Under the benign gaze of a bright silver statue of Bhimrao Ambedkar, improbable numbers of passengers were being packed in a battered jeep for the ride home in forest hamlets. Neither a month of horrific violence nor the annual week-long general strike called by Maoist guerrillas to commemorate the martyrdom of their comrades deterred thousands of Chitrakonda’s Adivasi residents from showing up at the weekly market. Chitrakonda in Orissa seemed strangely cheerful f or a place which, this summer, witnessed some of the most horrific violence ever recorded in India’s Maoist insurgency. Across the road, from the market, the police station didn’t even have a guard.
In mid-July, a 100-kg landmine ripped through a specially designed mine-proof truck, killing 17 policemen near Motu, on the southern fringes of the violence-scarred district of Malkangiri. Earlier, 38 Andhra Pradesh police personnel died when a boat ferrying them across the Balimela Dam’s reservoir, just a few minutes drive from Chitrakonda, was ambushed. The panicked personnel ran to one side of the boat to escape, causing it to tip over, and all those on board were drowned. .
India’s National Informatics Centre, with a virtual grasp of reality, counts Motu and Balimela — where the ravaged hull of the sunken boat has now been salvaged and dragged ashore — as tourism draws. Not surprisingly, though, visitors aren’t queuing up to sample the region’s delights.
“Kandahar,” policemen call the forests around a bombed-out culvert on the road to village MV79 — home to Hindu refugees from East Pakistan, who were rehabilitated in this place without a name. On their way back from an operation near MV49, where they hoped to gather evidence linking a local politician to the CPI-Maoist, the tired police personnel — some of whom had served in the violence-scarred region for over two years on end — failed to execute a mine search before crossing the bridge. Now, besieged police personnel at Motu village, at the end of the road that runs south through the district to the confluence of the Sileru and Sabari rivers, have renamed the landmarks: “Peshawar,” “Khyber Pass,” “Kabul.”
Just why have things come to this? Put simply, the Orissa police are outmanned and outgunned. In addition to a strength of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of military-trained supporters active in villages, the CPI-Maoist is believed to have at least two companies of forces active in the area. Six months ago, the CPI-Maoist harvested over 1,100 rifles and machine guns in a raid on police stations and armouries in and around the town of Nayagarh. Ill-armed and poorly trained police guards did not even bother to put up a fight.
In what the former Punjab Director-General of Police K.P.S. Gill calls a “war of small commanders,” ground-level leadership is key. But while the Malkangiri police ought to have 49 sub-inspectors to command their constables, just 17 are in place. Where they should have three Deputy Superintendents, they have just one. Superintendent of Police Satish Gajabhiye is also the sole officer of his rank in place — a stark contrast with Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab which have waged successful counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns.
On ground, the Malkangiri police’s offensive counter-insurgency capabilities are pathetic. They have five SOG sections, each with 20 personnel, backed by six companies of ill-trained local police — a total of 700 men to operate in 5,791 square km of some of the most dense, mountainous tropical forests in India. Backing them are four companies of the Central Reserve Police Force — well under 500 men. Dantewada, across the border in Chhattisgarh, is twice as large as Malkangiri but has eight times as many CRPF personnel.
Back in 2001, well before the CPI-Maoist established itself in Orissa, the State sanctioned plans to create three new police stations in Malkangiri. But just one of them has become functional, that too on an ad hoc basis, without a proper building or housing for its staff. At least two police stations, Paparmetla and Jodambo, are unconnected by road, and have no reliable means of communication — not even electricity. In addition, the district’s criminal justice system has collapsed. Inadequate investigation and the complete absence of modern forensic resources, combined with the fact that judges and prosecutors are afraid of reprisals, have made securing convictions of CPI-Maoist leaders next to impossible.
Early this year, a Malkangiri court released Salven Mukta, a Chhattisgarh resident thought to be responsible for at least 49 killings in the course of the CPI-Maoist’s brutal war with Salwa Judum vigilantes. His rapid acquittal startled observers, who note that his trial in Chhattisgarh is still under way. Last year, the police in Malkangiri arrested Andhra-Orissa Border Special Zonal Committee member Srinivas Sriramaloo, along with a senior commander from Chhattisgarh, Madvi Sukal. Sriramaloo is now in a Medak jail — but Sukal, who was fortunate enough to face trial in Malkangiri, was released. He has, the police in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa say, gone on to lead several attacks against the informers the CPI-Maoists believe were responsible for the arrests.
