Doubts arise over manner of arrest of Maoist leader Panda

Doubts arise over manner of arrest of Maoist leader Panda

The recent arrest of top Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda could be described as the biggest achievement of the Odisha police in the history of the anti-naxal operations in the state.

It has also turned out to be a major morale booster for the state police as he was topping the most wanted list of Left wing ultras in Odisha. “With his arrest, an era in the naxal activism in Odisha has come to an end”, says Sanjeev Marik, the newly appointed director general of the state police (DGP).

However, the important Maoist leader’s sudden arrest has thrown up several unanswered questions. And prominent among them is the manner in which he was nabbed from a house in a crowded colony in Berhampur, one of the busiest towns in southern Odisha Ganjam district.

Doubts have also cropped up whether the state police can gather sufficient evidence against him so that he can be nailed and punished in the court of law. There is also a question mark over the reduction of naxal activities in the state after his arrest.

A graduate in mathematics from a prominent government-run college in the temple town of Puri and son of  freedom fighter late Ramesh Chandra Panda who was elected to the state assembly thrice from a constituency in coastal Nayagarh district, Panda had joined the Left wing ultras in early 1990s as a simple cadre.

He came into prominence for the first time in March, 2006 when he led a Maoists’ raid on a police station and a jail in R Udaigiri town in southern Odisha Gajapati district killing four policemen and kidnapping a jailer as well as a police sub-inspector. Both, however, were released after a few days in captivity. During the attack, he had also freed 40 prisoners from the jail, majority of whom were naxal cadres.

Just two years later Panda once again become a eye-catcher not only among the Maoist leaders and cadres but also the police of all the naxal hit-states when he planned, led and successfully executed a daring attack on more than one police establishments in Nayagarh town, the headquarters of his home district of Nayagarh on a single night. That was the biggest naxal onslaught on a semi-urban centre in the entire country.

The coastal Odisha town was about to sleep on the night of February 15, 2008 when two truck load of armed men and women naxal cadres descended on the town taking it under their control.

Code named as “operation ropeway”, nearly 200  Maoists not only from Odisha but also from neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh attacked four police stations in and around Nayagarh and a police training centre killing as many as 16 policemen besides injuring several others.

The policemen and women were taken aback as they had never imagined that the Left wing ultras would dare to enter a district headquarters.


Undisputed leader

The Maoist cadres also plundered two government armouries in the town taking away with them as many as seven truck loads of arms and ammunitions worth about Rs 400 crore. Panda himself was reportedly supervising the entire operation zooming around the town in a black SUV.

The police could never recover the looted arms and ammunitions though during the combing operation in nearby jungles after the sensational attack, it could trace a few abandoned trucks used by the Maoists.

The Nayagarh attack enhanced Panda’s reputation in the CPI(Maoists) organisation and placed him as the undisputed leader of the outfit in Odisha. Subsequently, he had also masterminded and executed two other important naxal violence in the state - the August 2008 killing of Hindu religious leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati which had led to the now famous communal riots in Kandhamal district and the 2012 kidnapping of two Italians in the same Kandhamal district.

After his arrest many people described it as “staged managed” by the police. According to them, he had already surrendered with the help of his connections in the ruling BJD. In fact, soon after his arrest opposition parties, particularly the BJP, demanded a CBI probe into the entire episode to expose the top Maoist’s links with some of the BJD leaders including sitting MLAs.

“The circumstances in which he was arrested raise many questions. Such a wanted rebel hiding alone in a city without associates and with minimal firearms seems unconvincing”, the BJP legislature party leader Basanta Panda said soon after chief minister Naveen Patnaik announced in the state assembly the top Naxal’s arrest.

However, senior police officers said the naxal leader was forced to hide alone. “After Panda was sacked from the CPI(Maoists) in the latter part of 2012 following his differences with senior colleagues in the organisation, the naxal cadres were gunning for his head. On the other hand, the state police was also narrowing on him.

Therefore, he had no other option but to hide like a mouse in a town changing his identity”, said a police official. The state police is also confident that the evidences it has gathered are enough to pin Panda down in the court of law, at least in two important cases - that of the Nayagarh attack and the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

If police DGP Marik is to be believed, the lone fire arm - a pistol - recovered from the Maoist leader’s possession belonged to the police which was looted from the armoury in Nayagarh.

Panda issued a statement after the killing of Saraswati owning responsibility for the religious leader’s murder. Confessional statements made by some arrested Maoist cadres had also confirmed the top left ultra’s involvement in the case. The police is now contemplating to use all these materials against Panda in the court of law.

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