Stung by heavy casualties in recent years, the Maoist insurgents hope their new chief Basavaraj will turn their fortunes around
By GS Radhakrishna
In a 15-page open letter to Maoist cadre in December 2018, Basavaraj alias Namballa Keshava Rao — the new chief of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist)— made a case for reinventing the chain of command and re-instilling military discipline, in light of heavy casualties faced by the insurgents in the past few years. Basavaraj also called for reorientation and intense training of cadres of all ranks to rise to the occasion as the ‘enemy is striking on all fronts’.
Basavaraj’s letter, his third since he took over in November 2018, and copied to the media, was sent ahead of the annual sessions of CPI (Maoist) organisation People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) and its Central Committee (CC), held in December, 2018.
Basavaraj became chief after the CC passed a three-page resolution banning continuance of aged seniors in key positions, heralding the end of the 13-year-tenure of former CPI (Maoist) chief Ganapathy, alias Muppala Lakshmana Rao, 69. The Left wing extremist group had perhaps taken a leaf out of the book of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who introduced retirement for all Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders above the age of 70, in a move to eliminate his opponents and competitors, as alleged by his detractors within and outside the party.
The AK47-toting Basavaraj, chief of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the PLGA, betrayed concerns that besides physical attacks on the Maoists, the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) central government and the incumbent BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had also successfully attacked the money source of the CPI (Maoist). The organisations’ major source of funds were bamboo, tendu patta (beedi leaf) and mining contractors in forests, and real estate, labour and civil contractors in semi-urban and urban regions. The government had let loose the Enforcement Directorate, National Investigation Agency, Central Bureau of Investigation and Income Tax authorities, besides police, on all these contractors in Maoist-affected areas. In his letter, Basavaraj spoke of the need to replenish finances to continue operations and support the field forces. “The situation is bad in both Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra and hence we should make connections in other states like Telangana, AP, Karnataka etc which are all pushing mega irrigation and road projects with thousands of crores investments,” he wrote.
Basavaraj also asked PLGA commanders to use more mass destruction weaponry like claymore mines, grenades, rocket launchers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rather than focusing on shootouts with heavy guns like self-loading rifles. He also wanted the district committees of Karnataka, Kerala, Assam and Tamil Nadu to utilise the political turmoil in these states to expand their base and activities in rural and semi-urban areas. ‘Improvise your strategies, recruit both men and women (preferably able-bodied youth in good health), improve finances and [stocks of] materials which are freely available in the underworld markets in the south,’ was his advise to all frontal organisations.
Later, at the CC and PLGA conferences held in undisclosed locations in the deep forests of the MMC region (Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh) in the last three weeks of December, Basavaraj also issued circulars and dos and don’ts for cadres. ‘Revolution cannot be fought with old hands and old guns. We need to improvise and modernise not only our systems but also weapons and mindsets,’ Basavaraj had told the cadres at the PLGA conference, said a Maoist circular delivered to media houses in Hyderabad. For once, the cadres are reportedly happy that they have a leader who means business, say police officials in the forest belt of Telangana.
Basavaraj has a massive task on hand to rebuild his organisation, reeling from reverses in recent years. He has to find a new military HQ after the former Maoist base in Abujmarh in Bastar, Chhattisgarh was reportedly razed to the ground by security forces. He has to train and relocate men and material in new, safer regions, regain control of lost areas and find safe refuge for the compulsorily retired aged leadership, who number between 40 and 70. Many of them have been advised by state governments to surrender and return to the mainstream, and have been offered sops for old age including medical help.
The leadership change comes after years of churning and struggle for control within the CPI (Maoist) since its inception. Whether it will prove to be another pivotal moment in the trajectory of this insurgent movement, as the cadres hope, only time will tell. But first, how did things come to this pass.
