Jammu and Kashmir: Abiding Threat

On April 20, 2023, five Army soldiers were killed and another was injured when terrorists targeted a moving vehicle of the Army with grenades and small arms’ fire at Bhatta Durrian in the Mendhar area of Poonch District. According to reports, one of the terrorists managed to stop the truck by throwing grenades while another opened calibrated fire towards its fuel tank, triggering a massive blaze in the vehicle. In the meantime, a third terrorist opened fire at the soldiers on-board.

The last comparable attack on Security Forces (SFs) had taken place on August 11, 2022, when Army foiled a suicide attack on an Army base at Pargal in the Darhal area of Rajouri District, in which both the terrorists were killed, while three Army personnel lost their lives. One Army officer and two troopers were also injured in the attack.

Since the February 14, 2019, Pulwama Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) Attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which resulted in the death of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel – the highest fatality figure for SFs in a single attack since the commencement of the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in 1988 – the State/Union Territory (the State of J&K was made a Union Territory in 2019) has recorded at least eight major attacks (each involving three or more fatalities), including the above mentioned two, targeting the SFs, resulting in the killing of 36 SF personnel. These major incidents include:

February 18, 2019: Five SF personnel, including a Major, three JeM militants and a civilian, were killed in an encounter at the Pinglana village of Pulwama District.

March 1, 2019: Four SF personnel, including a CRPF Inspector, were killed and eight, including a Commandant of the CRPF, were injured in an encounter at the Babgund Langate area of Handwara in Kupwara District.

June 12 , 2019: Five CRPF personnel were killed and three were injured when two suspected JeM terrorists attacked a CRPF patrolling party near the Oxford School on Khanabal-Pahalgham road in Anantnag District.

April 5, 2020: Five soldiers were killed in an exchange of fire, as the Army foiled a major infiltration bid along the Line of Control (LoC) in the Kupwara Forests in the Keran sector of Kupwara District.

May 2, 2020: A Colonel and a Major were among five SF personnel killed in an encounter in the Chanjmulla area of Handwara in Kupwara District.

May 4, 2020: Three CRPF personnel were killed and seven injured in the Handwara area of Kupwara District.

October 11, 2021: Five Army personnel, including a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), were killed during an encounter with terrorists in the Surankote area of Poonch District.

December 13, 2021: Three Policemen, including one Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) and two constables, were killed and 12 Policemen were injured after terrorists attacked a Police bus carrying personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir Armed Police at the Zewan Pantha Chowk in Srinagar, the capital city.

Significantly, the April 20, 2023, incident took place despite availability of intelligence inputs that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-backed terrorists, mainly from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JeM, would try to target SF convoys in the days following. Though the report had talked about convoys plying on Srinagar-Pulwama axis, the Forces could be expected to have taken additional security measures on other routes as well. The inputs also mentioned terrorist plans to carry out attacks using grenades, Improvised Explosive Devices, and indiscriminate fire at the Army Transit Camp in the Badamibagh area of Srinagar.

Meanwhile, on April 28, while stating that the terror plot in April 20, 2023, attack had been uncovered, Dilbag Singh, J&K Director General of Police (DGP), added that six persons, including, Nissar Ahmad, who was working as an Over Ground Worker of a Pakistan origin LeT ‘commander’ of a module “who provided material (weapons, ammunition, explosives) to the militants besides shelter and food and guided them from one to another place” had been arrested. He highlighted the Pakistani connection disclosing, “The material (explosives) had come from Pakistan through drone. They picked up the weapons and provided them to the militants. Weapons, grenades, ammunition and explosives were included in that.” He raised the concern that there was a floating population of terrorists coming from Pakistan and “they remain here for several months, do recce” and carry such acts. He added that though “we have neutralised several of them also in the past”, there are 10 to 12 such elements currently operating in the area.

There are, moreover, new inputs which suggest that the ISI is planning an attack modelled on the February 14, 2019, Pulwama attack in South Kashmir. Against this backdrop, the security establishment has formulated new counter measures to prevent any VBIED attack on the security forces along the National High Way. A decision has been taken to upgrade the Standard Operating Procedures for the movement of convoys.

Notwithstanding the April 23 attack, the overall security situation in J&K has improved considerably over time. After reaching a high of 4,011 in 2001, overall fatalities registered a continuous decline in successive years till 2012, when they touched a low of 121. Since then, fatalities have maintained a cyclical trend, declining for two consecutive years in 2021 (274 fatalities) and 2022 (253 fatalities). There were 321 fatalities in 2020. Overall fatalities remained in four digits between 1990 and 2006. In 2023, J&K has already recorded 22 fatalities (data till April 30).

Moreover, SF dominance on the ground has increased substantially since 2019. While the SF:terrorist kill ratio was 1:2.08 (78 SFs, 163 terrorists) in 2019, it increased to 1:4.14 (56 SF personnel, 232 terrorists) in 2020 and further to 1: 4.28 (45 SF personnel, 193 terrorists) in 2021. The ratio reached an all-time high, since 2000, at 1:6.43 (30 SF personnel, 193 terrorists) in 2022.

