The Andhra-Odisha Border (AOB) spread over 75 sq km is often described in administrative and revenue circles as a ‘cut off’ region. Mostly inaccessible because of its rough terrain, governments of both states have kept off it for decades. This, along with local tribal support, made it an impregnable stronghold for the Maoists.
That changed on October 24 this year when several teams of Andhra Pradesh’s elite anti-naxal commandos, the Greyhounds, along with the Odisha special police, the CRPF and the ITBP, ambushed and killed nearly 28 members of the CPI(Maoist) in the Gumma area of AOB. Those dead included five top leaders of the rebel group.
It was a swift and planned strike that took the Maoists, 50-60 of them attending a camp in the region, by surprise. The commandos had been paratrooped into the forest, and from there they had trekked for four hours over a distance of 28 km to the Maoist camp.
The commandos had learnt their lesson from the disastrous June 2008 operation in which 38 of them, arriving in AOB by boats in an operation, were shot dead by the Maoists. This was also where Malkangiri district collector Vineel Krishna was held hostage for a few days after he had been kidnapped in early 2011.
The day after the 2016 October 24 operation, four more ultras were killed after a 24-hour chase in AOB’s tricky hideouts. Superintendent of Police (Visakhapatnam) Rahul Dev Sharma, who was part of the operation, said the commandos put to use all the lessons they had learnt over the last many botched strikes against Maoists in the region to succeed this time.
Civil liberties activists like P Vara Vara Rao and G Kalyan Rao have alleged that the police had infiltrated the camp with the help of ex-Maoists and laced the food of the rebels with sedatives. Andhra DGP N Sambashiv Rao has rubbished these charges: “We function under established laws against curbing extremism, not anarchy.”
AOB: The last stand?
After the disastrous peace talks of 2004 between the Andhra Pradesh government and the armed rebels, Maoists had moved their armed units, senior leadership and ammunition dumps to Abujmadh in Chhattisgarh. They used AOB only as a transit post.
The Maoists sneaked into the area only for quick strikes in AP, Jharkhand and Odisha. They would get shelter and cover from the tribals in the area and also those cultivating ganja plantations. After a strike, the Maoists would return to their bases in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Sources within the AP government told this reporter that elimination of the rebels, who opposed mining of bauxite and infrastructure development in the region, was one of the main conditions of those invested in the Singapore consortium that designed the new state capital, Amaravati. Andhra is keen to secure its border districts along the Red Corridor for the large projects that are being planned here.
The latest encounter is the second largest one in the region, and the biggest in Malkangiri district where Gumma is situated. Eleven of those killed were women. The casualties also included Munna (25), son of the legendary Maoist leader Ramakrishna alias Akkiraju Hargopal or RK, who had led the Maoists to the aborted 2004 talks with the AP’s Congress government.
Southern Malkangiri, a crucial transit zone between Telangana, AP, Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh, has been used by Maoists for six years now. It has been a key focus area since 2012, Maoist sources have told this reporter, for efforts to revive the movement in AP.
In 2012, though, the rebel group suffered a split. Odisha’s top Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda was expelled for accusing the group’s Telugu leadership of the AOB region of suffering from a “superiority complex”. Panda alleged that this faction treated the Odisha committee as subordinates. After his expulsion, Maoists lost their supply chain of explosives as well as local support in the Koraput region, a part of AOB.
Sources in AP intelligence say that after lying low for nearly a decade, at least 500 armed cadres of the outlawed Left-wing extremists had come back from Chhattisgarh and signaled their intent to strike at will. In 2014, in the AOB area, they picked up three members of the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from Kothaguda village in Visakhapatnam and held them hostage for nine days in the Chitrakonda forests.
“Over the last three years,” said Sharma, “the Maoists have been striving to run ‘janata sarkars’ in the interior villages of the area to showcase the failure of elected governments. We have seized some documents which clearly outline their game plan.”
Struggling to regroup
The current escalation of CPI(Maoist) activities in the AOB is attributed to the establishment of another division, the Odisha-Srikakulam Division (OSD), by a rebel group. Their intention is to regain their hold in the Srikakulam region in AP as well as in Rayagada district and the Gunupur and Gudari forest areas of Odisha.
The Maoists had already formed the Malkangiri-Koraput-Visakha (MKV) ‘division’ in 2015 to ramp up activities in the Pedabayalumandal (an administrative unit) of Gumma area in Malkangiri and Koraput. Before the MKV division was set up, there was a Koraput-Srikakulam Division Committee set up in 2000, which also suffered setbacks after the Panda episode and had to merge with the OSD group.
But the rebels ran into problems. Kudumula Venkata Ramana alias Ravi, another tribal leader who died (of jaundice) last April, told this reporter earlier this year that tribals had distanced themselves from the Maoists following the encounter death of Special Zonal Committee member Bakuri Venkat Ramana alias Ganesh.
“Now they have to either rebuild their base with the tribals here or fall back on the tribal support they get from the Koyas of Bastar in Chhattisgarh,” said Madhanna, a surrendered Naxal.
Maoist numbers are also dwindling, with intense strikes over the last six years by security forces along the Red Corridor. In 2004, there were 1,200 armed Maoist activists and 3,700 underground activists from various fronts. By 2010, the numbers fell to 600. By 2013, this had halved after various operations in which activists were either killed or arrested or had surrendered. Currently, there are hardly 130 armed activists left in Chhattisgarh.
