The black bulletproof Sumo moves slowly. The Congress nominee for Bhupalpally constituency, Gandra Venkataramana Reddy smiles and nods in negative, when asked whether there is any naxal movement in his constituency, which was once notorious for its Maoist activity.

Mr. Reddy’s vehicle is trailed by another escort vehicle and four more carrying his party workers. Everyone seems relaxed, though the driver and the gunmen keep looking at different directions. “No. There is no movement [of naxals] now. But they are present just across the border [in Chhattisgarh]. We have to take our own precautions,” Mr. Reddy replies in a matter of fact tone.

So strong was the Maoist movement here that canvassing was the most dangerous task for politicians. None would venture into these “Red Areas” without police teams checking the roads for landmines. At least 100 policemen would have to stand guard for the candidate, who would invariably be advised not to return by the same route or not to spend more than 30 minutes in a village.

Even the press reporters had to follow the Maoist “travel advisories”: “No travel in jeeps or ambassador cars. Never travel with police or candidates. Use only two wheelers. Travel only with local stringer journalists.” That was the situation in just about 15 years ago. Over a period of time, situation has changed certainly. Now, police and politicians move in vehicles and there is no sign of road opening parties too, though gun-toting policemen accompany candidates.

The vehicle stops in Pragati Singaram village where a motley crowd waits. Mr. Reddy gets off the bullet proof vehicle and mounts a jeep fitted with a public address system as the drum beating reaches a crescendo. He begins to tell people how they should be thankful to “Soniaji” for forming Telangana. The police team holding automatic weapons melts into the crowd. In addition to them, there are plainclothes policemen who sport Congress badges and travel in the vehicles. “They carry small fire arms and mingle with crowds,” the policeman confides.

Respect for naxalites

Irrespective of the much-hailed success of Andhra police in containing the Maoist problem, people here indeed have some respect for the naxalites. Take the case of Velishala village. Three brothers – Gajarla Saraiah, Gajarla Ravi and Gajarla Ashok of this village joined the naxalite movement and Gajarla Saraiah, a member of the Central Military Commission and Central Committee of CPI Maoist was shot dead in Kanthalapally forest area in Warangal in April 2008.

Such is the respect he commands even now that a bust of the slain guerrilla fighter is unveiled on village outskirts on April 2 on his death anniversary. “We don’t know who installed it. Policemen questioned many villagers about this,” shrugs a native of Velishala. So what’s the difference the voters see in these former ‘Red villages”? There is some development of the area indeed. Police also have changed a lot. There are no more torture sessions which were common during the cordon and search operations taken up during election time.

Perhaps, this comment of a villager sums up the biggest change. “During elections, police used us as human shields. We were to guard the election material and shifting the ballot boxes to headquarters. We were forced to travel with policemen and election authorities. It’s not so anymore.”

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