Police slack in combating Maoists in Kerala

Police slack in combating Maoists in Kerala

The exchange of fire between suspected insurgents and members of Thunderbolts – a commando force under Kerala Police – in Vellamunda in Wayanad district, on December 7 last year, may have added credence to a long-in-the-making story of Maoist presence in the state.

The Congress-led state government has maintained that the Maoist insurgents had a presence in the northern districts of Kannur, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Wayanad and Palakkad. But with what is dubbed as the first armed confrontation between state forces and the insurgents, leading to announcements of intensified combing operations and attempts to wrest control on alleged conflict zones, life in these tribal belts could just get more unsettling.

The police have left many questions around the confrontation, that happened near a tribal colony, unanswered. The government versions mentioned recovery of clothes purportedly belonging to the insurgents but they don’t go beyond functional details on the incident; the official line on response to the firing has been guarded. In December, suspected insurgents attacked the Silent Valley Range office in Mukkali near Attappadi in Palakkad and a forest outpost at Kunhome in Wayanad.

The same day, A KFC outlet and a McDonalds outlet in Chandranagar in Palakkad were attacked. Two students allegedly involved in the attack – Sreekanth Prabhakaran and Arun Balan – were later booked under sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Three weeks after their arrest the police, however, are yet to trace the attacks to Maoist insurgency.

The Home Department has so far taken a non-committal stance on assigning motive to the attacks. Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala has stuck to an all-clear line since the incident in Wayanad. He has maintained that the state is ready for any insurgent-triggered contingency and there is no need to “panic”. Later, he called the attackers anti-social elements posing as Maoists. “These are part of an attempt to create fear among the public.

Whoever is behind the attacks are using Maoists as a front,” the minister said. The government has dubbed vandalising of its properties as unconvincing attempts by the attackers to project themselves as leaders of a fight for the marginalised against state apathy. That’s the traditional line they take to expand their base but in Kerala, the movement does not enjoy local support, according to Chennithala.

The government story is also backed with pamphlets issued in the name of local committees of the CPI(Maoist) and recovered from the scenes of attack, invariably calling for armed retaliation against police atrocities and administrative neglect of tribal regions in Attappadi and Wayanad.Further, there are witness accounts that paint the insurgents as armed men who lurk around the jungles and sneak into tribal settlements for supplies.

The tribal in suspected Maoist stretches of the state has, over the past couple of years, had a regular part in the story – of a hassled narrator caught in between. The threat of ideology-driven insurgency could be real but so is an orchestrated attempt to magnify, and often misrepresent, the issue and the government’s response, according to activists working in the state’s tribal regions. They maintain that insurgency and the government’s counter-insurgency thrust could serve interests on both sides while the tribal is reduced to a safe pretext.  

Isolating tribal belts

The Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (AGMS) alleges that there are collaborative efforts by elements in the government and the insurgents to propagate the terror story and ensure that tribal belts are isolated and left for ganja cultivators and stone-quarrying groups to thrive. M Geethanandan, coordinator of AGMS, points out that areas with reported Maoist presence have shown an increase in extents of ganja cultivation and organised illegal activities.

“The presence of Maoist insurgents could be real but the rise in the number of these attacks also reflects an attempt to build a story of terror around tribal regions and to use these stretches for illegal activities,” Geethanandan told Deccan Herald. The AGMS leader says there are reasons to question the Maoist story because the insurgents’ political programme did not constitute tribal welfare as a key agenda. “If their political programme is any indication, they would’ve tried to expand their base through farmers,” he says.   

The police have recovered literature from the vandalised forest offices that called for an uprising of farmers in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. A private resort and a stone-quarrying unit have been attacked and statements issued in the name of CPI(Maoist) against illegal money-lending rackets. The insurgents’ attempts to emerge as the voice of the marginalised are evident but the real story is somewhere behind a curtain of terror, according to tribal welfare activists in the northern districts. “These attacks help a campaign that projects Maoists as having a stronghold in tribal hamlets. The truth is that the insurgents have not made inroads into tribal communities,” an activist said.

Government Chief Whip P C George has taken on the government in an apparent endorsement of the Maoists’ “pro-people” activities – “Fight them on ideology, not with arms,” he said. The story is getting murkier with the ruling coalition itself having different voices on the issue. With vigil increased – also in the backdrop of fresh warnings from the Centre about possible Maoist attacks on government institutions – and every incident of vandalising of property viewed against the backdrop of a possible insurgent link, the story could get intriguing.

Geethanandan feels that the Maoist threat is an issue the government will continue to follow up. “The government is forced to project itself as a protector here because it has failed miserably in implementing welfare programmes in tribal regions,” he said.