January 14, 2021
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They Came, They Saw, They Conquered

Recent Naxal 'incidents' in Orissa underline the pathetic state of affairs in the state where some of the police stations in remote locations have been locked up, as police personnel have simply fled...

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They Came, They Saw, They Conquered
They Came, They Saw, They Conquered

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, on February 21, 2008, in an attempt to stave off the onslaught by the opposition parties, drew comfort from the questionable claim that, "the Naxal (left-wing extremist) violence profile in the state (Orissa) remains much less compared to the neighbouring Naxal affected states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar". 

The Chief Minister's contention is supported by some official data (though the inclusion of Andhra Pradesh in this list is certainly inexplicable), but this did seem a rather strange statement to make just six days after a 'they came, saw, they conquered' type raid by the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) in the Nayagarh district, where the police administration was simply caught napping. 

On February 15, at least four CPI-Maoist groups carried out near-simultaneous raids in the eastern district of Nayagarh, barely 80 kilometres away from the state capital Bhubaneswar. While one group of Maoists struck at the Police Training School (PTS) and the district armoury at the district headquarters town of Nayagarh at about 10.45 PM, other groups struck at the Mahipur police outpost, 11 kilometres away, Nuagaon police station, 20 kilometres away, and Daspalla police station, 40 kilometres away from the town. 

In the raids, which lasted over five hours, 14 police personnel and two civilians were killed. Police claimed that three Maoists were also killed in the resistance put up by the inmates of the PTS and district armoury, though no bodies were recovered. At least 1,100 arms, including rifles, light machine guns, single loaded rifles AK-47s and pistols, were looted. While around 650 arms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition were taken away from the PTS Arms Depot, 400 arms and 100,000 bullets were looted from the district armoury and four guns each from the three police stations. All the looted weapons and ammunition were loaded into buses and trucks hijacked earlier by the Maoists, and taken away. 

The attack brought back memories of the February 6, 2004, raid in the southern Orissa district of Koraput, in which over 1,000 armed People's War Group (PWG) cadres had looted 500 weapons and 30,000 rounds of ammunition from the district armoury and other key police installations. As in the earlier case, during the raid on Nayagarh, the Maoists blocked entry to the town and the road leading to the district police chief's residence. They, however, did not bother to disrupt the telecommunication network, a usual practice during such raids. Before launching the attack, the Maoists, speaking in Hindi and Telugu, announced that they would not harm the public as their target was the Police. At the end of the raid, a section of the Maoists even found time to have tea at local roadside stalls and shook hands with the astonished onlookers, before leaving in the hijacked vehicles. 

Fire fighting measures started the next day, when large sections of the retreating Maoists, divided into small groups had travelled south and then westwards and reached the Gosma forest area along the border between Ganjam and Kandhamal districts, about 100 kilometres away from Nayagarh town. Security Force (SF) operations, first led by the Orissa Police and Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel and then joined in by the four companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and three units of Greyhounds personnel from Andhra Pradesh, led to the recovery of eight half-burnt vehicles in which the Maoists had fled. 

The SF personnel also recovered half a truck-load of arms and ammunition, which the Chief Minister was to describe as 40 percent of the arms and 50 percent of the ammunition looted. The SF personnel also claimed to have killed 20 Maoists while loosing three men of their own during the raids. Not a single dead body of the Maoists was recovered as, according to the SFs, these were carried away by their colleagues. 

On February 22, a further recovery of 150 .303 rifles, six INSAS rifles, one light machine gun and some quantities of ammunition were made in the Gosma forest. The Chief Minister later declared, "Together, the seizure on both occasions accounts for more than 60 per cent of the weapons and more than 70 per cent of the ammunition looted." Sources, however, indicate that the bulk of recoveries have been of antiquated .303 rifles and other outmoded weapons deliberately abandoned by the Maosits, while the bulk of more sophisticated arms remain in their possession. 

Operations involving 1,500 SF personnel continued in the Nayagarh, Ganjam, Gajapati, Rayagada and Kandhamal districts. Five additional companies of CRPF personnel were airlifted to Orissa from Jammu & Kashmir and West Bengal. Reports quoting villagers, in the meantime, indicated that the Maoists had already left Gasma and had simply melted into adjoining forest areas and tribal hamlets. 

