The author explores the risks posed by the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic to LWE affected areas in India.
Left wing extremism (LWE) is known to be India’s biggest internal security threat. LWE conflict zones are home to a variety of actors such as the local civilian population, security and administrative personnel, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres etc. At present, with the Government of India’s country-wide efforts to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that innovative security relevant impetus be added to handle this issue in the LWE affected regions.
The recent CPI-Maoist attack on security forces in Chhattisgarh highlights the urgency of doing so. The attack came at a time when people in India, irrespective of political, social, and religious differences, have come together to deal with COVID-19 risks. Although specific information indicating active plotting is not yet available, it is plausible that the CPI-Maoist would be seeking to exploit public fears associated with the spread of COVID-19 to incite violence, eliminate targets and promote their ideology. Additionally, at present, due to the countrywide lockdown, the Maoist rank and file in the dense forests are facing acute shortage of food and other daily use goods. There are reports that in desperation, they are now pressurising innocent villagers and village chiefs to provide them with food and other materials. This is a serious situation as it has the potential to introduce new dynamics to the ongoing Maoist insurgency.
According to official data, 60 districts across eight states are affected by the CPI-Maoist led LWE. Locals living in those areas have almost no proper access to hospitals or healthcare facilities and are often treated like third-class citizens. Consequently, they have turned to dubious ‘faith healers’, which stands to complicate an already difficult public health situation. Given the adverse conditions, it is a major challenge for the government to provide necessary healthcare facilities to some of its most neglected populations at a time when they need it most. The task entails both ensuring availability of the facilities to those populations as well as creating an atmosphere of safety in the Maoist affected areas so that people can avail of those facilities.
Furthermore, since 2005, approximately 30,000 people (mostly from the tribal populace) have reportedly fled Chhattisgarh due to LWE violence, and are living in 248 settlements in the forests of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra. They currently live in deplorable conditions without proper access to clean drinking water and electricity. They receive lower wages, and most do not possess ration cards or voter IDs and cannot prove their citizenship. This poses a impediments to respective state governments vis-à-vis ensuring their wellbeing. Those among them without proper identification are vulnerable to being deprived of special provisions instituted by the government to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, thousands of people belonging to the Maoist infested regions of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Maharashtra work as daily wage labourers in Delhi, Mumbai, Goa etc, many of whom are now returning to their villages in large groups. In the Maoist infested areas, checking by police personnel is limited to roads only. Given how those returning are doing so through forest areas, the risk of transmission of the virus from carriers is extremely high.
The LWE affected areas also house large numbers of security personnel who are deployed there. For example, at present, in Chhattisgarh alone, approximately 70,000 security personnel comprising state forces and paramilitary forces like the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Sashastra Seema Bal etc are deployed in seven of its worst Maoist hit districts. These personnel are more vulnerable to being affected by COVID-19 in comparison to their counterparts deployed in other places. Findings of various studies suggest that forces deployed away from home for extended periods of time do tend to have higher rates of infection than those able to live with, or near, their families. Additionally, the fact that most of these forces travel from place to place as per the need of the hour makes them more exposed to the risk of contracting the virus.
New Delhi (as well as state governments) must keep their strategy simple without allowing the situation to become advantageous for the CPI-Maoist. Security forces operating in the area must be made aware of their new role in this war against COVID-19. Combing operations might have to continue, but health camps, mobile hospitals etc must be urgently incorporated into the counter-Maoist strategy. Free medicines, soaps, masks and sanitary napkins must be distributed along with government sponsored rations. Local police personnel familiar with local languages as well as surrendered Maoists could be enlisted to aid in spreading public service information to the innocent tribal populations pertaining to safety, sanitation and self-isolation. Overcoming the COVID-19 threat in regions affected by India’s biggest internal security threat would require strict vigilance against Maoist activities as well as comprehensive protection of the local populations.