Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray explores the potential strategies the CPI-Maoist is most likely to adopt in the coming months and how it might pan out in the near term.
Weakened insurgencies tend to negotiate. Such decision may be a tactic to buy time, defer defeat, protect their leaders and cadres, or simply to salvage whatever little is possible in a war that these armed movements have no hope of winning. Being ‘rational’ actors, insurgencies do not wish to be vanquished completely by a militarily superior adversary. If one is to apply this truism to India’s left-wing extremism (LWE), the persistent obduracy of the extremists to reject negotiation offers point to two possibilities. The extremists either do not see themselves as losing the war with the state, or distrust the process of negotiation as a viable conflict resolution mechanism. How will such an outlook shape their approach in the months to come?
Media reports seem agog with the prospect of a ‘surgical strike’ on LWE. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is reportedly implementing a strategy to root out the remnants of LWE which is now confined to few pockets of select states. Although similar measures involving deployment of additional security forces on focused counter-extremism operations have been implemented by earlier administrations, this time around the Ministry is taking steps to improve the morale of the security forces; augment coordination between the central as well as state security force establishments; and target the financial lifeline of the extremists and the urban supporters of LWE, labelled as ‘Urban Naxals’. Tweets by the Minister of Home Affairs and journalists who claim to have knowledge of the decision-making processes within the MHA indicate that the government is determined to put an end to the activities of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), which is in its 15th year of operation.
Notwithstanding the fact that the problem of boosting the security forces’ morale and improving coordination are, at best, medium to long-term projects and cannot be achieved quickly, the present strategy appears to be focused on neutralising LWE leaders and cadres. It remains a fact that the numerical strength of the outfit has significantly declined. According to an assessment of the Chhattisgarh Police, in 2016, there were 10,000 Maoists and their supporters in Chhattisgarh. The number has decreased to 6000 in 2019.Over the past months, several encounters in which Naxal cadres have been killed, have been reported from almost all the major LWE-affected states. And yet, one does not witness a sense of panic in the outfit.
In 2019 (till the end August alone), the outfit has issued at least 22 media statements or releases compared to 21 in 2018 and 30 in 2019. Barring a bunch of appeals issued to the police informers in January 2019, none of its statements carries any element of perturbation. The last two statements issued in August 2019 are about supporting the Kashmiri people against the Indian government’s decision to nullify Article 370 and against fake encounters in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Although there is no doubt that the outfit is a pale shadow of its former self, it appears to be not only confident of surviving the counter-Naxal operations, but also is in search of opportunities to re-organise and bounce back. Opting for negotiations with the government, therefore, is certainly not on its cards.
If true, what strategy is the CPI-Maoist most likely to adopt and how will it pan out in the coming months?
The violence profile of the CPI-Maoist in the past years provides an indication to this effect. Conventional wisdom tells us that a weakened outfit, in order to survive, halts its area expansion plan and engages in activities that are geared towards preserving its cadres. It also attempts to increase its publicity campaign in order to fill up the vacuum in the operational front. However, halting expansion projects for too long can severely affect its ‘credibility’. Preserving cadres and leaders may not be possible when the security forces are implementing a plan to target its core areas. The killing of many of the Naxal cadres in recent months has taken place during proactive operations by the security forces in the extremist stronghold areas.
At present, two things still favour the outfit operationally. Firstly, in spite of the hurry in which the MHA seems to be to—in the words of Home Minister, Amit Shah—“to uproot” the LWE problem, the CPI-Maoist can continue to exploit the safety of its core areas as well as the persisting loopholes in the security forces’ operations. A recent operation in Chhattisgarh revealed a near-impregnable four-tier security around a CPI-Maoist camp in Abujhmaad. The fact that the outfit’s leadership is dispersed across many states, and not concentrated only in one place, will continue to add longevity to its operations. Secondly, the outfit can focus its energy to carry out bigger strikes on advancing security forces. Past incidents of this nature, resulting in the killing of a large number of security forces, have affected their morale and have, on odd occasions, halted the operations. In those cases, negative media publicity forced the government to take a fresh look at its strategy. Advancing security force operations do create such opportunities for the extremists, especially in their stronghold areas, and the outfit is mostly likely to exploit this.
The official strategy must, therefore, factor in the advantages that the CPI-Maoist continues to enjoy. Augmentation in the capacities of the forces, improving inter-state and inter-force coordination, and preventing loss of lives of security forces must be a part of a gradual, yet decisive affront on the military prowess of the Naxalites.
The writer is Director of Mantraya, and a Visiting Fellow and columnist with IPCS.