Latehar storm after Maoist lull

The audacity of the Latehar ambush, which ended with Maoists implanting explosive devices inside the corpses of CRPF men, comes amid security forces' claims that the rebels are a declining force. What was probably the cruellest ever assault on security forces came at a time police in several states were praising themselves for having contained Maoists.

Over the last 14 months, Maoist violence had declined partly because they had lost a number of their top cadres (see box) to encounters — and road accidents, illness and even snakebite — and partly because security forces had made significant advances in several regions hitherto considered "liberated". Rather than confront advancing forces, guerrillas preferred to retreat; CRPF men were lulled into a sense of security by the near-zero confrontation during their 10-day Abujhmaad march last year.

It now turns out the Maoists had been regrouping while recovering from those setbacks. Then home minister P Chidambaram had been cautious during his last visit to Chhattisgarh: "It can be considered that Naxal violence is going down, but it could also mean that security forces and Naxals are not engaging with each other." On the other hand, several top officers of the police and security agencies, including Chhattisgarh DGP Ramniwas, had asserted the morale of the Maoists was down and the battle was in its last phase.

The Maoists themselves stress 2012 was a good year for them. "The various tactical counteroffensive campaigns and military actions by the People's Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) in the past one year in various guerilla zones had a good political impact," Deoji of the Central Military Commission of CPI (Maoist) said in a yearend statement to cadres. He listed a series of major ambushes in 2012, including the one on the elite CoBRA force in Gadchiroli that left 12 personnel dead. Deoji said 114 cops were killed last year, several of them in audacious attacks.

The PLGA had been formed in 2000. The last two years have shown a drop in incidents involving Maoists —from 2,213 in 2010 to 1,760 in 2011 and 1,365 in 2012 — after the preceding few years had shown a successive increase — from 1,565 in 2007 to 1,591 in 2008 and 2,258 in 2009.

The regrouping phase saw Maoists devising new strategies, the planting of IEDs inside corpses being the latest. They have cited the Latehar attack as their response to the Saranda Development Plan, launched by Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh after advancing CRPF troops had cleared these forests in West Singhbhum district. Maoists describe the Sananda project as a plan to hand over mining resources to private companies. "The central government is trying to gain control over natural resources through such tactics. Our killings are in response to their designs," Toofan, spokesperson for the Bihar-Jharkhand-North Chhattisgarh special area unit of the CPI (Maoist), said in an audio statement sent to The Indian Express.

He said the explosives they had stitched in was their response to similar tactics by the CRPF in the area. "The CRPF laid booby traps in the form of rocket launchers and grenades across Latehar and Palamu districts. They are also using children and villagers as human shields. We regret the deaths of innocent villagers in the incident."

The CRPF refused to comment on "such madness". "Only saner comments and actions can be responded to," said Jharkhand IG CRPF MV Pradhan. And Pankaj Kumar Singh, CRPF IG (Ops), said, "They are acting in desperation, trying to salvage whatever they can. We should continue with greater force."

Maoist losses

An estimated 70 died during 2012, one reason for the relative lull. Some key deaths:

Harak alias Srikanth, 48: Died of illness on February 26. A Dandakaranya special zonal committee member, he worked among Chhattisgarh activists and youths and was active culturally — he was an editorial board member in Prabhat, the outfit's mouthpiece in the zone. Joined Dandankaranya's Gadchiroli division in 1998, was elected into the special zonal committee in 2005.

Gundeti Sankar alias Seshanna, 47: Died of snakebite on March 18. The North Telangana special zonal committee member was working to revive the North Telangana movement. In a 30-year career, he rose from a squad member to a state-level leader. He wrote literary pieces, worked in political and military wings, and engaged in propaganda work.

Mangu Paddam alias Sukku: Killed in an encounter in Raigarh on January 27. A divisional committee member working for expansion of the movement in central India as part of Chhattisgarh-Orissa border state area group. Worked in north Bastar and PLGA for a long time.

Vijay Madkam, 45: Died in a tractor accident on July 15. A member of the south regional committee and secretary of South Bastar division of Dandankaranya. Born in Sukma, he joined the movement in 1988 and played a crucial role in developing Janatana Sarkars to counter Salwa Judum forces. In divisional committee from 2000, in regional committee since 2009.

Siddharth Buragohain: Killed in a May encounter in Assam along with three other Maoists. Was a member of the Asom leading committee. "These losses are severe for us due to the strategic significance of the revolutionary movement of the Northeast...," said a Maoist release.

Ajay Ganju: Killed in Kunda forests of Chhatra, Jharkhand. Was a Bihar-Jharkhand-North Chhattisgarh special area leader, involved in over 50 attacks on security forces.

Swaroopa alias Sunita: Died of breast cancer in March 2012. She served in the technical field under the AP state committee and the central committee for nearly three decades years and also as a tailor in Dandankaranya in her last years.

Sameera: Killed in police encounter in Mainpur division on May 31. Worked in Chhattisgarh-Orissa border area. Born in Andhra Pradesh, she worked in the protection platoon of the state committee. Became part of the Dandankaranya movement in 2009 and worked among women in East Bastar, later worked in Gobra in Mainpur and became an area committee secretary.

Ameela, Aruna: Died in the encounter in which Sameera was killed. Ameela (left) was a performing artiste who helped organise cultural troops.

Other leaders: Pramod, killed by the bodyguard of an assassination target, was West Bastar action team commander. Mitu, killed in an encounter, was area committee member in Orissa organising committee Ungal, killed in an accidental mine blast, was in central regional company.

...and cadres: Nearly 30 lower cadres of Bihar-Jharkhand-North Chhattisgarh special area. Those killed include Yogendra Oraon, Pancham Paswan and Gulach Munda.

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