When a beaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi was waxing eloquent in Chhattisgarh on 9 May, announcing that “the dance of death” in Adivasi-dominated Bastar would one day come to an end, the Maharashtra Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) struck a big blow to the CPI (Maoist) — the outlawed party leading the left-wing insurgency across vast tracts of central India. The ATS arrested K Muraleedharan alias Ajith, a 62-year-old Maoist ideologue of international repute and well-known in Kerala’s activist circles as Kannambally Murali, along with CP Ismail, 29, who was attending to him.
Human rights activists and prominent intellectuals have come out in the open against the manner in which the police carried out the arrests. The police action has drawn flak also because the frail sexagenarian ideologue did not have any major cases against him and was picked up when he was being treated for a heart ailment. He had reportedly undergone a bypass surgery last year.
Will Murali’s arrest just a few days after four Maoist activists were nabbed in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, be a game-changer in the Indian State’s fight against its “biggest internal security threat”? Since the insurgent organisation’s strength and striking power has seen many ups and downs over the years, even the most confident internal security analyst would not claim that all is over for the radical Left party. What is clear, however, is that the series of arrests within a short span of time would stifle the CPI (Maoist)’s efforts to open a “new war front” in the Western Ghats tri-junction that is spread across the mountainous border regions of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
The Big Catch
The recent arrest of the Maoist leaders from Coimbatore and Pune is a big blow to the outlawed party’s plan to operate from the strategically sensitive Western Ghats. Those arrested from Coimbatore are considered to be coordinating the insurgents’ activities in and around the Ghats in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. But sympathisers and the police agree that it is Murali’s arrest that has dealt a serious blow to the Maoist movement in India.
Murali, hailing from Kerala, is reported to be one of the senior central committee members of the CPI (Maoist). An ideologue and scholar, who maintained close contact with international Maoist movements, Murali had been underground for the greater part of his life. Son of former diplomat Karunakara Menon, Murali studied at the prestigious Regional Engineering College in Kozhikode, Kerala. He was initiated to Naxalite politics during the Emergency imposed by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.
Murali quit college at the height of the struggle against the Emergency and went underground to become part of the radical Left movement in the state. Later, he wrote Bhoomi, Jadi, Bandanam (Land, Caste and Servitude) based on his research into caste and agrarian relations. That book was a huge hit among activists and scholars in Kerala. He was also the editor of A World to Win, the mouthpiece of the Revolutionary International Movement (RIM), a now-defunct association of Maoist parties across the globe.
According to K Venu, former general secretary of the erstwhile Central Reorganising Committee, CPI(ML) (better known as the CRC-CPIML), Murali was quite active in RIM and acted as a mediator when ideological differences reared their head within the CPN (Maoist) in Nepal before they started armed struggle against the monarchy.
After the CRC-CPIML, which had influence in pockets of Kerala, Maharashtra and some other parts of the country, was dissolved in the early 1990s, Murali and others formed the Kerala Communist Party, which went on to become part of the CPI-ML (Naxalbari). Meanwhile, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the CPI-ML (People’s War) merged on 21 September 2004, leading to the formation of the CPI (Maoist). Ten years later, the CPI-ML (Naxalbari) merged with the CPI (Maoist).
Referring to the merger with the CPI-ML ( Naxalbari), the CPI (Maoist) claimed in a statement released two months ago and published in the party organ People’s March: “This has played an important role in the successful opening of a new front of the people’s war in Keralam. For the people of Keralam, this is a decisive step towards realising the revolutionary road long blockaded by revisionism. For the Maoist movement in India as a whole, it is the promise of firmly repudiating opportunist theses that deny the validity of the new democratic revolution and the people’s war in regions that are relatively advanced. As such, it is already a rebuttal, in deeds, of the Indian State’s claim to have isolated and restricted the revolutionary movement to central and eastern India.”
If occasional attacks against multinational companies and illegal quarries means successful political advancement in the eyes of the Maoist party, then they have indeed made their presence felt in the northern and central parts of Kerala and southern Karnataka over the past one year. But, apart from dividing the civil society activists into those who support their ideology and those who don’t, there is nothing to suggest that the Maoists have been able to influence the political mind of Kerala, which was once a hotbed of radical Left politics in India, especially during and after the Emergency in the mid-1970s.