12 Years Of Operation Green Hunt
As I prepared to set off for Chhattisgarh in December 2018, everyone I spoke to said the journey was risky, and advised me to drop my plans. But I decided to continue, and set off from Hyderabad one early December morning for Bhadrachalam, near the Chhattisgarh border in eastern Telangana. I took a bus from there to Jagdalpur via Chintur and Konta. At Chintur, the eastern tip of Telangana, I met an old friend and over a good breakfast of omelet, idlis and pesara-rice at a roadside hotel, we discussed developments around the border. Chintur is very close to the Andhra-Odisha border area—or AOB in Maoist terminology—where borders of four states of Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh are in close proximity.
“Go if you really want, but try to reach any big towns by nightfall as CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) will not allow you to stay in villages and no hotels will accept you in small towns. Don’t travel at night at all and most of all don’t trust anyone who offers to take you to meet Annalu (Maoist) or Salwa Judum activists. Speak to a lot of people from across the spectrum who will give you a better perspective of the situation,” said Suraj Kumar, a local journalist for a Telugu daily.
I then continued by bus into the Maoist hinterland, a journey which I had often made in the past in cars and jeeps with a photographer and other local journalists. But this time, immediately after the Assembly elections in both States, no one was free to venture inside border areas where intense combing and patrolling by joint forces of CRPF and local police was underway. A security force of one lakh had been deployed to support local police of equal numbers during the polls, along with technical support of 50 drones and over 1000 satellite trackers used in Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada districts to track movement of Maoists.
I was advised to take a Telangana government bus rather than private buses. “If you travel in a Telangana government bus, you will get insurance if anything happens,” chuckled Rukma Bai, an old tribal schoolteacher from Konta, who travelled with me from Cherla towards Jagdalpur in Bastar.
Most of the population in border towns in Chhattisgarh is Telugu settlers from Seemandhra, government servants and a few North Indian traders. Many Chhattisgarh government servants live across the border in Telangana in towns like Bhadrachalam, Chintur and Palair, as they said basic amenities and safety of their families was important to them. Were they scared of Maoists or the security forces? “Annalu [Maoists] don’t attack civilians but forces just shoot at point-blank range wherever they suspect Annalu hiding, even in markets, homes and also roads,” said Sarba Kishan, a trader in Konta.
The journey, this time, was disenchanting. Things have changed a lot since my past visits to Chhattisgarh. I had gone to the Darbha valley when Congress leaders were killed by Maoists in 2013, and covered the kidnapping of Vineel Krishna, Collector of Odisha’s Malkangiri district, in February 2011. Even earlier, I had covered the Balimela incident in June 2008, when a boatful of Greyhound commandos was attacked by Maoist guerillas, and gone to Bijapur Distrcit in 2007 when tribals were hacked to death in the classroom itself while undergoing training to become Special Police Officers.
During these assignments, I had traveled with both Maoists and the security forces. Each had a story of their own to tell about their battle with ‘ghosts’ and also ‘without immediate goals’. “Both Maoists and security forces were fighting for someone else and knew well that locals and majority of tribals did not care about either their survival or victories,” said a senior police official at Dantewada Police Station.
In the past, the journey crossed over a landscape of hillocks, thick shrubbery, ancient trees, streams, freshwater ponds and tribals selling forest fruit, vegetables and java—a local porridge made of soya beans and minced bird meat. It was a heavenly scene for someone coming from a crowded South Indian city.
Now, huge military tents, bulletproof jeeps, bunkers, watchtowers, mobile towers atop hillocks (a favoured target of the Maoists), liquor shops, spiked metal barriers on roads and barbed wire on government buildings forms the scenery. Schools, marriage halls and shelters had been converted into base camps occupied by CRPF and other security forces. Most hillocks were denuded of trees and even greenery in villages and towns where Operation Green Hunt forces are based, had been burnt. It was like travelling through a war zone. I hardly saw any civilians and no young tribal women during the journey, except at weekly shandies and some shops. “You should not expect anything better as we have to fight them not only in forests and roads but everywhere,” said a senior CRPF commandant who offered me lunch at his camp near Dornapal, in Dantewada district.
