Located in the north-eastern part of the State, and bordering the most troubled areas of neighbouring Chhattisgarh, Gadchiroli has, for long, been reeling under Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) violence.
Abruptly, however, it appears to have been brought under an intensive and complete siege by the rebels. Mass resignations of elected representatives in recent months have paralyzed local governance, the third tier of the administrative setup which takes administration to the grassroots. Out of 467 gram panchayats (GPs, village level local self government institutions,) in the District, nearly 200 are reportedly under the Maoists influence. More than 400 posts in the GPs are now lying vacant. Security officials are now describing the mass resignations as "the biggest unarmed sabotage by the Maoists to weaken the Government".
According to media reports, at least 355 local body representatives in the District have resigned since May 1, 2012, after the Maoists issued a diktat in April 2012 demanding their resignations by this date, also commemorated as 'Maharashtra Day'. The local body representatives include members of the Zilla Parishad (ZP, District Council), Municipal Corporation, Panchayat Samitis (PS, Block Committees) and GPs. Gadchiroli ZP Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sumant Bhange, on July 16, 2012, confirmed the distressing trend, disclosing that his office had received 218 resignations from the Korchi taluka (administrative division) alone, and the number of resignations received from other parts of Gadchiroli stood at 137. Nandkishor Vairagade, Secretary to the Sarpanch (head of panchayat) Union of Korchi, stated on the same day, "The list includes 27 Sarpanchs, 27 deputy Sarpanchs, 31 Police patils [volunteers working as Police representatives in villages] and 133 gram panchayat members (from Korchi)."
In a face-saving exercise, the administration has sought to argue that these resignations have not been made under Maoist pressure, but are the result of some unfulfilled demands of these members. In evidence, the argument goes, is the fact that at least 162 elected representatives, including 24 Sarpanchs, 24 deputy Sarpanchs and 114 members of the various GPs who had resigned on July 11, 2012, withdrew their resignations on July 18, 2012, on Government assurances relating to their supposed 'demands'. Earlier, on June 16, 2012, Vairagade had stated that the Government had not paid attention to the 23-demand charter, prominently including the cancellation of mining leases, submitted to it on November 28, 2011, by the people and local representatives of Korchi: "...not even a signal demand was fulfilled, on the contrary Police atrocities have increased in the region which has forced us to take this extreme step... The administration's decision to grant mining leases to few people in the area is also one of the reasons for our resignations."
The Government's current assertions, however, contradict what Government officials had earlier admitted. On July 12, 2012, disputing Vairagade's claims, Abhishek Krishna, Gadchiroli District Collector, had stated "This is not entirely true. There is scope to believe that these resignations have come due to threat of Naxals [Left Wing Extremists] as some of the demands we have received are demands about non-existent issues like (not to give) licence for coal mining. No licence even for prospecting activity for coal or any other mineral has been given in the area." Similarly, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Naxal Range, Ravindra Kadam, stated on July 10, 2012, that the resignations were most likely prompted by the Naxals because "It is the Naxal agenda to oppose open leases and mining."
More significantly, soon after the January 3, 2012, declaration of local body elections in the State, the Maoists created havoc among local body representatives. As many as seven representatives have since been killed in the District. In the first such incident, the Bhamragarh PS Chairman and Bhamragarh tehsil (revenue unit) Congress chief, Bahadurshah Alam, was killed on January 28, 2012, after he chose to ignore Maoist warnings not to contest. Subsequently, two candidates, who had filed nominations for the ZP elections, and three candidates, who had filed nominations for PS elections, withdrew on January 30, 2012. The withdrawal of candidates from the elections left two ZP and four PS seats in Korchi without any contestant. Elections to these seats were subsequently held on March 11, 2012.
Local body elections across Maharashtra were held on February 7, 2012, though the Gadchiroli District saw a two-phase process on February 7 (North Gadchiroli) and February 12 (South Gadchiroli). On February 12, 2012, two incidents of exchange of fire between the Police and Maoists were reported from Repanpalli village in Aheri tehsil and Ghotsur village in Etapalli tehsil, both in Gadchiroli, though there were no reports of any casualties.
Having failed in their attempt to thwart polls, the Maoists upped the ante against local body representatives in the District and started targeting them in the rural areas of Gadchiroli. On April 13, 2012, the Maoists killed ex-ZP member, Kewal Atkamwar, in Etapalli. On April 20, 2012, they killed Pawan Bhalavi, a former Maoist and husband of ex-PS chairperson in Arewada village under Bhamragad tehsil. Again, on April 22, 2012, the rebels abducted and subsequently killed Gardewada's third term Sarpanch and ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, Chamru Kulle Joi, at Gardewada village under Etapalli tehsil. On April 24, 2012, the Maoists killed Rainu Juru Kowse, deputy Sarpanch of Wangeturi GP in Todgatta village under Gatta Police outpost of the District.
