Monday, May 11, 2015

India’s Maoist insurgency: False starts, critical losses

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a public gathering in Dantewada in the heart of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) insurgency-affected Bastar Division in Chhattisgarh on May 9, 2015, the Maoists registered their symbolic opposition. A call for a Bastar bandh (general shutdown strike) was issued and, in the Munga Forest of Sukma District (earlier a part of Dantewada), just 80 kilometres from the Prime Minister’s meet, the Maoists ‘abducted’ over 200 villagers to hold a praja court (‘people’s court’, an euphemism for Kangaroo court) at Gaadem and killed a villager, identified as Sadaram Nag of Marenga village.

Early in the morning of May 9, a few hours before the Prime Minister’s visit, a large number of armed Maoists descended on Marenga,Tikanpal, Tahakwada and Junapan villages (under Tongpal Police Station) and herded more than 200 people into the praja court. The villagers were supporting the construction of a bridge on Baru river near Marenga and some of them were working there as construction workers. Sadaram, who was killed, was looking after the construction of the bridge. According to media reports, the villagers of Marenga wanted a bridge to be constructed near the village and decided to help the District administration in its construction, much to the displeasure of the Maoists. A day earlier, on May 8, the Maoists had threatened locals for their support to the construction and their failure to cooperate with the Maoists. Further, when villagers of surrounding areas launched a protest in the last week of February 2015 against the arrest of a suspected Maoist, identified as Hidma, villagers from these four villages had not taken part in the protest.

On May 3, 2015, the Maoists had killed two villagers from the east Godavari District in Andhra Pradesh, just across the State border, after another praja court in Sukma District, suspecting them to be Police informers.

As Bastar emerges as the nucleus of Maoist tactical counter offensive in the face of shrinking activities in other States, the Maoists had ambitiously announced their move in the South. In the recent issue of People’s March (Vol.13, No 3, Jan-March 2015), the Maoists claimed to have launched a ‘politico-military campaign’ in Kerala and announced the opening up of a ‘new war front’ in the Sahyadri Hills in the Kerala-Karnataka-Tamil Nadu tri-junction area.

However, that plan took a big hit with the arrest of five Maoists, including Roopesh and his wife Shyna, from a bakery in Karumathampatti in Coimbatore District, Tamil Nadu, in the evening of May 4, 2015. Roopesh was in charge of the CPI-Maoist’s Western Ghats Special Zonal Committee (WGSZC) and was believed to be leading the Maoist movement in Kerala. He has some 20 criminal cases against him registered in Kerala. The other Maoists arrested with him were identified as Anoop Mathew George, Kannan and Eswaran.

Based on specific inputs from the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh Police, the arrests were made by the ‘Q’ Branch of Tamil Nadu Police. Addressing a Press Conference on May 7, 2015, Kerala Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala observed that he regarded the arrests as a “critical turning point” in the fight against Maoist infiltration, achieved through the concerted efforts of the Police forces of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Preliminary enquiries revealed that the Maoist couple had lived in a house in Tirupur since August 2012. They posed as being involved in the Information Technology business and export of disposable cups, and seldom interacted with neighbours. Police searched the house on May 7 and seized hundreds of books, CDs and electronic gadgets. Given the number of books, electronic gadgets and mobile phones in the house, Police suspect the house was used as a hub for Maoist propaganda. Police also suspect that Roopesh had convened a meeting of the WGSZC in Karumanthampatti to plot an armed insurrection in Andhra Pradesh, in retaliation to the encounter killings of 20 persons at Seshachalam hill ranges near Chittoor. Twenty woodcutters from Tamil Nadu, found felling red sanders, were killed in an alleged encounter by Andhra Pradesh Police at Eethakunta in the Seshachalam hills in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh on April 5, 2015. There was a hue and cry against the encounter and, taking suo moto cognizance of the incident, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued notices to the Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary and Director General of Police while the Chittoor administration has ordered a magisterial inquiry.

Roopesh, a law graduate from Thrissur (Kerala) with a diploma in Information Technology, has allegedly been involved in some 20 criminal cases in Kerala. Police claim he was among the most wanted Maoist leaders in the country, and one Police official stated, “It is a big catch. Roopesh was leading Maoist operations in the tri-junction and involved in the attacks on forest establishments in Kerala and also on some MNC retail outlets. His wife Shyna was working as clerk in the Kerala High Court and later joined the Maoists.”

