February 23, 2020
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Red Bullets Over Ballots

The elections – peaceful or otherwise – will shortly be over, and a new government will installed at Delhi. The Maoists threat will remain among the most significant challenges it will have to confront

Red Bullets Over Ballots
Red Bullets Over Ballots

18 persons were killed in sporadic attacks by Left Wing extremists (LWEs) belonging to the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) on April 16, the day when between 58 and 62 per cent of 143 million voters exercised their franchise in 124 constituencies across 15 states and two union territories, in the first phase of the five-phase polls to the 15th Lok Sabha. While the violence has caused natural and grave concern, it is necessary to recognize that the first phase of polling covered the entire belt of territory that is significantly afflicted by Maoist violence in the country.

Maoist violence on April 16 affected a meagre 0.09 per cent (71) of the 76,000 polling stations that were identified as vulnerable in the first phase. Moreover, killings in a handful of incidents remained confined to just three states – Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The Maoists had not only called for a boycott of the poll process but, in the words of union home minister P. Chidambaram, had "done all they could do to disrupt the elections". Nevertheless, no killings occurred, either in Orissa, which is gradually emerging as the new hotbed of Maoist violence, or in Andhra Pradesh, the erstwhile extremist citadel, from where they have been forced into flight. Andhra Pradesh did not even register a single incident of Maoist violence, even as a high 65 per cent voter turnout was recorded in the state. In Maharashtra, the eastern Vidarbha region of which has long been afflicted by LWE violence, 54 per cent voters cast their ballot, while occasional incidents of disruption were reported from the Gadchiroli district alone.

Of the 18 people killed on April 16, Jharkhand accounted for nine fatalities in a single incident. Seven personnel of the para-military Border security Force (BSF), returning from poll duty, were killed, and twelve injured, in a landmine explosion in the Latehar district, about 65 kilometres from state capital Ranchi. The civilian driver and the conductor of the vehicle in which the personnel were travelling were also killed. The survivors were rescued by a chopper of the Indian Air Force (IAF). 

In Bihar, Maoists carried out an attack at the Singhpur village polling station in Gaya district and killed a home guard and a trooper of the state armed police (SAP). Two women voters were injured in the attack. The Maoists escaped with four police rifles. The other incidents involving the Maoists included the abduction of 10 polling officials in the Gumla and Palamu districts, all of whom were subsequently rescued; a landmine blast in Narganjo village, targeting the vehicle of the Jamui district president of the ruling Janata Dal-United, Shambhu Sharan Singh, who escaped with no injuries; and an encounter between Security Force (SF) personnel and the Maoists in Kuriyari village of Kaimur district. The Maoist threat did, however, ensure a low voter turnout of 46 per cent, almost 12 per cent less than the voting recorded in the same areas during the 2004 Parliamentary polls. 

Maoists struck at 16 places in Chhattisgarh’s southern Bastar region, which has been worst affected by Maoist violence over the past four years. Six persons were killed in the state on April 16, included five members of a reserve poll party travelling in a sports utility vehicle without any security, in Rajnandgaon district, the constituency of Chief Minister Raman Singh. A landmine blast destroyed their vehicle. The district Police chief said that the Maoists "mistook the election men for Police officers who were their real targets". In the neighbouring Dantewada district, a paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) trooper was killed and three others injured at Maroki. The remaining incidents included snatching of polling machines by Maoists at six polling booths in Dantewada and seven in the Narayanpur district. A landmine was exploded in Narayanpur district’s Dadvan area, but caused no injuries. Chhattisgarh recorded 51 per cent polling, a shade less than the 52 per cent turnout recorded in the same areas in 2004. 

Maoist activity disrupted polling process in the Malkangiri district of Orissa to some extent, but caused no loss of life. Six polling booths were attacked and some of these set afire in the district, where the Maoists had threatened people who dared to vote. As many as ten booths in Balimela and Kudulugumma blocks of the district registered no polling on the day due to the Maoist threat. Maoists also torched polling stations and looted material in Malmarionda, Kalimela, Tonkarkota, Badigota, MV (Malkangiri Village) 73, MV 75 and Andrahall, areas and burnt a jeep of a polling team near Andrahall in the Malkangiri district. Similar incidents were reported from adjoining Koraput and Rayagada districts. 53 per cent polling was recorded from the areas that went to polls in Orissa in the current phase, compared to 64 per cent recorded in the last Parliamentary polls. 

