The ban on eight naxalite organisations, in the wake of the murder of nine persons, including a Congress legislator, portends another phase of bloody conflict in Andhra Pradesh.S. NAGESH KUMAR in Hyderabad
THIRTEEN months after the ban on the naxalites was allowed to lapse, raising people's hope for the restoration of peace in the State, it is back to square one in Andhra Pradesh. The Communist Party of India (Maoist) and seven other "front organisations" have been banned by the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy-led Congress government under the Public Security Act (PSA).
The ban came two days after an "action team" of the Maoists shot dead nine persons, including Congress legislator Chittam Narsi Reddy, in Narayanpet town in Mahabubnagar district on August 15. The government's decision was in tune with the cycle of action and reaction that Andhra Pradesh has been witnessing ever since naxalism struck roots in the State more than three decades ago.
Narsi Reddy, a veteran legislator who represented the Makhtal constituency in Mahabubnagar district, was considered an unlikely target for naxalites. At 76, he had few known enemies and brushed aside suggestions by the police to increase his security beyond the four gunmen who protected him in two shifts. His assessment proved fatally wrong when he went to the outskirts of the town, famous for its handloom saris, to lay the foundation stone for a road in a Dalit colony at 1-30 p.m. on Independence Day.
Hardly had the ceremony begun when four gunmen armed with AK-47s appeared and fired indiscriminately at the assembled people. Narsi Reddy was the first to fall, hit by bullets in his head. Narayanpet Municipal Commissioner D.V. Rammohan, the legislator's gunman Raja Reddy, driver Srinivas, attender Saibanna, and three Congress workers, Monappa Goud, Lokeshwar Reddy and Ravinder Reddy, were also killed in the attack. The "action team" then shot dead C. Venkateshwar Reddy, the legislator's son, who was sitting in a car parked nearby.
The killings shocked popular conscience. Never before had armed members of the left extremist People's War, the earlier avatar of the Maoist group, resorted to a carnage of innocents as in Narayanpet. When they killed eight persons one after the other in Vempenta village of Kurnool district on March 1, the Maoists had the fig leaf of a seven-year-old feud as justification. In Narayanpet, they had none. They even threatened to eliminate the legislator of nearby Kollapur constituency if any harm was done to the four killers.
The Maoists issued a statement later apologising for the killing of innocent persons and justifying the MLA's murder. They promised to avoid such mistakes in the future. The People's War had issued a similar apology after it set ablaze a coach of the Kakatiya Fast Passenger train killing nearly 50 innocent people.
Narsi Reddy is the latest in a long list of top political leaders murdered by the naxalites. Others include Panchayati Raj Minister A. Madhav Reddy (July 2000), Congress Member of Parliament Magunta Subbarami Reddy (December 1995), former Assembly Speaker D. Sripada Rao (April 1999) and legislators C. Purushotham Rao (September 1999) and D. Ragya Naik (December 2001).
THE State Cabinet, which met on August 16, decided to take "a strong and unwavering stand" against the naxalites and gave the Chief Minister a free hand to crack down on extremist violence. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who assured Rajasekhara Reddy of the Centre's full cooperation, called for tough action.
Signalling the end of the government's liberal attitude towards the naxalites, Home Minister K. Jana Reddy announced a ban on the CPI (Maoist), the Radical Youth League, the Rythu Coolie Sangham, the Radical Students' Union, the Singareni Karmika Samakhya, the Viplava Karmika Samakhya, the All India Revolutionary Students' Federation and the Revolutionary Writers' Association (RWA). This is the first time that the RWA has been banned. The various naxalite organisations are already banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of the Government of India.
The clampdown on Maoist sympathisers began almost immediately. Vara Vara Rao, who acted as the CPI (Maoist) emissary before the commencement of the peace talks, was arrested on August 19. A leading light of the RWA, he is the first person to be arrested under the PSA. The police had booked several cases against Vara Vara Rao, the balladeer Gaddar, and RWA president Kalyan Rao, last year when they participated in public meetings along with CPI (Maoist) State secretary Ramakrishna.
To some people, the ban appeared to be a logical climax to the cycle of violence. As many as 157 civilians and 19 police personnel have been killed since the peace talks between the government and the naxalite organisations broke down in October 2004. To others, it made little sense as the naxalite leaders had gone underground long ago. The police were already cracking down on naxalite cadre.
Riaz, a Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Janashakthi State committee member who represented the party in the peace talks, was killed by the police in Karimnagar district on July 1. Civil rights organisations and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) had alleged that the killing took place in a fake encounter.
Riaz's death triggered political turmoil as the naxalites began targeting TRS cadre in the rural areas. Under pressure from its cadre, the TRS pulled out of the Congress-led government. Later, TRS president K. Chandrasekhar Rao secured a promise from the Chief Minister that the government would resume talks with the naxalites "within the framework of the Constitution".
The ban is aimed at preventing any kind of open activity by the naxalites. However, open activity had stopped after a spate of public meetings addressed by Ramakrishna and others. The ban allows the police to go after naxalites in the forests and across the State's borders.
But, having declared a virtual war against the naxalites, the police have the difficult responsibility of protecting the lives of thousands of grassroots-level political leaders, who are always soft targets.
Political parties have by and large taken a dim view of the ban. Calling it "a useless step", the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said the ban had not yielded the desired results when the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) was in power and would not stop violence and help in establishing long-term peace. The TDP flayed the government for lacking a clear-cut policy. Pointing out that it had held talks with the naxalites last year and was imposing a ban on them now, the party said: "There is already an undeclared ban in Telangana."
The harshest criticism came from the TRS, the Congress' erstwhile coalition partner. The party deplored the decision, demanded immediate revocation of the ban, and expressed the fear that it would give scope for violation of human rights.
IN their violent history, naxalites have been banned or wooed depending upon the compulsions of the government of the day. The erstwhile People's War Group (which later became People's War) was first banned on May 22, 1992, a year after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The ban continued until June 21, 1995 when Chief Minister N. T. Rama Rao allowed it to lapse. His successor, N. Chandrababu Naidu, who was to escape later a murderous attack on him by naxalites at Alipiri in Tirupati, re-imposed the ban on June 22, 1996.
The ban was allowed to lapse after July 21, 2004, as the Rajasekhara Reddy government, in power after a sweeping victory in the Assembly elections, wanted to initiate peace talks with the naxalites in tune with the Congress' election manifesto. Leaders of the People's War emerged in a dramatic fashion from their forest hideouts in Nallamalla in October 2004 but upstaged the peace process by suddenly announcing their group's merger with the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) a few days before the talks with the government.
The merger lent a militant character to the new outfit as the MCC adopted a hard line. It believed that militarisation and not peace talks would yield the desired results. Given the MCC's antipathy to the negotiation process, it could be said in retrospect that the talks were doomed even before they began.
At the talks, the CPI (Maoist) came out with a long wish list, including acquisition of land belonging to industrial and business houses and media organisations. The government wanted the naxalites to lay down arms before resuming the next round of talks. Within a few weeks of the deadlock, it was business as usual for the police and the naxalites with three encounters taking place in quick succession.
The real war began on January 6 with a major encounter in Prakasam district in which three naxalites were shot dead. The naxalites retaliated by making an unsuccessful bid to kill Superintendent of Police Mahesh Chandra Ladda by exploding a claymore mine in the heart of Ongole town. Ever since then, the killings on either side have not stopped. Perhaps, the encounter at Manala in Nizamabad district was the biggest this year, with the police gunning down nine naxalites.