There has been a dramatic reduction in the frequency of major terrorist attacks since the devastating Pulwama attack of February 14, 2019. It is useful to recall that there were eight major attacks resulting in 33 SFs deaths in 2018 alone. Nevertheless, the continued incidence of such attacks demonstrates that, notwithstanding the tremendous gains on ground by the SFs, before and after the Pulwama incident, the ISI-backed terrorist groups remain an abiding threat.

LWE: Blind Aggression

On April 26, 2023, at least 10 Security Force (SF) personnel of the District Reserve Guards (DRG) and a civilian driver were killed, when cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) detonated a powerful 50-kilogramme Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and fired on the injured personnel on the Aranpur Road, under the Aranpur Police Station limits, in the Dantewada District of Chhattisgarh. The DRG personnel were returning from an anti-Maoist operation. The dead included three head constables, Joga Sodi, Munna Ram Kadti, and Santosh Tamo; four constables, Dulgo Mandavi, Lakhmu Markam, Joga Kawasi, and Hariram Mandavi; three secret soldiers (Gopniya Sainik), Raju Ram Kartam, Jayram Podiyam and Jagdish Kawasi; and the civilian driver, Dhaniram Yadav. Commenting on the attack, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Bastar Range, Sundarraj P., stated,

On inputs of presence of Maoists of Darbha division, the DRG jawans had gone on an anti-Maoist operation in Aranpur police station area, also a former stronghold of Maoist leader Hidma. The jawans were returning from the operation when they were attacked by Maoists who had planted IEDs on Aranpur-Sameli road. In the attack, 10 Jawans and a civilian driver were martyred.
Soon after the attack, customary condolences followed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared, “Strongly condemn the attack on the Chhattisgarh police in Dantewada. I pay my tributes to the brave personnel we lost in the attack.” Union Home Minister (UHM) Amit Shah, stated, “Anguished by the cowardly attack on the Chhattisgarh police at Dantewada.” Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel observed, “This fight is in its last stage. Naxalites (Maoists) won’t be spared.”

Sadly, however, the attack demonstrates that the core of Maoist strike capabilities remains intact in the perilous ‘Bastar Division’. The Maoists have repeatedly demonstrated a residual strength sufficient to exploit SF blunders, even as their movement has lost influence in their areas of erstwhile dominance across the country.

On April 27, 2023, CPI-Maoist’s Darbha Division Committee ‘secretary’ Sainath took responsibility for the IED blast and accused the SFs of committing violence against adivasis (tribals) and looting them. In a statement released to the media, Sainath congratulated the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), the military wing of the CPI-Maoist, for attacking the DRG personnel as a response to such violence, and alleged,

Union Home Minister Amit Shah was aiming to eliminate the Maoists before the 2024 Parliament elections and as part of that lakhs of police personnel, paramilitary, commando forces like NSG [National Security Guard], DRG, CoBRA [Commando Battalion for Resolute Action] were being deployed in Bastar region to wage war against the public.
Reports indicate that the attack was planned by Nambala Keshava Rao aka Basava Raju, Mupalla Laxmana Rao aka Ganapathy, Mallojula Venugopal aka Bhupathi (brother of late Kishanji), and Katakkam Sudarshan aka Anand aka Mohan, all CPI-Maoist politburo members, to boost the sagging morale of their cadres and give a fillip to the weakening movement.

Significantly, the Maoist IED attack coincided with their annual Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC), which records intensified attacks on the SFs between March and June each year. TCOC 2022 failed to notch up any major military successes.

Indeed, the last such high-fatality attack targeting SFs across India, was orchestrated on April 3, 2021, when 22 SF personnel were killed and 30 were injured in an encounter with CPI-Maoist cadres in a forest along the border between Bijapur and Sukma Districts in Chhattisgarh. Following a tip-off about a major movement of the Maoists, the planned anti-Maoist operations were undertaken by various parties of the forces along the Bijapur-Sukma border from three different directions in the conflict zone of Bastar, commencing in the night of April 2.

Between the April 3, 2021, and April 26, 2023, according to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least two major attacks (each resulting in three or more fatalities) by the Maoists against the SFs have been recorded, resulting in six SF fatalities:

On February 25, 2023, three SF personnel, identified as Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) Ramuram Nag (36), and constables Kunjam Joga (33) and Vanjam Bhima (31), were killed in an encounter with CPI-Maoist cadres, when a joint SF team had gone to provide cover for a road construction project between Jagargunda and Basaguda in Sukma District, Chhattisgarh.

On June 21, 2022, three Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, ASI Shishu Pal Singh, ASI Shiv Lal, and Constable Dharmendra Kumar Singh, were killed in a CPI-Maoist attack, when the CRPF personnel were moving from one camp to another in the Patadhara Reserve Forest in the Bheden Block (administrative division) in the Nuapada District of Odisha.