The Khoya and Konda Dora tribals were scared of using buses and preferred to walk miles instead. Those who summoned the courage huddled into some corner seats, and always seemed frightened at the sight of armed police or CRPF personnel, who often entered buses to check passengers. All outsiders were questioned by police and check post officials. I too was questioned on the bus by a CRPF head constable, en route to Sukma. One of them directly asked me whether I was going to attend any Maoist meetings. “I am going to meet a friend in Jagdalpur,” I said, adding that I was a journalist. He asked why I was traveling alone and not in a group with other journalists or a photographer. I told him I wasn’t travelling on assignment but for a personal visit.
Few in Chhattisgarh’s villages or towns were willing to speak to me. The schoolteachers, hospital staff, revenue officials and a few journalists who did speak all said that most security operations were happening in the hinterland, where entry is banned for non-officials, civilians and journalists. ‘What they do in name of combing and interrogation is all totally out of bounds for media, which gets to know only what the security forces want to tell,” said a senior journalist of Dornapal who did not want to be named.
Birth, Rise And Reverses Of CPI (Maoist)
Although the Naxal movement was born in Naxalbari, West Bengal in 1967, when it was founded by Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal, it grew and spread as an agrarian revolution in the Dandakaranya forest belt in central India, comprising the regions of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, parts of Vidarbha in Maharashtra, and Balaghat in south-eastern Madhya Pradesh.
In united Andhra Pradesh, the Naxal movement was at first an anti-landlord movement led by Communist leaders Tejeswar Rao and Chandra Pulla Reddy. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War—commonly known as the People’s War Group or PWG—had a core presence in the Telangana region of united Andhra Pradesh, besides some presence in central India.
Ganapathy was the general secretary of the PWG and oversaw its merger with the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI), a group older than the PWG, and which operated largely in Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Dandakaranya and, later, Punjab. Both groups essentially aimed to overthrow the “imperialist” Indian government through “people’s war”. Their merger, along with some smaller groups in September 2004 created the CPI (Maoist), which has the same aim. Ganapathy, credited with unifying the groups, headed the new CPI (Maoist) till Basavaraj took over late last year.
By 2018, hundreds of Maoist insurgents had been killed in encounters, mine blasts and other security operations, but police officials say that Maoist activity had now spread from 3 to 15 of Chhattisgarh’s 27 districts, as Operation Green Hunt— launched by the former UPA government in April 2006 to curb the growth of CPI (Maoist)—chased Maoists away from their border strongholds. Police contend that the Maoists initially had fled to the Andhra-Odisha border area and from there off to the tri-junction of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, in the Balaghat region of south-eastern MP. The Maoists were being chased in that region also, say CRPF officials.
Besides security forces, armed anti-Maoist groups like the Salwa Judum— floated by Mahendra Karma, who died along with the entire Chhattisgarh state Congress leadership in the mass shooting at Darbha Valley in 2013—joined the attack on the Maoists. Local tribals and other civilians lived in fear of the Salwa Judum. Now, they fear both Salwa Judum, which like CPI (Maoists) continues to exist despite being banned by the Supreme Court, and all shapes of security forces.
One reason attributed to the election defeat of the past BJP government was its passive role while central forces allegedly committed brutal violence on mostly tribal civilians accused of being Maoists, and constant police presence in villages during the last tenure of former chief minister Dr Raman Singh.
Vivekananda, Inspector General of Police (Bastar Range), said that Bastar was once home to around 10,000 Maoist cadre, who have now been reduced to less than 3,000 after 12 years of Operation Green Hunt.
Maoist Presence In Telangana And Andhra Pradesh
Though police contend that Maoists have been driven out of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, many underground cadres and frontal Maoist organisations are said to be still operating in the Telugu states. The ban on the PWG alias CPI (Maoist) and its six allied units enforced in 1991 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, remains in force in both states. Both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana’s borders with Chhattisgarh remain sealed, and state police conduct regular combing operations in no-man’s lands jointly with Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Jharkhand police and central forces.
