In search of a new red corridor

In the tri-junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu enveloped by forests, Maoists scout for new recruits and a home. Srinivasan Ramani reports

Updated - January 07, 2017 01:00 pm IST

Published - November 26, 2016 12:15 am IST

rumble in the jungle: “The Maoists are seeking to use tribal angst to build a political presence.” The Naxalite Special Division of the Tamil Nadu Police during a combing operation in a hamlet near the Erumad police station, which borders the Wayanad forests of Kerala.

rumble in the jungle: “The Maoists are seeking to use tribal angst to build a political presence.” The Naxalite Special Division of the Tamil Nadu Police during a combing operation in a hamlet near the Erumad police station, which borders the Wayanad forests of Kerala.

There can’t be a more picturesque spot than where the three States of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu meet — in the Muthanga forest reserve, adjoining the Bandipur and Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary, all part of the Nilgiris bioreserve. Here, spotted deer, herds of elephants and bisons have made their home. As has the tiger, an elusive animal to spot; camera traps have identified 86 of them in the reserve and the adjoining forests. As elusive but seemingly omnipresent are a group of foot soldiers of the Peoples’ Liberation Guerrilla Army of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), whose movements amidst the thick vegetation are confirmed by the tribals, the original human inhabitants of the region, and the police who are chasing this new phantom in the tri-junction.

As many as three dozen or more “absconding” Maoists are roaming the jungles, separated into three dalams named after the three rivers, Kabini, Nadukani and Bhavani in the area, say police officers of Gudalur, Tamil Nadu and Wayanad, Kerala. They have reportedly been entering the tribal villages that abut the dense forests regularly. These villages are inhabited by the Kattunayakan community that depends primarily on selling forest produce for a living; the Paniya and Adhiya communities who have traditionally been agricultural workers and with a history of labour exploitation; and the relatively better-off Kurichiya and Kuruma agrarian tribal communities.

Encounters and ‘encounters’

After months of a cat-and-mouse game in the tri-junction, the Kerala Police’s anti-Naxalite Thunderbolts force reported a major exchange of fire with Maoists in the Kuralai region of the Nilambur forests in Malappuram district on Thursday. Two Maoist cadre — Kuppu Devaraj from Karnataka and Ajitha alias Kaveri — were said to be killed in what was the first “encounter” of its kind in Kerala.

Before the “encounter”, sightings of Maoists were scattered across the region: the latest were in Agali in the forests of northern Palakkad district, in the Paattakarimbu tribal colony in Malappuram district, in Thirunelly in northern Wayanad among others. Nilambur-like “encounters” are rare. But for the major incident, which occurred nearly a week after this reporter’s visit to Wayanad and Malappuram, that itself followed a firing incident close to the nearby Mundakadavu colony in October, the last serious exchange of fire was in Kunhome forest nearly two years ago.

The arrest of Maoist leader Roopesh and his wife Shyna in Coimbatore in May 2015 was a setback to the rebels in the region. Roopesh is believed to have been associated with the Kabini dalam. Since his arrest, say police officers, the Maoist journal Kaatu Thee (Forest Fire) has not been published or circulated in the region. His position is believed to have been taken by another native of Malappuram who goes by the alias ‘Soman’ and is said to belong to the Nadukani dalam (which publishes the periodical, Chenkaadu (Red Forest).

The Kattunayakan dwellers of Paattakarimbu village confirmed the visits by Soman to their village, the most recent one sometime in October 2016. The womenfolk tell us that the colony dwellers are relatively educated (with many of them finishing high school) but are unskilled and dependent on the forest. There is a lack of an organised market for their produce and the dwellers are keen on better implementation of promised welfare schemes (the Integrated Tribal Development Projects, various State welfare schemes).

Kochu Ravi, who was roughed up by the Maoists for allegedly talking to the police about their visits.

Kochu Ravi, who was roughed up by the Maoists for allegedly talking to the police about their visits.


