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Govt plans massive offensive against Maoists. Green Hunt Redux?

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:19 IST

The strike

  • 600 commandos are ready for an assault on the Maoists in Chhattisgarh
  • It\'s touted as the biggest offensive since Operation Green Hunt in 2009
  • Security forces believe the time is ripe: Maoists are divided, weather is conducive
  • Primary aim is to take out the Maoists\' South Bastar commander Hidma
  • If nothing else, the forces can deplete the rebels\' ranks in their stronghold

The toll

  • Like Green Hunt, the strike could lead to atrocities against local villagers
  • It might compel the Maoists to settle differences and regroup
  • Ill-trained forces could take a heavy toll, of life and morale
  • It could push the disillusioned local people back towards the Maoists
  • It\'ll strengthen the perception of the Modi regime as anti-poor, pro-corporate

The government is preparing the biggest offensive against the Maoists in Chhattisgarh since Operation Green Hunt in 2009.

Sources confirmed that hundreds of paramilitary commandos, assisted by the state police, will launch an assault in the state's Sukma district. The "big showdown", the sources added, was green-lit by the home ministry last week.

Also read: Getting ready to fight Salwa Judum II, Rowghat Mining Project: searing a people to fire up the country

The operation, according to a senior official in the home ministry, is expected to last two to three weeks, and the security forces will specifically be looking to take out Hidma, the head of the CPI (Maoist)'s South Bastar battalion, who is said to be responsible for several attacks on the security forces in Chhattisgarh.

"About 600 commandos have been handpicked for the offensive and preparations are being conducted on a war footing. The forces are preparing themselves for the long haul," the official said.

Why are the security forces going after the rebels in Chhattisgarh, not those in Andhra Pradesh or Telangana? It's all down to numbers.

"In Andhra or Telangana, there are a lot of top-rung Maoist leaders. They are the brains behind the movement and have a lot of field experience. But in Chhattisgarh, the Maoists have an advantage in sheer numbers," the official explained. "So, even if top leaders like Hidma aren't taken out but heavy casualties are inflicted on the middle ranks, it will be next to impossible for the Maoists to replenish their numbers."

As for the timing of the assault, the sources listed the following three reasons:

1) Fissures in the Maoist ranks

The Maoists are reportedly deserting their posts in large numbers, nearly 160 have surrendered this year so far. More significantly, they are fighting each other, making the job of the security forces easier.

The infighting has not only affected cadre morale, it is believed to have caused a rift between the guerillas and local villagers, who have largely been sympathetic to them.

The offensive, the security agencies believe, will only exacerbate the divisions, to the further detriment of the Maoists.

Infighting: Hemla Bhagat, a top Maoist commander in Chhattisgarh, was dragged to his village and butchered

"Villagers and families of the cadres are concerned. The way Maoists in Telangana killed those from Chhattisgarh, people are losing faith in this so called armed struggle. In one recent case, Hemla Bhagat, a top Chhattisgarh Maoist commander, was dragged to his village and butchered mercilessly," said Inspector General of Police, Bastar, SRP Kalluri. "Now the villagers may be largely ignorant, but they are quite touchy about laying the dead to rest ceremoniously."

Kalluri said the police's brief now is to work towards making the rift between various Maoist factions "more participative, while ensuring that innocents are not killed".

2) The weather is conducive

According to senior paramilitary officers dealing with the Maoists, the monsoon season is a period of inactivity for the guerillas. Their movement is severely hampered by the rains, so they lie low and consolidate their ranks. The terrain in and around Sukma becomes particularly forbidding.

3) Offensive will diminish the Maoists' strike capability

Desertions and infighting notwithstanding, the Maoists still retain the capability to strike and, indeed, are killing security forces almost at will.

In April this year, the Maoists, who usually lie low after a daring raid, carried out assaults on three consecutive days, killing 13 security personnel. The first attack came on 11 April, when seven men of the state's Special Task Force were killed and 10 injured in Pidmel, Sukma.

The next day, the rebels torched 18 vehicles engaged in mining work in Kanker district, 140 km south of Raipur, but no one was hurt. The next day, they killed a BSF soldier and five officers of the Chhattisgarh Armed Force and injured seven others.

This year alone, the Maoists have reportedly taken out 19 police informers and carried out 316 attacks, in 11 of which they used sophisticated Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs.

As this story is posted, news is coming in that four police officers have been abducted.

Nightmare in the jungle

It's not known when the offensive will begin but whenever it does, it's certain to resurrect ghosts of the last major anti-Maoist assault - Operation Green Hunt.