The Police suspect the raid to be the handy work of 39 year old Sabyasachi Panda, head of the Basdhara division of the Andhra-Orissa Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC) of the CPI-Maoist. There is no final word as yet on the actual composition of the Naxal leaders and cadres who participated in the raids. 

Witnesses, however, have spoken of cadres speaking in Hindi, Telegu and Oriya, suggesting that the 500-plus cadres were a medley of Maoists from Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. In fact, SFs subsequently arrested two Maoists, identified as Reena alias Manjulata Muduli and Pratap Kambata, both natives of Orissa, during the combing operations in forest areas along the borders of the Kandhmal and Ganjam districts. A 9 mm pistol, looted from the Nayagarh district armoury, was recovered from their possession. Reena who had joined the extremist movement six years ago, is an active member of the Sambalpur-Deogarh committee of the CPI-Maoist. 

Regional media reports have indicated that policemen in districts including Nayagarh, Ganjam and Kandhamal have stopped wearing their uniforms and police vehicles have stopped using red beacons for fear of Maoist attacks. Some of the police stations/outposts in remote locations have been locked up, as police personnel have simply fled. 

The Chief Minister's statements, nevertheless, appear to reflect a sense of satisfaction with regard to the SFs' achievements. By some strange logic, he described the raid on Nayagarh as a result of the "successes of the police in the last few months" against the Maoists. The 'successes', however, totalled the killing of two cadres, the arrest of another 25 and the recovery of no more than seven firearms, four IEDs, 12 detonators, 75 gelatine sticks and a quantity of Naxalite literature and pamphlets.

Describing Nayagarh as a district not affected by CPI-Maoist activities, Patnaik claimed that the attack was not preceded by "any intelligence input by the central government agencies." [Nayagarh did, however, figure as a 'marginally affected' district, in the Institute for Conflict Management's September 2007 listing of 194 districts affected by LWE activities]. 

The Chief Minister further claimed that the combing operations following the Nayagarh raid "succeeded in hauling the largest quantity of arms and ammunition in the country" forgetting to add that it was only the looted weapons which were being recovered and half of the recovered .303 rifles were found in destroyed and unusable condition. 

On February 21, he went on to also claim, "Orissa's Special Operation Group (SOG) had launched the counter-attack on its own, even before the CRPF and Greyhounds force could reach us." He, however, failed to mention that the operation, which mostly involved SOG personnel taking positions in open paddy fields and firing at Maoists converging on the hilltops, resulted in the death of three SF personnel, including that of an Assistant Commandant. It was only after the SOG personnel were reinforced by CRPF companies and Greyhounds units that some results started trickling in. 

Similarly, the use of two Air Force helicopters to track down the retreating Maoists is said to have brought about a clear difference in the current operations. However, the plan to use the choppers in pursuit of the Maoists in the state was mooted by the state government and approved by New Delhi way back in January 2007, but had never been put to use for reasons unknown. 

The Nayagarh attack has typically made the political class across the country sit up momentarily, to announce a series of measures to augment the capacities of the Police Force. Barely three days after the Nayagarh raid, the Chief Minister, who is also in charge of the home department, announced that all police vacancies would be filled expeditiously within the shortest possible time and all the police stations and armouries would be fortified. 

As per these plans, an additional 1,300 posts of constables and sepoys would be created in the Orissa state armed police (special security) battalions for guarding the newly fortified police stations. Further, the strength of the SOG of the state police is to be increased by sanctioning 1,000 additional posts. Five India Reserve Battalions (IRBs) are also to be created after obtaining sanction from the centre, in addition to three already sanctioned (of which just one has been raised).

The Chief Minister's assessment of the Maoist threat is based essentially on the relatively small numbers of Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-related fatalities in the state. According to the union ministry of home affairs (MHA), in 2007 (till November 30), Orissa recorded 64 LWE related incidents, involving 22 deaths, a mere 4.62 percent of the total LWE incidents and 2.89 percent of the total resultant fatalities reported in the country during the same period. 