More worryingly, in early April 2012, the Maoists asked the leaders of all political parties to resign by April 26, 2012, and members of local bodies to resign by April 30, 2012. The deadline for the local body representatives was subsequently extended to May 1, 2012. Following the diktat, District Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) Vice President, Sunil Biswas, District BJP General Secretary, Bhikaji Atram, Bhamragarh tehsil BJP President, Joga Usendi, Bhamragarh Congress chief, Raju Wadde and Bhamragarh NCP President, Ramji Pungati, resigned from their posts.
On May 1, 2012, local body representatives followed suit, with one ZP member and four PS members submitted their resignations in Bhamragarh tehsil, openly citing threats from the Maoists. On May 4, 2012, another two ZP members from Etapalli tehsil - Karu Rapanji and Geeta Hichami - submitted their resignations in the wake of the Maoist ultimatum. As time passed, this snowballed into 355 local body representatives resigning, though 162 among these withdrew their resignations on July 18, 2012.
Meanwhile, the Government's attempt to conduct by polls on June 24, 2012, for 435 posts in 139 GPs, vacated by members under Maoist pressure, was thwarted by the Maoists. Candidates dared to contest the elections in only five wards in four GPs in the entire District. Three other GPs elected members unopposed. Elections for the remaining 132 GPs are now scheduled to be held in October 2012. Reports suggest that there are already around 40 GPs in Gadchiroli where local governance has crashed completely, and that are running without any local office-bearers, in many cases, for several years. Now with another 132 GPs going without election, the democratic set up at the grassroots level is bound to crumble further. For the moment, the District administration has directly appointed administrators "to carry on the work in the absence of elected members."
Troubled by these developments, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, according to a June 27, 2012, report, had urged Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan to beef up security for local body members in Gadchiroli. Earlier, on June 11, 2012, State Home Minister and Guardian Minister of Gadchiroli, R.R. Patil, had claimed, "So far only one NCP zilla parishad member has resigned but that too not in a proper way. There cannot be any substantial reason as to why the representatives, who have been elected just a few months ago, should resign. We are not accepting any such resignations furnished under fear [of the Maoists]."
With an estimated 2,000 armed Naxals currently camping in Gadchiroli, the Maoists have also initiated an assault against the tanta-mukhti committees, committees set up in every village with the aim of resolving petty issues amicably, without legal recourse at the Police Station or the courts. On May 31, 2012, the rebels shot dead Gajanan Madavi, President of the tanta-mukhti committee of Jarawandi village in Etapalli, for ignoring their instructions to vacate his post. Again, on June 12, 2012, the rebels killed another tanta-mukhti committee member Rama Korke Madavi at Pattigaon in the Aheri taluka of the District.
In addition, the Maoists continued their practice of conducting kangaroo courts, delivering 'justice' to the locals. In one such incident, some 250 to 300 rebels, led by Aheri-Jimalgatta 'area committee commander' Shankar Anna, South Gadchiroli 'division committee' member Bhaskar Hichami alias Prabhakar, and 'platoon commander' and 'divisional committee member' Laxman, organised a massive kangaroo court between May 14-20, 2012, in the dense forest area near Jimalgatta in Aheri tehsil in Gadchiroli, some 10 kilometres from the Jimalgatta Sub Police Station. In the latest incident, on July 19, the Maoists held a 'meeting' at Kamalpur village in South Gadchiroli before abducting a youth, identified as Kishor Atram. The body of the youth, who was axed to death, was recovered on July 21. The Naxalites branded the deceased a 'Police informer'.
Conspicuously, Gadchiroli is the only highly Naxalite-affected District in Maharashtra, while the State stands fourth in terms of Maoist-related fatalities in 2012 (till July 22, 2012), with 33 killed - 17 civilians, 14 SF personnel and two extremists - in a total of 28 incidents so far, after Chhattisgarh (70), Jharkhand (46) and Odisha (39), according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database. Barring two civilian killings in the neighbouring District of Gondia, the remaining 30 killings have taken place in Gadchiroli alone.
Despite the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) showing rising concerns about the deteriorating situation and asking for action, the State Government has failed to respond adequately. According to a June 17, 2012, report a letter sent to the State from the UMHA has stated, "No effective action was taken by the State on advisories sent from the Government at least on four occasions in the recent past. If increasing influence of the Maoist writ goes unchallenged any longer, Gadchiroli would become as good as a Maoist-liberated zone."
(The writers are Ajit Kumar Singh -Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; and Deepak Kumar Nayak-Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the authors and not India Blooms News Service)