Malkangiri encounter

Malkangiri massacre

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Khajuriguda village in Malkangiri district of Odisha, which lost two men in the October 24 operation. One of its residents is still missing. The Kondh tribe community of 77 families lives on subsistence farming in the village. The residents are caught between the security forces and the Maoists. Photo: Kunal Shankar

The villages in the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha Border area are located in idyllic settings, with meandering streams and rolling, low hills covered with forests. Photo: Kunal Shankar

The radical writer Varavara Rao with the mother of the Maoist leader Prabhakar at his funeral in Secunderabad on October 27. Prabhakar died in the Malkangiri operation on October 24. Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP

The killing of 30 Maoists, including some senior leaders, at Malkangiri in Odisha in late October is one of the deadliest encounters involving the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

IN one of the deadliest ever episodes involving the Communist Party of India (Maoist), 30 of its cadres were killed, on October 24, 25 and 27, according to the police, in the interiors of the Eastern Ghats close to the Chitrakonda dam in Odisha’s Malkangiri district. The operation, conducted by the Greyhounds of Andhra Pradesh jointly with the Odisha Police, started with the busting of an Andhra Odisha Border (AOB) Special Zonal Committee meeting of the Maoist party at Ramguda village on the morning of October 24. Central paramilitary forces were also part of the operation.

A week later on November 1, a team of journalists, including this writer, reached Khajuriguda village. It was 10 minutes past one in the afternoon, and the men of the village’s 77 families were returning home from a hard day’s work. Three of the village’s men, all in their twenties, had gone missing the week before; village residents said that they had been forced to take part in the Maoists’ meeting on October 24. Two of them got killed; the other one is feared to be in police custody. The village is about 10 kilometres from where the anti-naxal police force carried out its operation.

Lokanu Gollori, Joiram Kilo and Kamulu Sanabasia, who went missing, had stayed back home on October 23, a Sunday, instead of going to the weekly market. A few Maoists carrying guns reportedly came to Khajuriguda to draft them in for the next day’s meeting. Khajuriguda is familiar with this kind of demand, and residents said that it was no use resisting because Maoists threatened to kill them if they did not comply.

Along with those returning from the fields on November 1 were also men from a neighbouring village, about 10 km away. Three men and a woman from there had also participated in the October 24 meeting. The woman was killed, but the three men escaped.

Their version of what had happed at 6 a.m. at Ramaguda village on October 24 is very different from that of the police. According to them, the Maoists were surrounded by a force far outnumbering them. Realising this, the Maoists surrendered. The police took away their weapons and then separated the men from the women. They took the women away to another location. The men alleged that the women were sexually assaulted.

Our translator, who was from the community to which the village residents belonged, corroborated their contention that Maoists use force to have their way. He said he had witnessed Maoist leaders threatening women of his village with rape if they did not participate in meetings. “There are not too many such men, but one or two of them who do this bring a bad name to the entire organisation. This happened on November 7 last year,” he said. The sarpanch of his village in Andhra Pradesh had been with the Maoists for a long time.

Kamulu Sanabasia was one of the two men from the village who died in the police firing. His brother Dunnu Sanabasia held out Kamulu’s voter ID card as he explained how the village suffered at the hands of both the police and the Maoists. “We give in to whoever comes with weapons, and they both come with them.”

Fake encounter?

Allegations of torture and rape and of fake encounters have come from various quarters, ranging from the radical Telugu writer and orator Varavara Rao to retired High Court judges, civil servants and human rights activists. Some of them acknowledge an intelligence failure on the part of the Maoists, but they insist that the operation should be seen in the perspective of the Andhra Pradesh government’s plans to restart mining for bauxite.