Despite the media outcry over the incidents in what has been declared ‘the most violent election’ by many who suffer a severe memory deficit, it was the Maoists who appeared to have suffered the maximum damage in incidents in the run up to the April 16 polling. The Maoist-triggered landmine explosion targeting a bus ferrying CRPF personnel on April 14 at Varnia Ghati in the hilly tracts of Barwadi in Bihar’s Latehar district, and the encounter that followed, for instance, resulted in the death of two CRPF personnel and a civilian driver, on the one hand, and five Maoists, on the other. On the same day, in Rohtas district, eleven CPI-Maoist cadres were killed and one BSF trooper was injured during a seven hour long encounter at Dhansa Ghati. The encounter occurred when more than 150 armed CPI-Maoist cadres, in a bid to loot arms and ammunition, surrounded the BSF camp and opened fire. The Maoists had also launched three rockets at the BSF camp, of which two failed to explode, and one hit a wall. 

Other reported Maoist attempts to disrupt the run-up to the elections included relatively minor incidents involving no deaths. On April 13, armed CPI-Maoist cadres intercepted the vehicle of a candidate belonging to a local political party, Shoshit Samaj Dal, for the Aurangabad Parliamentary constituency, dragged him and his six supporters out, assaulted him and set his vehicle ablaze near Dadamchilmi village in the Aurangabad district. In the same district, another group of Maoists set ablaze the campaign vehicle of a candidate belonging to the ruling Janata Dal-United for the Karakat Parliamentary seat, identified as Mahabali Singh. On April 14, a group of Maoists forcefully entered the Gosain-Besra village and blew up a government primary school housing the polling station for the Gaya Parliamentary constituency. In Orissa, Maoist activity in the first week of April included the looting of Rupees 9.9 million from a bank vehicle; the blowing up of two mobile communication towers; and the killing of a candidate of the newly floated Samruddha Odisha Party for the state Legislative Assembly elections in the Malkangiri district, after summoning him to the forest areas for ‘interrogation’. The Maoists also had pasted posters threatening people opting to participate in the polling in the Malkangiri, Koraput and Rayagada districts.

The Maoists, however, struck big at least twice – in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. On April 10, during a two hour long encounter in the forests of Kotampalli under Chintagufa Police Station in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, the Maoists killed ten CRPF personnel, including a Deputy Commandant. The CRPF personnel were returning to their camps in two batches after a routine patrol. The SFs, on the other hand, initially claimed to have killed three Maoists, but revised the toll to 30, basing their claims on "what the personnel saw during the operation and the drag marks in the forests." Only three bodies of Maoists, were, however, recovered. In Jharkhand, five CRPF personnel were killed and three others injured when CPI-Maoist cadres opened fire on them in the Jalko Forest under Arki Police Station in Khunti district on April 11. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) argued that these fatalities reflected a "pro-active approach adopted by the security forces to foil the designs to disrupt the poll process."

The polls were indeed held in extremely challenging circumstances and in some of the most hazardous locales, with poll parties often required to trek kilometres inside forest areas, exposing themselves to the risk of extremist attack. Travelling to polling stations in some of the constituencies in Orissa and Chhattisgarh took two to three days from district headquarters. 

The elaborate security bandobast (cover) laid out by the MHA and the Election Commission (EC), while holding the polls in the Maoist affected areas of the country in a single phase included a preliminary directive by the Ministry to all the states to implement "security by the book" in 76,000 vulnerable polling booths; an alert on the Indian Air Force’s helicopter squadrons in central and eastern India, which deployed 25 choppers for emergency operations; deployment of an additional 50,000 paramilitary forces; also intensified patrols in all sensitive areas. In Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, the end of polling time had been advanced to 3 pm, instead of 5 pm, to allow polling parties to return to their bases safely before dark. In an attempt to facilitate polling at some vulnerable sites, 47 polling stations in Bihar and 88 polling stations in Chhattisgarh had been shifted to locations considered safer or more accessible, without compromising on voters’ convenience.

