Coming face to face with Dinesh Gope, chief of the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI) that has built a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness over the past decade, is no easy task.
Gope, a 33-year-old former soldier, is always on the move because he is under the constant surveillance of intelligence agencies and security forces. After more than two months of persistent efforts, Hindustan Times visited a PLFI camp deep inside forests along the Jharkhand-Odisha border on Saturday and interacted with Gope, the first time any national newspaper has met the rebel leader.
The two emissaries sent by Gope to guide the HT team to his hideout had said we should be extremely careful because he trusted no one.
The journey began early on Saturday in a private vehicle from Ranchi and it took almost four hours to reach the hills along the Jharkhand-Odisha boundary. The HT team waited at a school run by the PLFI in an area surrounded by hills for 20 minutes when Gope and his men appeared on four motorcycles. We were asked to surrender our camera.
While Gope sat down for a discussion, his men spread out over a radius of 100 metres. The interview had just begun when his sharp eyes spotted two SUVs speeding towards us. Within seconds his guards raised an alert – “Saheb force hai (Sir, it’s the security forces)”. Gope apologised and left.
Video: PLFI members brandishing arms along Jharkhand-Odisha border
The troops in the SUVs, led by Rania police station in-charge Dinesh Prajapati, accosted us we left in a different direction. We were grilled for half an hour and allowed to leave only after we surrendered our identity cards.
Two hours later, we a got a call from Gope to reach a different location – a temple built by the PLFI deeper inside the forests. There was virtually no road as we drove through fields and wastelands, crossed hills and rivulets to reach the destination.
On the way, we came across armed men talking on phones, apparently informing Gope of our movements. It was getting dark when we arrived. Gope and his men were waiting for us.
After we surrendered our phones, the interview began and ran late into the night as Gope patiently replied to all our queries. It was after many requests that he agreed to be photographed with his men, albeit with their faces covered.
Long before the Islamic State became known for its brutal executions, the PLFI, which has its origins in Jharkhand, was allegedly killing people by slitting throats, beheading, severing limbs and even chopping them into pieces.
Today, the PLFI has spread its influence to Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal and the mere mention of its name spells fear. It is now giving its parent group, the CPI-Maoists, and the police a run for their money.
PFLI rebels have built a reputation of being brutal in its methods. (Parwaz Khan/ HT Photo)
Despite losing more than 100 cadres in fighting with rival groups and security forces and having an equal number locked up in jails of the five states, the PLFI’s strength is increasing by the day.
The Jharkhand Police recently launched two operations – Karo I and Karo II – and spent crores to wipe out the PLFI but failed to make a dent. PLFI leaders continue to hold their own in strongholds and move around freely in villages and even towns.
Gope claimed the group’s “philanthropic work” is making it popular among the neglected tribespeople and poor in the countryside. As he spoke, more than half a dozen members of the group stood on a desolate landscape with shrubs and trees, clad in jeans and brandishing AK-47s.
Gope said the PLFI was talking to tea garden labourers to extend its base to Assam after having spread to Uttarakhand and Haryana. He also claimed his cadres were in Sri Lanka, Mauritius, China and Nepal for talks with “like-minded organisations”.
The temple constructed by the PLFI. (Parwaz Khan/ HT Photo)
The leaders claimed a major chunk of the "levy" they collect from contractors, businessmen and mine owners – the amount is estimated to run into several crores – goes into a slew of "welfare programmes" that help them connect with the people.
The PLFI claimed it is running at least 16 residential schools in Jharkhand –former chief secretary Sajal Chakraverty had raided one school at Beriya in Khunti district last year – as well as one school each in Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The banned group also claimed it has acquired around 300 bighas (48 acres) in Bihar to set up educational institutions.
Hindustan Times visited one such residential school – whose location is withheld at the request of the rebels – where some 70 tribal boys and girls were living and getting free education.
Located on an elevated plateau in Khunti, the school follows the curriculum of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and has tables and benches, round-the-clock power, water supply, beds for students and faculty, separate toilets for boys and girls, a TV set and sufficient food in its kitchen.
In a state where only 47.1% of primary and middle schools have usable toilets, only 19.8% of schools in rural areas have drinking water and 55.7% of Class I students cannot recognise the English alphabet, the PLFI-run school appeared ideal.
Experts have long contended that left wing extremists have been able to extend their influence by stepping in to fill the vacuum created by the lack of governance, speedy justice and basic services in states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. The rebels have capitalised on a feeling of neglect and alienation among the tribespeople.
The PLFI also claimed it runs several health clinics in hard-to-reach areas and for people living in forests, where the government’s healthcare initiatives haven’t reached so far.
Rebel leaders claimed they had built several places of worship, mostly temples and churches, and regularly organised community feasts.
Several villagers, they claimed, have got jobs in mines, factories, government offices and even the police force thanks to the clout of their chief. "We also contribute generously to families for weddings of daughters and treatment of the ailing," said a leader.
But police and state government rubbished his claims.
"We know of only two schools they have built and these are their pseudo fronts to hold meetings," said deputy inspector general of police Arun Kumar. Of these two, he said, the government took over the management of a school in Beriya village that was raided by security forces led by the chief secretary and police chief last year.
"Parents that paid fees to PLFI then have not only stopped paying the fees but are also demanding mid-day meals now," he said.
Chakraverty said, "Mercilessly killing people and by exhibiting their severed limbs as trophies to spread fear they are doing no service to humanity. Unfortunately, the PLFI takes pleasure in such acts."
But Gope pointed to what he said was the group’s expanding appeal among people as proof of their conduct.
He said the PLFI has scores of professionals, including engineers, and even church pastors in its ranks. They picked up the gun to fight the government’s "corrupt system", empower the last man and create a socialist society where everyone will be treated equally, he claimed.
"If we were a terror group," Gope said, "we would not have been growing so fast and earning the acceptance of all sections of society."