IN late October 2016, one of the deadliest police actions against India’s armed leftists, members of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist), took place deep in the Eastern Ghats forest range along what is called the Andhra-Odisha border, or AOB. Once again the genuineness of the “encounter”, its timing and the motive of the State governments involved in this sweeping and well-planned joint operation by Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Central forces have come under scrutiny. As has often been the case, several tribal people have been unwitting victims this time. The celebrated writer, orator and leftist ideologue Varavara Rao spoke to Frontline on the confrontation and the reasons for it. Excerpts:
The police claim this was a genuine encounter, that there was back-and-forth fire. They say that when they reached the spot the Maoists were armed and that they opened fire. According to them, the severe mutilation of the bodies of Maoists is not a sign of torture but are of wounds inflicted in the course of firing.
It was an ambush by the police. Reliable information is available from The Hindu ’s website and Jagabandhu’s [AOB Special Zonal Committee member] statement. On The Hindu ’s website, the police officer in charge of the operation claims that he reached the spot three days earlier, that they crawled up the hillock, swam across the rivulet… the explanation is rather dramatic. The officer said they fired first. It is true that a [Maoist] sentry had come to answer the call of nature. At 6 a.m. he was to be replaced, but nobody got there in time. This sentry was fired at. That was the first firing by the police. This corroborates the police officer’s own claim. The sentry cried out “police, police” to alert others. PKM Prabhakar rushed to the spot. After killing the sentry, the police attempted to march ahead, and Prabhakar was also killed in the process. The 18 people who were in the roll call took positions and fired back once they realised that there was a police ambush. One Greyhound member was injured and he died later. On the whole, as they claim, four or five Greyhound members might have been injured. Here again the point is, they were in an advantageous position. When the police fired many were killed, but when the Maoists fired the policemen were only injured. The injured police officers were airlifted to Visakhapatnam, but not the bodies of the Maoists. This shows intention, and in the Indian Penal Code, intention counts a lot. They fired three rounds of bullets. By the second round, hundreds of bullets had been fired and several died. In the third round, which was fired from the hillocks to the plains, 18 Maoists were killed. This is Jagabandhu’s statement. He also insists that eight unarmed Adivasis were caught, tortured and killed. Because they were part of 60 to 70 people who were there at the meeting. It was not a plenary. They were villagers from Malkangiri district. All of them ran for their lives but nine were injured, later caught, tortured, and killed.
Why were the police so successful this time? They deny using sophisticated intelligence such as satellite imagery and mobile reception. They claim that this was information they received from local people, from intelligence on the ground.
No, this is not information from local people. This was covert. There was a former Maoist leader who was used for information. His son, a schoolgoing boy, and mother-in-law were used as decoys. On October 23 they reached close to Ramguda village [where the meeting of Maoists was to take place the next day] during the day. The next morning was the roll call of Maoist cadres. This woman and her grandson crossed the Balimala reservoir to pass on the information. The former Maoist reached the place and was spotted on the hillock with some Greyhounds. On October 23 night, they had seen torchlight on the hillocks, but the Maoists had not taken it seriously. That is a military mistake, which they admit now. In fact, the people wanted to inform the party of the police presence, but they were arrested. Those villages were surrounded and the people were not allowed to leave. Some were tortured and killed.
Are there any more details about this former party member?
He could be a militia member from that area, an Adivasi. Which is why I say that the Malkangiri SP [Superintendent of Police] is not capable of getting such information [of the location of the meeting], and that’s why I point to The Hindu website, which quotes a high-ranking officer who was part of the Maoist operation. There might also be Andhra Pradesh’s Special Intelligence Branch police officers. They might not wish to divulge exactly what they know. But DGP [Director General of Police] Nanduri Sambasiva Rao was claiming he had specific information about the Maoist’s whereabouts and that it was a joint operation. So it really was the work of the Andhra Pradesh SIB in this case. And The Hindu has quoted the police officer as saying that they used GPS. How can anybody in the police say that this is not sophisticated? You see when they claimed that there was a plenum, and helicopters were certainly used, such details are not easy to come by.
Why such a major attack?
