Police closely monitoring situation on the border

The Chhattisgarh police have been put in ‘alert mode’ even as a massive operation has been under way in neighbouring Orissa to nab the expelled Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda. “The situation inside Orissa and on the Chhattisgarh-Orissa border is being closely monitored by the police,” a senior police official told The Hindu.

The joint operation, launched by the Orissa police and the Central Reserve Police Force last week, has witnessed the death of five tribals, by official accounts, so far.

Chhattisgarh Director-General of Police (Naxal Operation) Ram Niwas confirmed that the forces were put on high alert, albeit for a different reason, pointing to the observance of a ‘martyr’s week’, to mark the death of Maoist leader Kishenji, from November 24.

CRPF sources said several paramilitary companies of the elite force were pressed into action in central, western and eastern Orissa to capture Panda, who now has launched an outfit parallel to the CPI(Maoist).

“Four companies of the CRPF have moved into the Mohna block of Gajapati district and six more into Kandhmal and Ganjam districts in several phases. Besides, one full battalion is placed in Nuapara district bordering Chhattisgarh,” said one of the officers. Each company was being accompanied by two or three platoons of the Special Operations Group (SOG) of Orissa. Estimates suggest that no fewer than 2500 security personnel are involved in the operation. “We have clear orders to get him [Panda] arrested or ensure his surrender,” said the officer. However, a senior CRPF official said the operation adjacent to the Chhattisgarh border “may not be for Panda.”

“The operations in the hinterland (Kandhmal, Ganjam and Gajapati) are for Panda. In all probability, the Nuapara operation is an ongoing one to locate Chhattisgarh’s [Maoist] groups,” the officer told The Hindu.

Panda, once a popular leader of the CPI(Maoist) started losing ground in recent months after his trusted lieutenants — Nikhil of the Banshdhara division of the Orissa State Organising Committee and Krishna of the Ghumshar division — left him to work for the CPI(Maoist). In an audio statement released on Sunday, Panda dismissed claims he and his associates were injured in the police operation.

Though the rebel remained elusive, an alleged key courier of Panda along with his associate surrendered before Ganjam Superintendent of Police Ashis Kumar Singh at Chatrapur on Thursday evening.

Senior police officials involved in the operation said the expelled Maoist leader’s group was now facing shortage of arms and ammunition. As per the information spilled by four members of militias linked to the Panda group, who were arrested from the Bhaliaguda jungle on Tuesday, a key associate, Paradeep, was seriously injured in the abdomen in an exchange of fire with the security forces on November 14, said R.K. Sharma, Deputy Inspector-General, southern range. Panda himself was injured, along with a woman cadre, the police official said quoting the arrested persons.

Meanwhile, Orissa rights activist Dandapani Mohanti, complaining of police excesses, said large areas in Ganjam and Gajapati districts were witnessing ‘full-scale police operation.’

“No information is coming out as the area has been cordoned off. Reportedly several tribals are routinely picked up and beaten up, in the name of ‘Panda search operation,” he told The Hindu. The simultaneous security operations were being conducted to “expunge all people’s resistance” in a bid to design a safe space for mining companies. “Unfortunately, there is just about no media coverage of such a massive operation in a tribal area,” Mr. Mohanti said.

The five locals who were killed at the beginning of the operation about a week ago were “innocent tribals,” and not Maoists, he said.

Police and paramilitary officers, however, denied the allegations. “There is absolutely no violation of human rights. The [killed] tribals were definitely with the Maoists and weapons were seized from them,” a CRPF officer said.

Appeal to both sides

A group of civil society leaders has appealed to both the police and Maoists to stop violence. When the leaders met DGP Prakash Mishra on November 19, he said: “If Sabyasachi comes forward to surrender, we will suspend our operations in southern Odisha.”