Among the Maoists killed on October 24 was Prabhakar, alias Gangadhar, who was in the Maoists’ cultural front. His funeral procession on the evening of October 27 in the cantonment area of Secunderabad was a show of strength by the Maoist party to exhibit the support it still enjoys in Telangana, despite the State’s crackdown on its activities. Thousands marched to the crematorium in Yapral, located in the heart of the military establishment. There was no police presence. Radical songs, many of them written and sung by Prabhakar in his two decades’ association with Praja Natya Mandali, were sung along the way. Following the formation of the State of Telangana two years ago, several prominent radicals like Prabhakar went underground and into the AOB zone, a region dominated by tribal people. Sympathies for the movement peaked in this zone in the 1980s and 1990s but has waned in the past 15 years.

Lighting Prabhakar’s funeral pyre along with his mother and wife, Varavara Rao said of the October 24 encounter: “Women have been subjected to untold torture before being killed. Rumours are that RK is in their custody. Details of how many people are in custody and what will be done with them should be revealed transparently.”

Varavarao Rao was referring to Akkiraju Haragopal, a central committee member of the CPI (Maoist) who goes by several aliases, one of which is Ramakrishna, or RK. RK had participated in the 2004 peace talks, held by the then Andhra Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, following the massive mobilisation of support against bauxite mining. YSR’s predecessor and current Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu had attempted to amend a State law meant to protect tribal lands. RK is one of the sharpest minds within the party and also one of its chief ideological and tactical strategists.

Police denial

The police deny any wrongdoing. They claim that they acted swiftly on credible information. Speaking to Frontline, Rahul Dev Sharma, the Visakhapatnam Superintendent of Police, said: “They were the top cadres of the Maoist party with more than Rs.20 lakh as reward on each of them. There was a clear encounter, there was back-and-forth firing. There is videographic evidence to show all this, and also the post-mortem report will give all the details.”

Sharma denied the allegation that all 30 men and women were killed in a single encounter. He said the first encounter resulted in 24 deaths, followed by four the next day and two on October 27. But civil liberties activists say the deaths were made to appear like encounter deaths to deflect criticism of opening fire on disarmed captives.

The police insist that they have cultivated a network of informers in the AOB districts—four Andhra Pradesh and five Odisha districts along the border between the two States. Such claims are often made to drive a wedge between Maoists and their supporters. It is, however, true that the hold that the Maoists once had in these regions has eased to some extent.

A petition was filed in the Hyderabad High Court hours after news of the encounter broke on October 24 seeking a direction to have RK produced in court. The petitioners have demanded, among other things, that the killings should be declared unconstitutional and the bodies preserved for an autopsy. However, a problem of jurisdiction halted the petition. The court must first decide whether the cause of action arising from to an operation led by the Andhra Pradesh Greyhounds can be considered when the incident has taken place in another State. The police, however, deny having RK in their custody. Mitrabhanu Mohapatra, Malkangiri Superintendent of Police, insisted that innocent villagers were not killed in the operation. He claimed only Maoists were killed because “everyone was wearing a uniform”. He added that 16 of the 28 people killed in the first two “encounters” had been identified and their bodies returned to their families. The other 12 have been buried at a municipal graveyard in Malkangiri; he guessed that they were Maoists from Chhattisgarh.

“We have shared the photos of those bodies with the Chhattisgarh Police. If anyone comes forward and claims them, we would be happy to hand them over” However, photographs produced by the police themselves show several of the dead, particularly the women, in ordinary clothes and with severely mutilated bodies. This has lent credence to the claim that the “Maoists” were tortured before they were shot at point-blank range. Mahapatra appeared confident that the police would come out clean even if the bodies were exhumed for fresh post-mortem examinations. “We followed the National Human Rights Commission mandate of keeping the bodies for 72 hours before burying them.”

Sharma contrasted the operation with the killing of 38 Greyhound officers by Maoists in 2008, implying that the police action had produced fewer casualties. On June 29, 2008, Maoists had drowned a Greyhound boat in the Balimela Reservoir, close to the site of the recent ambush.

The Maoists, their confidence boosted by past successes, seem to have been caught unawares this time.

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