In comparison, Chhattisgarh recorded 413 fatalities in 531 incidents, Andhra Pradesh 73 fatalities in 117 incidents, Jharkhand 149 fatalities in 413 incidents and Bihar, 56 fatalities in 118 incidents. Moreover, since the Koraput raid in 2004, Orissa witnessed only another three 'swarming attacks' involving the Maoist 'people's militia' till the Nayagarh attack, out of 50 such attacks recorded in various states. However, data on fatalities and the absence or low occurrence of large-scale attacks alone cannot not exhaust the challenge created by the Maoists in 22 affected districts in the state [out of a total 30].

Maoist activities have dominated the northern districts bordering Jharkhand and the southern districts bordering Andhra Pradesh. A simple call for a general strike by the CPI-Maoist has periodically paralysed life in all these districts. The Maoist extortion network is known to have collected Rs 600 millions between December 2007 and January 2008 in these affected districts. The implementation of state and central development schemes has virtually stalled due to Maoist threats. Recent reports have indicated large-scale Maoist mobilisation in the districts of Mayurbhanj, Sambalpur and Deogarh. 

It has previously been argued by us that the Orissa Police lacks critical infrastructure and manpower to check the mounting Maoist influence and capacities. While the state Police Headquarters feels that Orissa currently requires around 1,000 police stations, it currently has just 482, and most of these lack proper infrastructure and manpower. Not just basic policing, but also specialised armed police contingents continue to suffer due to chronic neglect. For example, the 4th Battalion of the Orissa Armed Police (OAP) located at Rourkela, close to the Orissa-Jharkhand border, stationed on a 143 acre plot of land, does not even have a boundary wall. The suggestion to erect a wall to protect the facility was made way back in November 2006 with an estimated expenditure of Rs 20 million. The battalion authorities are still awaiting approval of the Police Headquarters, after four subsequent reminders. 

The Orissa Police currently has over 12,000 vacancies against present sanctioned strength of 30,265. While about 10,000 vacancies are among Constables and Other Ranks, there are also a large proportion of vacancies in the middle-rung leadership at the Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI), Sub-Inspector (SI) and Inspector levels. According to sources, as many as 360 ASI posts, 905 SI posts and 43 posts of inspectors have been vacant for the past several years constituting a 22 percent vacancy against the sanctioned strength. 

At least 57 posts of Indian Police Service officers in the state quota are also vacant, as against a sanctioned strength of 159 officers for the state. Whereas there are 126 Policemen per 100,000 population on an average across the country, Orissa has only 99. Orissa's Police density (Policemen per 100 square kilometres) stands at a meagre 24.9, compared to the national average of 44.4. Indeed, Orissa's casual attitude towards filling vacancies was noted by the MHA in May 2007, when the Centre directed the state to spruce up its intelligence mechanisms by increasing manpower, inducting competent officers and procuring better surveillance equipment. 

Forest areas in the state's Maoist affected districts are aplenty. For example, the Kandhamal district, the theatre of the ongoing combing operations, has 68 per cent of its geographical area under forests. Similarly, Gajapati district has 57 per cent and Rayagada district has 43 per cent of its area under forests. Illegal activities, such as smuggling of forest produce and timber felling, continue with little opposition from the Police in most of these forest areas, which are almost free from any form of police surveillance. 

In fact, a major reason for the lack of progress in the current combing operations is the absence of basic maps of the Gosma Forest with the Police, who had to borrow the needed maps from the Forest Department two days after the operations began. Since most Police personnel engaged in the operations failed to decipher what the maps indicated, Forest Department personnel had to be roped in to aid the operations. 

Orissa's political masters have continued to display an obdurate lack of understanding of the Maoist strategy of political and military consolidation. Many states in the country, reeling under Maoist violence, are currently paying for the error of mistaking the absence of incidents as a victory of the SFs. However, the reality remains that as long as such 'absence' is not enforced by a continuous augmentation of the SF capacities, and a visible erosion of Maoist capabilities, the latter will remain in control of the initiative. 

In such a scenario, incidents like the Nayagarh raid remain no more than a simple process of the assembling of a few hundred cadres and letting them loose on the debilitated police forces. As with such major attacks in the past, amidst the fire fighting and assumed 'successes', the need to address the basic flaws of the system appears to have been lost sight of. 

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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