Green Hunt was the largest of a series of operations against the Maoists that began in 2005, when the rebels were at their strongest and were targeting police and paramilitary forces almost daily.

The massive combing and hunting operation was launched in late 2009 by the elite CoBRA battalion and specially-trained state police officers in the forests of Dantewada. The first assault lasted 10 days and left nearly 30 Maoists dead.

As the operation went on, reports began to emerge of security forces' atrocities against innocent villagers, including torture and murder.

Now, there are fears the new offensive could turn out to be another Green Hunt and, in the long run, counter-productive.

"Testimony after testimony showed how innocents were tortured and killed then. Civilians were killed almost indiscriminately because the defence forces did not, and still don't, posses the means of differentiating innocent villagers from Maoists," said Shalini Gera, a human rights lawyer who works with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid in Bastar. "And this is my biggest worry with any big operation."

Gera said she was very "sceptical" about the benefits such an operation would yield. Last time around, more locals, alienated by the security forces' behavior, turned over to the Maoists' side.

"Any large scale offensive is bound to create another cycle of violence," she added. "The only solution to Maoist violence is through political means."

Social activist Bela Bhatia, who has been working in Chhattisgarh for years now, said any big offensive was bound to be a "big failure". Yet, Bhatia added, the security forces' plan to initiate another cycle of violence is predictable, though regrettable.

"The forces have to ultimately justify their presence, so it's understandable that they launch another massive offensive against the Maoists. But the government shouldn't talk as if they have been mild or inactive the whole time," Bhatia said. "You can't end a problem just like that, through guns. This operation, whenever conducted, is bound to be a big failure."

If this wasn't reason enough to rethink the offensive, there is the fact that the security forces, particularly the CRPF, have taken a heavy toll fighting the Maoists in Chhattisgarh over the past few years.

Sent into the jungle to fight without any time to adapt, the CRPF men have to confront not just the Maoists, but an extremely hostile environment as well. On top of that, there are barely any barracks to retire to after working 15-hour shifts. Morale, understandably, is at rock bottom.

According to reports, heart failure and malaria have killed more soldiers in Chhattisgarh than Maoist bullets.

Yet, Brigadier B K Ponwar (Retd), who runs the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in Bastar and has trained thousands of policemen, and military and paramilitary soldiers, says there won't be a better time to go after the Maoists.

"We have taken a lot of ground from the Maoists through operations like Green Hunt and Haka. Considering we succeeded at that time, when the forces weren't as well prepared to fight in the jungle and were in a state of disarray, another big operation is going to hurt the Maoists tremendously," he said. "Now our troops are more organised. Forces like the CRPF have now mastered counter-insurgency."

He added: "Earlier, they were struggling due to a lack of knowledge of jungle combat, combing and search operations and IEDs. Now, the know about all this and are quite confident."

Confident they may be, but have the security forces and the government learnt from their past mistakes? Can they prevent the tremendous human cost of Operation Green Hunt?

And can the Narendra Modi government dispel the notion that this assault in a desperately poor region isn't meant to clear the tribal forest land for corporates as the one in 2009 was perceived to have been?

On the receiving end

Back then, Operation Green Hunt was panned by activists, tribal elders and in the media as an effort to further corporate interests, coming as it had on the back of a string of MoUs with private companies, mostly for mining the mineral-rich jungles of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

The government had denied this was the case, but the perception persisted. In an interview, the then home minister P Chidambaram had said such a "sinister design" did not exist. He had said he would request prime minister Manmohan Singh to freeze and review all MoUs if peace talks with the Maoists could be initiated.

This time too, the timing of the offensive is certain to draw similar allegations, and not without reason.

In May this year, Prime Minister Modi went to Bastar and announced two mega projects - a steel plant at Dilmili village in Dantewada and the extension of the Rowghat-Jagdalpur railway line to transport iron ore - with a combined investment of about Rs 24,000 crore.

The projects are expected to displace thousands of local tribals, who, along with activists, have launched protests.

"There is an apprehension that the big projects that the prime minister has just announced will displace a lot of locals, so their leaders have been agitating. There is palpable tension in the area because of this standoff," said Shalini.

Around the same time as Modi's visit, Chavindra Karma, the son of slain Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma, launched the Vikas Sangharsh Samiti in Bastar, "a peace march" which he admitted could be called "Salwa Judum part two".

Are these concerns enough to red flag the planned strike?

First published: 14 July 2015, 1:07 IST
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.