Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-linked violence continued to torment Maharashtra in 2019. According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 51 fatalities [19 civilians, 15 Security Force, SF, personnel and 17 Naxalites (Left Wing Extremists, LWEs)], were reported in 2019, adding to 58 such fatalities (five civilians, two SF personnel and 51 Naxalites) in 2018. No fatality has been reported in 2020, thus far (data till February 16, 2020).
Civilians, meanwhile, bore the brunt of LWE violence. Fatalities in this category increased from five in 2018 to 19 in 2019, an almost four-fold increase. This is, in fact, the maximum number of fatalities recorded in this category since 2012, when it had stood at 21. Fatalities in this category never crossed 10 between 2013-2018.
Of the 19 civilian fatalities in 2019, Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres killed 12 civilians in 10 incidents, branding them as ‘police informers.’ Of the five fatalities in 2018, the rebels had killed two civilians in two incidents labelling them as ‘police informers.’ The remaining civilian killings were also likely to have been on the pretext of the victims being ‘police informers.’
SF fatalities also registered a spike, from two in 2018 to 15 in 2019. Again, as in case of civilians, SF fatalities in 2019 increased to their maximum since 2012, when they totalled 13. Significantly, all fatalities in 2019 occurred in a single incident. On May, 1, 2019, 15 SF personnel of the Quick Response Team (QRT) wing of C-60, the Maharashtra Police counter-insurgency commando unit, and a civilian driver, were killed in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion triggered by CPI-Maoist cadres on Dadapur Road near Lendali Nullah in Jamburkheda village under the Kurkheda Police Station limits in the Gadchiroli District. A chargesheet submitted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to the special NIA court in Mumbai on December 4, 2019, noted, “A conspiracy to target security forces was planned nearly a year before the May 1, 2019, attack in Gadchiroli, in which 15 police personnel and one civilian were killed.”
The May 1, 2019, incident was the worst, in terms of fatalities among SFs, recorded in the State since October 8, 2009, when CPI-Maoist cadres killed at least 18 Policemen, in an ambush in the dense forests under Laheri Police Station limits in Gadchiroli District. The dead in the 2009 incident include 10 commandos of the Maharashtra Police, as well as six constables and a sub-inspector, Chandrasekhar Deshmukh, from the Laheri Police Station. The incident occurred when a 40 member Police party came under heavy fire from 150 to 200 Maoists. The Police force was returning after a search operation following intelligence inputs that the Maoists had assembled in the area. The Additional Superintendent of Police M.K. Sharma claimed that the Police managed to kill 15-17 Maoists, though no bodies were recovered. There was no independent verification of the claim.
While civilian and SF fatalities spiked, Maoist fatalities recorded a decline from 51 in 2018 to 17 in 2019, yielding a kill ratio of 1:1.13 in 2019, significantly down from 1:25.5 in 2018.
According to SATP data, at least 12 Maoists were arrested in Maharashtra in 2019, adding to the 10 arrested in 2018. The most significant catches of 2019 included Parvati Sadmake (24), a member of the ‘Bhamragarh Area Committee’ (BAC), who carried a cash reward of INR 600,000 on her head. Sadmake was arrested by the Police in Gadchiroli District on December 6 2019. Further, 34 Maoists surrendered in 2019, in addition to 17 who surrendered in 2018. Significantly, five prominent CPI-Maoist cadres with a joint reward of around INR 2.7 million on their heads surrendered before the Police in Gadchiroli District on December 31, 2019.
Though overall fatalities came down from 58 in 2018 to 51 in 2019, the number of incidents of killing increased from 16 in 2018 to 22 in 2019. Though the number of major incidents (each resulting in three or more fatalities) remained the same in 2018 and 2019, at three incidents each, the number of fatalities registered was higher in 2019 (27 fatalities: four civilians, 15 SF personnel, and eight Maoists) as compared to 2018 (25 fatalities: all Maoists).
