Even as the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) central committee member Arvind Singh alias Arvindji continued to fox the Security Forces (SFs) pursuing him in Jharkhand, the Maoists, in an attack in broad daylight on April 4, 2013, killed five personnel of the Jharkhand Armed Police (JAP) near a crowded bus shelter in Chainpur in Gumla District.
The place is hardly 400 yards from the Chainpur Police Station and it was a busy weekly market day. A six-member Police patrol party (including the driver) was returning from the bus stand at about noon when a group of 15 to 20 Maoists, dressed as civilians, opened fire with their AK-47s. While three personnel died on the spot, two succumbed to injuries on the way to hospital. The Maoists decamped with three INSAS rifles, 600 rounds of ammunition and eight hand grenades. Jharkhand Director General of Police Rajeev Kumar, on his way to Gumla, disclosed, "The group of Maoists led by Arvindji has split into smaller groups and we believe this attack was carried out by one such group."
It is significant that, after the Latehar encounter on January 7, 2013, SFs tracking Arvindji's squad came close to his group in the Sivil-Roret and Luru regions in the Chainpur Police Station area, on March 13 and 14, and fighting continued intermittently for 24 hours. The Police, along with Jharkhand Jaguar (JJ), Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and JAP troops, took part in the operation. One JJ trooper was killed in the encounter and another two sustained injuries. The intensity of the operation was so great that the SFs found it difficult to evacuate the injured and retrieve the killed trooper's body.
The April 4 Gumla attack followed the blowing up of the Sreeram Panchayat Secretariat building in Lohardaga in the night of April 2 by a group of some 25 to 30 Maoists. The building was almost entirely destroyed, though no one was killed.
Both the attacks are thought to be part of the Maoists' 'protest' against the killing of 10 of their cadres, including senior leaders - such as Lalesh Yadav alias Prashant, 'secretary' of the Bihar Jharkhand North Chhattisgarh Special Area Committee (BJNCSAC), Jaikumar Yadav, 'platoon commander', Dharmendra Yadav alias Biru, 'sub-zonal commander' of Chatra Palamu, and Prafulla Yadav, 'sub-zonal commander' of the Koleswari area - by the Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC). TPC is a splinter group of the CPI-Maoist, and had engaged a Maoist contingent at Lakramanda Tola in the Kunda Block of Chatra District in a gun battle that started in the afternoon of March 27, 2013, and continued till early the next morning. Alleging that SFs were backing TPC, the Maoists declared a 'protest week' commencing April 1, 2013, and gave a call for a Jharkhand and Bihar bandh (protest shutdown) on April 6 and 7. During the bandh, Maoists blew up railway tracks and Government buildings in Latehar, Gumla and Palamu Districts in Jharkhand, and railways tracks in the Vaishali District in Bihar.
The Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC), literally, the Third Preparatory Committee, was formed in 2002 after a number of cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) in Jharkhand walked out of their parent outfit, complaining of the domination of the Yadav caste in the decision-making process of CPI-Maoist. The TPC cadres were mostly from the Dalit (Scheduled Caste) Bhokta, Turi, Badai, Oraon, and Ghanju castes.
The Maoists were taken completely by surprise in Chatra. Heavily armed TPC cadres suddenly surrounded a group of 35 to 45 Maoists led by Lalesh, when they were resting (on March 27) after taking lunch provided by the Lakramanda villagers. The ensuing gunbattle stopped when SFs reached the spot around 3:00 am the next morning and took control of the situation. Police recovered the bodies of slain Maoists and some arms and ammunition. While 'retreating' (after seeing the SFs), TPC abducted 25 of the surviving Maoists. However, at least 23 of them were subsequently released. They were handed over to their family members after extracting a promise that they would dissociate themselves from the Maoists. The remaining two Maoists were not released because their family members failed to appear to receive their custody. Meanwhile, seven of the 10 slain Maoists have been identified, while the remaining three remain unknown. The Maoists have reportedly confirmed the killing of the four leaders.
It is widely believed that TPC was silently backed by the SFs in this operation; and that the group was even 'allowed' to take away a part of the sophisticated weapons seized from the Maoists. R.K. Mallick, Inspector General, Jharkhand Police, tacitly admitted this, stating, "If we know that a particular splinter group is looking for the Maoists in a region, we may decide not to venture out in the region for some time." He, however, clarified that no rebel group could ever be a friend of the Police. Media reports indicate the splinter groups like TPC and Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parished have been given some leeway to work against the Maoists in villages.
