Is the government underestimating the Maoist threat?

By P.V. Ramana, IANS

In a daring raid, believed to be codenamed Operation 22, guerrillas of the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) looted 1,100 weapons -including pistols, Self Loading Rifles, AK and INSAS rifles and Light Machine Guns (LMGs) – Feb 15 night in Orissa’s newly carved-out Nayagarh district.

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The town was seized for approximately two-and-a-half hours. Those familiar with the Maoist method of organising fighters and weapons think the rebels would be easily able to raise three battalions, given the number of weapons looted.

Home Minister Shivraj Patil thinks the rebels do not pose a big threat. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thinks they do.

The Nayagarh raid was clinically precise, very meticulously planned and finely executed. It is the largest ever looting of weapons and ammunition in the history of the sub-continent – until now the largest was the Chittagong armoury raid during the independence movement.

Reportedly, the Maoists blocked all approaches to the town, infiltrated it during the day, laid seige to the residences of the district police chief and the district collector, and launched simultaneous attacks on the district armoury, town police office and reserve police office.

They also reportedly launched an attack on the Daspalla police inspector’s home, which is close to Nayagarh.

Incontrovertibly, the People’s Militia participated in the raid in big numbers. Of the reportedly 600 attackers, an overwhelming number belonged to the militia, the Base Force of the rebels. The Maoist military machine – People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) – comprises of the Primary Force (attack/protection platoons), Secondary Force (guerrilla squads) and the Base Force.

The Base Force – the largest component of PLGA – comprises of ordinary villagers, who otherwise have a vocation in life, but have received rudimentary military training. Eventually, as the strength of the Base Force increases with a larger number of people joining in it, the Maoists hope to convert the PLGA into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Presently, this seems to be the immediate task of the Maoists.

The Nayagarh raid is the sixth synchronised attack on multiple targets within a given town by the Maoists. Incidentally, the first was also staged in Orissa, in Koraput, Feb 6, 2004. The last of these was in Riga block of Bihar’s Sitamarhi district March 31, 2007. In 2007 alone, the People’s Militia took part in 37 attacks, according to this author’s databases on Maoist movement in India.

The involvement of the People’s Militia, in fact, went unnoticed until the Jehanabad jail break – which the Maoists called Operation Jehanabad – that was carried out by 1,000 attackers, two-thirds of who were militia members.

In a press release issued after the raid, the rebels said: “It is a turning point in the ongoing people’s war in the country… This daring action has also inspired the masses all over the country… It shows that the well-equipped, well-trained and numerically superior mercenary forces can be dealt heavy blows by a numerically weaker but determined, fearless and politically motivated armed force of the people through concrete survey of the weak points of the enemy force, meticulous planning and effective execution based on the principle of taking on the enemy through surprise and lightening speed.”

Apparently, the Indian state has not taken these warnings seriously. As a result, such synchronised attacks are being staged with impunity from time to time.

Nevertheless, the home minister believes the Maoists “do not pose the single largest challenge to the country’s internal security”. He has made a habit of taking the less grave view of the Maoist challenge. He reportedly said on a TV channel: “Some particular kind of statistics would create fear psychosis”.

Moreover, Patil has put his foot in his mouth on various occasions on the spatial spread of the Maoists. For instance, while replying to the debate on Demands for Grants for his ministry, Patil told the Lok Sabha May 22, 2006: “I have personally collected data… only 50 districts are affected”. On the other hand, speaking a month earlier, the prime minister said, while addressing a meeting of the Standing Committee of Chief Ministers of Naxalite affected states, on April 13, 2006 that the Naxalite movement “has now spread to over 160 districts”.

A former governor of Chhattisgarh begs to differ. He said in an interview a few months back: “I would like to share that currently from the figures I have been able to obtain, 256 districts have been declared (N)axalite affected districts…”

Again in 2006, while addressing the chief ministers conference on internal security, on Sep 5, 2006, the home minister reportedly said that 509 police stations countrywide were affected by Maoist violence. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy said at the same meeting that 500 police stations were affected in his state alone.

Evidently, either the prime minister or the home minister is unaware of the spatial spread of the Maoists countrywide, and either Patil or Reddy is ill-informed about the spread of Naxalite violence in Andhra Pradesh.

Apparently, we have no idea, even at very high levels, on the spatial spread of the Maoists. Replying to a question number 320 in the Rajya Sabha Nov 21, 2007, Minister of State for Home Affairs Sriprakash Jaiswal said that 91 districts in 11 states were affected by Maoist violence.

On the other hand, then cabinet secretary B.K. Chaturvedi, while speaking at the annual conference of chief secretaries, said April 20, 2007 that a total of 182 districts were Maoist affected. But the Maoists believe they have a presence in 17 states. Sonu — who earlier used the alias Bhupathi — whose actual name is Mallojula Venugopal and is the in-charge of the Dandakaranya Special Zone Committee (DKSZC) said in an interview published in “People’s March”, a Maoist mouthpiece, in July 2007: “… our party has a presence in 17 states…”

Thus, while we grope in the dark about even the spatial spread of the rebels, and the challenge they pose, they are gradually expanding their reach, finely executing meticulous operations and working according to a well thought-out plan, of capturing political power through protracted people’s war.

(P.V. Ramana is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected])