Ground Zero Andhra Pradesh

When Greyhounds struck in Andhra Pradesh’s fading red zone

Children walk near a memorial built by the Maoists in a village close to the site where six Maoists were shot dead by the Greyhounds in Koyyuru mandal in Visakhapatnam Agency.   | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

On June 16, rain-bearing clouds loomed over Koyyuru mandal in Visakhapatnam Agency, about 170 km from Visakhapatnam city. The monsoon had set in. The entire mandal is thickly forested, with hillocks, deep caverns and perennial streams. Soon, there was a steady drizzle.

A team of around 30 Maoists, including some senior leaders, from the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) were camping on a hillock about 800 m high in the middle of this jungle near a village called Theegalametta. At around 9 a.m., while one group of Maoists, sheltered under plastic tarpaulins, was busy cooking a meal, the others were reportedly gearing up for an important meeting.

When Greyhounds struck in Andhra Pradesh’s fading red zone
 

There are two versions of what happened a few minutes later. According to a letter from the Maoists, the unsuspecting group suddenly came under heavy fire from the elite anti-Maoist force of Andhra Pradesh, the Greyhounds. Surprised by the fire power and stealth attack, the Maoists took time to respond. The exchange of fire reportedly lasted for about 25 minutes and left six Maoists — three women and three top leaders — dead. According to the official version, the Greyhounds asked the group to surrender but was forced to retaliate when the Maoists opened fire.

A serious setback

Visakhapatnam Agency, located in Viskhapatnam district, is around 6,200 sq km and has 11 mandals. Koyyuru is one among them. The district administration and the police have declared all the 11 mandals as “Maoist-affected”.

Among the dead were two Divisional Committee Members (DCM) and one Area Committee Member (ACM). The six were identified as Ranadev alias Arjun (DCM), Sande Gangiah alias ‘Dr’ Ashok (DCM), Santu Nachike (ACM), Lalitha, Madakm Chaite, and Paike. Ranadev and Nachike were from Odisha; Ashok was from Pedapalli in Telangana; Lalitha was from GK Veedhi, another Maoist-affected mandal in Visakhapatnam Agency; and Chaite and Paike were from Chhattisgarh.

Also read | Maoists blame CM, DGP for ‘encounter’

Ranadev was among the few committed Maoist leaders left in the region. He had been part of the movement for about 20 years and was known to be an elusive and fierce fighter. He had earlier led the Kalimela Dalam. (Dalams are Maoist groups which operate in particular areas.) Not too long ago, he was moved to Boipariguda in Koraput, Odisha, after the merger of the Kalimela and Koraput Area Committees.

The killing of Sande Gangaiah alias ‘Dr’ Ashok is a serious setback to the group as he was leading the medical team in the region. Ashok was not a qualified doctor; he had learnt the rudiments of nursing from local Registered Medical Practitioners. It is said that he could even perform minor surgeries, including treating bullet wounds. He hailed from a family of committed Maoists. His older brother, Sande Rajamouli, was the mastermind behind the mine blast in Alipiri in 2003 in which former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu was injured. Rajamouli was killed in 2007 by the police.

The security forces also recovered one AK-47 rifle, two carbines, two modified .303 Lee Enfield rifles, one country-made weapon, at least one single-barrel muzzle-loading gun, some ammunition, explosive materials, extremist literature, VHF sets, medicines and kit bags from the spot.

Weapons and ammunition recovered at the site of an exchange of fire between Maoists and police in Andhra Pradesh’s Koyyuru mandal on June 16, 2021.

Weapons and ammunition recovered at the site of an exchange of fire between Maoists and police in Andhra Pradesh’s Koyyuru mandal on June 16, 2021.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Sources say that some senior leaders such as Gajarla Ravi alias Uday, Secretary of the CPI (Maoist) Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee; Aruna, the next in command; and Kakuri Pandana alias Jagan, who is in-charge of the Galikonda area were present at the campsite, too.

The attack

A senior police officer as well as tribals in the nearby villages say that the police had been aware of the Maoists’ presence as barely 20 days ago, there had been an exchange of fire at another place in Koyyuru. This attack was made possible by specific intelligence inputs, sources say.

During the monsoon, for at least two months, many villages in the interior parts of the district remain cut off from the mandal headquarters. Traversing the area, which has slippery red soil, and streams and rivulets in spate, is fraught with danger. Given the difficulty in negotiating the terrain, both the Maoists and the security forces normally let their guard down during this time. While the Maoists refrain from their tactical counter offensive campaign (when they carry out maximum attacks against security forces), the security forces scale down their combing and area domination operations.

According to sources in the police, the Greyhounds trekked overnight for at least 15 to 18 km in pitch darkness and swam the last lap to reach the vantage point early in the morning.

