Thursday, December 10, 2020

Why the Maoists are killing civilians in Chhattisgarh

 |India Today Insight

As security forces close in on their strongholds, Maoists become ruthless with suspected informers 

Maoists watch as villagers dance in a forested area of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh (Noah Seelam/AFP)

In a worrying trend, Chhattisgarh’s Maoist insurgency has seen a spurt in the killing of civilians by the rebels. In the past three months, around 25 civilians have been killed after being accused of being police informers or supporters (whereas the first eight months of the year saw the death of only 20 civilians).

Intelligence reports suggest that after the tactical counter-offensive campaign (TCOC), an annual summer muscle-flexing exercise of the Maoists, a review meeting was held in July. Many of the top Maoist cadre could not reach the venue as the Indrawati river was in spate but the general consensus at the meeting was to come down heavily on police informers. The leaders came to the conclusion that they were unable to carry out effective ops against forces because the cadre had been infiltrated. A zero-tolerance policy was adopted after which the death penalty has been handed out for even small infractions.

Most of the civilians killed so far have been tribal village folk suspected of being police informers. Maoists also killed one of their own senior operatives, Modiyami Vijja, a divisional committee member (DVCM), and four others after they were suspected of passing on wireless coordinates to forces.

Security forces claim that the spike in civilian killings is a result of pressure on the Maoists as forces are now moving into the previously rebel-held territory for what they call “the final battle”. The ‘liberated’ area, as of now, ranges from 3,000 to 10,000 sq. km, mostly in the Narayanpur, Bijapur and Sukma districts. Of these areas, around 3,000 sq. km is totally out of the control of the government, while the rest of the area has varying degrees of control; for example, food and medicines can go in, teachers can go in, but the forest department and police etc. can’t.

Civilians are regarded as vital for the survival of Maoists who operate in the forests of South Chhattisgarh as they provide food and shelter, and are aware of jungle paths and are the eyes and ears of the rebels. What then explains this reign of terror?

The lockdown period in the summer months had witnessed a fresh offensive by the Maoists against the security forces. During the total lockdown (mid-March to May 31), 17 security personnel from the state’s district reserve guard (DRG) were killed in an attack on March 23 by Maoists in Sukma district--the biggest death toll among the forces in the past three years. There was a lull in attacks on civilians during the lockdown but from September on the situation rapidly worsened. In September alone, 10 civilians were killed while another 15 have been killed in the last two months.

One possible reason for the Maoists turning up the heat on civilians is the setting up of new camps by the security forces in areas that were considered ‘liberated’ zones. As many as 19 new camps have been set up in the last two years. The new Congress government in Chhattisgarh that took over in December 2018 had unofficially attempted to reduce hostilities with the Maoists. There were verbal instructions to officers on the ground to not target the ‘small-time Maoists’, the kind that contributed the biggest numbers to the kill lists of the forces in most years. But the kid gloves came off after the March attack on the DRG (District Reserve Guard) personnel. Chief minister Bhupesh Baghel asked the Union government for 7 fresh battalions (7,000 men in all) of the Central Armed Paramilitary Forces (CAPFs). The Union government has approved 5 new battalions for Chhattisgarh and deployment of two battalions has already commenced in Bijapur and Sukma. Since these battalions are being deployed in ‘liberated’ areas, a conflict with Maoists seems imminent.

It’s also true that a few officers of the Chhattisgarh police, deployed in South Bastar for many years, have developed strong informer networks. Maoist pamphlets have in fact called out the informers, dividing them into three categories--one group they refer to as active workers who get Rs 12,000 a month salary, covert operators who live in the villages, and informers who provide information to the police as and when possible. For the first time, relatives of police personnel who live in the villages have also been chased out by the Maoists. Police sources said that earlier Maoists followed a system of graded punishments whereby those found guilty were thrashed or tortured and then released. In the last few months, however, the death penalty is being awarded with impunity by these kangaroo courts. Reports coming in from the Maoist-controlled areas are that the number of dead civilians is much higher. Deaths are not being reported owing to the fear of reprisals.

The success of a ‘surrender programme’ in Dantewada district in the monsoon season also seems to have angered the Maoists. Across the state, a total of 583 Maoists have surrendered in 2019 and 2020 in what is called a homecoming or ‘lon varratu’ in Gondi. Another theory is that since the bulk of civilian executions have been around the Gangalur axis, the Maoists want to attain the twin objectives of preventing the setting up of camps and also to terrorise the mine operators as this is a deposit rich area.

“The local population is not extending support to the Maoists. The Naxals are killing locals to teach them a lesson. They want to spread terror among the civilians; it’s a clear sign that our three-pronged strategy of vishwas-vikas- suraksha (trust, progress, security) is working,” says Sunder Raj P., IG, Bastar.

It is also believed that the spurt in violence could be a direct outcome of the Maoist leadership in South Bastar now being in the hands of leaders with a military background. Basavaraju, the present secretary of the central committee, is from a military background among the Maoists. Hidma, commander of the dreaded 1 Battalion and member of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, also has a military background. The absence of the ideological anchors, it seems, has led to the increased use of violence as a solution provider.

The coming months are likely to see a renewed push by the forces and counterattacks by the Maoists. Caught in the crossfire are the civilians who cannot be seen to be identifying with any one side. It’s a tightrope walk for them; one wrong move could mean death.

Civilian Killings

Year ------------------------------ Deaths

2016-------------------------------- 57

2017-------------------------------- 50

2018-------------------------------- 79

2019------------------------------ 46

2020 (till December 5)----------- 44

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