsurprisingly, been employed to hamstring the state’s attempts to improve connectivity infrastructure in LWE-affected regions, as at Sukma. The Centre’s focus on this as a structural solution to LWE—in December, the cabinet committee on economic affairs signed on a massive rural roads project that will develop infrastructure in LWE-affected districts—and the fact that the Maoists are also believed to be seeking new terrain in the south (especially the tri-junction of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu), and in the North-East (especially Assam and Arunachal Pradesh), make the contours of the challenge ahead clear.

It is a challenge the Indian state can and has been tackling successfully, the hyperbole following Sukma notwithstanding.

How do you assess the state’s response to the Maoist challenge? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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