The police have always been aggressive and have been trying for such attacks for some time now. This time it is because the government of Andhra Pradesh wants to once again aggressively pursue bauxite mining. This has always been the case, but now things are moving at a faster pace. Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Japan and signed a pact for uranium supply. The power plant, as you know, is coming up in Kovvada in Andhra Pradesh, where the Maoist movement has been strong.
You mean Kovvada on the coast of Srikakulam district where a massive nuclear power plant has been proposed?
Yes, bauxite is only one thing, which is an ongoing struggle, but along with this now there is a proposal for a coastal corridor (port development). The [Maoist] meeting [at Malkangiri] itself was to look into the implementation of land reforms and recent developments. When Uday [Gajarla Ravi, a senior Maoist party member from Telangana’s Nalgonda district with over two decades of organising experience, who went by several aliases such as Uday, Ganesh and Anand and was killed in the October 24 encounter] took over as AOB secretary, apart from a ban on bauxite, villagers began demanding the right over the lands of coffee plantation to be handed over to them. The party is occupying the lands and implementing land reforms in these areas. And in some of the villages, revolutionary provincial councils have also been formed after Uday took over. This is why the police have been after the Maoists. That’s why the police claimed, Ravi samrajyam anthem aindhe , meaning Ravi’s rule has ended.
So you are drawing a connection to bauxite mining?
On the whole this is a conflict between two development models. That is why I say this is not a conflict between the police and Maoists, any day. How much the police take responsibility or claim success is pointless. Whether they stick to the law in their operation is immaterial. Their operations are at the behest of the state and not in the interest of Adivasis. Likewise, whatever the alleged wrongs committed by Maoists are in the interest of Adivasis.
Let us say the present government is representative of the people, but its interest is the implementation of the World Bank’s development programme when it comes to Adivasis. Maoists’ approach is the opposite. It is anti-World Bank development programme. This is the real conflict.
But this incident has taken place after the Chandrababu Naidu-led Andhra Pradesh government put in abeyance the government order granting permission for bauxite mining in the tribal agency areas. What is the connection between that case and the current operation?
This abeyance was a temporary measure to placate the tribal communities when the movement was at its peak. Can you conclusively say that any agreement that the government signs, particularly with another country, can be put in “abeyance” or given up? We visited Goplapatnam near Visakhapatnam where bauxite mining had been halted after a protracted struggle. But when we visited later, the whole operation was back on track. The so-called abeyance is a tactic to halt people’s movements. Those on the ground, who live where these projects have been proposed, do not forget about it. The government employs these tactics to show a semblance of accommodation, while the work continues stealthily. It is like the Polavaram project. When was the work ever halted? That never happened.
From my visit to the region, what became apparent was that the Odisha side of the AOB is visibly poorer. There is not even a semblance of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. There are hardly any functioning government schools in the region and there are no primary health centres. On the Andhra side, all these exist. The government claims this is because of the presence of Maoists.
We met [Odisha Chief Minister] Naveen Patnaik [in 2011], myself and Haragopal [a prominent human rights activist]. We met him for over two and a half hours and discussed this with him. This was when Vineel Krishna [former District Collector of Malkangiri] was kidnapped. When everything was over, and when Adivasis were not released, we met the Chief Minister. We again stressed that Adivasis formed 22 per cent of the population in Odisha and the State was rich in forest wealth compared with Andhra Pradesh. So why are your government schemes and welfare programmes not geared towards Adivasis? Particularly when your own law says—the 1956 Regulation, like 1/70 (of Andhra Pradesh). Here, instead of implementing it, you book them under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) when the [Maoist] party is implementing this in the Narayanpatnam area. Thousands of party men are put in jail. During the 2011 incident, 800 tribal members were jailed. [The 1956 Orissa Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property (By Scheduled Tribes) Regulation, is derived from the Constitutional provision to prohibit and regulate tribal land transfers outside the communities and amongst themselves as well.]
Here of course, because of the strength of the naxalite movement the police and the whole government machinery have become intelligent, and to show a semblance of welfare, efforts have been made to accommodate tribal communities. But in Odisha, that kind of negligence is there.
So you say the strength of the Maoist movement has kept the state in check and has brought about greater accountability in Andhra Pradesh?
Certainly. As you said, even the halting of bauxite mining is because of the party’s pressure on the government.
