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The Andhra fightback

On May 24 this year,Warangal Police shot dead two top Maoist leaders wanted in several sensational cases...

On May 24 this year,Warangal Police shot dead two top Maoist leaders wanted in several sensational cases,including the attempt on then Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s life in October 2003. P. Sudhakar Reddy alias Shrikanth,a veteran Maoist leader and member of the CPI (Maoist) Central Military Commission,and K. Venkiah,member of the CPI (Maoist) State Committee,were shot dead in an encounter in a reserve forest area in Tadwai Mandal.

The encounter is one of the many the state has seen in the last five years—part of a relentless and ruthless offensive by the Andhra Pradesh police to eliminate top Maoist leaders and cadres,banishing them to the forests along the Andhra-Orissa border where they are desperately fighting to retain their foothold. So while Maoists continue to launch attacks in Chhattisgarh,Jharkhand and Orissa and the battle in West Bengal rages on,Andhra Pradesh,once hit the hardest by Maoist violence,is quiet. Though a majority of Maoist leaders and cadres operating in Chhattisgarh,Jharkhand and Orissa belong to Andhra Pradesh—including M. Koteswara Rao who is leading the Lalgarh operation—their home state remains out of bound for them.

Just a decade ago,21 of Andhra Pradesh’s 23 districts were insurgency affected. Now,there are very few Maoists left in the state. What crippled the Naxal movement was an aggressive anti-Maoist drive that the Andhra Pradesh police and its elite anti-Naxal commando force ‘Greyhounds’ carried out over the last five years. Since 2003,more than 800 Naxals and 40 of their top leaders have been killed in encounters with the police. In 2005,over 300 cadres,including four top leaders,were killed in encounters while as many were either arrested or forced to surrender. In recent months,top Maoists cadres,including several CPI (Maoist) state and central committee members,have been killed.

Apart from using brute force to crush the Naxals,the state government worked on a parallel,development track to win over people in Maoist areas. As the government focused on development in backward regions where the Maoist movement once thrived,distributed land to poor and landless farmers in affected districts and came up with new irrigation projects—helped by good rains in the last five years—the Maoists slowly started losing ground. With sympathy for the movement waning,the group is finding it tough to find new recruits. And encounters like the one on May 24 this year have left the Maoists with a leadership vacuum. Forced on the backfoot,the Maoist movement has now shifted mainly to Dandakaranya region,the Andhra-Orissa border,Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand,with many leaders from Andhra leading the movement.

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Deputy Inspector General of anti-Naxal squad,Shivdhar Reddy,says there are several reasons why Andhra is quiet on the Maoist front while there is bloodshed in the neighbouring states. “The AP police has had big success since 2005 in weeding out Maoists. There was a tremendous thrust on anti-Naxal operations,whether in engaging them directly or pushing them out through intensive combing operations,forcing them across the border. The government strategy to develop backward and remote regions,which was the bastion of Maoists,also helped a lot. In spite of stiff resistance from the Maoists,our persistence paid off. The government also distributed about 3 lakh acres among poor and landless labourers. This was backed with irrigation projects that generate employment and as a result,people don’t sit idle,something that the Maoists earlier took advantage of,” says Reddy. “The Maoists used to call Telangana Lalgarh because it was their bastion. I won’t say it is totally free of Maoists now,but yes,there is no Maoist activity here these days. They are confined to one last post on the Andhra-Orissa border in Visakhapatnam and East Godavari districts.”

Once the stronghold of the Maoist movement,it was in Andhra Pradesh that the Communist Party of India-Maoist Leninist (CPI-ML) and the People’s War Group (PWG) took birth in the early 1980s. But even before that,the Naxal movement entered that state in 1968 through the tribal pockets of Srikakulam district bordering Orissa and spread to north Telangana,Visakhapatnam,Viziangaram,Khammam and Guntur. In the following years,the Maoists targeted police officers and jawans,ministers,MPs and government servants,besides executing people suspected of being police informers. Their most stunning attack in recent times was the attempt to assassinate then chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu in October 2003 near Tirupati by triggering a landmine using a camera flash as Naidu’s convoy passed. Naidu escaped with minor injuries.