Moreover, overall LWE-related incidents registered a sharp increase from 32 in 2018 to 60 in 2019, a whopping 87.5 per cent. The number of explosions triggered by the Maoists registered a spike from one in 2018 to four in 2019. In addition, incidents of arson registered a spike from three in 2018 to 11 in 2019. Furthermore, the SFs recovered arms and ammunition on 10 occasions in 2019 as against three such occasions in 2018.
Fatalities in 2019 were recorded from two Districts – Gadchiroli and Gondia – while fatalities were recorded in Gadchiroli alone in 2018. In 2019, a civilian was killed in Murkutdoh-I area under Salakesa Tehsil (revenue unit) in Gondia District on October 18, 2019. All other fatalities in 2019 were confined to Gadchiroli, the epicentre of Maoist activities in the State.
Gadchiroli and Gondia, along with Chandrapur, are listed among the 90 Districts in 11 States identified as LWE-affected by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) on February 5, 2019. Moreover, Gadchiroli is included in the 'worst LWE-affected Districts' in the list of 30 Most Affected LWE Districts from seven States across India, released by UMHA on August 1, 2018.
A February 3, 2020, report, revealed that, according to figures provided by the Maharashtra Police, even though the number of Naxal attacks in the State is on the decline, there had been a massive rise in destruction of private property by Maoists in the three Districts of Gadchiroli, Gondia and Chandrapur over the preceding three years. The value of property destroyed increased from INR two million in 2017 to INR 89 million in 2019. Shailesh Balkawade, Superintendent of Police (SP), Gadchiroli, thus noted,
Recently, Naxals have prioritised disrupting road construction work, especially in villages bordering Chhattisgarh and Telangana. They do not want roads to be built in interior areas. In our assessment, we have found that their first target is road construction activity, followed by forest goods and government vehicles and machinery.
Worryingly, critical security gaps in capacities and deployment persist in the State. According to Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) 2018 data (as on January 1, 2018), though Maharashtra’s Police-population ratio, at 174.93 per 100,000, is significantly higher than the national average of 150.80, it remains substantially lower than the minimum of 220:100,000 regarded as desirable for 'peacetime policing'. Further, the Police/Area Ratio (number of Policemen per 100 square kilometres) for Maharashtra is 69.55, as against the sanctioned strength of 78.07. The all-India ratio is 61.31, as against a sanction of 78.45 per 100 square kilometres. The sanctioned strength for the States’ Police is 240,224, but 214,029 personnel were in position, yielding a vacancy of 26,195. In addition, the sanctioned strength of the apex Indian Police Service (IPS) Officers in the State is 265, but just 240 officers were in position, with 25 posts vacant, considerably weakening the executive supervision of the Force.
The previous State Government led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got itself embroiled in ‘exposing’ an alleged ‘urban Maoist conspiracy’ [LINK: SAIR-17.10], famously known as the Koregaon-Bhima case. The case pertained to the arrest of 10 purported ‘urban Maoists’: five (Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Sudhir Dhawale, and Rona Wilson) on June 6, 2018, and another five (Sudha Bhardwaj, P Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves) on August 28, 2018, from different parts of the country. The 10 were charged on strikingly tenuous evidence, for inciting the Bhima Koregaon violence between Dalits and upper castes on January 1, 2018, an incredible plot to assassinate the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a range of other implausible offences. The Pune Police on November 15, 2018, filed a chargesheet against five accused (Gadling, Sen, Raut, Dhawale, and Wilson) who were arrested in June over their alleged role in the Bhima Koregaon violence. A January 28, 2020, report, revealed that the NIA was not handed over Koregaon-Bhima case files as the relevant orders from the Centre had reportedly not been received.
Despite the diminution of the Maoist threat across the country, the Maharashtra Governments’ lethargic approach towards capacity building remains a major impediment to sustaining and consolidating the gains secured at great cost and sacrifice in the State. Extreme care and sustained focus will be necessary to secure enduring peace and stability in the fight against the Maoists. Politically motivated diversions such as the ‘urban Maoist’ cases can only undermine State legitimacy and result in a diversion of both resources and focus.