Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

In Telangana, a farewell to arms

Former Naxalite Durva Nagubai in Vaipet, Adilabad district. Photo: S. Harpal Singh  

He could have been dead. His death, an outcome of a violent encounter with the police. After 25 years in the jungles of Dandakaranya, ducking bullets, 48-year-old Kumar (name withheld) summons up an explanation for the encounter on October 24 in the heavily forested Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border in which 30 Naxalites (or Maoists, as they are now called) were killed. This was the biggest damage inflicted on the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), the group described as the “gravest internal threat” to the country, in recent memory. Kumar’s voice drops to a whisper. “The villagers may have poisoned or added sedatives in the food the comrades ate on that fateful day,” he says. Villagers are often deployed to carry ration for the Maoists, specially when large meetings are convened. And the one in which they came under fire was one such meeting.

The dust has not settled on the “encounter” as civil liberties groups echo Kumar’s doubts; a bandh call given by the Maoists on November 3 in five States — Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra — evoked a lukewarm response.

Three years ago, Kumar, identified as a top Maoist leader, parted ways with his comrades-in-arms and traded his SLR for a pen. Well-versed in Telugu, Gondi, English and Hindi, he today works in a leading media organisation. “With the Maoist movement on the back foot, where was the need for the police to launch such an assault? The movement is at its weakest now,” says the former Naxalite leader whose stints in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra saw him handling key assignments, normally assigned to deputy commanders in the CPI(Maoist). Kumar accuses the mining lobby, which has several politicians on its rolls, of working overtime to ‘crush’ the Naxal movement.

The lapsed Maoist speaks with conviction when he takes stock of the movement in light of the recent ‘encounter’. “I feel that the Maoist leadership has failed to take up the right issues. They have failed to take the common man’s issues to their logical end. The deterioration in their leadership is visible — some of them are bogged down in redressing petty issues.”

From bullet to ballot

Like Kumar, 58-year-old Durva Nagubai, an Adivasi Gond, too has sued for peace. The unlettered, gutsy woman hails from remote, impoverished Vaipet village in the farthest corner of Adilabad district — a hotbed of Naxalite activity when it was at its peak. It is a quiet, sleepy village now.

The period between 1985 and 2000 is often regarded a watershed in the history of left-wing extremism in the then undivided Andhra Pradesh, with eight out of 10 districts in the Telangana region under the influence of the People’s War Group (PWG), which merged with the Maoist Communist Centre of India in 2004 to become the CPI(Maoist). Over 100 armed squads of Naxalites used to move in and out of the forests, targetting the police and civilians who they regarded as ‘enemies’ and leaving a grisly bloody trail: 3,035 naxalites, 599 police officials and 3,105 village folk have died to this day.

Former Naxalite Pitla Chandram in Medak, Telangana. PHOTO: Mohd Arif

Former Naxalite Pitla Chandram in Medak, Telangana. PHOTO: Mohd Arif  

On June 15, 2001, Nagubai, then 43, quit the violent movement and decided to embrace the ballot. Support from the then Superintendent of Police (SP) Mahesh Muralidhar Bhagwat saw her winning the local body election as a Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituency member — equivalent to gram panchayat elections — soon after her ‘surrender’; she was subsequently elected president of Indervelli Mandal Parishad on July 28 the same year.

Though Nagubai insists she had surrendered, police records mention it as an arrest by the Indervelli police. There were two cases against her name: aiding extremists with transport arrangements and raising pro-Naxalite slogans at a public meeting. Bhagwat, currently Police Commissioner of Rachakonda, says “she was a sympathiser but her importance in the underground movement could be understood from the fact that we could regain control of the Vaipet forests from the extremists following her arrest”.

Nagubai was 35 years old when she decided to side with the Singapur dalam (later known as Indervelli dalam) of the PWG, and went on to become a key village-level organiser for the group. “I was angry at the way Adivasis were being discriminated against by all concerned, including government officials,” she says. Vaipet has a large tribal habitation and, till 2002, was associated with an important camp of the PWG. The prevalent socio-economic conditions of the area had given Naxalites the scope to establish their base in the village. Almost all the aboriginal tribal farmers in Vaipet and nearby Bhimpur are small farmers who depend on rainfed agriculture and often, the main crops of cotton and soya bean failed due to drought or proloned dry spells. “Agriculture was unremunerative and the government was doing little to help the poor farmers,” Nagubai recalls. “Joining forces with the PWG seemed to be an ideal choice under those circumstances.”

Former Naxalite MLC Naradasu Laxman Rao in Karimnagar district. Photo. Thakur Ajay Pal Singh

Former Naxalite MLC Naradasu Laxman Rao in Karimnagar district. Photo. Thakur Ajay Pal Singh  

Nagubai had worked for the extremist outfit for about eight years and had learnt to fire weapons. Familiar with carbines, she claims to have been in the vicinity when an exchange of fire between Naxalites and police took place at Fakeerpet in Ichoda mandal sometime in 1997. “I decided to give up after realising that development is more just and reasonable through the path of peace than of violence. My aim was to get a proper road and electricity for my village,” she says. One chilly night in the winter of 2001, Naxalites finally landed up to confront her. “I was taken to the village outskirts but returned unscathed, proof that my former comrades were satisfied with my reasoning,” says Nagubai.

Nagubai contested the election from the then ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) on the plank of development. During her three and half years as Mandal Parishad president, she secured approval for constructing homes for 800 extremely backward people; built a gravel road on the 10-km stretch between Sirikonda and Vaipet; and brought electricity to remotely located villages. Today, she lives a quiet life, cultivating cotton and soya bean in her 20-acre farm.

New life, new challenges

A 15-km drive from Toopran, on NH-44, with agriculture fields on both sides leads to Annala Malkapur (Naxalite Malkapur) in the newly formed Toopran revenue division headquarters. The thick forest and hilly terrain was once perfect shelter for the PWG.

Pitla Chandram and Pallapati Mahankali, former PWG cadre, are trying to persuade fellow villagers to participate in the laying of a pipeline — part of the ambitious drinking water scheme of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti government.

Chandram, 45, was attracted to the Naxalite movement in the late 1980s because of the dominance of the Doras, landlords who held sway over agriculture and people’s lives. Starting as a messenger boy, he graduated to becoming a dalam member before severing links after the police ransacked his house in 1991. “When Naxalites failed to respond even after the police attack, I communicated to them about my decision to surrender,” he says,

Mahankali, now 43, had a similar courier-dalam member-surrender experience, and a close encounter with death to boot. In 1994, after arresting him, the police took him to the Gundreddipally forest area and asked him to run away saying he was being released. “I refused, as I knew it was nothing but a trap to bump me off,” he says, his voice choking. Toopran Deputy Superintendent of Police A. Balasubramanyam was instrumental in his eventual release later that year, but back with his comrades, Mahankali and Co. laid an ambush near Pillutla in Shivampet mandal in which six policemen including Balasubrahmanyam were killed. Mahankali used a rifle in that encounter. He surrendered subsequently and spent three years in isolation, surviving horrific beatings at the Musheerabad jail in Hyderabad; five cases were registered against him, all dropped over time.

Decades after leaving the Naxalite ranks, Chandram and Mahankali are now grappling with the challenges thrown by a political system they have chosen to engage with.

Some prosper, others struggle

Unlike others in Jagannapeta village, Danasari Anasuya did not take the exploitation by feudal lords in the area lightly. She joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Janashakti, the armed group that was working in the forest belt of the district, in 1993. Unlike the more aggressive and potent PWG, others working in smaller groups such as CPI(ML) Janashakti were less pursued by the police. After eight years, she rejoined the mainstream. “There was a leadership crisis in the party and divisions that made us lose morale. Many left the party and so I also decided to come out,” says Anasuya, also known as Sitakka.

Sitakka, a matriculate, resumed her studies, obtained a law degree and enrolled as an advocate, and went on to work with an NGO. In 2009, she made her electoral debut and became a TDP MLA in the State Assembly.

In a similar vein, from life as a ‘revolutionary’, it’s now life as a public representative for Karimnagar Zilla Parishad Chairperson Tula Uma (46), MLA Bodige Shoba (42) and MLC Naradasu Laxman Rao.

Life after surrender, however, hasn’t been as kind for the likes of Kurasam Arun. After nine years in the Dandakaranya forests, Arun, 30, a former deputy commander of the CPI (Maoist) special guerrilla squad, came overground in 2013 and became a farmer. Once carrying a reward of Rs.4 lakh on his head, today Arun and his wife Jyothi cultivate paddy on a five-acre plot they have taken on lease in his native Bollaram village in the newly carved out Bhoopalapally district of Telangana. The upside is he has no cases pending against him.

But the downside is stark. “We need agricultural land and a tractor to diversify our crops to supplement our income and secure our only son’s future,” says Arun.

On the other hand, Gopi alias Shankar, 39, who quit the PWG in 2000, still believes in the Maoist ideology. The native of Lingapur village, Darpally mandal in Nizamabad district, became mandal parishad president in 2014 but is so vexed at the increasing corruption in public life that he feels history will repeat some day.

The state’s change of tack

“Petty village rivalry, lack of political stakes, despondency often led to some youth joining the underground outfits,” says Telangana Inspector General of Police (IGP) R.S. Praveen Kumar, who had worked as SP, Karimnagar during 2001-2004 and is credited with two mass surrenders — that of 46 Janashakti Naxalites on April 28, 2002, and of 32 Praja Pratighatana [another of the multiple splinter groups in the region back then] cadre on June 5, 2003. “The protracted struggle and subsequent realisation that little can be achieved through revolution often prompts the underground cadre to surrender,” the IGP reasons.

The police’s strategy to counter Naxalites in the 1980s and early 1990s relied heavily on “cordon and search” operations but such methods drew severe criticism. A “cordon and search” operation meant locals being made to come to the village centre where suspected Naxalite sympathisers would be harassed and warned. In the process, innocents often bore the brunt of the police high-handedness. “We realised that the cordon and search operations during 1985-1996 paid little dividend,” admits Telangana Director General of Police C.V. Anand, who was the Nizamabad SP between August 1996 and December 1999.

Realising its futility, the Andhra Pradesh government adopted a multi-pronged strategy in the mid-1990s, using a combination of “people-friendly” policing and the elite Greyhounds force on the one hand and putting a rehabilitation package in place to encourage surrenders. This included an instant relief of Rs.5,000, and a promise to cut down repeated police summons and fast-track legal processes. In Karimnagar district alone, on a single day in 2004, as many as 647 records were burnt publicly to ‘free’ surrendering militants. Many surrendered Naxalites were acquitted for lack of evidence.

On the ground, though, many of the surrendered ultras are still awaiting benefits promised to them — Veko Joga alias Jangu, a member of the CPI(Maoist)’s special guerrilla squad in Cherla mandal of Khammam district, and his wife Nupa Paike, a squad member in Bijapur district of neighbouring Chhattisgarh, parted ways with the banned outfit due to ‘ill-health’ in September this year but are still awaiting sanction of land or any other kind of support from the government.

The Greyhounds’s success

The Greyhounds, the elite anti-Naxalite force raised in 1989 by IPS officer K.S. Vyas, has been instrumental in effecting the might of left-wing extremism in the region. Trained in guerrilla warfare, Greyhounds commandos, mostly in their 20s, act only on specific intelligence inputs.

Each Greyhounds unit, comprising 30 members, plans its operation meticulously, dividing itself into teams of four or five members. Wearing combat uniform and armed with grenade launchers, light machine guns and AK-47 assault weapons, Greyhounds commandos carry out “precision attacks”, preferably in the early hours of the day — as was the case on October 24. A typical operation sees them making their way into the forest in the middle of the night. The main assault party tries to neutralise the Maoists on sighting them. The other teams lie in wait at other points to target those fleeing the offensive.

The strike rate is 99 per cent. The only time Greyhounds personnel suffered heavy losses was eight years ago, when 38 commandos were killed in an ambush by Maoists in the Balimela reservoir in Malkangiri district of Odisha.

October 24, 2016, was payback time. But reformed Naxalite Kumar’s words serve as a chilling reminder to the never-ending cycle of violence: With the movement on the back foot, where was the need to kill?

With K.M. Dayashankar in Karimnagar, P. Ram Mohan in Nizamabad, R. Avadhani in Sangareddy, P. Sridhar in Khammam and G. Srinivasa Rao in Warangal.

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