Cases like these are depressingly common. Sariam Dora, code-named Santosh, was released from prison in July 2007, and is now a member of the CPI-Maoist’s Malkangiri district leadership. Katam Mala, acquitted in 2008, and Sapan Bala, released a year earlier, are already back on the district police’s wanted list.
All of this is symptomatic of a wider malaise. Last year, official data obtained by The Hindu shows, Orissa had just 10,839 armed police personnel instead of the 14,891 who should have been in place. It had 252 officers ranking from Deputy Superintendent to Senior Superintendent instead of the 304 needed, and only 4,542 inspectors instead of the 5,933 sanctioned. In 2005, the State was 12,000 personnel short of the sanctioned strength — a sanctioned strength based, it bears mention, on the three decades-old population data and no suggestion that an insurgency was brewing.
Last year, Orissa hired 6,000 cadets to fill the gap. It turned out, though, that its police training centre could process just 300 students at a time. Training was slashed from 12 months to six months— at which rate it would have taken a decade to complete the process — and meanwhile, untrained personnel were assigned to police stations. Earlier this year, the recruitments themselves were quashed, after credible allegations of corruption surfaced.
Bibhu Prasad Routray, a leading expert on Orissa’s Maoist insurgency, notes that while the State needs around 1,000 police stations, it has just 482. Most of these have neither proper infrastructure nor manpower. Even armed police contingents, which ought to constitute the cutting edge of the Orissa police’s counter-insurgency operations, are grossly underequipped. “For example,” Mr. Routray wrote earlier this year, “the 4th Battalion of the Orissa Armed Police located at Rourkela, close to the Orissa-Jharkhand border, stationed on a 143-acre plot of land, does not even have a boundary wall. The suggestion to erect a wall to protect the facility was made way back in November 2006. The battalion authorities are still awaiting approval of the Police Headquarters, after four subsequent reminders.”
Crack counter-insurgency force
Orissa is now focussing its energies on creating a crack counter-insurgency force, the Special Operations Group, modelled on Andhra Pradesh’s successful anti-naxalite police, the Greyhounds. It is unclear, though, whether what some critics call the ‘Rambo Model of Police Reform’ will work.
In Andhra Pradesh, the Greyhounds successes came in the context of thoroughgoing institutional reform of the police. Police stations were fortified to protect them from attack; incentives were introduced for the police to serve in troubled areas; and a massive programme of grass roots hiring was initiated. Critically, police intelligence was upgraded. Today’s Andhra Pradesh’s Special Intelligence Bureau has more direct-recruit Indian Police Service officers of the rank of SP than the Operations Directorate of the Intelligence Bureau, which handles all nationwide counter-terrorism intelligence. CPI-Maoist leaders have publicly acknowledged that the SIB’s intelligence capabilities were central to breaking the back of its campaign in Andhra Pradesh.
Just across the border in Chhattisgarh, there is evidence of how dangerous seeking shortcuts — instead of implementing proper police reforms — can be. Faced with a situation similar to that in Malkangiri, the State threw its weight behind the Salwa Judum militia. Not surprisingly, better-off Adivasi groups of Chhattisgarh dominated the vigilante organisation. Salwa Judum used to settle vendettas and feuds with the poorest tribes like the Koyas, who today make up the backbone of the CPI-Maoist in Malkangiri.
It will take more than policing, of course, to address the Maoist insurgency. As long as Malkangiri Adivasis continue to be excluded from economic development and are subjected to social discrimination, the conditions for violent protests will continue to exist.
Malkangiri, as the work of the eminent historian Biswamoy Pati teaches us, has a long history of rebellion. Back in 1879, the Koya rebels led by Tomma Dora rose in revolt against the authorities to protest slave labour and forcible extraction of supplies for the government. The rebels captured the Motu police station, and even annihilated a military detachment sent from Hyderabad to put down the uprising. In 1920-24, Adivasi unrest lent momentum to an uprising led by Alluri Sitarama Raju. And in 1942, Laxman Naiko led a massive movement for justice that is still in popular memory.
Orissa needs to provide justice if the Maoists in Malkangiri are to be defeated. But the fact is that Orissa has been evicted from Malkangiri, leaving the State government with no instrument with which it might deliver development and progress. Orissa’s political leadership seems to have neither the will nor the vision to win this war.