This dichotomy of development that you mentioned, when you speak to someone who is for the World Bank kind of development, they would ask how you can do without exploiting natural resources. Can it not be allowed in a controlled manner, in such a way that environmental degradation could be minimised and it could also be beneficial to the Adivasis and the communities that live around such projects?
[Laughs] This is part of a long history of Adivasis fighting for a hold on their natural resources. We must understand one thing—tribal communities are preserving our natural resources. They do not exploit the natural resources. Their needs are minimal. They are not violently intervening with the forests. In their case, the government’s attempts are understood as attempts at displacement.
How do you then attempt to address this development model dichotomy if we could call it that?
There is no dichotomy. Apart from the Adivasis’ own claims over where they reside, the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution guarantee them the right over jal, jungle, zameen [ water, forests and lands]. All that they are asking for is the conduct of the gram sabha, and let these development projects be placed amid them. Let them decide. They are also not saying that the whole natural wealth should belong to them. They are willing to part with it, but without hindering the basic right to life and dignity of their communities and without serious environmental damage. They are willing for discussions.
In other words, not causing any hindrance to their livelihoods and way of life.
Yes. Therefore you have to take up minor, smaller, medium projects. There are so many other ways to develop. The government only looks at any opposition to its development agenda as a law and order problem, particularly the Chandrababu Naidu-led Andhra Pradesh government.
Both the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana governments now claim that naxal activities have come down significantly. In fact, they say the Maoist party is on retreat in both the States.
The encounter itself shows that the government accepts their presence. The government seems to have made abundant preparations to kill them. They have sought the assistance of the Central government for more battalions, more roads to be built in the region for movement of forces, funds for anti-naxal operations. So this is all just public posturing.
Was the October 24 police action a deadly blow to the Maoist party?
Nothing can be a deadly blow, but it is certainly a loss. Losing even one party member is a loss. In this case there were divisional committee members, area committee members; naturally this was a big loss.
But the party is also accustomed to such losses and is known to pick up quickly and move on.
Yes, that’s true. This kind of confrontation is very much part of party life. You see top leaders have been caught and killed. Such losses do happen in a revolutionary movement.
The point is often raised that the Maoists lost an opportunity to join the mainstream when the peace talks were held between naxalites and the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy-led Andhra Pradesh government in 2004.
Then of course, the Maoists had not come for talks to change their strategy or tactics. The party has always maintained that it will never reject the idea of talks, but it does not mean that it will give up the struggle. As long as the Vietnam War took place for two decades, talks were being held in Paris. So, talks are part of the party’s tactics. Secondly, the people wanted talks then. As Chandrababu Naidu put it then, it was a referendum about World Bank programmes, about how to view the Maoist movement, whether it is a law and order problem or a socio-economic issue, [then] there was the Telangana issue. He had said that he would vigorously implement the World Bank programme after coming to power in the late 1990s; and he clearly called the Maoist struggle a law and order problem. He said he would crush it. In fact, that was one of the high points of the movement. Every party other than Chandrababu Naidu’s acknowledged it as a socio-economic problem. Of course, we look at it [Mao’s teachings] as a solution. And about the referendum, Chandrababu Naidu lost.
Will the party ever come into parliamentary democracy?
No. We don’t consider India’s political set-up as a genuine reflection of parliamentary democracy. Particularly after Narendra Modi came to power, we define this moment in history as Hindutva fascism. For that matter there hasn’t been parliamentary democracy the world over, except in England during the time of the Industrial Revolution, which used to stick to the rule of law.
It was there in France, after the French Revolution—bourgois democracy. When capitalism reaches the highest stage of imperialism, you can’t have parliamentary democracy, particularly in a Third World country like India. Just conducting elections is not parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy means the rule of law and fundamental rights. All these are there in our Constitution, there are Directive Principles of State Policy, there’s a Preamble to it. We are not asking you to implement the Maoist programme, or for you to accept our world outlook, or to hand over power to us; we are only asking you to abide by the Constitution under which you have taken oath.
The Greyhounds are not answerable to the Assembly; their budget is not placed there for the Assembly’s approval. They don’t use name plates for their vehicles. They don’t wear uniforms, they don’t use official vehicles. They are not accountable to anybody, not even to the State’s own police structure. They are directly answerable only to the Chief Minister. How do you call this the rule of law? Which law?