January 03, 2012

Kishenji, Maoists and the Battle Ahead

Geopolitics, January 2012, pp 60 -64

Uddipan Mukherjee

Squeezed between Palamau in the north and Gumla in the south, Latehar district in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand is strategically located.Carved out of the old Palamau district, Latehar was created on 4th April 2001. Nearly half of its area is under dense forest. Furthermore, it abuts on Chattisgarh to the west and hence becomes a fertile region for the Maoist infiltrators. Latehar’s hilly terrain makes it a perfect destination for a Maoist stronghold.

It was no wonder that within 24 hours, the Maoists claimed, with considerable equanimity, the responsibility of ambushing the convoy of independent Member of Parliament (MP) Inder Singh Namdhari at Latehar on 3rd December 2011.

Though such attacks were highly expected, still a validation came from Sudhir, the Maoist spokesperson for the local committee. He said: “We own the responsibility for the attack on the police party to avenge the killing of our leader Kishan Da.”

Who was Kishenji?

By all means, he meant Kishenji instead of Kishan-da. Mallojula Koteswara Rao, alias Kishenji alias Prahlad alias many more; was a top-rung policy-maker cum military leader of the ultra-left rebels. He was media-savvy. His popularity could be gauged when one finds an obituary-cum-analysis of this rebel leader at Foreign Policy, the US political magazine which hardly takes cognizance of India’s internal matters.

At 56 years of age, he was a senior Politburo member and part of Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of India - Maoist (CPI-M). He has been reportedly killed by a mammoth operation by Indian security forces in the Jangalmahal area in West Bengal on 24th November 2011.The operation which hemmed in Kishenji was planned in concentric circles. A group of 1000 joint forces (paramilitary and state police combined) encircled Kishenji and his aide Suchitra in three circles. This made it almost impossible for the elusive leader to evade the clutches of the security forces.

Kishenji was a major decision-maker for the Maoists and was looking after the expansion of the group in the North-East. Presumably, he came from Assam a couple of days back and was convening meetings in West Bengal-Jharkhand border.

Fake or Real Encounter?

However, after his targeted killing (TK); from many quarters, some expected and one quite astonishing, allegations of fake encounter were leveled. Maoist ideologue and Telugu poet Varavara Rao, the family members of Kishenji and the human rights activists raised the banner of protest by alleging a fake encounter. Quite stunningly, Communist Party of India (CPI) MP Gurudas Dasgupta was obdurate enough to call up Union Home Minister in this regard.

Similar hue and cry had taken place in July 2010 at the time of CPI-M spokesperson Azad’s TK. Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Director-General K. Vijay Kumar was visibly angry with such malice being heaped at the paramilitary forces. Interestingly, the autopsy report confirmed Vijay Kumar’s assertion. According to it, bullets hit Kishenji in the chin, chest and head. One bullet was fired from a distance of around 500 metres. A team of forensic experts also found some gunpowder in his hand.

However, from the policy perspective of TK as a veritable component of counterinsurgency operations, whether the Kishenji encounter was staged or real, is probably, insignificant. Nevertheless, the following reasons may be elucidated to have brought his undoing.

First, he was recovering from an injury suffered last year from an attack by the security forces at Jangalmahal. Hence his physical fitness was under the scanner.

Second, penetrative intelligence network of the police (across provinces) was tracing him and the moment he came out of his hideout, he became vulnerable. In fact, after the close shave last year, he had cocooned himself.

Third, he was technology-savvy and that could have helped the police to track his position. He used to scan newspapers through internet.

Fourth, the closeness of the CPI-M with the Trinamool Congress (TC) before the assembly polls in West Bengal could have worked to the disadvantage of the former. The cadres of TC can now very well act as moles against the Maoists. In fact, there are reports that Kishenji might have been betrayed by his own rank and file.

It is doing the rounds that Bikash, a close confidante of Kishenji, had ultimately betrayed him. The Rs 19 lakh (US $40,000) reward announced on the head of the top Maoist is likely to be given to the person who provided the vital tip-off about his whereabouts in the last few hours leading to his elimination.

Sify.com quotes official sources that the Andhra Pradesh government had announced to give Rs 12 lakh to anyone who would give any information about Kishenji. The Chhattisgarh government too had announced Rs 7 lakh reward with a similar statement.

Bikash had supposedly developed differences with Kishenji. The former was expected to be the CPI-M West Bengal State Secretary after the incarceration of Kanchan alias Sudip Chongdar in December 2010. But, Bikash was replaced by another leader Asim Mondal alias Akash. Incidentally, it has been alleged by the Maoist rank and file that almost all major decisions in the eastern zone were unilaterally taken by Kishenji.

Even Kanchan, after his capture by the Special Task Force in 2010, hinted the same and a possible disintegration of the Maoist command structure in West Bengal. The dramatic surrender of squad leader Jagari Baske and her husband Rajaram Soren at the Writers’ Buildings in Kolkata is a further testimony to this fact.

What Next?

Well, Kishenji's demise would be a big jolt to the rebels. It would be hard to find a replacement soon as he had become almost indispensable in the eastern region. However, there is no reason to expect sudden spate of sporadic reprisals from the Maoists. Neither, could the annihilation of Kishenji be seen as the demise of the insurrection. Their General Secretary, Ganapathy, is still at large. However, what could be expected in the near future?

First, the Maoists would re-group and Ganapathy must be extremely cautious now. They had lost Azad in 2010 and now Kishenji. Senior leaders Narayan Sanyal and Kobad Ghandy are languishing in jail. Telugu Deepak and Kanchan are also incarcerated. Hence, Ganapthy now has to work with second-rung leaders.

