'Defence, development and democracy is the formula to defeat Naxalism.'
The forest area of South Bastar where 22 security personnel lost their lives in an encounter with Naxalites on April 2 is at a strategic junction: It provides access routes to the dense Abujmarh forest which covers three districts of Chhattisgarh - and into Maharashtra, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
"Whoever controls that junction has access to inter-state movement -- if the security forces have control, they can cut off access to the Naxals and vice versa. For the last 10 years this battle is going on between Naxals and security forces for control of this area," Dr G K Pandey, one of the earliest researchers in India on the Naxalite movement and presently registrar of the Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University in Raipur, tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih.
Professor Shukla was formerly head of department of defence studies at a post graduate college in Raipur and was the first person in India to obtain a D Litt on the Naxalite movement. The D Litt is the highest degree in academic excellence.
In 1993 when he began his research there was hardly any written material on the Naxals and Dr Pandey remembers making several trips, travelling 1,000 km-1,500 km on his motorcycle into Bastar to gather information for his research.
"It was like an area of darkness in the early 1990s. There was just one road connecting Raipur and Bastar. Raipur was considered the gateway to Bastar district which was bigger than Punjab, Haryana and Kerala! One superintendent of police was in charge of law and order of such a large district. Imagine the difficulties of controlling such a large district," says Professor Pandey over the phone from Raipur.
"But now there is an enormous difference. There are roads to Bastar from every district of Chhattisgarh and all the 2,500-3,000 villages in that area have road connectivity."
The last ten years have seen a lot of progress in the area, he says. Schools have been constructed and ration has been provided by the public distribution system. "But in remote areas, the Naxals still hold considerable influence."
'Every Naxal has several names'
The attack on the security personnel on the morning of April 4 is said to have been conducted by the number 1 battalion commanded by most wanted Naxal commander Hidma Madvi.
"According to the Naxals, they have two battalions in that area. They are supposed to be 1,000 in one battalion; according to police records they have only 500-600 in each battalion. But based on our research we can say that they don't have more than 300-350 Naxals in each battalion," says Professor Pandey.
"Hidma is a myth. Naxals never give correct information about him. There is no saying whether he is dead or alive. The Naxals are known to start calling another person by the name of a dead comrade to spread the word that he is alive and so it may be for Hidma."
The picture of Hidma in the police files is over 25 years old. He has been involved in several deadly attacks on security forces and political leaders in the past. In 2013, he was the mastermind behind the attack on a convoy of state Congress leaders which took the lives of 27 and another ambush in 2017 which killed 27 CRPF troopers.
On April 4, 2021, security personnel had entered the forest after receiving information about the presence of Hidma and a group of Naxals. They walked through the night and were ambushed in the morning on their way back.
"A majority of Naxal attacks on security forces have taken place on troops returning after an operation," says Professor Pandey.
"There were some telltale signs that something was amiss when troops did not find any Naxals in that area where they had information about Naxal presence, and secondly, 2-3 villages were found empty."
"The troop movement is in 3 layers -- the outer ring consists of local constables consisting of Naxals who have surrendered and know the area and language. The second layer comprise the district or state police. The third layer is the CRPF who are the best trained personnel."
"The central forces are the most trained and they are kept at the rear. I feel they should be placed alongside local and district police to prevent casualties," Professor Pandey adds.
'The opponent is a local'
The police personnel are trained at the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare School in Kanker, Chhattisgarh, which was established in 2004. "The school has resulted in bringing down the number of casualties among the police because of the training imparted, but that school can also do with some enhancements," Professor Pandey points out.
The Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare School in Chhattisgarh also provides training to personnel from Maharashtra, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
Among the Naxal-affected states of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal, Chhattisgarh has suffered the most from Naxal violence. The Chintalnar incident took the lives of 76 CRPF troopers in April 2010.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Chhattisgarh remains the worse-hit by violence unleashed by the Maoists.
"In other states, the Naxal affected areas were densely populated. The populous was educated and aware. You could take the issues of development forward and defeat Naxalism," says Professor Pandey.
"Meanwhile, Bastar is still a poor area with large illiteracy and sparse population. The area where this happened has 2-3 villages with population less than 250 in each."
Professor Pandey also says that it is difficult to ascertain whether the human intelligence received about the Naxals is genuine or false.
"There is a lack of trained intelligence. Weekly markets in different villages in Bastar provide opportunities to gather information because police personnel are deputed for maintaining law and order. The bazaar provides the opportunity to the police to gather intelligence from the locals."
"Many Naxals also come to these bazaars and we have lost many security personnel in clashes with Naxals in these bazaars."
Giving the example of the Chambal region of Bhind-Morena, he says just as dacoits move around in those area, Naxals do the same in the vast Bastar region.
"Defence, development and democracy is the formula to defeat Naxalism."
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com