At least some of the violence on April 16 was, however, due to administrative errors. It is useful to recall the rather uneventful state Legislative Assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, the state worst affected by Maoist violence, in November 2008. 300 paramilitary companies in Chhattisgarh had ensured near zero-violence during the state elections. However, the Centre, in its wisdom, chose to deploy just 160 additional companies of CPMFs in the state for the Parliamentary elections. Similarly, in Jharkhand, 96 CPMF companies were provided for the First Phase, against a request of about 220 companies. Bihar received 130 companies while it had asked for 260 companies. The very rationale of staggering elections over an entire month appears to have been lost, particularly in view of the fact that a clear decision to block all the Maoist-affected areas on a single day of polling could be justified only in terms of overwhelming saturation of all sensitive areas. 

The relatively low levels of violence and disruption were, at least in some cases, the result of need-based political collusion between various candidates and the Maoists, which ensured the absence of attacks in a number of vulnerable polling stations. For example, in Orissa’s Koraput district, the candidates belonging both to the Biju Janata Dal and the Congress Party had reportedly entered into agreements with the Maoists for a violence free poll, with the assurance that the SFs would not enter the area. Similarly, reports indicate that, in remote constituencies of both Jharkhand and Bihar, almost all the political parties had unwritten agreements for a time-bound peace with the extremists. 

The limited disorders during the polls, however, are not accurate indices of any significant reverses inflicted on the Maoists in this most disturbed belt, nor of any dramatic augmentation of capacities on the part of the state and its agencies. The Maoist threat, the ‘biggest internal security challenge’ confronting the country, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, remains urgent and enormous. The temporary peace that particular politicians or political formations may have purchased during the elections will lapse immediately thereafter. The large-scale mobilisation of CPMF companies for the areas going to the polls will not be available to these states after the elections. Worse, most of the worst affected states continue to dither and squirm at putting together an effective response to the threat of LWE, despite the striking example of Andhra Pradesh, the worst affected state just five years ago, which has forced the Maoists out of its territory through effective Police action. 

If an index of the persistent infirmity of the states was needed, it was provided by the swarming attack by the Maoist people’s militia on the mechanised bauxite mines of the National Aluminium Company (NALCO) at the Panchapattmali hilltop in the Koraput district of Orissa on April 12, just days before the election. With an annual capacity of 4.7 million tonnes of bauxite ore, the mine is the biggest in Asia. Indeed, Orissa has emerged, in recent history, as the lone case where the Maoists have carried out multiple successful raids for weapons and explosives. Since the raid on the Koraput armoury in February 2004, three such incidents have taken place in the state. In the latest of these, on April 12, a group of over 200 CPI-Maoist cadres carried out the raid on the NALCO mine, late at night, and took 200 mine workers hostage. The siege ended after over 12 hours with Maoists killing 11 of the 22 CISF personnel who were guarding the installation and withdrawing with about nine tonnes of explosives from the mine. The CISF personnel received no reinforcements throughout this attack, as the roads leading to the hill top had not only been blocked by felled trees but had been mined by the Maoists – standard operating procedure for such LWE attacks. At least four Maoists were also killed during the encounter, while one more was killed a day later by pursing SFs. Some amount of the looted explosives was also reported to have been recovered. 

According to a performance audit review of police modernisation across 16 states released by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, Maoist-affected states like Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand have not only kept funds allocated for Police modernisation idle, but also did little to preserve critical resources like weapons and ammunition or procure requisite vehicles and beef up their telecommunication networks. According to the Report, Orissa did not spend more than 30 per cent of the total plan outlay of Rupees 2.44 billion during 2000-04, out of which Rupees 4.2 millions lay idle in deposits. Glaring disparities have been found in Jharkhand for 60 per cent of the funds utilised during the review period, 2000-04. Part of the funds received to augment the capacities of the Police, according to the Report, was diverted to purchase vehicles for the Chief Minister’s cavalcade. In Andhra Pradesh, only 13 and 38 per cent of the funds released were utilised, respectively, for mobility, on the one hand, and weaponry, communications and training of the Police personnel, on the other.

The elections – peaceful or otherwise – will shortly be over, and a new government will installed at Delhi. The Maoists threat will remain among the most significant challenges it will have to confront. 

Bibhu Prasad Routray is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

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