Are the armed Maoists operating in the Western Ghats marked for death by the commando unit of the Kerala Police? Abdul Latheef Naha, E.M. Manoj and Mini Muringatheri piece together information on the recent encounter killings in the Attappady forest area
The concertina wire on the unusually high perimeter wall of the Agali Police Station at Attappady in Palakkad district is the first tell-tale sign of unrest in this predominantly tribal region nestled below the Nilgiri Hills in the Western Ghats in Kerala. Armed commandos scour the locality from watchtowers. Police officers clad in battle fatigues and brandishing automatic assault rifles scan visitors with wary eyes.
Agali is one of the dozen-odd high-security police stations in Kerala fortified against a potential attack from Maoists. The fear of a retaliatory strike on the station is palpable following the controversial “encounter killing” of four Maoists, including a woman, by police commandos in the nearby Mele Manjikkandi forests on October 28.
Further to the north of the State is what the police call the ‘tri-junction’, a vast forested expanse linking Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The broad swathe of dense jungle spans the Muthanga forest reserve in Kerala and the adjacent Bandipur and Mudumalai wildlife sanctuaries in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, respectively. The forests are home to many tribal sects including the particularly vulnerable Kattunayakkan and Cholanayakkan groups that have a storied history of resistance to colonial masters.
Since the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government took power in 2016, a deadly cat and mouse game between the elite Thunderbolt commandos of the Kerala police and the elusive foot soldiers of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist) has played out in the dense forests with lethal consequences. So far, the commandos have killed seven Maoists in three separate operations over three years without casualties or injuries to those on the side of law enforcement. The tense stand-off has transformed the hilly locality into a veritable guerrilla war zone.
In 2016, the police gunned down Maoist leaders Kuppuswamy Devaraj and Ajitha in the Nilambur forests of Malappuram district. In March 2019, they shot dead C.P. Jaleel near a forest resort in Vythiri in Wayanad district. Last month, a Thunderbolt team killed Maoist cadres Manivasakam, Karthi, Arvind alias Suresh, and Rema in “retaliatory fire”.
The Pinarayi Vijayan government said the “encounter killings” were an “act of self-defence”. However, civil society in Kerala appeared revolted by the latest paroxysm of bloodshed in the law enforcement’s long-running campaign to prevent operational space for armed Maoist rebels in the State’s vast forests and tribal settlements.
Last Friday, a fact-finding team of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a principal partner in the ruling LDF coalition, visited the “encounter spot”. CPI State Assistant Secretary K. Prakash Babu seemed unconvinced by the official version of the encounter. Legislators E.K. Vijayan and Muhammed Muhassin and CPI district secretary, Palakkad, K.P. Suresh Raj, conducted the public enquiry. Last Tuesday, the CPI submitted its report to the Chief Minister in his chamber at the Kerala Legislative Assembly. Later, outside the Assembly gates, Prakash claimed the commandos had killed the rebels in cold blood.
According to the report of the CPI, the arbitrary police action caught the Maoists off guard. They were eating when they died in a hail of bullets. Local tribal leaders Shivani and Murugan were purportedly negotiating the surrender of the rebels with a senior officer when death came unexpectedly to the Maoists in the form of the commandos.
Prakash said Manivasakam was ailing from severe diabetic complications. Forensic doctors found his legs broken. The commandos seemed to have shot him from close range. The woman Maoist was in no condition to fight as she had given birth to a child recently, he said. “It is a cruel homicide by the police meant to force the Left government on the defensive,” Prakash later told The Hindu. He rubbished the police claim that the commandos had fired in self-defence.
But the Chief Minister was in no doubt that the Maoists had fired upon a police jungle patrol and the commandos had killed them in retaliatory fire. The police had seized an array of weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle, few .303 bolt action rifles, 12 gauge shotguns and country-made muzzle-loading rifles from the “rebel camp”.
While terming the loss of life as unfortunate, Vijayan said it was fallacious to portray armed Maoists, intent on toppling the democratic State, as “benign angels and harmless lambs”. The official narrative of a serious Maoist threat found substantiation in the combat training videos released by the police, which featured some rebels who broke out of their encirclement and fled.
The government has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the killings. But similar investigations into the encounter killings in Nilambur and Vythiri in Wayanad have revealed little. The killings took place in lonely spots in rugged forest terrain far away from human habitation, making it challenging to investigate conflicting claims. The Hindu could not independently validate the statement that the Maoists in Attappady were poised to surrender when the commandos shot them.
Fear in Attappady
Fear seemed to have gripped Attappady after the killings. Tribals were afraid to speak to outsiders. They seemed to be scared of both the Maoists and the police. “We did not see any Maoist. We did not even hear the gunshots,” said Chellan and Vijayalakshmi, an Adivasi couple living in a thatched hutment close to the spot where the police killed the Maoists. The tribal leaders who tried to broker amnesty for the Maoists with a senior police officer have also turned silent after the killings.
“It’s a fake encounter. Only a judicial investigation can expose it,” said CPI (ML) Red Flag general secretary M.S. Jayakumar after visiting the area. C.P. John, general secretary of the Communist Marxist Party, echoed a similar sentiment after a fact-finding visit to the remote locality.
Tribal leader Eswari Resan, former block panchayat president of Attappady, was vocal in her resentment of the police. “The tribespeople have had no issues with the Maoists. The Maoists have never attempted to turn the Adivasis of Attappady against the government. But the police action has brought fear to the hamlets in Attappady,” she said. The armed rebels often sought rice and other meagre rations from forest-dwelling tribes, she added.
The ongoing anti-Maoist operations have disrupted the life of forest dwellers. The tribal people are fearful of grazing their cattle on the grassy knolls of the Western Ghats or venturing deep into the undergrowth to harvest forest produce. They fear they might get caught in a sudden crossfire between the police and armed Maoists.
In a court filing in the District and Sessions Court, Palakkad, District Police Chief G. Siva Vikram said the Maoists were killed in retaliatory fire by commandos in two separate encounters on October 28 and 29. “It was a risky action by the commandos. The Maoists engaged them while they were patrolling the Gottiyarkandy, Mele Manjikkandi, and Mele Abannoor areas,” he told The Hindu. The 14-member Thunderbolt commando team that gunned down the Maoists had a definite edge over the ultras not only in training but in equipment as well. Vikram said the .303 rifles recovered from the Maoist tent were reported stolen from a police station in Odisha. The police were tracing the provenance of the AK-47 and other weapons. The police had complied with the 16-point guidelines set by the Supreme Court in the event of an encounter death, Vikram said. The court had accepted the police report and rejected arguments to the contrary, he added.
Pappan, a local whom the police had cited as a witness in their inquest report, said during the inquest formalities on October 29, “We were forced to lie down for over an hour when the firing took place. After the firing was over, the body of Manivasakam was recovered from behind a bamboo bush.” According to him, the body of the three Maoists killed on October 28 had begun to decompose when he saw them. “In the forest, decomposition takes place very fast,” Pappan said.
The Maoists had camped at a vantage point that afforded them a good view of the forest. The police had found cooked rice and sprouted green gram in the tent along with raw and cooked bush meat. The presence of cooked food had been cited to give some credence to the theory that the police had gunned down the rebels while they were eating in peace.
Outside the morgue
Sitting under a tree on the sprawling Thrissur Medical College campus, Meenamma sobbed inconsolably on October 30. She kept insisting that her son, Karthi, killed in Attappady, was no “Maoist”. Inside the hospital morgue, Karthi’s body lay on the autopsy table.
The police had brought the bodies of the four rebels to the hospital for a forensic post-mortem examination. They had thrown a security blanket over the morgue area fearing Maoist retaliation or disruption of the legal process by the supporters of the proscribed organisation.
Meenamma and her elder son Murugeshan had come to receive Karthi’s body. The family hails from Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu. Meenamma said Karthi had left home in 2014 and had rarely been in touch with his family. She said she could not reconcile with the police version that her son had turned an armed rebel and died in a gun battle with commandos. She pleaded with the police to let them see her son’s body. Murugeshan, a member of the CPI(M), said he could not believe his brother had embraced the Maoist cause. Karthi was apolitical in his student days, he said.
Lakshmi, Manivasakam’s sister, was also on the campus with her husband. The police did not allow anybody to access the morgue or see the bodies. Manivasakam, a post-graduate in English literature, had joined the Maoist movement in early 2000 after organising farmers under the communist banner in Salem in the late 1990s, the police said.
The police allowed the relatives to inspect the bodies of the slain Maoists only after Manivasakam’s wife procured a favourable order from the High Court in Chennai. The relatives said the bodies were so disfigured and decomposed that even they found it difficult to identify them. Murugeshan said the sight of the disfigured corpses had terrified him. Karthi’s face was beyond recognition, he said. He could not state for sure if it was his brother.
On October 31, Manjunath, a farmworker from Chikmagalur in Karnataka, arrived to identify the body of Suresh, another slain Maoist. “The man wept uncontrollably and fell at the feet of everybody standing inside the mortuary and lamented loudly in Kannada,” an eyewitness said. Manjunath said his brother Suresh, the youngest of five siblings, was a graduate in political science and had left home in 1999. He never returned.
Another family also turned up claiming that the body resembling that of Karthi was their relative. But they said they could not make a definite identification. It appeared that only the relatives of Manivasakam were positive about the identity of their family member. Lakshmi, who identified the body, said it was a gruesome sight. “They had scooped out the eyes of my brother,” she said. “Both legs were fractured. There were wounds all over his body.”
So far nobody has turned up to claim the body of Rema. An unconfirmed version said she was with a six-month-old baby when the gun battle occurred. Forensic doctors found undigested food in her stomach. They recovered five bullets from her body. They reportedly concluded that the Maoists, except for Manivasakam, were shot from behind.
Jaleel’s killing and after
Meanwhile, several human rights activists and relatives of the slain have moved the court to preserve the bodies for another post-mortem. Not far from Palakkad, the verdant hilly district of Wayanad represented by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Parliament has been a hotbed of Maoist activity since the 1960s. Maoists had famously attacked the Pulpally police station in 1969. The anti-Maoist action led to the extrajudicial killing of A. Varghese, a Naxalite leader, in 1970. Wayanad witnessed a resurgence of covert Maoist activity in 2013. The armed rebels frequented tribal hamlets, camped in the forests and disseminated propaganda material in urban localities.
“The Maoists are very persuasive. Many among them talk to us in Malayalam, says Sankaran (name changed),” a tribal youth in Sugandhagiri, Wayanad. “They explain issues and suggest possible measures to be adopted. When they visit our colony at odd hours, they treat us respectfully. Women are always engaged in conversation only in the presence of women cadre. And they try to explain things patiently,” he said.
The situation in Wayanad appears to be in many ways similar to that in Palakkad. District Police Chief, Wayanad, R. Karuppasamy, said the police have fortified close to 10 police stations in the district. They have intensified patrolling and area domination exercises involving armed commandos. Anti-Naxal forces and Thunderbolt commandos are on standby.
In 2014, the police and Maoists engaged each other in a gun battle in Chappa forests. Five years later, in March 2019, the police shot dead Maoist leader C.P. Jaleel, in Vythiri. Jaleel’s killing had triggered a public outcry. The Congress-led United Democratic Front and the CPI discounted the police version that commandos had killed him in retaliatory fire. Human rights activists found common cause with them. A forensic examination later concluded that Jaleel had been shot from behind, possibly when he attempted to flee the police that arrived at the resort suddenly. It turned out that Jaleel and a party comrade had turned up at the resort to extort cash and provisions. Jaleel’s brother and a human rights activist C.P. Rasheed told The Hindu that the police had killed Jaleel in a fake encounter. Circumstantial evidence showed that a fire fight had never occurred at the place and his brother was shot at sight, he said. The police had released three videos regarding the encounter, and the third video revealed that the police had shot Jaleel dead while he was trying to escape from the resort, he added. The Kerala government had ordered a Crime Branch inquiry into the incident, but the police are yet to collect evidence from him or his mother, said Rasheed. Though a magisterial probe was also initiated into the death, it has not been completed.
Wayanad District Collector A.R. Ajayakumar said militants often try to influence tribals and estate workers by focusing on underdevelopment in settlements and colonies. In a bid to wean them away from the Maoist influence, the district administration has launched several welfare schemes, he said. The police have also undertaken several programmes to win over the local youth. Karuppasamy said the police outreach included setting up of libraries, disbursing sports kits for youths, regular coaching classes for Public Service Commission examinations for youth, and medical camps and improved infrastructure facilities for estate workers. The district administration has launched welfare schemes worth ₹21 crore for tribal people under the Sugandhagiri cardamom project in Lakkidi. Citing the findings of a recent survey, Ajayakumar said Wayanad is home to 3,215 landless, homeless tribal families. He said the government is planning to provide 10 cents of land and a house for 1,000 families in the initial phase. It has identified the area for the project.
The lack of regular intervention of various departments in the tribal sector is the primary reason for infiltration of Maoists in tribal settlements, says Edakkal Mohanan, a tribal activist and a member of a district-level Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste monitoring committee. The LDF government has appointed nearly 160 tribal youth in the police, excise and forest departments. But that alone will not suffice to address the issues that plague ethnic groups such as the Paniya and Kattunayakkan tribal sects, he said.
The government has to grapple with issues like increasing school drop-outs among tribal students, alcohol addiction among tribal people and the shortage of basic amenities in tribal settlements. Mohanan said a collective effort by all State agencies was the need of the hour to counter Maoist influence among forest dwellers.
Misuse of the UAPA?
Meanwhile, the arrest of two students, both CPI(M) members, on suspicion of having Maoist links, has reignited a sharp public debate in Kerala on the misuse of the harsh provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Both this incident and the killing of the four Maoists saw the UDF and the CPI on the same page.
The developments also served as a backdrop to a raging dispute in the mainstream and social media on the question of whether a police “deep state” was increasingly threatening the democratically vibrant State.
In an unusual show of support for the jailed members of the ruling party, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala slammed Vijayan for “inertly allowing the police” to “blight the future” of two promising youths. The controversy has also “exposed” the LDF government’s “non-fulfilment” of its promise in 2017 to review 162 odd UAPA cases registered in Kerala since 2012.
One of the jailed students is Alan Suhaib, 21. He is a law student and grandson of veteran communist “Savithri teacher”. The other is Taha Fasal, 20, a journalism student who hails from a family of CPI(M) workers. He did manual labour to afford tuition fee and support his ailing parents. Chennithala said the top police bureaucracy had from its privileged seclusion cast down two “children” into a purgatory meant for the hardest of criminals.
Perhaps, Alan’s aunt Sajitha Madathil, a thespian, best encapsulated the fraught political situation in Kerala following the Maoist killings and UAPA arrests, in a poignant Facebook post. She wrote that she would warn her jailed nephew against even wearing a red dhoti in Kerala’s arguably Kafkaesque environment. Ironically, the CPI(M), often accused of interference in law and order matters while in power, now faces flak for giving a free hand to the police.