But the most difficult part was climbing the hill without getting noticed. Sources in the police say that initially, the security forces had asked the Maoists to surrender, but the Maoists opened fire and the Greyhounds team retaliated. There was no question of surrender, say the police, as all the senior Maoist leaders were reportedly present at the spot. Their surrender or death would have meant an end to the movement in the Andhra-Odisha Border region. “That is why they fired at us and escaped under cover fire. But six lost their lives,” says a senior officer engaged in anti-Maoist operations in the region.

 

This attack was similar to the Ramaguda attack that took place in the cut-off region of the Andhra-Odisha Border, in October 2016. In that attack, over 30 Maoists, including some top leaders, were killed in a single operation. That operation too was led by the Greyhounds.

Inhospitable terrain

The Greyhounds was raised in 1989 by IPS officer K.S. Vyas as an elite anti-Maoist force. Seeing its successful operations, many States facing the Maoist problem have raised their own forces.

Training for the Greyhounds is gruelling. Members of the force cannot be over 35 years. Once they cross 35, they are drafted into the civil police until retirement. “Being young gives us an edge in terms of agility, strength and stamina,” says a Greyhounds officer.

During combat operations, each party of the Greyhounds has about 30 men who are trained to trek long distances. They can stay in the jungle at a stretch for over five to six days. At times, they live only on dry fruits, as lighting a fire to cook a quick meal can attract enemy fire or help the enemy detect their location. The members communicate with the base using satellite phones or VHF sets and use scramblers to avoid being intercepted by the Maoists. The Maoists have the expertise to intercept radio communication.

Greyhounds conduct a combing operation close to Theegalametta village in Koyyuru mandal.

Greyhounds conduct a combing operation close to Theegalametta village in Koyyuru mandal.   | Photo Credit: K.R. DEEPAK

The region is not kind to anyone, whether the Maoists or the Greyhounds. The forces and the rebels are prone to malaria fever. In recent times, COVID-19 has made its way into these remote areas too. Senior leaders such as Gajarla Ravi alias Uday and Central Committee member Akkiraju Haragopal alias Ramakrishna alias RK, who is in-charge of the Andhra-Odisha Border, are down with severe diabetes, eyesight issues and arthritis.

“Lack of sleep and good food has weakened us,” says a senior Maoist leader, who surrendered recently. Nachike, who was killed on June 16, had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and ‘Dr’ Ashok had recently recovered from the virus.

The Maoists use old, stolen police weapons including AK 47s, 9 mm carbines, Lee Enfield .303 rifles, SLRs and country-made weapons or double- or single-barrel shotguns. The Greyhounds naturally have superior arsenal including SLRs, MP-5 carbines, AK-47s with under-barrel grenade launchers, 5.56 mm Insas, 9 mm pistols and Tavor rifles.

While the Greyhounds have had many successes against the Maoists, they suffered a major setback in 2008 when 37 of their men were ambushed by the Maoists when they were crossing the Balimela reservoir in a boat.

The birth of a movement

In undivided Andhra Pradesh, the seed of the armed struggle was sown by the Telangana Rebellion of 1946. The peasant movement was led by communist leaders such as Ravi Narayana Reddy, Puchalapalli Sundarayya and Sulaiman Areeb. They rebelled against the feudal lords of the Telangana region in the princely State of Hyderabad. The armed struggle ended in 1951, when the last of the guerilla squads was subdued by police force.

Though the Srikakulam movement, which began in 1967, was squashed, it inspired leaders such as Kondapalli Seetharamaiah and K.G. Satyamurthi in the early part of 1980s. The movement grew in parts of what is now called Telangana, in districts such as Warangal, Khammam, Adilabad and Karimnagar. It was during Kondapalli’s leadership that the current crop of Maoist leaders such as former General Secretary of the CPI (Maoist), Muppala Lakshmana Rao alias Ganapathi, and the present General Secretary, Nambala Keshava Rao alias Basavraj, joined the movement.

The movement grew due to oppression by feudal landlords and attempts by zamindars to take over lands from tribals. It attracted young and educated leaders such as Lakshmana Rao, a science teacher, and Keshava Rao and Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad, both B. Tech graduates from Regional Engineering College, Warangal (now known as the National Institute of Technology). Azad also completed his M. Tech from Andhra University. He was shot dead by the Andhra Pradesh police in 2010.

 

When the Greyhounds was formed and the police began to make inroads into Maoist strongholds, the rebels were forced to seek a safe haven. “That was when Kondapalli asked leaders such as Lakshmana Rao and Nambala to find safer areas in the Dandakarnya forest and the forests of the Eastern Ghats, which included the districts of East Godavari and Visakhapatnam,” says a former Maoist who rose to the post of State Committee member.

Nambala Keshava Rao, the present General Secretary of the party, along with Bopanna, Ganti Prasad and Ganti Mohan entered Visakhapatnam district via the Chinturu and Rampa areas of East Godavari. For Nambala, getting a hold in the region comprising the districts of Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam was easy as he is from Srikakulam. This group led the movement under the People’s War Group banner. The group continued with its struggle until the CPI (Maoist) was founded by the then General Secretary, Ganapathi, with the merger of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), People’s War Group, and the Maoist Communist Centre of India in September 2004.

