India: Red Spread In Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh

On June 20, 2022, three Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres, identified as Nagesh aka Raju Tulavi (40), Manoj (25) and a woman Maoist, Rame (26), were killed by a team of 50 personnel of the Hawk Force [the special anti-Naxal Force of the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Police], in an encounter in the Lodhangi Forest area under Bahela Police Station limits in Balaghat District. Acting on information about the presence of a few Maoist (Left Wing Extremism, LWE, or Naxalites) cadres on the hills of Kharadi village, about 70 kilometres from the District Headquarters, Balaghat, the Hawk Force team launched the combing operation, in which the Maoists, who collectively carried a reward of over INR 5.7 million on their heads, were killed. Police seized one AK-47 rifle, one .303 rifle, one revolver, two wireless communicators, detonators, a pressure cooker bomb and other explosives from the location.

According to reports, the slain Maoists had been tasked with expanding Maoist activities in the ‘Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh (MMC) zone.’

According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, Balaghat has recorded at least two Maoist-linked incidents of killing in the current year, resulting in four fatalities (one civilian and three Maoists) thus far, (data till June 26, 2022). The total number of Maoist-linked incidents of killing reported from the District, since the formation of the CPI-Maoist on September 21, 2004, is 23 [10 civilians, three Security Force (SF) personnel, and 10 Maoists]. The first Maoist-linked incident of killing in the District was recorded on April 20, 2000, when Naxalites laid an ambush on a Police party in Balaghat District, killing two Policemen and injuring another.

It was almost after 10 years that the next killing was reported. On September 22, 2010, a trooper of the Hawk Force was killed and another was injured in an CPI-Maoist ambush near Sitapala in Balaghat District. Incidentally, this is the last SF fatality recorded in the District.

On the other hand, the first Maoist killing was reported on May 26, 2012. The next killing in this category was on November 24, 2018. It was the lone fatality in 2018. Two Maoists were killed in 2019, three in 2020, none in 2021 and three in 2022 (till June 26).

Significantly, the overall SF:Naxalite kill ratio has remained in favour of the SFs, since March 6, 2000, at 1: 3.33.

Moreover, though no Maoist has been arrested or surrendered in the current year, since March 6, 2000, a total of 30 LWEs have been arrested and seven have surrendered.

The first civilian killing in the District was reported on April 16, 2016. One more civilian fatality was reported in 2016. There was one civilian fatality in 2017, none in 2018, two in 2019, one in 2020, three in 2021 and one in 2022 (till June 26). The last civilian killing was recorded in the District on March 23, 2022, when a villager, identified as Sukhdev Parte, employed as a forest camp assistant, was abducted and shot dead by CPI-Maoist cadres, who suspected he was a ‘Police informer.’ He was executed near the Kanha National Park in Balaghat District.

Reports indicate that, at present, six Dalams (armed squad) – Tanda, Darekasa, Malajkhand, Expansion-2 and Expansion-3, and Cot – are active in Balaghat and surrounding forests. Each team has an average of 20 cadres. Police Headquarters also believes that 100 to 110 Naxalites are active in and around Balaghat.

Indeed, on June 20, 2022, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Balaghat zone, Sanjay Kumar Singh, noted, “There has been expansion [of Maoist activities in the area].”

Balaghat is considered a strategically important District for the Maoists, as it has all that is required to facilitate the rebels’ activities – difficult terrain, dense forests, a vulnerable population and extreme backwardness. In addition, with a total area of 9,245 square kilometres, Balaghat has about 85 per cent under forest cover, occupies the south eastern portion of the Satpura Range and the upper valley of the Wainganga River, that makes it difficult to access.

CPI-Maoist has been forced to launch its ‘Vistaar Abhiyan’ (expansion effort) due to its shrinking footprint in Chhattisgarh. The ‘MMC zone’ was created in 2015-16 to spread its footprints in Districts of Balaghat, Mandla, Dindori and Singrauli, bordering the adjoining Chhattisgarh State. The ‘MMC zone’ was divided into two divisions, Gondia-Rajnandgaon-Balaghat (GRB) division, and Kanha-Bhoramdeo (KB) division. The latter is largely uninhabited, as Kanha and Bhoramdeo are interconnected through a thick swathe of forest, and are located on the Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh border. Further, one of the primary reasons for developing the ‘MMC zone’ is the proximity of the Amarkantak forests to forests of Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Odisha, which gives the insurgents a through-the-forest-safe-passage to these States. It is a route well-connected to Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh.

On June 19, 2021, in view of the Naxal challenge in the District, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) included Balaghat in its list of ‘25 Most Affected Districts’ in eight States across India. Balaghat is also included among the 70 Naxal-affected Districts in 10 States, to be covered under the Centre’s ‘Security Related Expenditure (SRE)’ scheme, which funds focused operations against the extremists.

Meanwhile, the State is taking measures to deal with the threat. On June 20, 2022, IGP Singh disclosed, “we are reworking our strategy with positions of our Hawk Forces improved and expanded. We have also asked the state government for more troops.”

Further, on June 20, 2022, IGP, Naxal Operation, Sajid Farid Shapoo, stated, “We have set up 39 jungle camps, and for the first time, two outposts were set up in the core zone of Kanha Tiger Reserve. Besides, we enhanced our intelligence network over the years and increased patrolling.”

Interestingly, however, a June 24, 2022, report revealed that, though the Police had prepared records of Naxalites in the State, it does not even have photos of many. Even where photos are available, they are 10 to 20 years old, and in such a situation, it is difficult to identify them. Further, the Naxalites are also marrying the daughters of villagers to make inroads into villages and win the trust of the tribals.

Meanwhile, according to reports, in order to bring LWEs into the ‘mainstream,’ the MP Government has formulated a surrender and rehabilitation policy for Maoists which, is pending approval by the Cabinet, and is expected to get a final nod by the end of June 2022. The upcoming rehabilitation and surrender policy includes provisions for a one-year parole for jailed Maoists who provide information on their comrades. It will offer INR 500,000 as reward and also INR 6,000 monthly for 36 months, as well as professional training to restart their lives. The policy has provisions for unmarried Maoists, who will get INR 25,000 for weddings. They will also be given health insurance under the Ayushman Bharat Scheme, a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, and rations under the food security scheme.

Further, talking about the overall strategy on June 11, 2022, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan disclosed,

It is necessary to recruit local youths in Hawk Force. Instructions related to the recruitment process have been issued earlier. The plan to seek cooperation of surrendered Naxalites in Naxal control operations is being implemented. Instructions were issued to make adequate arrangements for minimum requirement and security at places where Hawk Force personnel are rendering services.

Facing an existential crisis in their erstwhile strongholds, the Maoist are strategically focusing on wider areas and have found Balaghat and its surrounding expanses suitable for a safe haven. However, persistence and vigilance on the part of SFs has successfully restricted Maoist areas of operation and control. Nevertheless, the risk of Maoist consolidation in the region persists and will require focused attention on the part of the SFs as well as the civil administration to push the marginal presence of the rebels out of these strategically critical crossways.