As Snigdhendu Bhattacharya aptly points out in the daily Hindustan Times:
“The blow will be more for their eastern regional bureau of which Kishenji was the spokesperson and the top-most leader. His boss in the eastern bureau Saheb-da, alias Jhantu Mukherjee, was arrested a few months back.”
Second, by the very principle of guerrilla warfare tactics, the rebels would retaliate; albeit in a different venue, different time and different occasion.

That is exactly what happened at Latehar on 3rd December 2011 when the landmine planted by the ultras burst. 10 security personnel and one 8-year old boy succumbed to the injuries. Namdhari, a former speaker of the Jharkhand Assembly, escaped unhurt.

Change of Tactics by the Maoists?

Now, what does this attack signify? Does this indicate any change of operational tactics or an overall change of strategic game-plan on the part of the Maoists? Are the Maoists too following the policy of TK as adopted by the Indian counterinsurgency forces?

Keeping in memory the previous attacks of the Maoists, it is not unlikely that the 3rd December ambush was a TK. The Naxalites had attacked the convoy of then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. Nevertheless, the noteworthy point is the landmine attack executed in October 2003 was in the pre-merger era.

From 2004 onwards, after the CPI-M formed as a unification of the erstwhile People’s War Group (PWG) and Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), such incidents have become rare. A notable exception, however, was the assassination bid on former Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in November 2008.

Since 2004, the Maoists are basically following guerrilla operations targeting the administration as a whole. Their primary motive is to acquire arms and ammunitions and demoralize the security forces. Personal vendetta, apparently, is not in their agenda.

Such a hypothesis was corroborated by Sudhir. He said that the attack on Namdhari was simply unintentional as they had no information about him in that police convoy. Their primary targets were the security personnel. So, going by the apparent veracity of the Maoists’ statement; it may be safely surmised that the present mode of punitive action that they are embarking is ‘deterrence’.

They are targeting the security and infrastructural architecture of the Indian state. A mass attack on a police or paramilitary convoy would likely, according to the Maoists, deter the security personnel to plan a TK assassination of any Maoist leader.

Interestingly, the Maoists’ method of deterrence sometimes works. After the hijack of a passenger train on 22nd April 2009, as noted by Deepak Nayak for the New Delhi based Institute for Conflict Management, the Railway Protection Force (RPF) contingent, which arrived at the Latehar Railway Station to sanitise the railway route, was unwilling to move to the location of the hijacked passenger train. An unidentified RPF trooper, as per Nayak, had stated:

“There is no use entering the train hijack zone…...it is risky given that the Maoists target people like us who are in uniform.”

The report further informed that police officers, including the Superintendent of Police, preferred to work from their residences, fearing Maoist attacks.

The above was no isolated phenomena. In a gripping report authored by journalist V K Shashikumar for The Indian Defence Review; the sorry plight of a police sub-inspector is elucidated:

“What will I do if I leave the police force? How will I earn? My family wants me to quit police service. But when I am jobless and unable to provide for my family, will they treat me well? asked Rajendra Prasad, sub-inspector of Kajra police station. This police post is hardly 15 kilometres from the spot where four policemen were kidnapped after a skirmish with the Maoists on 29th August 2010, in which 7 policemen were killed and 10 injured.”

The Counterinsurgency Policy and the Battle Ahead

Kishenji’s elimination signified that at last, the CI/CT (counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism) policy of the Indian security forces seem to work fine vis-a-vis the Maoists. The recent success of the forces at Saranda forests in Jharkhand; coupled with the annihilation of Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad and now Kishenji speaks of the Indian CI/CT policy as toeing the line of Winning Hearts and Minds (WHAM)-based counterinsurgency policy plus Targeted Killings and Incarcerations or TK/TI approach. The latter suitably bolsters the WHAM-based CI/CT.

At the other end, the Indian state has kept the options of 'talking to the Maoists' an open agenda and is quite rightly moving to a position of strength before they 'talk' to the rebels.

It may be recommended that a carefully orchestrated dual strategy of TK-TI compounded with population-centric, WHAM-based CI operations needs to be implemented. The direct deployment of the army may be kept on hold. However, future prospects of the army being put into effect should not be ruled out altogether. Tribal militias need to be upheld.

But, they must be provided legitimacy through the process of official recruitment. Tribal militias are extremely significant for acquiring knowledge of the local terrain and for useful ground intelligence. Moreover, consistent attempts must be made to dissect the political unity of the ultras.

The path of ‘talks’ needs to be kept open as a viable option, but only when the government would be sure that the Maoist guerillas are in an awkward position to continue their present phase of ‘strategic defense’.

Mere proclamations of ‘ceasefires’ by the Maoists should not be taken as pre-conditions for opening talks as these temporary cessation of hostilities are used by the rebels to regroup, rearm, revitalize and recruit. Talks can only be initiated if the government is in a ‘position of strength’. And this could be achieved through sustained implementation of a strategic framework which houses TK-TI plus WHAM-based CI operations.

Talks? Not Always

While researching on insurgency, Martha Crenshaw observes that rebellions may systematically decline because of three features; physical defeat, decision of the group to abandon terrorist strategy and organizational disintegration.

In the Indian context, it may be hypothesized that some or all the above features may be achieved through talks. However, if talks do not provide the way out, then TK/TI along with WHAM-based CI operations must be employed. After all, the demise of the Maoist insurgency should be an acceptable endgame for the Adivasis, the government, the police and the paramilitary; apart from the core Maoist leadership.

If talks work, then fine. Otherwise, to quote notable military strategist Luttwak, there would probably be no harm if “war is given a chance”. It is true that development and governance are the keys to long-term tranquility, but the 'small war' must be won as a prerequisite.

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