September 25, 2020
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Jailhouse Rocked

It is not just that Naxals can almost attack at will, overpower the police, loot the treasury or decamp with 40 prisoners, including two officers, but just that the state has seemingly withered away, with no signs of any concerted approach to tackle

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Jailhouse Rocked

The Orissa government has long claimed that the Maoist problem in the state is only a ‘spill over’ from neighbouring states, with no significant roots among the local communities, but this has, once again, been demonstrably proven wrong. In a surprise attack reminiscent of the February 2004 attack at Koraput in Orissa, and the more recent overrunning of the Jehanabad District sub-jail in Bihar in November 2005, an estimated 200 armed cadres of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), including women and some sympathisers, attacked the sub-jail in the Ramagiri Udayagiri town of the Gajapati district in southern Orissa on March 24, 2006, and freed 40 prisoners, including Ghirsinga Majhi, a senior Maoist leader. 

The Maoists who laid siege to the town from two directions simultaneously attacked the Police Station, the Camp of the 3rd Battalion of the Orissa state Armed Police (OSAP), the treasury, the Tehsildar’s (junior revenue officer) office and a telecom tower. The Maoists "pulled down" the jail gates to help the 40 prisoners, including four hardcore Maoists, to escape. Three Police personnel were killed and three others injured during the exchange of fire, which lasted three entire hours, at the end of which they simply escaped unimpeded. The Maoists also abducted the Officer-in-Charge of the police station, Ranjan Kumar Mallick, and the jailor Rabinarayan Sethi. There was no information on their whereabouts till the time of writing.

In a face-saving statement, Director-General of Police Suchit Das stated that, in the exchange of fire at the Police camp, at least three Maoists, including a woman, were killed, but that their bodies were ‘taken away’. According to District Collector Binod Bihari Mohanty, who escaped with his life by taking refuge inside a guard’s house, the Maoists looted 25 self-loading rifles, a pistol, a light machine gun and an AK-47 rifle, and also burnt stamp papers worth nearly Rupees 40 lakh in the treasury.

The Naxalites approached the town from two directions in five small trucks and a few light vehicles, allegedly hijacked at Nuagada. They retreated after the attack via Saralapadar into the deep jungles. Before the attack, the Naxalites had disconnected telephone lines to most of the offices, disrupted power supply in the town and blocked the entry point of the town by felling trees and pushing boulders on to the road. According to locals, about 150 to 200 Maoists had set up camp at the Saralapadara Bridge construction site since the night of March 23. Interestingly, the Maoists’ presence in this area, only nine kilometers from R. Udayagiri, went undetected by the police. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the Legislative Assembly on March 24 that the Maoists were believed to have come from the Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh and conversed in Telugu, Hindi and Soura (a tribal dialect).

The attack was the second time the Maoists had overrun a town in southern Orissa in two years. On February 6, 2004, the Maoists had overrun the district headquarters of Koraput and looted arms and ammunition from the armory. In the same year, the Maoists also attacked the Malkangiri police station and the Narayanpur police station in Rayagada district. A year earlier, the Kalimela police station in Malkangiri district had been targeted. In year 2002, the Golpadar police station in Rayagada district had been attacked. There is a uniformity of pattern in these attacks across different states, reflecting a strategic design that goes well beyond the immediate objectives of freeing Maoist prisoners, looting arms and demoralizing the police and administration. In significant measure, these are ‘blooding’ operations, in which large numbers of cadres are being exposed to ‘military operations’ that would prepare them for a wider and coordinated mobilization across the entire ‘Maoist corridor’ along India’s eastern board.

Incidentally, Chief Minister Patnaik had informed the Legislative Assembly on March 17 that, as a preventive measure to counter the Maoists who were operating in parts of 14 districts with an estimated 500 armed cadres, fortification of police stations in Maoist-affected areas had been taken up. "Most of the police stations have already been fortified. The remaining ones are likely to be fortified within the next two years," the Chief Minister disclosed. He stated further that a ‘multi-pronged strategy’ was being adopted to deal with the problem by setting up a Special Intelligence Wing and Special Operations Group. On modernisation of the police force, the Chief Minister claimed that the government had performed much better than many states as it had spent over 90 per cent of the funds provided by the union government. It had received INR 2.69 billion and had spent INR 2.34 billion, and efforts were being made to increase police manpower in the state, which at present is at 92 policemen per 100,000 population, well below the national average of 123 per 100,000.

In the five years ending 2003-2004, the Orissa government had an allocation of INR 3.05 billion under the modernisation grant from the union government (the state also bears a matching share), but this does not appear to have improved its muscle to contain the Maoists. Surprisingly, the share of the Maoist-affected Districts in the entire modernisation grants was less than five per cent. In fact, the modernisation grants do not have any specific head of expenditure for anti-Maoist measures. The state government, in its 2005 budget, did not indicate any allocation for Security Related Expenditure. Later, INR 40 million was placed under this head in the Supplementary Budget, which was presented in the last session of the state Assembly. The lackadaisical approach to the Maoist threat is more than in evidence in the patterns of resource allocation and utilization.