 

The initial base for the CPI (Maoist) was on the East Godavari and Visakhapatnam border that touched Koyyuru mandal. That is why the Maoists named the division, their first in this region, as East Division. It comprises Addateegala, Chinturu and Rampa in East Godavari, Koyyuru in Visakhapatnam (also called Galikonda area), Parvathipuram in Vizianagaram and some tribal tracts of Srikakulam.

Koyyuru became a fertile ground for the Maoists as the area was backward. “Most of the villages were inhabited by the Kondhu tribals, a particularly vulnerable tribal group, who had migrated earlier from Odisha after the dams built across the Balimela reservoir had displaced them,” says Venkata Rao, DSP, Special Branch (Extremist), Visakhapatnam District Police.

“Since most of the villages in the interior parts were inhabited by particularly vulnerable tribal groups, it was easy for the Maoist leaders, who were educated, well-informed and steeped in ideology, to mould them,” says a former Additional Superintendent of Police who served in anti-Maoist operations for over three decades. “Moreover, oppression by the police, forest and revenue department officials paved the way for gaining popular and mass support.”

Also read | The tight and flowing structure of the Maoists

“Back then, the major issues in Visakhpatnam Agency were getting a good price for forest produce such as honey, rajma, bamboo pulp, neem and adda leaves. Coffee and pepper came later,” says Professor P.D. Satyapal from the Anthropology department of Andhra University. The Maoist even set the price for the forest produce to ensure that the tribals were not exploited by contractors and middlemen.

With Koyyuru in their control, the Maoists expanded their base slowly to Chintapalli and GK Veedhi, known as Korukonda area. Once in control, they established the Galikonda Area Committee and Korukonda Area Committee, which are still functional. The earlier dalams such as Nagulakonda and Thandava were merged with them. From Korukonda area, they moved to Pedabayalu and Munchingput on the Andhra side and Malkangiri, Koraput and Chitrakonda on the Odisha side. The Pedabayalu and Kalimela Area Committees were formed on the Andhra-Odisha Border region that encompassed the cut-off area.

 

From the first offence in 1981, in which a landlord was killed in Choudidibbalu in Galikonda area, the Maoists have committed over 500 offences, including arson, killing, and planning and executing landmine blasts. In 1993, they kidnapped MLA P. Balaraju and IAS officer Dasari Srinivasulu, and in 2011, they kidnapped IAS officer Vineel Krishna. Earlier, in 1987, they abducted 11 officers, including seven IAS officers, from Gurtedu village. All these officers were returned in exchange for the release of jailed Maoists and jailed tribals, compensation to the families of Maoist sympathisers killed in police custody, cancellation of projects in the area, among other things. From the early 1980s till date, there have been at least 100 “encounters” in which at least 60 policemen and over 100 Maoists have been killed.

Also read | Life term for woman Maoist for kidnapping Collector

An unusual gathering

Given this history and the state’s constant chase of the Maoists, why were all the Maoist leaders present at one spot in Theegalametta? One plausible explanation, according to the official version, is that the Maoists were trying to find a safe haven after the security forces on both sides of the Andhra-Odisha border stepped up the offensive over the last few years. On the Andhra side, four armed outposts under the CRPF have come up at Rallagedda in Chintapalli mandal, Rudakota in Pedabayalu mandal, Pedavalasa in GK Veedhi, and Nurmathi in G Madugula. In Odisha, about 25 company operating bases (COBs) of the Border Security Force and about 10 Indian Reserve Battalion (IRBn) bases have come up. Odisha has been successful in creating about six COBs in the cut-off region, a Maoist hotbed, in Badapadar, Jambai, Jantapayi, Vantalguda, Badapada and Gurasethu, and one IRBN base at Jodombo.

The other reason may have had to do with motivating the tribals to join the movement. Recruitment has practically dried up now due to factors such as lack of tribal leadership and development activities taken up by the police, say police sources and former Maoists. Except for Kakuri Pandana alias Jagan, there is no tribal leader of standing in this region, says Officer on Special Duty Sateesh Kumar, who coordinated the operation.

 

“The police have taken up a number of programmes. They have provided clean drinking water by sinking borewells, connected villages with roads, launched schemes to train the tribals in various skills, and coached them to join the police force and Central Armed Police Force. The tribals now want roads and cellphone towers, which the Maoists have been objecting to. This has distanced the tribals from left-wing extremism,” says B. Krishna Rao, Superintendent of Police, Visakhapatnam.

The police say that with the security forces stepping up the offensive, the Maoists are on the back foot and are finding it difficult to keep the movement going. From a strength of around 500 cadres in mid-2000, the group has shrunk to a mere 30 now. The recent killings are a big setback to the Maoist movement, which, today, is at its lowest ebb in the Agency and in the Andhra-Odisha Border region.


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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 7:08:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/when-greyhounds-struck-in-andhra-pradeshs-fading-red-zone/article34979972.ece

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