Roopesh wrote a novel in 2013, which was published by two publishing houses in Kerala under two different titles – ‘Maoist’ and ‘Vasanthathile Poomarangal (Flowering trees of spring)’. Shyna was in the news in 2011 after she wrote a letter to Chief Minister Oommen Chandy seeking action against Police officials who allegedly harassed her 71-year old mother and her two children, who live in Thrissur District.

The couple came under the radar of intelligence agencies after they allegedly gave shelter to Malla Raji Reddy, a CPI-Maoist Politburo member arrested in 2007 from Angamali in Kerala. [Malla Raji Reddy has since jumped bail and joined the Maoist underground movement again] Although Shyna was also arrested in the case, she was released on bail in 2008 and then went underground.

The couple attracted further Police notice after the Kerala Police arrested five persons for holding a secret meeting of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), a front organisation of the CPI-Maoist, at a lodge in Mavelikkara, Alappuzha District, on December 29, 2012. While Police arrested the five persons, including Gopal, a former scientist at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, they let off two minors in the incident. The Police had identified the two minors as daughters of the Maoist couple, Roopesh and Shyna. The case was later handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which, on April 22, 2015, filed a charge sheet against the five persons.

Not much is known about the other Maoists who were arrested along with Roopesh. Kannan of Madurai has been an active member of the Maoist movement for over two decades and remained underground since 1990. Kannan, the son of a Police constable, escaped from the scene when Naveen, an alleged Maoist leader, was shot dead near Kodaikanal in 2008.

According to media reports, Anoop started as a Students Federation of India (SFI) leader, but severed links with SFI on ideological grounds after his polytechnic days. In 2011, he went to the Gulf, but returned to his native place Ranni in the Pathanamthitta District of Kerala after a few months. After his return, he expressed his desire to work for tribals and visited Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode many times. Since 2012, he stopped communicating with his family.

The Kerala Police disclosed that they had intensified their efforts to “deny any operational base” to the armed comrades of arrested Maoist leader Roopesh. An official identified the prominent members of the unit as Vikram Gowda, Mahesh akaJayanna, A. Suresh, Latha, Kanya, aka Kanyakumari, and Sundari aka Geeta, all hailing from the Malnad region in Karnataka.

Perhaps more consequential is the arrest of K. Muralidharan aka Thomas Joseph akaAjith (62) with his aide Ismail Hamaza Chiragpilli aka Pravin aka James Mathew (29) from the Talegaon Dabhade area, located about 30 kilometres from Pune city. Murali, the son of former diplomat Kannamballi Karunakara Menon, was the secretary of CPI-ML (Naxalbari) before the party merged with the CPI-Maoist on May 1, 2014. He is believed to have been inducted into the Maoist Central Committee after the merger. He wrote books and articles under the pen name Ajith and was probably tasked with countering the ideological attack on the party.

Ajith and Ismail were living in a plush apartment in the Lotus Villa building in Talegaon Dabhade, and Ajith was undergoing treatment for some ailments in Moraya Hospital. His aide Ismail is also a native of Kerala and hails from its Malappuram District. He was also a part of CPI-ML (Naxalbari) and later joined CPI-Maoist after the merger.

While the Maoists’ attempts to establish a stronghold in the South have again received a setback, the movement remains strong in the Bastar area of Chhattisgarh. Meanwhile, the NDA Government at the Centre, which came to power with a promise of a stronger response to the Maoist insurgency, is yet to give Cabinet approval to the draft policy prepared by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) even as it approaches the completion of one year in power. Moreover, the Prime Minister has signed MoUs worth INR 240 billion in Dantewada, a development that flies in the face of the draft UMHA policy, which states that developmental works in highly affected areas should follow after successful security interventions. As discussed earlier inSAIR, the policy decision to leave the Modernisation of the Police Force Scheme as well as all developmental works in the Maoist affected areas to the States is also likely to be counter-productive.

At a time when the Maoists themselves acknowledge dramatic reverses of fortune, inadequate policy support to anti-Maoist campaigns can provide the rebels with much needed breathing space. Incoherence of policy has been the bane of counter-insurgency efforts for decades, and the present dispensation, despite a range of successes that have little connection to policy decisions, demonstrates little evidence of any greater strategic vision. The Maoists have proven their resilience again and again, and if the State falters, they are sure to recover, inflicting the burden of response once again on the hapless SFs that have borne the consequence of political incompetence, mischief and failure for decades. (Reprinted from the South Asia Intelligence Review) By Fakir Mohan Pradhan, Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

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