The ultras’ plenum last month was aimed at strengthening their presence in the area and stalling all infrastructure development here. But the Maoists had infuriated local tribals by blocking the waterways in the region all October to stop outsiders from coming in and to block potential police action. They had also hijacked boats meant for public transport across the Chitrakonda Reservoir (as the Balimela reservoir is known in AP). They had stalled the construction of the Gurupriya Bridge that linked 150 villages in this area of the reservoir to the mainland.
Commenting on the future of the operations, Malkangiri SP Mithra Bhanu Mahapatra said that henceforth a strong posse of Odisha special police will maintain a base in the AOB. “We know tribals are opposed to Maoists because they were stalling the free distribution of kerosene and rice in the area,” he said. “Soon there will be more police stations, community centres, hospitals and also schools. Over the last two months the government has also launched a systematic campaign in Odisha’s border areas, along with the AP Police, against (those engaged in) the ganja plantations.”
‘Maoists are freedom fighters and will be back’
‘Virasam’ (Revolutionary Writers’ Association) leader P Vara Vara Rao has asserted that the Maoists were not brigands and extortionists, as is being claimed by the government. “They are freedom fighters: freedom from police zulum, land grabbing and bonded labour,” he said. “Why would there a need for Maoists if the government servants, police, agriculture officers and also courts did justice to the poor and the tribals?”
Rao alleged that October’s Janti village encounter in Malkangiri was part of a combined conspiracy hatched by the Modi and Chandrababu Naidu governments. “In their zeal to hand over fertile lands and the economy to multinationals and corporates, both are systematically wiping out all democratic protests and the voice of the opposition,” he said. Rao wants the police to book murder cases and FIRs against all the commandos and senior police officials involved in the latest operation, in keeping with the Supreme Court directive against encounters.
The secretary of the Adivasi Hakkula Samskruti Parirakshana Samiti (Organisation For Tribals’ Rights), Damodar Tilak, said the Janti encounter has made things difficult for the Maoists. “But annalu (elder brothers, meaning Maoists) know how to keep their flag flying and will come back to support the tribal poor,” he said. “We had the worst police repression in our villages after the kidnapping of Vineel Krishna in 2012. But after four months the Maoists were back in the game.”
Boxing the ultras in
In a four-page letter released by the CPI(Maoists), their official representative Shyam has accused the police of colluding with the rebels who had surrendered. “We have been very considerate and had left the surrendered Maoists alive on humanitarian grounds,” the letter said. “But now we have to take surgical actions.”
The letter also warned of suicide strikes against CM Chandrababu Naidu, his son Lokesh, various TDP ministers, MLAs and MPs. Shyam’s letter has been posted on Facebook and has made its way into the WhatsApp accounts of many journalists in Hyderabad and Malkangiri. Reporters of news channels and national newspapers have received the mobile numbers of Maoist spokespersons that allow only for a one-call connect for updates.
Police have dismissed the letter as fake because suicide (‘atmahuti’) attacks are not a Maoist strategy. “They always fought to protect their cadres and leaders and hence atmahuti is not in their manual,” said DGP Rao.
* The AP government is clear that it will not allow Maoists to relocate. “Unless we provide a conducive environment for investment, we have to rot like Telangana,” said CM Naidu at a press meet in Vijayawada. His security has been upgraded to a five-layer cover, with a hundred more men guarding him in shifts, taking the total to 400. Naidu had himself tasted the wrath of the Maoists in 2003, when they exploded claymore mines along the route he was travelling to Tirumala. Naidu and two of his colleagues had a narrow escape and suffered minor injuries.
SRC Kalluri, Special IG of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, said he has been given the task of recruiting tribals to break the Maoist hold in three Chhattisgarh districts: Sukma, Dantewada and Bastar. “The cream of Maoists, with an armed force of 200-400, has now moved out of Abujmadh because it has been declared unsafe and moved to AOB.”
The terrain and tribal support for Maoists certainly makes AOB a challenge for the security forces. But the recent attack has hit the rebels hard, claiming the lives of top Maoists — four commanders, three deputies and one district committee member. This included the chief of intelligence, an explosives expert and a tribal who had a good rapport with his community in the Balimela and Koraput regions.
The November 3 bandh call given by the Maoists in five states — Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, AP and Telangana — was successful. Markets, offices, buses and even trains did not ply across the Red zones. But state governments also deployed over 2,000 additional forces to ensure peace in border districts. Tribals and others observed the bandh to protest the loss of Maoist lives in the October operation. “The encounter was not only brutal but also cold-blooded,” said Nageshwar Rao, a resident of Malkangiri. “The photos showed disfigured faces and mutilated bodies. We are certain of a reprisal.”
With AOB no longer a safe haven, Maoists are looking elsewhere. They were stunned when the Greyhounds moved into their camps in just four hours on foot. “What if they had been airdropped into the camp in daylight? It would have been catastrophic,” said a Maoist spokesman in a phone conversation. “They feel the tribals are being won over by the government and police, and that would be a real setback for the Maoists.”
An extensive combing operation is expected to commence sometime mid-November because the police say they have information about arms dumps and training camps in the Balimela region.
The police are now able to gather more effective intelligence with the help of drone technology and the tribal network. “Maoists cannot keep tribals ignorant and away from development anymore,” says police superintendent Sharma, who has launched a new welfare programme for tribals in the Visakhapatnam forests that are a pipeline to AOB.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media.)