Red in the face

By T S Sudhir

A month ago, I got a call from a man who identified himself as Pradeep. “Pehchana nahin kya Sir, main Pradeep bol raha hoon,” he insisted with familiarity. I couldn’t place him. Finally he said, “Main Kishenji bol raha hoon,” and I exclaimed, “To aise boliye na.” Post-Lalgarh, Kishenji alias Koteswara Rao was the name, voice and masked face of the Maoist movement.

“I said Pradeep because that was my alias when I used to call you some years back. See, you don’t remember,” he chuckled. Amidst the pleasantries, he quipped how he had lost his grasp over Telugu because of staying away from Andhra. After he had finished discussing what he had called me for, I asked, “When will you get in touch with me next?”

Kishenji’s reply stumped me. “Just sms me on this number, whenever you want to.”

I was recounting this conversation to Maoist sympathiser and ideologue Varavara Rao the other day, expressing my surprise at how times had changed. During the 90s and even the early part of this decade, Maoists would work through an elaborate network of faceless couriers and cryptic phone calls made mostly in the dead of the night, always overcautious to ensure they left no trail. Extra care was taken when journalists like me were taken inside the forest for a tete-a-tete with the Maoist leadership, with vehicles changed several times during the journey.

“Koteswara Rao is tech-savvy,” said Varavara Rao. “But then the movement has lost several of its top leaders because of this kind of over-confidence and at times, recklessness.”

Varavara Rao is right. The way the movement was virtually decimated in Andhra Pradesh post-2005, is a case in point. To engage in peace talks with the newly-elected Y S Rajasekhara Reddy government in 2004 wasn’t a mistake. The Maoists had good reasons to do that. But to think they had brought the government on to its knees, was. The red carpet welcome YSR laid out for them was an intoxicating high, it almost lulled the Reds into thinking they had bearded the tiger from Kadapa in his own den.

What followed was massive collection of funds and recruitment of cadre, almost recklessly. The Maoists were in a hurry to rebuild their cadres, demonstrate that atleast in numbers, they were a force to reckon with. The then police chief Swaranjit Sen later claimed they had exploited this opportunity to send coverts and informers into the Maoist fold. And that they also managed to put a face in police records to many Maoist names who had hitherto been underground.

When the talks broke down and the Maoists upped the offensive, drawing comfort in numbers, the police was prepared to take them on. It didn’t draw its strength only from the official ban that was reimposed in August 2005. The Maoist cadre who surrendered in 2006, 2007 and 2008 were mainly the new recruits, who clearly did not have the stomach or the ability to fight it out. The Maoists’ hasty recruitment policy had boomeranged as word spread that the movement was floundering badly.

Hit badly, the Maoists admitted the anti-naxal commando force, the Greyhounds was a “superior force” that had successfully “exploited the military weaknesses of the CPI (Maoist)”.

But the Greyhounds were not the only X-factor. There was the government’s surrender policy. A carrot and stick approach. Over a period of time, the Maoists had distanced themselves from the people, thanks to their own follies. Many splinter groups had sprung up. Extortions and reckless violence by both so-called naxals and pseudonaxals eroded goodwill and sympathy.

Srinivas Reddy, journalist and a long-time Maoist movement watcher gives credit to the government’s LPG policy. “LPG, that is liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, had created wealth in the villages and small towns.” So Maoist shrieks against American imperialism found little support among the masses.

What delivered the knockout punch was the `Go for the top’ policy that paid rich dividends as top leader after leader was eliminated in encounters by the state police force. Nothing came of the questions raised by sympathisers and human rights groups. For a group that had sent an impressive delegation to Hyderabad for the peace talks, suddenly there was a leadership crisis.

“They were killed also because of their own mistakes,” says Varavara Rao. “Many of them did not follow instructions given by the party on their movements.”

One of the them being Patel Sudhakar Reddy, who was killed this May. I met Patel Sudhakar in May 2001 deep inside the Nallamalla forest, when I had gone to interview Ramakrishna, the top boss of the then People’s War in Andhra Pradesh. Patel was smart and suave and had an easy comfort with gadgets. Accompanying him was a young software engineer, wielding a laptop and for most part of the 36 hours that I spent in the naxal camp, I saw the two constantly feeding data into the laptop and engrossed in discussions.

Two years later, Patel’s name was mentioned as one of the conspirators in the failed assassination attempt on then chief minister Chandrababu Naidu in Tirupati. Was I witness to the plot being hatched, I don’t know. But today when I see an intellectual like Kobad Gandy behind bars, I always remember that young man and wonder what would have motivated him to be in Nallamalla instead of a Noida or a New Jersey.

In a few days, the Centre will mount a major offensive against the Maoists in the jungles of Chattisgarh. And my hunch is it is going to be a very bloody war where the blood will be spilled not just in Chattisgarh but also in other areas of influence like Jharkhand, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Orissa. Sources in the Intelligence anticipate that the Maoist cadre will “indulge in violence in newer areas to divert the attention of the enemy.”

The preparation is already on. Police officers posted on the Andhra-Chattisgarh border tell me there is heightened movement of the Maoists, particularly in the Manthani belt of Karimnagar and Eturanagaram forest area of Warangal. “They are moving into villages, discussing their problems, warning informers. They are all armed. And if they are ever faced with a problem, a large number of Maoists will cross the Godavari from Chattisgarh.”

Varavara Rao says a serious attempt is now being made to reclaim lost ground in north Telangana region. “Unlike other areas like Nallamalla, the leadership was not lost in this region. The entire leadership is there, guiding from outside and geographical advantage is that it is bordering Chattisgarh and Maharashtra where the conditions are favourable to them all the time.”

Which explains the five murders and one bank robbery in the last two months in Andhra Pradesh, a state that has seen virtually no Maoist violence in the last two years. Yes, the police force has fortified its borders with Chattisgarh, apprehending incursions from that side. But strikes in areas where it is least expected, would only engage the police force all over Andhra Pradesh, lowering its vigil to an extent on the Khammam, Karimnagar and Warangal borders. There are strikes feared in the other three southern states as well.

The Maoists will be desperate to show they are not easy meat. And will do all it takes to test the government’s resolve. It will be as much a war of nerves as of firepower and the government needs to be prepared for hostage situations. It has already been tested severely in West Bengal. For the CPI (Maoist), “temporary setbacks” are part of a “protracted people’s war”. They believe the setback in Andhra is only a retreat while being on the offensive in other states.

The State would do well to remember that victory over the Reds is not going to be possible by bloodshed alone. The political leadership has to consciously ensure that all its eggs are not in the police basket. The battle is not simply to reclaim territory in Gadchiroli and Dantewada. It is a war to win over people, so that they feel like winners, not losers, in the final reckoning.

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About t s sudhir & uma sudhir

Uma Sudhir and T S Sudhir are senior journalists, based in Hyderabad. Both work for NDTV. Uma is a Tamilian, who was educated in
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