COVID-19 and Left Wing Extremism in India: Emerging Concerns

31 Mar, 2020    ·   5672

Dr Rajat Kumar Kujur explores the risks posed by the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic to LWE affected areas in India.

Left wing extremism (LWE) is known to be India’s biggest internal security threat. LWE conflict zones are home to a variety of actors, such as the local civilian population, security and administrative personnel, Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres, etc. With the government's country-wide efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, innovative measures must be undertaken to handle this issue in the LWE affected regions as well.

The recent CPI-Maoist attack on security forces in Chhattisgarh highlights the urgency of doing so. Although specific information indicating active plotting is not yet available, it is plausible that the CPI-Maoist would be seeking to exploit public fears of the spread of the virus to incite violence, eliminate targets, and promote their ideology. Additionally, due to the countrywide lockdown, the Maoist rank and file are facing acute shortages of food and other daily use goods. There are reports that in desperation, they are now pressurising village residents and chiefs to provide them with food and other materials. This is a serious situation, with the potential to introduce a new dynamic in the ongoing Maoist insurgency.

According to official data, 60 districts across eight states are affected by CPI-Maoist-led LWE. Locals living in those areas have almost no proper access to hospitals or healthcare facilities and are often treated like third-class citizens. Consequently, they have turned to dubious ‘faith healers’, which will complicate an already difficult public health situation. Given the adverse conditions, the government faces a major challenge in providing the necessary healthcare facilities to some of its severely neglected populations, and at a time when they need it most. The task entails both ensuring availability of the facilities to those populations as well as creating a safe environment for them.

Since 2005, approximately 30,000 people (mostly from the tribal population) have reportedly fled Chhattisgarh due to LWE violence, and are living in 248 settlements in the forests of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Maharashtra. They live in deplorable conditions without proper access to clean drinking water and electricity. They receive lower wages, and most do not possess ration cards or voter IDs, and cannot prove citizenship. Those without proper identification are vulnerable to being deprived of special provisions instituted by the government to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Additionally, thousands of people from the Maoist-impacted regions of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Maharashtra work as daily wage labourers in Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, etc; many of whom are now returning to their villages in large groups. In the Maoist-affected areas, checking by police personnel is limited to roads only. Given how those returning are doing so through forest areas, the risk of transmission of the virus through carriers is high.

These areas also house large numbers of security personnel on deployment. For example, in Chhattisgarh alone, approximately 70,000 security personnel comprising state and paramilitary forces, such as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Force (BSF), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), etc are deployed in seven of its most affected districts. Studies indicate that forces deployed away from home for extended periods of time have a higher tendency to contract infections than those who live with, or near, their families. Additionally, that they need to constantly be on the move also adds to their exposure.

New Delhi (as well as state governments) must keep their strategy simple, without allowing the situation to become advantageous for the CPI-Maoist. Security forces operating in the area must be made aware of their new role in this war against COVID-19. Combing operations might have to continue, but health camps, mobile hospitals, etc must be urgently incorporated into the counter-Maoist strategy. Free medicines, soaps, masks, and sanitary napkins must be distributed along with government-sponsored rations. Local police personnel familiar with vernacular languages as well as surrendered Maoists could be enlisted for public service information dissemination on safety, sanitation, and self-isolation. Overcoming this serious health threat in regions affected by India’s biggest internal security threat would require strict vigilance against Maoist activities, as well as measures to protect the local population from the risks they face.

Dr Rajat Kumar Kujur
is Assistant Professor, PG Department of Political Science & Public Administration, Sambalpur University, Odisha, and former Visiting Fellow, IPCS.