The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent countrywide lockdown to prevent its transmission have variedly impacted the Indian Maoists. While there are no verified inputs that suggest confirmed cases of coronavirus among their cadres, the lockdown has certainly increased Maoists’ desperation to meet their demands of food supplies and other essentials. Maoists, all across the left wing extremism (LWE)-affected states, primarily procure their rations and other essential commodities through a network of aides from village-level haat bazaars (weekly markets). With haat bazaars being temporarily shut, they are reportedly facing acute shortage of food supplies. Also, since the entire economic and construction activities have been grounded in these areas to ensure the efficacy of the lockdown, the Maoists’ finances have taken a beating given that extortions from contractors, mining industry, truck drivers, etc., formed a major part of their finances.
Nonetheless, the Maoists are reported to have devised a few coping mechanisms to overcome the impact of the lockdown on their supplies of rations and finances, albeit in a minuscule way. The Maoists in Bastar are forcing the village headmen and others to arrange rations for them. Places where villagers are unable to arrange large stocks of rice, the Maoists are snatching a one-month free ration from each of the below poverty line (BPL) families. The Maoists are also allegedly transporting stranded migrant workers to their respective villages in lieu of money. The lockdown situation has increased Maoists’ desperation and they are exploiting the villagers for meeting their ends.
The Maoists had reportedly offered a temporary unilateral ceasefire early this month in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, especially in the regions falling under Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC). While the Maoists’ refrain is to ‘facilitate government’s relief operations in their core areas to fight COVID-19’, it is believed that the offer is opportunistic and misleading. The factors that might have influenced the Maoists’ decision to initiate a truce call are: achieving a possible breather in hitherto intensified security offensive in their core areas, and the increased social pressure to pave the way for COVID-19 relief operations in remote villages, which otherwise might increase the miseries of the underprivileged masses. The veracity of the truce call is also debatable as it has not come from the all-powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) or CPI (Maoist). Moreover, the Maoists have not relented on their violent campaigns in the most affected states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. The Maoist ambush of March 21-22, wherein 17 security personnel were killed and 15 others severely injured in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma District is a case in point.
The Maoists are, in fact, shoring up their strength and preparing for future operations. They are reportedly holding village-level meetings and recruiting ground-level forces in the remote villages of Jagdalpur, Dantewada, and Sukma districts. It is believed that the Maoists could also offer money and enlist the jobless migrant workers returning to their villages. Recently, a large group of armed Maoists from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal has reportedly joined their Bastar colleagues to up the ante against the security forces. They are torching road construction vehicles, digging up the roads that lead to the strategically important police camps in remote villages and planting landmines on the deserted lanes to target the security patrols. Besides, the Maoists’ recent forays in the areas of Todma and the Dantewada-Katekalyan main road are testimony of their increased activities during the lockdown.
In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, the security forces in Bastar have scaled down their anti-Maoist operations for fear of being exposed to the infection as well as apprehensions of likely shortage of essential items for the personnel. The Chhattisgarh Police has reportedly decided to suspend massive area domination exercises involving large forces and are instead taking up “fewer dedicated offensives” in the Maoist core areas based on specific intelligence. Moreover, the various Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) units deployed in the Maoist-affected areas have been shouldering the additional responsibility of spreading awareness about the pandemic and providing relief assistance to the villagers. With the majority of security forces now confined to their camps or undertaking relief operations for over a month now, the Maoists seems to be enjoying a much-needed respite from the hitherto stepped up security offensives, especially in the remote Bastar Division. It is important to recall here that prior to the commencement of the COVID-19 lockdown, the security forces in Bastar had launched a massive combing operation – ‘Prahar 2020’ – which was carried out simultaneously from the border areas of Telangana, Maharashtra and Odisha, deep into the forests of Sukma, Narayanpur, Bijapur and Dantewada districts of Chhattisgarh. As a result, the joint forces were largely successful in dominating and subsequently liberating substantial areas under the Maoist control, forcing them on the back foot and confining them to smaller areas.
While it is true that desperate times call for desperate measures, however, the forces mandated with anti-Naxal operations in the LWE-affected districts should not be diverted to the COVID-19 related relief work. They should continue with the area domination exercises in Maoist core areas and undertake dedicated intelligence-based operations. It is even more necessary given that the lockdown period also coincides with the CPI (Maoist) Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) which commences from February to June (until the onset of monsoons) every year. During TCOC, the rebels launch their attrition war by conducting audacious attacks on the security forces and inflicting maximum damages to the government property. In fact, with the Sukma ambush of March 21, the Maoists have heralded the beginning of their TCOC. Although initially they suffered some setbacks due to the lockdown, their indulgence in a series of brazen violent incidents over the past one month indicates that the Maoists are exploiting the situation to have an upper hand vis-à-vis security forces.
Given that the Maoists are now led by Nambala Keshava Rao (65), alias Basavraj, who is known for his experience in military statecraft and use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), anticipating a Maoist downfall/retreat may be too early. The Maoists’ call for a ceasefire in certain areas should by no means be a reason for the security forces to lower their guard. Besides catering to the security needs, the governments of the LWE-affected states must address the employment needs of the returning migrant workers lest they fall prey to the Maoists’ propaganda and swell their cadre base.