Ambush amplifies a struggle – March 30, 2014 – Gautam Navlakha
Eleven personnel of Central Reserve Police Force, four personnel of District Armed Force and a civilian died when reportedly 100 soldiers of Peoples Liberation Guerilla Army ambushed a combined force of Central Reserve Police Force and District Armed Force on 11th March, 2014 in Jeeram Ghati of Sukma district. The ambush took place on one of the busiest highways of south Chattisgarh (NH 30) in the morning at around 10-10.15 and lasted for no more than 15 minutes. The ambush happened when the 45 personnel strong force was on an Area Domination exercise to “sanitise” the area for troop movement and to provide security to road construction. An eyewitness told The Hindu (11/03/2014) that the “pace with which the Maoists assembled, ambushed and disappeared in an area where there are police and para military force’s camps is unbelievable”.
The ambush elicited responses which are interesting. A variety of objectives were read into the ambush. Hindustan Times reporter Eijaz Kaiser (Hindustan Times 12/03/2014) quoted an unknown police officer as claiming that CPI(Maoists ) were “desperate to regain their strength and infuse confidence among the cadres and denting the morale of the security forces.” MHA officials were cited in Asian Age (12/03/2014) as saying that (a) they were expecting some such action with elections due, especially this time after the embarrassment the Maoists had suffered in 2013 assembly elections with its large turnout. And (b) intelligence agencies had informed the local district Superintendent of Police about Naxal movement s and mock ambushes conducted in the locality between March 5 and 9.” But, Suvojit Bagchi of the Hindu pointed out (12th March, 2014) that if Maoists commanders told him that if they did not “engage” the forces from March-June, they would come under attack as the forest cover gets depleted from late winter until monsoon; their Tactical Counter-Offensive Campaign always corresponds to the months of March-June. That this year coincides with general elections lends this years TCOC more significant.
However, more or less, the media agreed that problem was located in lapses during operations i.e. there was nothing wrong with waging war against Adivasis led by Maoists. Some found fault with forces for not following Standard Operating Procedures. Others claimed that soldiers are dragged to carry out tasks without adequate ground intelligence, armoury or strength. Others wondered why Israeli made surveillance Drones were not used if there were intelligence “inputs” about Maoist planning an ambush. Clamour grew for new weapons, more troops, and for a more muscular approach.
Pravin Swami writing in the Hindu (12/03/2014) quoted from a CPI(Maoist) document, which referred to a Central Committee meeting. Apparently, in that document, the Maoists “admitted” that the there had been a “decrease” in intensity and expansion of the PLGA, even as there was an “increase” in both non-proletarian trends as well as number of people quitting the Party and PLGA. And he concluded that “greying revolutionaries …..probably know that they are not going to live to see their dreams realized”. And he pointed to the death and arrest of nine out of 16 politburo members appointed in 2007 during the “Unity Congress”, to suggest that that they too will not last long.
But somethings do not square up. The number of companies and platoons of PLGA increased from 8 companies and 13 platoons in 2008 to 12 companies and more than 25 platoons, plus a supply platoon in 2013 (Indian Express 6th January, 2014). This expansion was carried out during the period they were said to be facing depletion, which raises doubt about the extent of the decline. Significantly, while these stories of their decline were being written, central agencies shared with The Tribune (1st July, 2013) that women cadres have increased in Bastar from 40 to 60 per cent and now 20 out of 27 divisions are led by women commanders. Moreover, if the CC note is genuine, then where from are they recruiting people, especially women, and augmenting their strength?
It is a much smaller rebel force in contrast to 286,200 personnel of the CRPF deployed against them in 10 states. If we add other central paramilitary forces as well as the state armed forces, the total available force rises by another 100,000 personnel. In other words, despite facing massive government force deployment all around them, the Maoists forces have nevertheless grown, although their guerilla zone has shrunk. It means that there has not been depletion in their social base. The fact that more women are joining makes this even more significant.
India’s most celebrated psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar once wrote that:
The role of a community’s women in its men taking up arms, or in the making of a terrorist, has not been appreciated enough. Whether it was Punjab in the late 1980s, or Kashmir in the last two decades or even other places around the world, there is no stronger goad to arousing a man’s fighting spirit than that of a woman mocking and challenging his masculinity. Militancy starts losing its vigour once the women turn away from demanding masculinity from their men and begin to think more of survival and well-being of their children. Unfortunately, anti-terror efforts are rarely directed towards influencing a community’s women. [Sudhir Kakar, A book of memory: Confessions and Reflections Penguin-Viking, Delhi 2011; pp281]
Actually the number of studies and research focusing on women as an extension of counter insurgency pacification policy is quite impressive. Such efforts single out woman and essentialise their experience; in reality, the entire society is affected – some more, others less – but no one remains unscathed. So intellectuals come in handy to provide additional inputs to military suppression by advocating a nuanced policy shift which pits women’s experiences and concerns as more or less diametrically opposite to that of men or places them at a distance from the struggle/conflict, which can then be exploited for purposes of pacification. In the process, there is downplaying (if not glossing over) of how counter-insurgency operations target women, uses their vulnerability for sexual gratification and blackmail, and their humiliation as a deliberate policy of war. This dynamic is rarely captured because those who work in the service of the State lack the capacity to fully grasp the social reality which is formed by war.