Late Congress chief minister of united AP YS Rajasekhara Reddy, after winning the 2004 assembly election, had invited the PWG for talks as per a poll promise. After two rounds, the talks failed on the issue of insurgents laying down arms. The PWG had also not disclosed its merger with MCCI and creation of CPI (Maoists). The state government had also been advised by the Union home ministry at that time that, after the merger, the PWG alone cannot have a dialogue. After the effort failed, YSR was castigated for giving leverage to insurgents to consolidate and regroup. “They did not want to give up arms, but wanted the government to give unconditional amnesty, relief etc. We trusted them and their mediators to lay down arms when we gave them safe passage to come for talks, but they refused to budge from their stand,” YSR had told this writer after the failure of talks in 2004.
Telangana Director General of Police M Mahendra Reddy, at a year-end briefing on extremist activities in late December 2018, ruled out re-entry of Maoists into Telangana districts. The DGP said there were just 82 underground Maoist activists in Telangana, of which only 18 were local. But sources say tht Telangana accounts for 126 top underground cadres, including 10 out of 17 CC members.
The Maoists, however, marked their re-entry into Andhra Pradesh on September 23, 2018, with the sensational killing of incumbent Araku MLA Kidari Sarveswara Rao and former Araku MLA Siveri Soma, both of the Telugu Desam Party.
The killings followed setbacks to the Maoists in the AOB area in 2018. Maoist top gun Ramakrishna alias Akkiraju Hargopal was badly injured and his son Manna was among several Maoist commanders killed. Then AP DGP Nanduri Samba Siva Rao said that the legislators had gone to Lippitiputta village in Visakhapatnam district’s Araku valley, barely 15 km from the Odisha border, during weeklong Maoists’ Foundation Day festivities (September 21 to 27) without police support and thus invited death.
But analysts and Maoist sympathisers contend that the attacks also signaled that the ultras were down but not out in AP. Now they were returning to their erstwhile strongholds in north AP border districts of Visakhapatnam and Srikakulam, which have emerged as a sort of new haven for Maoists following intense policing in all the no-man’s lands in the forested Dandakaranya-MMC-AOB belts.
Some, however, have also linked the killing of Rao and Soma to the anti-bauxite mining lobby.
The deep wedges remaining between members of both PWG and MCCI despite their merger, deepened after the PWG members shifted base out of AP to Chhattisgarh following a police crackdown in wake of failed talks with the state government. Bickering between MCCI and PWG leaders and also the Odisha unit of Sandeep Pandey (not to be continued with the BHU professor) continued, as the Telugu CPI (Maoist) leadership under Ganapathy refused to give up control of AOB. Eventually, over the next decade, Telugu leaders came out on top, taking over the MCCI-controlled Dandakaranya and West Bengal. But this led to a loosening of command and control and the WB, Jharkhand, Odisha units began operating independently, said police analysts.
Analysts familiar with Maoist and leftwing extremism say the ageing and ailing Ganapathy was unable to contain internal feuds and discipline the cadres and commanders across the entire Red Corridor, spread over 12 states. The responsibility of guiding the PLGA and a large number of frontal organisations, managing fundraising and inter-organisation discipline etc were proving too demanding for the aging leadership. Subsequent arrests, surrenders and encounter killings of over three dozen key leaders—commanders, zonal secretaries and also Central Committee members compounded the difficulties. It’s estimated that anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000 Maoist activists, including 50-100 top leaders, languish in the central jails of Chennai, Rajahmundry, Warangal and Visakhapatnam. Cadre recruitment had also fallen. Many cadres were surrendering with their guns, or dropping out in exchange for rewards, while educated and technically capable persons were no longer being attracted to the cause. “We don’t need journalists, gun-toters and poets alone; we need more farmers, cooks, doctors and electricians to join the movement,” Ganapathy had said in 2010 in an interview to the organisation’s mouthpiece Lal Chingari Prakashan (a banned publication).