Caught in the crossfire

Narayanan (name changed) and another villager, Kochu Ravi, returned from the forest at our behest and told us that they are aware of various government schemes but they are poorly implemented in the village. This is the reason why Maoists visit them, says Narayanan. “They want to get recruits from among us while the police want us to inform them about their visits. The police do not allow us to go alone to the forest for collecting the produce; we have to go as a group. The Maoists sometimes make us sit and listen to their views. This hampers our work. Then there are the wild elephants that can attack us if we are not careful. This Maoist-police business is making life very difficult for us,” he says.

In fact, Ravi, an Ezhava who married into a tribal family and settled down in Paattakarimbu, has already been named in Chenkaadu as a suspected police informer and was roughed up by the Maoists for allegedly talking to the police about their visits.

“The Maoists are very persuasive. Soman is the one who talks to us in Malayalam. He explained our problems and told us not to vote in elections. The Maoists, when they visit our colony at odd hours, treat us respectfully. Women are always talked to only in the presence of women cadre. And they try to explain issues patiently,” concedes Narayanan. “But I want to ask the Maoists, how different are you from any other political party? You seek power too. There is no difference except that you carry guns. We want to be left alone. We know how to get things done even if they are difficult”.

The theme of harassment — being caught in a battle between the “absconding Maoists” and the wary security forces (the police and the Thunderbolts) is a repeated complaint by Kurichiya villagers in the Kunhome forest near Mananthavady in Wayanad.

The Kurichiya hamlet called Chappa has a settlement of about four families living off farms that grow bananas, pepper, paddy among a variety of crops and are on the edge of the forest. In December 2014, security forces engaged in combing operations in the village found the guerrillas in a natural meadow in the forest. After firing some shots, the Maoists fled deeper into the jungle, and that was the last they were seen, says Gopi, a Chappa resident.

Since the incident though, a slew of welfare measures were implemented — a better road from the towns leading up to the village, grant of milch cows to the families and ease of access (albeit done haphazardly) for children to nearby schools, among others.

Some of the villagers welcome the welfare measures, but others say that there are new inconveniences. “The Maoists stopped coming after the firing incident. But we are still not free to go to the forest or to even harvest our own crop in the fields in the night. My brother is constantly interrogated because he had given the Maoists food and provisions,” says Gopi’s brother. “Tribals like us do not refuse anyone food and beverage if they come to us. Besides, when they come to us with guns, we do not have a choice. This does not mean we support Maoists. Yes, the Maoist visits here in the past may have helped us get the attention of the government and some development work, but the repeated questioning by security forces and restrictions on our movement is harassment,” he adds angrily.

Policing the tri-junction

Wayanad Superintendent of Police (SP) K. Karthik says that the inconvenience is a price to pay for security operations against the Maoists in the area but asserts that the police treat the tribals with respect and care — avoiding raids on houses, for example.

SP Karthik belongs to the 2011 batch of the Indian Police Service and has been posted in Wayanad for about a year. The SPs in Chamarajanagar district in Karnataka and the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu that abut the tri-junction with Wayanad are also from the same batch. Having batchmates as SPs has strengthened the already regular coordination between the police forces of the three States, says Karthik. “2013-14 was when the activities of the Maoists peaked — when resorts were attacked, policemen and forest officials were threatened. But since 2015, these have slowed down,” he says, adding, “the Maoists are more active through their front organisations such as Porattam and Revolutionary Democratic Front.”

Only two days before the interview, an activist of the radical Porattum group was arrested on the way to a press meet and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act with being a Maoist sympathiser and advocating violence against the state.

Tribal activists say that police actions on activist groups have been in a manner that does not distinguish between anti-state actors and other “democratic” dissidents. Sreejith, a local area committee member of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), says that Wayanad has been in the throes of agrarian distress for years, the most affected being the Paniya and Adhiya tribals. The Maoist presence in the area is a subtext to these tribal issues of unemployment, he says, adding that they have not helped the cause of tribal welfare.

Tapping into the distress

The Maoists have also sought to prevent resort expansion in the forested areas and have issued threats against quarrying — a major issue that is not being taken seriously by the government, say forest officials. But these actions have resulted in environmental activists being branded as Maoists. “Maoists believe and engage in mindless violence. But sometimes, they offer a strong opposition and obstacle against illegal anti-environmental activity in the forests here,” says a forest official who did not want to be named.