Conversely in revolutionary warfare, this issue acquires acuity. Here, men as well as women participate, each motivating the other. Therefore, tricks meant to create divisions/fissures among rebels, by trying to single out women and/or the scholarship that places women as intrinsically attuned to peace etc, stands exposed as being a lot of hot air. What is the point? Simply that revolutionary warfare, in varying degree no doubt, have specificity and enormous capability to overcome and/or break divides which class-caste-community divided society considers “natural”. And the fact that CPI(Maoist) is able to attract women in larger numbers, also demolishes the argument advanced by unnamed officials of MHA charging Maoists with sexual exploitation of women cadres. Why would women, more than men, join PLGA if sexual exploitation is so rampant. Therefore, when Rahul Pandita remarked that “many rebels are finding solace more in love than in revolutionary praxis” (The Hindu 8th March, 2014) and added that party’s “khap like take on relationship will only lead to desertions – especially since at least 40 per cent of the cadres are women”, it made no sense . The truth is that Maoists place higher demand on their cadres and soldiers, in particular their leaders. And neither countenance living together nor treat cavalierly complaint by women cadres against their male colleagues. Many a senior leader got demoted for “inappropriate advances” against female colleagues. So, rather than sexual exploitation, it is strict rules governing men-women relationship and where cohabitation without marriage is not allowed, which to an urbanite appears to be “khap-like”, but for a movement, it makes eminent sense. Because it makes women feel confident about the party and PLGA.
So is it that, this is a movement in decline, which is putting up a brave fight?
On March 10th, Indian Express reported about Union Cabinet Secretary’s review note which cited him as saying that the “geographical area of Naxal activity has shrunk substantially. In 2013, Naxal violence was witnessed under 330 police stations of 75 districts in ten states as against 400 police stations of 85 districts across eleven states”. However , he cautioned that they were still “capable of resorting to spectacular strikes in their strongholds (in Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar)”.
So what does the ambush signify?
Although CPI(Maoists) have suffered reverses lately, it does not appear to have dented their fighting capability or support. At least, the courage of the predominately women-dominated Maoist force. For instance, carrying out an ambush in broad daylight on the busiest highway in south Bastar implies that, in their stronghold and areas adjacent, they continue to enjoy considerable support or else their plans would have been leaked. Intelligence agencies had alerted the state few days before the incident. So the failure to generate ‘actionable intelligence’, i.e. about their presence and size of the force, prior to the ambush, speaks of the social support they enjoy or else presence of scores of armed guerillas would have reached the agencies and/or the forces. It shows their audacity to engage a force in daylight in an area surrounded by camps of cpmfs and the police. The actual ambush spot, according to the Indian Express (13th March, 2014), was an open field without the ‘hill-on-one-side-and-ditch-on-the-other’ .
To increase number of companies and platoons and a 50% increase in women’s presence suggest increased participation by women in Bastar region and does temper the propensity to read the increase in voter turnout (67% reportedly in November 2013 state assembly polls) as a measure of their decline in popular support. In some areas, there was the heavy presence of forces – in Narayanpur’s 102 booths meant for 76,324 voters, there were 12,000 security force personnel or an approximate ratio of 6:1 (Indian Express 12th November, 2013). In Jangampal area of Sukma, Maoists removed IED planted in a school building when villagers told them they wanted to vote. Whereas Statesman (8th November, 2013) carried a story which claimed that non-tribals feared BJP victory because one of their local tribal leaders Bhima Mandavi and his supporters openly declared during the campaign that non-tribals would be ousted from Bastar and rumour spread that the BJP tribal candidate enjoyed the support of Maoists. While a lackluster poll boycott campaign does suggest that the boycott campaign is losing its appeal, the varied nature of their response suggests that they are no longer rigid about imposing poll boycott. In fact, it is interesting to note that following the dastardly killing of journalist Sai Reddy and the criticism of Maoists, a Maoist leader told The Hindu (10th February, 2014) that they have “changed” their policy and have taken a decision not to kill SPOs. So it does not appear that the movement shows signs of desperation and does remain alert to criticism.