In 2004,on the eve of peace talks with the state government headed by Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy,the PWG merged with the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) of Bihar to form the CPI (Maoist). The peace talks failed with both parties accusing each other of violating the ceasefire. The government launched a series of operations against the Naxals and that,they say,paid off.

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Former Home Minister K. Jana Reddy explains,“After successful operations in Naxal-affected districts like Visakhapatnam,Vizianagaram,Khammam and Warangal,the number of Maoist cadres in the state came down from approximately 1,200 in 2005 to less than 500 in 2008. The anti-Naxal policy of Andhra and the Greyhounds are touted as a role model for other states facing similar problems,” he says.

“The surrender policy of the state government also clicked with many leaders giving up either because they were tired of remaining underground for years together or simply because ill-health did not permit them to roam the forests anymore,” the former Home Minister says.

The anti-Naxal force,Greyhounds,has been credited with pushing the Naxals to the brink. The elite force,raised in 1987 especially to tackle the Naxals,has had enormous success. “Their success is due to their training in guerilla warfare,jungle survival,field-craft and night operations backed by an expansive intelligence network. Well-planned and executed operations in the last six or seven years have resulted in heavy Maoist casualties,” says an officer posted with the elite force.

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“You may question the tactics we adopted but you must appreciate the fact that we have managed to nearly wipe out the Maoists. People in certain parts of the state may still be sympathetic to the movement but there are no Maoists left to feed on that. Telangana is almost free of Maoists. In the north coastal districts,they have been pushed into a corner near the Orissa-Visakhapatnam district border. The tribal areas there and the forest is their last refuge in Andhra Pradesh,” says an officer who has led many operations against the Maoists.

In fact,some officers believe that when it wanted to initiate peace talks in 2004,the state government showed too much leniency in letting senior Maoist leaders escape after police surrounded them in the Nallamalla forests. Maoist state secretary Ramakrishna alias A. Haragopal was surrounded by the police but was let off.

Many officers feel what they see now could be a tactical retreat by the Maoists to Dandakaranya and neighbouring states—a “live to fight another day” type of move,as one officer puts it.

“One big reason why the Maoists are not launching any operations in Andhra is that all their top leaders are moving to neighbouring states where there activities have gathered momentum. There were reports that they were trying to regroup on the Andhra-Orissa border,but it does not appear so. They have lost much of their ground,” an Intelligence officer said.

In fact,impressed by the success of the Greyhounds,the Union Home Ministry had recently proposed the setting up of a special anti-Naxal force on the lines of the Greyhounds in insurgency affected states. 

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The government has also launched a counter-propaganda war. “The Maoists sought the support and sympathy of people in backward and remote regions and tribal areas saying the government was deliberately neglecting them. But by announcing various projects and development schemes,the government countered this propaganda,” says DIG Shivadhar Reddy. The government also started distributing free television sets in villages still under Maoist influence so that they could see what was happening outside their villages. To wean Maoists off the movement,the government announced a surrender and rehab policy,promising those who surrender Rs 50,000 and land for farming.

Not everybody is happy with the way the government dealt with the Naxals in Andhra Pradesh. Revolutionary poet,writer and peace emissary Vara Vara Rao says that instead of killing Maoists ruthlessly,if the government had prepared a better surrender policy,it would have saved many lives.  

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Eminent human rights activist and Maoist lawyer K.G. Kannabiran too rubbishes the suggestion that the state government had a well thought out policy to deal with Maoists. “It was a simple shoot-at-sight policy. In fact,due to the short-sighted policies of the government,the movement has been reduced to a war between Maoists and the police. The Maoists may be down but not out. This movement has flourished and survived for over 40 years. Political dissent and social unrest cannot be wiped out by killing people ruthlessly in staged encounters. Killing has never solved any problem,especially not the Maoist movement. Due to police pressure,the Maoists may be lying low in the state. But experience shows they will make a comeback,” says Kannabiran.

Police officials say they are prepared for that. “We know they can strike back any time so we cannot let our guard down. Even when they were on the defensive,they struck back on June 29 last year killing 39 Greyhounds in an ambush at the Ballimella reservoir,” says an officer.

First published on: 28-06-2009 at 05:04:55 am
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