Extortion is their business and business is good. So much so that it has become the very raison d’être for around eight left-wing extremist (LWE) outfits in Jharkhand. In the past two years, these groups were reportedly responsible for nearly 60 percent of the killings related to left-wing extremism and collected more levy than the Maoists. The People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI) alone was responsible for 80 percent of these killings. No wonder, the state police considers the PLFI to be the most dreaded of the LWE outfits outside the Maoist fold.
The total levy extorted by the group in 2012 in Jharkhand is pegged at around Rs 170 crore. This amount is extorted out of funds for development projects, including roads, bridges and highways, building construction and irrigation. A recent police raid on a PLFI hideout revealed that the group also gets people to file RTIs on upcoming projects and uses the information to decide how much is to be extorted and from whom. The fear of extortion by LWE outfits is making more and more contractors unwilling to take up infrastructure projects in the region.
But ask the PLFI’s supremo Dinesh Gope, 43, and he will tell you a different story. “I’m fighting to bring in a janata sarkar (people’s government) for the oppressed people, who are forced to live in penury in the jungles,” he says.
Gope boasts of running 12 schools in Khunti, Simdega and Ranchi districts. Last week, he was busy distributing malaria prevention kits and medicines to villagers, while the police were hot on his trail. He is a fugitive on the run but manages to find time to talk to people because he is planning to contest elections soon.
Gope has amassed substantial wealth and has invested in properties in Ranchi, Chhattisgarh and Rourkela in Odisha. “He has a lot of property in Assam as well,” says SN Pradhan, additional director general (ADG) of the Jharkhand Police.
The PLFI’s origin can be traced to another group, the Jharkhand Liberation Tigers (JLT), which Gope had helped organise in 2002-03. The JLT’s cadres were Adivasis who had returned after working in the tea gardens of Assam. At that time, Gope was engaged in struggles for land rights and was battling it out with the Jainath Sahu gang, a militia armed by the local landlords. The gang allegedly raped and pillaged freely while often fighting the Maoists on behalf of the police.
Once the Sahu gang tried to push a woman from Gope’s village into prostitution. Gope says he was then on leave from a posting in Ladakh as a soldier of the Indian Army’s Bihar Regiment and protested against the gang. The Sahu gang got an FIR lodged against Gope and his brother Suresh, accusing them of dacoity. During an encounter with the police, Suresh committed suicide by shooting himself. Gope remained underground and went on to form the PLFI.
After the CPI (Maoist) was formed in 2004 following the merger of CPI-ML ( People’s War) with the Yadav-dominated Maoist Communist Centre (MCC), Maoist leader Masi Charan Purty rebelled against the new entity and joined the PLFI the next year. Purty was arrested a year later. “Purty was convinced that Gope had betrayed him and wanted to help us round up the PLFI cadres. But, he is now blind and of little use to us,” says ADG Pradhan.
Among all the LWE outfits in the state, the PLFI’s cadre strength is next only to the Maoists. The police recently put the number of Maoists in the state at 16,000. This includes armed cadres of its People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, unarmed local cadres, cultural activists, sympathisers and activists of its frontal organisations.
Unlike the Maoists, the PLFI has no frontal organisations. In the three districts where the PLFI started its operations — Ranchi, Khunti and Simdega — they have armed squads with zonal, sub-zonal and area commanders. Elsewhere, in Lohardaga, Latehar, Palamu, Chatra and West Singhbhum of Jharkhand, Jashpur of Chhattisgarh and Sundergarh of Odisha, there are only ‘franchisees’ of the PLFI brand of extortionists.
The adrenalin rush of being a part of a group of brigands and the lure of easy money draw out the impoverished youth of the region to join the PLFI. Take the case of Vijay Oraon*, son of a poor farmer in Gumla district. After he finished school, his family couldn’t afford to send him to a city for further education. “I had worn handed-down slippers all my life and was impressed by the leather shoes with the PLFI cadres. I was just 18 when I joined a local squad and went around collecting levy,” says Oraon. After he had enough money, he decided to quit and open a shop. The squad didn’t take kindly to his quitting. They came one evening and took away his motorcycle.
Some recently arrested PLFI operatives have revealed the other reasons why the youth join the outfit. Sanjay Yadav, 30, the outfit’s zonal commander in Gumla until his arrest, was a schoolteacher who joined Gope after being fired at by the Sahu gang for refusing their demand for a levy. ‘Chotka’ Sanjay joined the outfit after his sister was raped. Sukhram Oraon had been jailed in a land dispute case. There he met some PLFI cadres and decided to join them, hoping they would help him fight for justice.
Many youth join the PLFI because it gives them a feeling of being powerful. Take the case of Arvind Gudiya*, a former squad member, who parted ways with the outfit and set up a small business in Khunti. “A moneylender tried to rape my sister when my father couldn’t pay back a few instalments of his loan. I knew that if I joined the PLFI, no one would dare touch my family,” he says. It took him three years to realise that the outfit was only interested in collecting money. Now, he lives in fear of both the police, who knock on his door for information, and the PLFI.
The PLFI’s area of operation overlaps with that of the Maoists and there are occasional turf battles. Gope operates in the same area as the dreaded Kundan Pahan, the Maoists’ Chotanagpur zonal commander. When Pahan and his gang are sighted, the PLFI earns some brownie points by alerting local police officers of their whereabouts.
The PLFI cadres don’t attack the police unless they come too close to their hideout. A handful of armed cadres remain in the jungle while others move freely about town demanding levies ranging from Rs 500 from an autorickshaw driver and new shoes during someone’s wedding to several lakhs of rupees from contractors.
The PLFI’s arsenal comprises mostly handmade guns and crude grenades smuggled from Munger district in Bihar. It also has some bolt-action rifles brought by the former Maoists who joined the PLFI. The outfit also procures weapons from gunrunners.
However, electoral politics too seems to be attracting not just former Maoists but also leaders of the other LWE outfits. Purty fought the 2009 Assembly election for the Khunti seat from jail but lost by a narrow margin. Former PLFI area commander Paulus Surin contested the Torpa seat on a JMM ticket while in jail. Surin denies ever being a part of the PLFI, but a panchayat leader of a village in Torpa says that his election slogan was, “Jeetenge toh din mein aayenge; harenge toh raat mein aayenge (If I win, I will visit you during the day. If I lose, then I will come by night).” The threat worked and he won.
Meanwhile, the police have woken up to the PLFI threat and launched simultaneous operations against the outfit in Khunti, Simdega, Gumla and Ranchi districts. Around 70-80 PLFI cadres have been arrested in Gumla this year. And on 8 September, Gope had a narrow escape when a police team led by Khunti SP M Tamilvanan raided a training camp. Hopefully, PLFI’s reign of terror and its booming business of extortion would soon be put to an end.