But a very important factor is that the media and ruling classes have succeeded in pushing the issue of land grab, forest diversion for mining etc. from their coverage (1), although the issue that propelled the Maoist upsurge from 2000 onward remains unaddressed. A police officer while serving as DG of Police, Ram Niwas, admitted to the Indian Express (06/01/2014) that industrialization and land acquisitions in Chattisgarh have “an intricate link” with the spread of Maoists and the insurgency. And it cannot be “curbed” without addressing tribal concerns over these issues. Interestingly, this issue was supposed to have been tackled with the passage of Forest Rights Act. But FRA has been followed in breach. In fact, Times of India reported on 24th May 2013 that the Government finds FRA “administratively impractical”! As a result, between 2007-2011, 8000 projects were granted permission to clear 203,576 ha of forests. In 2005-06, contribution of forestry and fishery was 5.2% but by 2009-10 it turned negative. On the contrary, mine and quarrying, which recorded 1.3% growth in 2005-06, registered a growth rate of 8.7% in 2009-10. The full extent of diversion of forests could be much higher. Another report suggest that from 2004-2013, at least 2.43 lakh ha of forest land were diverted. In addition, oil and mineral exploration were permitted in 1.64 lakh ha during the same period. As of January 2014, furthermore, there are applications that seek to acquire 3.30 lakh ha of forests which is under consideration of MoEF.
Nitin Sethi wrote in Times of India (15/06/2013) that, since 1980 when Forest Conservation Act came into being, the industry began to acquire on an average 35,554 ha annually and 23,140 projects were granted clearance. But, since 2004 MoEF gave out an unprecedented number of clearances adding six lakhs hectares or more (i.e. more than 65,000 ha annually) to the industry. The new Forest Conservation (Amendment) Rules 2013, meanwhile, will circumvent provisions of FRA and give enormous powers to the bureaucrats as against the Gram Sabha with regard to settlement of rights in projects requiring diversion of forest land. It will also empower the district collector to complete the process of recognition of rights. But, even more insidious is the fact that, it accords him the “discretion” to decide which Gram Sabha consent is needed and which is to be accepted. Recall that if a meeting is called off for want of quorum, the next meeting convened by the district collector, even without requisite quorum, automatically becomes valid. Getting handful of villagers to support the move to provide forest land to companies, is then not a difficult ask.
Consider the Rowghat struggle, which was recently in news for all the wrong reasons; Nandini Sundar was accused by Bastar police for having links with Maoist. This was meant to deter people from supporting the Rowghat struggle. But, there has been a struggle in this area where the Rowghat Iron Ore Mine, owned by Bhilai Steel Plant, denies presence of reserved forest in the project area in its application to the Ministry of Environment and Forests. According to the Company’s own map, however, the area falls well within the Rowghat Hills of the Matla Reserved Forest. In fact, the project is right at the centre of an extensive wildlife corridor stretching from South Eastern Maharashtra to North Western Orissa, with 8 wildlife sanctuaries, parks and reserves. According to Campaign for Peace and Justice, the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (REIA) itself admits that building of a railway line and conveyer belt for the mining will stop wildlife migrations. Worse, whereas Forest Clearance has been granted for 883.22 ha, the total mining area acquired is 2028.797 ha! No forest rights have been settled here. Also, fake and identical gram sabha certificates state that there is nothing of cultural or religious significance in the area. Villagers are also opposing the fraudulent “NOCs” that were forcefully taken from them. And, to ensure that this project takes-off, there is plan to have 22 BSF and CRPF battalions ring the area. Six camps have already been constructed so far. The Bhilai Steel Plant/SAIL has also signed an agreement,, worth Rs 5000 cr with the government to fund and train the paramilitary forces. And, the forces would be stationed in Rowghat area for the entire life of the mine.
When the State rides roughshod over popular struggles against land grab etc and promotes the interests of mining and mineral based industries, then even when the issue disappears from the media, it does not disappear for the people. To cut a long story short, the ambush was a reminder that a successful Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign by the PLGA in an area sought by mining companies will certainly go a long way in inspiring the people struggling to be heard and to halt the Indian and foreign multi-nationals from grabbing their land. This war, which is being waged to secure the area for foreign direct investment, shows no sign of abating.
(1) Harendar Bajwa writing in Hindustan Times “Only Guns No Solution”(13/03/2014) was the sole exception among English newspapers. She interestingly refers to soldiers being averse to this war not knowing “who is a Maoist and is an Adivasi”.