One morning last June, Subramani and wife Pushpa went on their usual trek up Murugamalai, a bald hillock just outside their village in Kakkanji Nagar, close to Theni, to collect firewood. They saw a bundle covered with plastic and dhoti on the slope, and raised an alarm fearing it to be a dead body.
By evening, when a group of men armed with sickles and wooden clubs arrived at the hill, they found three persons guarding the bundle, claiming to be students on a hike. They said the bundle contained ration for their trek. But when the suspicious villagers uncovered it, they discovered a neat pile of guns, grenades and cartridges.
The villagers tied up the three, one of whom hailed from nearby E Pudukkottai village, and informed the Theni police. The men confessed they were members of the CPI (Maoists) and pleaded with the villagers to either kill them or let them escape. Villagers also learnt that seven others, including V Sundaramurthy, who was later nabbed, and Kalidas, key Maoist leaders, attempting to revive Maoism in Tamil Nadu, had escaped.
The June 26 incident sent panic waves across the state administration, which until now believed that any significant Naxalite movement in Tamil Nadu had been quelled. A worried Government pulled ADGP K Vijayakumar, the former STF chief popular for heading the operation that killed Veerappan, from an inconsequential post, and handed him the brief to flush out Maoists hiding in the state’s forests.
Six special police teams were formed to comb the forest ranges in Chennai, Madurai, Salem, Coimbatore, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri where it was believed that the Maoists were hiding. “Seven persons are still absconding. We believe there is only a handful of these men, who now call themselves CPI (Maoists), fashioning themselves after the Naxalites of Andhra Pradesh,” said Q branch sources.
“If you take a look at the guns, you can see that many of them are rusted and not in operational condition. The arms were meant only for imparting training and not for operations,” pointed out Theni SP R Sudhakar.
‘Q’ branch sources dismissed reports that arms were being sourced from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu by Andhra Pradesh Maoists. “The group involved in reviving the movement is so small. Moreover, they are far from even recruiting to start any major operation,” said an officer.
Meanwhile, police have intensified their hunt for one Kalidas, said to be the key person behind the renewed attempt to recruit villagers and impart training. Kalidas has been on the run since the November 2002 Uthangarai operation and has seven cases against him including a case under TADA, and two attempt to murder cases. Police are also on the look out for Chandra, wife of Sundaramoorthy, who was nabbed in a house in Tiruppur near Coimbatore last week.
The last Naxalite incident in the state had taken place way back in November 2002 when following a tip-off from villagers, the ‘Q’ branch swooped down on a group of about 35 youths, including six women, claiming to be members of the Radical Youth League, being trained in guerrilla warfare in the dense mangroves of Jalajothipatty, about 30 km from Dharmapuri. Operation Uthangarai (a village close to Jalajothipatty) lasted about a week and the police nabbed 28 members. One person, Parthipan alias Shiva, was killed in the operation.
“The modus operandi of the Maoists is simple. Villagers gullible enough to join the group are made accomplices in incidents of dacoity and murder. They then go underground and have little option but join the Maoists,” said a senior police officer, part of the present anti-Maoist operation. “We believe the handful of active Maoists were in the process of recruiting villagers and have not been very successful,” said the senior officer.
But, back in E Pudukkottai, it is a different story. S Bhaskaran, a senior DMK functionary in the village, whose wife Latha is a panchayat president, pointed out that Velmurugan, a law student, and one of those nabbed by the villagers in Murugamalai and hailing from E Pudukkottai, had successfully formed a committee and roped in about 50 village youths as members. But before he could initiate them into the movement, Velmurugan was caught.