Apart from the TPC's role in this incident, what proved to be the undoing for the Lalesh Yadav-led group was that the Maoists were hounded relentlessly by the SFs through the forests, ultimately forcing them to take shelter in a TPC stronghold. Maoist Central Committee (CC) member Arvindji, the mastermind of the Latehar encounter, who had been moving about with a 200-strong force, had asked his men split into smaller groups to evade the SFs. During the process, Sandeep, another senior leader and one of Arvindji's close aides, was separated from the remaining force, and was holed up in Chatara, from where he was to be taken back to Bihar. The contingent led by Lalesh had come from Gaya to Chatra to provide cover to Sandeep. En route, the group ran into a CoBRA team in the Dumaria area of Gaya on March 25, 2013, leading to a fierce gun battle that raged for hours. Though no casualties were reported, both sides expended a great deal of ammunition. It is believed that some Maoists were injured in that encounter. The loss of ammunition and injuries to comrades, necessitating medical aid, ultimately proved fatal, when the group's location was exposed while they sought medical aid. Insufficient ammunition also hindered their response when they came under TPC fire. It is still not clear what forced the Maoists to take shelter in a TPC stronghold.
It is evident is that the Maoists had little inkling of the changing loyalty of Lakramanda villagers. This fatal error of judgement reveals the changing conflict dynamics of the region. Lakramanda village, which has long served as a pit-stop for Bihar Maoists on their way to Saranda, has an extended history of association with the Maoists. Parasji, a Maoist 'zonal commander' and one of the few Ghanju caste leaders in the CPI-Maoist, hailed from the village. Parasji was killed in an encounter with SFs on July 21, 2012. Ghanju-dominated Lakramanda has since gradually allied itself with the Ganjhu-dominated TPC.
The debate over the implications of extending tacit support to anti-Maoist extremist groups by the SFs is not going to end soon. However, there are more urgent worries over the Maoists' return to the Saranda Forest area in West Singhbhum District, which was purportedly 'liberated' from 'Maoist control' through 'Operation Monsoon' in August 2011. Evidence of increasing Maoist activity in the area is now accumulating.
The Maoists killed six villagers in a 'Jan Adalat' ('people's court', an euphemism for a Maoist kangaroo court) at Manmaru village of the Bandgaon Block in West Singhbhum District on March 13, 2013. The area falls under Porahat Forest area. News reports indicate that this is part of the Saranda Forest area. However, it is certainly not part of the core Saranda area, where the Government's Saranda Development Plan is being implemented since its 'recovery' after Operation Monsoon. The killings were apparently intended to avenge the killing of the two suspected Maoist sympathizers - Somu Bodra and Hangera Hansa Munda, residents of Tetai village and Desai village, respectively, in the Gudri Block of the District. Police recovered the bodies of the victims of Jan Adalat executions on March 16, after an encounter with the Prasad Guru squad of the Maoists on March 15, 2013, at Kudabeda village in the Sonuwa area of the District. Four Maoists were injured in the incident. One of the injured Maoists, identified as Dhanai, succumbed to injuries on way to the CRPF Lodhai camp. The SFs also recovered three sophisticated rifles and some ammunition from Kudabera, though the Police did not disclose the number of the arms.
There are clear indications of a Maoist escalation in Jharkhand, and the SFs are looking for ways to rein them in. Jharkhand has, thus far in 2013, left other Maoist-affected States far behind in terms of the visible intensity of Maoist violence. According to partial data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Jharkhand has already recorded a total of 58 Maoist-linked fatalities - more than half the total for the country - including 18 civilians, 18 SF personnel and 22 Left Wing Extremists (LWEs).
Meanwhile, the Union Government has deployed two battalions of Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) to step up anti-Maoist operations and lead development works in Jharkhand. The State already has CRPF 16 battalions deployed for anti-Maoist operation, in addition to State Police Forces.
After some indications of improvements - specifically, a continuous decline in fatalities since 2009 - it appears that matters are slated to take a turn for the worse in Jharkhand. At such a time, a temptation to short cuts - the reliance on and tacit patronage of Maoist splinter groups - is a natural temptation. Such tactics have yielded short term gains in other theatres in the past, but have inevitably yielded to the larger detriment of the state, creating far more problems than they can ever be imagined to solve. The fight against the Maoists is an onerous burden which the state's Forces must fully accept. It is not something that can be 'outsourced' to groups whose violence is not bound by any constraints of law, and whose activities are as much an assault against the authority of the state as those of the Maoists, who they are being used to attack.
(The writer Fakir Mohan Pradhan is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)