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
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.
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 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.