For many, the figure of a man, his face wrapped in a coarse red towel, dressed in battle fatigues and a loose shirt, and flaunting an AK-47 on the right shoulder, with his back to the camera, is the face of the Maoist movement in West Bengal.
Communist Party of India (Maoist) Polit Bureau member Koteswar Rao, more famous as Kishenji, was the leader of the stealthy guerilla operations in the forests of the Jangal Mahal region, and was equally adept as the spokesperson for the cause.
Kishenji will perhaps be best remembered since the occasion he released Atindranath Dutta, officer in charge of the Sankrail police station, who was abducted by Maoists in an audacious attack on the station in October 2009, in exchange for bail to 14 tribal women.
Shortly before he went underground, Kishenji regularly interacted with journalists over telephone and even held a press conference, deep in the forests in the dead of night, with television cameras rolling.
With the launch of joint-security operations against the Maoists in the Jangal Mahal region in June 2009, Kishenji was among the prime targets. But he soon acquired notoriety after giving them the slip every time.
In an encounter in the Hatilot forest area in March last year, Kishenji was believed to have been seriously injured and reports suggested that he had moved out of West Bengal, leaving Sashadhar Mahato in charge of military operations here. While reports poured in of his movements in Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam, the death of Sashadhar Mahato in an encounter in March this year might have forced his return.
Kishenji, born in a village in Andhra Pradesh over 50 years ago, was among the founders of the People's War Group there in 1980. He quickly rose through the ranks to become a member of its Polit Bureau and was put in charge of operations in the Telangana region.
In the 1990s, Kishenji moved to Bihar and went on to emerge as the most prominent Maoist leader in eastern India. He is believed to be among the prime movers of the proposal to merge the People's War Group with the Maoist Communist Centre of India, which led to the formation of the CPI (Maoist) in 2004.
Kishenji, known as both a shrewd marksman and master strategist, was the brain behind several important Maoist attacks, including the raid on a camp of the Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) at Silda in Paschim Medinipur district on February 15, 2010. Twenty-four personnel of the EFR were killed in the attack.