There is, however, nothing lackadaisical about the Maoists, who are now extending their reach much faster than ever before in Orissa. While levels of violence remain low, the pace of Maoist consolidation has accelerated rapidly in regions where there has been some displacement of people due to mega industrial, mining and hydroelectric projects. According to the Institute for Socio-Economic Development at least 81,176 families from 1,446 villages have been affected by various projects since the early 1950s, as the government acquired a total of 622,463.94 hectares of land from them. "People uprooted from their old habitat due to the development projects feel that the authorities had failed to restructure their livelihood base in accordance with their needs and aspirations. They feel neglected and alienated," the study noted. Institute for Conflict Management data indicates that at least 28 tribals were killed in police firing during tribal protests at various places, including in Maikanch, Raigarh, Mandrabaju and Kalinga Nagar, over the past five years, including 13 in the disastrous incident of January 2, 2006, while they were protesting against their ‘ouster’ to accommodate a proposed Tata Steel plant in Kalinga Nagar, Jajpur District. The neglect that the tribal people of the state have faced over the years makes them particularly vulnerable to Maoist mobilisation.

A white paper on the law and order situation tabled in the state Assembly on March 17, 2006 stated, "Naxalite activities, which were reported from southern and northern districts of the state, have affected law and order situation of the state. Of the 30 districts of the state, Naxalites were active in 14 districts in 2005." Expressing alarm on the growing influence of Maoists, it noted, further: "After spreading their influence in bordering Districts such as Sundargarh, Keonjhar, Sambalpur, Deogarh and Mayurbhanj, the Naxalites were trying to establish their foothold in Dhenkanal, Jajpur and other districts."

The latest incident demonstrates the enormous inefficiency of the state administration in approaching the problem. In February 2006, a high-level meeting presided over by the Principal Secretary of Home, Santosh Kumar, in Bhubaneswar, had discussed the intelligence inputs on the Maoist plans to attack six jails where some Maoists had been imprisoned. Reports suggest that more than 150 CPI-Maoist cadres are lodged in six jails in Rourkela, Baripada, Sambalpur, Koraput, Rayagada and Malkangiri. All District Police chiefs of the Maoist-affected areas had been directed to keep strict vigil on the movement of Maoist under-trial prisoners. Instructions had also been issued to beef up security in and outside the prisons and strengthen the rooftop guard system.

Further, the Gajapati District – within which R. Udayagiri lies – has officially been identified as a highly Maoist-affected for some time now. Yet, the OSAP barrack was not only ill-equipped but was manned by just 25 personnel, who lacked adequate ammunition to meet the Maoist' challenge. Nor was the jail adequately protected. While the Maoists use rocket launchers to destroy police stations in Gajapati, the District Police suffer from serious deficiencies in weapons, communications, infrastructure and manpower. Of the 70 police vehicles available in the district, 10 are not in operational condition and, for the remaining 60 vehicles only 20 drivers are available. As many as 59 police positions up to the sub-inspector rank are vacant in the district, and the district has only three platoons of Armed Police and one Grey Hound squad to counter the Maoists.

The Maoists have a strong presence in the Gajapati district, operating through a front organization, the Lok Sangram Manch (People’s Revolutionary Front), as well as their ‘military wing’, the Praja Bimukti Sainya (People’s Liberation Army, now the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army). The primary functions of these organizations at present are to organize village meetings, campaign against government policies, recruit new cadres, organize training programmes, and, eventually, to engage in ‘armed struggle’. The Gajapati and Rayagada districts fall under the Andhra-Orissa Border Regional Committee of the CPI-Maoist and there are two armed squads (Udanam and Kondabaridi) active in the area.

The decision to attack the jail in R. Udayagiri was possibly taken in November somewhere in the forests of Malkangiri. During the Annual Day celebration of the 5th PLGA on December 2, 2005, in Rayagada, the CPI-Maoist’s ‘Orissa state Secretary’, Sunil, had declared that the outfit would intensify the guerilla war and convert it into the ‘mobile warfare’ stage in the state.

The R. Udayagiri attack reflects a pattern that will increase in frequency in the foreseeable future in India’s ill-protected mofussil towns within the ‘Maoist corridor’, and demonstrates the failure of both the states and the centre in evolving an effective counter-terrorist strategy in the face of a rising onslaught. The Maoist rampage has intensified under a complex of policy failures, a failure to secure effective policy and operational coordination between states as well as with the centre, persistent neglect of the fundamentals of policing, and, most significantly, the absence of a coherent perspective on the problem. With little signs of any emerging unity of perspective within government at various levels, and as the Maoists augment their campaign of militarization across their areas of influence, a necessary and dramatic escalation in violence becomes inevitable.

Nihar Nayak is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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