Maoist watchers in media contend that Ganapathy was forced into inactivity due to ill health and that the change of leadership had in fact come late. Old timers in the Maoist movement say Ganapathy could have been replaced as PWG leader before CPI (Maoist) was even formed, but for the Koyyur encounter in December 1999. Top PWG leaders like Nalla Adi Reddy, Santosh Reddy and Seelam Naresh, who were popular among the ranks and also with tribals, were killed in this encounter. Experts say if he had lived, Adi Reddy may have taken over the leadership. Police intelligence also claims that Adi Reddy had been planning a leadership coup.
Another contender for Ganapathy’s seat was Mallojula Koteswara Rao alias Kishenji, who had made a name for himself in West Bengal but was killed in November 2011.
The more elderly number two in the erstwhile MCCI, Prashanta Bose or Kishan-da, is almost 72. He represented a strong MCCI lobby pitched against Telugu leadership of the organisation, but was put out of the reckoning for leadership after the 3-page CC resolution banned continuance of aged seniors in key positions.
Under Basavaraj, the CPI (Maoist) is hoping for better days. A former kabaddi player and graduate of the Regional Engineering College at Warangal—now the National Institute of Technology—Basavaraj like his predecessor Ganapathy carries a cash prize of Rs 1 crore on his head, for alleged involvement in over 1200 cases of violence, arson and conspiracy to commit murder in 12 states. As CMC chief, the setbacks he caused to security forces and the mining industry in Chhattisgarh led the former UPA government to launch Operation Green Hunt.
Basavaraj is known to have expertise in making explosives including claymore and ‘tiffin’ bombs—crude IEDs. He reportedly received training in guerrilla warfare and explosives from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He has also been credited with many crucial attacks on security forces in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Odisha in the recent past. Unlike Ganapathy, who hailed from Telangana, Basavaraj is from Jiyannapet village of AP’s Srikakulam district bordering Odisha. The AP government has beefed up police patrolling around the village, which has become a new address for Maoist admirers to visit.
Time will tell if the boy from Jiyannapet succeeds in leading the ‘people’s war’ and creating new nightmares for security forces, as the battle of ‘ghosts’ continues.
CPI (Maoist) Organisation Structure
The CPI (Maoist) has a very tight organisational structure built on the ‘need to know’ principle for the flow of information, funds and commands. Each organisation has its role and area of operation spelled out.
The Central Committee, now headed by Basavaraj, is the chief decision-making body for all issues. It has 19 members (13 from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), and will be aided by Basavaraj’s replacement—yet to be named—as chief of the Central Military Commission. The CC is supported by four regional bureaus—central, east, north and south. It controls both the Polit Bureau and the Central Military Commission.
The Polit Bureau, in the pattern of all left parties, is a policy framing and churning (Manthan) unit, and is dubbed as the Maoist think tank. It earlier had about 14 members, but the strength is now down to nine after many arrests and encounters of members. Intellectuals such as Kobad Ghandy (now in jail) and Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad (killed in an encounter in 2010) were reportedly its members. It also coordinates the activities of the frontal organisations for farmers, students, women, youth, Dalits, tribals, etc.
Central Military Commission is the bastion of military funding and materials mobilisation like purchase of weapons. It used to run grenade- and bullet-making units in the forests, besides manufacturing crude assault rifles and tapanchas (country-made pistols). But now, with easy access to weapons via Dubai, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Singapore, the CPI (Maoist) have stopped assembly of guns and bullets in Dandakarayna. An assembly line they had in Nallamala forests of coastal Andhra Pradesh was destroyed in police action in 2004.
The People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) comprises militia members in armed platoons. It reportedly has between 9,000 and 12,000 men with separate companies of snipers, bombers, rocket launchers and explosive blasters. AP Police sources say that they also have some drones and satellite phones.
For administrative and management of resources, the ‘Janata Sarkar’, or Red Republic, is divided into three sectors: Central sector spans the Dandkaranya zone, the Andhra-Odisha border special zone and the state committees of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The eastern sector consists of the zonal committees of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Assam, and Uttar Pradesh. The northern sector comprises Punjab and Uttarakhand. The southern Sector controls the whole of the Western Ghats region including Kerala and Karnataka units.