Nonetheless, analysis of the fatalities in the SFs and Maoist categories, across India, during the first four months of a year, since 2000, indicates a cyclical trend. In 2010, during this period, SFs had lost 123 personnel, as compared to 73 Maoist fatalities. SFs fatalities dropped to 16, as compared to 107 Maoists in 2011. SFs fatalities spiked to 50 in 2012, while Maoist fatalities dropped to 24. In 2013, 34 SFs fatalities were recorded, as compared to 67 Maoists. In 2014, SFs fatalities went up to 48, against 34 Maoists. In 2015, SFs fatalities dropped to 30, as compared to 36 Maoists, and to 29 SFs as compared to 89 Maoists in 2016. In 2017, SFs fatalities spiked again to 58, while Maoists killed came down to 55. Two consecutive years witnessed a decline in the SF category, 31 SF personnel compared to 103 Maoists in 2018, and 14 SF personnel against 53 Maoists in 2019. This was followed by a spike in two consecutive years: 2020 saw 25 SF personnel and 41 Maoists killed; in 2021, 42 SF personnel and 31 Maoists were killed. Year 2022 registered a sharp decline, with eight SF personnel killed, as against 23 Maoists. The current, including the April 26 attack, has already taken SFs fatalities above the total for the preceding year, with 19 personnel killed, as compared to 13 Maoists (data till April 30, 2023).

During the same period (January 1 to April 30), since 2010, the SF:Maoist kill ratio remained in favour of the SFs eight times, and of the Maoists, in six years. The best kill ratio in favour of the SFs was recorded at 1:6.68 in 2011, while the strongest kill ratio in favour of the Maoists was at 2.08:1 in 2012. However, the overall kill ratio since 2010 remains in favour of the SFs at 1:1.42.

The number of Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-related incidents has been on a gradual decline, with some exceptions, since 2010, when the country witnessed a maximum of 1,393 such incidents. 2011 recorded 1,125 incidents; 2012: 991; 2013: 882; 2014: 1,040; 2015: 929; 2016: 1,039; 2017: 940; 2018: 781: 2019: 673: 2020: 557; 2021: 676; 2022: 602; and 2023: 220 as on April 30, 2023.

The SF consolidation in Dantewada, in the wider Bastar Division, in Chhattisgarh state and across the country has been overwhelming over the past years. The limited capacities of the rebels are now largely concentrated in and around the Bastar Division, where they are able to orchestrate occasional and major incidents in an effort to regain some control over their lost areas of influence. These incidents are, however, a directionless lashing out, which can only escalate the intensity and focus of SF operations against their surviving cadres and leadership, as there is no evidence of any groundswell in their favour, even locally, in the wake of such incidents.

The April 26 attack – as well as earlier major attacks against the SFs – does, however, underline the persisting weaknesses in the security apparatus, which have been highlighted time and time again. Lingering deficits in the fighting forces remained perceptible in Chhattisgarh and other badly Maoist-afflicted States. The Bureau of Police Research & Development (BPR&D) disclosed that, as on January 1, 2021, there were at least 28 Police Stations in Chhattisgarh, that had no telephone. In Jharkhand, 47 had no vehicle, 211 had no telephone, and 31 had no wireless/mobile connectivity. In Andhra Pradesh, 65 Police Stations had no vehicle, and 34 had no wireless/mobile connectivity; and in Odisha, four Police Stations had no vehicle, and three had no telephone.

Moreover, the SFs have repeatedly provided opportunities to the Maoists, failing to correct past mistakes in their operational patterns. The attack on the DRG personnel on the Aranpur road in Dantewada showed that the warning was ignored and Standard Operating Procedure s(SOP) were not followed in the anti-Maoist operation.

On April 29, 2023, the Aranpur Police thus acknowledged,

The ROP [Road Opening Party] was not conducted as it was a covert operation and we did not want the Maoists to get a clue. But it was our mistake not to conduct a ROP while returning as we considered the path to be safe. Henceforth, we will use bikes after ROP or walk.
An April 27, 2023, report indicated that intelligence agencies had conveyed that senior Maoists leaders of the ‘central committee (CC)’ and Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC) of the CPI-Maoist had prepared their strategy for their TCOC 2023 and were conducting meetings in Bijapur district with PLGA cadres. The Maoist leadership, while imparting TCOC training and directions to their cadres, had instructed them to recce SF movements.

In the wake of the April 26 debacle, the Dantewada Police have decided to avoid use of four-wheelers, and to deploy ROPs during anti-Maoist operations.

To capitalize effectively on the visible flagging of the Maoist movement and organisation, the existing operational and capacity deficits of the SFs in the Maoist-afflicted areas will need to be addressed. The battle is far from over, and will linger on if the political dispensation continues to ignore the material and resource requirements of the SFs, if they are to finally end this enduring rebellion.