Apart from targeting poorer tribals, the Maoists had also identified a Sri Lankan Tamil resettlement colony near Mananthavady for possible recruits. Babu (name changed) works in the Kambamala tea estate and is a second-generation refugee whose parents migrated here after resettlement in the late 1970s. He says that the Maoists frequented the colony seeking recruits as the condition of the workers here is very poor.

Residents in the colony complain that they have poor employment opportunities beyond temporary and limited permanent jobs within the estate. The lack of a (Scheduled Caste) certificate for many residents in the colony is the major reason, they argue. As “refugees”, their plight is no less than other marginalised caste groups, they say.

Older residents in the colony are less pessimistic, having come to the area with nothing during resettlement and painstakingly built their lives in the estate. But those among the younger generation are desperate for better lives and for permanent jobs, not tied only to the estate. They are wary of talking about the Maoist visits.

The latest of those visits, says a resident, was during the Assembly elections in May when the Maoists asked them to boycott polls. Some deny having seen them at all. But others open up about their views on the Maoists, saying that the latter understood their plight and communicated well with them with some cadre (including women) speaking to them in Tamil.

In chaste Tamil, Mala (name changed), a young mother, speaks up. “The women cadre looked nice in that green uniform and the long gun. When I first saw them, I rushed to meet and greet the women. Some among the Maoists spoke our language and listened to us as we told them about our distress. No one else does that here,” she says.

It is clear that the Maoists are striving hard to move beyond a protean presence in the region, even if it is limited only to about three dozen armed guerrillas moving around the forests in the States’ tri-junction. With tribal livelihoods lagging behind other sections of society, the Maoists perceive a potential support base that could inform them about police operations and also provide foot soldiers for the cause.


Nipping it in the bud

Across the border, SP Murali Rambha, based in Ooty, says the Maoists in the area call themselves as part of the “Western Ghats Special Zonal Committee” and are led by a Tamil-speaking leader named Kuppuswami. Other senior cadre in the area include Vikram Gowda and Sundari from Karnataka and Kalidas from Tamil Nadu.

Rambha argues that the Maoist movement in the tri-junction was at a preliminary stage with their aims limited to attracting new recruits and establishing a presence in the forests. But he adds that the Tamil Nadu Police is regularly tracking sightings at villages close to the State border (such as Paattakarimbu) and engaged in frequent combing and patrol operations along with the anti-Naxalite Special Task Force. “We are empowered to arrest anyone even if they are not formally Maoists but propagate Maoist views or sympathise with them,” he says.

Rambha adds that the police is treating “left-wing extremism” as being more than just a law and order problem. Bringing his experience as a block development officer in undivided Andhra Pradesh during the peak years of the People’s War Group to play, he is coordinating with the revenue department to ensure that the development schemes in the villages are properly implemented.

Since the merger of two major Naxalite groups in 2004 into the CPI(Maoist), the radical communist organisation has built a presence in areas where the Indian state is weakest in its presence — the tribal-dominated belts of central India. A decade of “civil war” has reduced the Maoists to a military and guerrilla force from its heyday in Telangana and north Andhra Pradesh as a radical political organisation. A series of military and leadership setbacks has perhaps forced the Maoists to seek new areas to build its influence.

The tri-junction area between the three States of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has been identified by the Maoists as one such area where a coordinated military effort by the Indian state would be difficult. Wayanad had seen Naxalite action in the late 1960s, when police camps were attacked, but that movement petered out early. The only major Naxalite group in Kerala, the Central Reorganisation Committee (CRC) led by K. Venu, had withered away too. The Naxalites of the present generation, the Maoists, claim in their pamphlets that they have been present in the area for the past three and a half years; the movement received a fillip after the merger of the CRC offshoot Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Naxalbari with the CPI(Maoist).

Tribals here in the southern States are relatively better off than those in central India, but with Wayanad barely recovering from a prolonged agrarian crisis, the Maoists are seeking to use tribal angst to build a political presence. But as the Kurichiya farmer Gopi says, “We have lots of problems and many issues. The Maoists tell us many things about our problems and issues with the government, but in the end only the government can help us.”

With E.M. Manoj and Dinesh Krishnan

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