Now, with the arrest of Roopesh, his wife Shyna and other alleged Maoist activists, the war launched recently by the Maoists in the Western Ghats has suffered a setback. Roopesh was reportedly heading the Western Ghats Special Zonal Committee of the CPI (Maoist), which is the top leading body for the Maoist movement in the border regions of the Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka tri-junction. The police claim that he was arrested along with Shyna and two others on 4 May from Coimbatore.
However, while the police were taking Roopesh to the magistrate’s court, he told the journalists who had gathered there for a glimpse of the “most wanted Maoist” that they were “abducted” by plainclothesmen from the Andhra Pradesh Special Intelligence Branch (APSIB) from Vindhya Nagar in that state. He said he and his wife were on their way to get treatment for some health issues when they were picked up and kept in “illegal custody” by the APSIB. Denied legal aid for days, they had to resort to a hunger strike to force the police to produce them before the court, alleged Roopesh. The “abducted” four were also allegedly tortured and deprived of sleep for days on end.
Ever since the formation of the Special Zonal Committee, the Maoists have carried out several attacks in Kerala. The targets have ranged from forest department offices in Palakkad and Wayanad districts, which they vandalised, to local Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds’ outlets. They also attacked the Kochi head office of Nita Gelatin, a company that was already facing the ire of locals for polluting the environment. The Kochi attack was carried out in broad daylight.
According to the documents submitted by the police at the Coimbatore Judicial Magistrate Court, four armed squads of the Maoist party are already operating in the region and reaching out to the predominantly Adivasi villagers. Kesavan, legal counsel for the Maoists arrested in Tamil Nadu, tells Tehelka that there are six cases against Roopesh in Kerala and four against Shyana.
Our Land, Our Forests!
To the Maoists, the Western Ghats has great strategic importance in the war against the Indian State as the geographical terrain is suitable for taking on the relatively stronger security forces militarily even as the political terrain, too, is apt, given the predominantly Adivasi population that lives in conditions of extreme misery and faces constant harassment and hostility of various State agencies, including the forest department. Even the police agree that the region provides a conducive atmosphere for the clandestine operations of the Maoist party.
Since many mining companies are trying to start operations in the Western Ghats and its neighbourhood, the Maoists hope to cash in on the disenchantment of the local Adivasis to mobilise them for creating a new guerrilla zone that can provide the rebel forces a safe haven for resting, regrouping and training when the ongoing military-style crackdown gets more intense in the “Red corridor” that goes all the way from the Odisha-Andhra Pradesh border region to Jharkhand through the forests of Dandakaranya (another strategic trijunction of the border areas of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh).
The Banasura and Brahmagiri mountain ranges and the dense forest cover make the Kerala-Tamil Nadu-Karnataka trijunction a suitable zone for building a “people’s army” from scratch by recruiting from the impoverished and marginalised forest-dwellers. As the Maoist politico- military strategy is based on bringing to the fore the contradictions between the interests of the predominant majority of people in a chosen territory, including the most oppressed sections, and the “development model” promoted by the State as well as the structures of governance through which it is implemented, the rebels identified the most pressing concerns of the largely Adivasi population of the region, carried out propaganda on those issues among the mostly illiterate people and started mobilising them for protests.
What worked as a god-sent for the Maoists was the Karnataka government’s plan to acquire large tracts of forestland for mining and the long-simmering issue of Adivasis’ control over land in the forests of Kerala. These became key to the rebels’ plan of building a “people’s army” and parallel structures of governance in the remote forest hamlets, forged from the bottom-up in the midst of intense political agitation over the life-and-death issues of the locals, albeit organised under a clandestine leadership that takes refuge in inaccessible terrain and keeps constantly on the move to avoid unplanned confrontations with the security forces.
To understand how the State creates the very conditions that provide the Maoists a launchpad for waging a guerrilla war against the security forces, take the longstanding issue of the alienation of tribal land in Kerala, which has over the decades given rise to numerous agitations and lent grist to anti-government propaganda in the civil society. The centerpiece in this story was a 1975 Act that sought to restore to the Adivasis the right over their land, which had gone into the hands of non-Adivasi ‘outsiders’ — mostly landlords moneylenders, traders and government officials. This turned out to be a law that could not be implemented as it would have gone against the interests of a powerful section of society, which wielded influence over the two ‘mainstream’ political options available in Kerala — the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). Both the fronts, during their respective tenures in power, brought in amendments to the Act that did away with the legal protection it gave the Adivasis.