A fading red zone in Telangana

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A series of killings of Maoists, the latest being on January 18, has given the Greyhounds of Telangana a firm upper hand in their fight against the outlawed CPI (Maoist). Marri Ramu reports on how state measures, socio-economic changes and the Maoists’ inability to attract new cadres are impacting the insurgency

It was 6 a.m. on December 26, 2021. With dense fog all around, Telangana’s Greyhounds, billed as one of the best commando forces in Southeast Asia, had to watch every step of their boot-strapped feet in the dense forests of Chhattisgarh, known to be filled with booby traps. Darkness was diminishing and the sun’s rays were beginning to pierce through the canopy of trees. The commandos could see shadows but the fog obscured their view. Assisted by their counterparts in Chhattisgarh, they were on the lookout for members of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) on the borders of Sukma and Bijapur. The armed commandos continued moving until they spotted a Maoist patrolling team of five to six members a kilometre away. Apparently, the Maoists were standing guard for important comrades and leaders who were some distance away. An eerie silence followed. In hushed tones, the commandos discussed whether they should lunge at the enemy in a sudden move or reach closer and pull the trigger.

Choosing the second option, they silently inched their way towards the Maoists. They had barely moved when one of the Maoist sentries spotted them. He frantically took out his weapon and pulled the trigger, alerting his associates. Realising that their opponents had identified them, the commandos started returning fire. For the next few minutes, the forest reverberated with the sound of gun shots. Some bullets ricocheted off the trees. The commandos, who often run half-marathons as part of training, chased the Maoists, spraying bullets with their AK-47s and 9 mm carbine guns.

Taken aback at this unexpected attack at daybreak, the Maoists ran for cover behind the trees as bullets buzzed past them. They shouted and sent signals to their comrades so that they would not get caught in the crossfire. The exchange of fire continued for some time and then the forest fell silent. After making sure that their opponents had fled the area, the commandos combed the area. They found the bodies of six Maoists. Four of them were women. This was the account that the Greyhounds gave of that morning.

A big victory

The exchange of fire (EoF) towards the end of the year turned out to be a big victory for the Telangana Police. The ‘neutralisation of the Maoists’ may have occurred on Chhattisgarh soil, but it re-enforced the upper hand of the Telangana police in their ongoing battle with the Maoists.

The next day, the Maoists issued a statement describing the incident as a “fake encounter”. “Police got frustrated as they could not locate us during their searches in the forest. They picked up six locals, shot them down and cooked up the story of [an] encounter,” the statement said.

Five days before this EoF, the Maoists had summoned K. Ramesh, a former sarpanch of K. Kondapuram village in Mulugu district, to the forest of adjacent Bijapur in Chhattisgarh. The village leader went there with an acquaintance only to be detained that night. The Maoists let off the acquaintance but a day later, Ramesh was found shot dead in the forest with a letter from the Maoists stating that he had lost his life for acting as a “police informer”. Police sources said that it was this murder that compelled them to launch searches in the border areas of the two States.

Villagers said the toll would have been much higher if the sentry had not opened fire. “A training camp with militants and villagers was being held there. They were about to leave the place when the firing started,” a villager said to journalists. An intelligence official said there could have been more losses but the “forces did their best”.

The spot where the EoF took place was barely 20 km from the Telangana border. This was the fourth breakthrough, a big one, for the police in 2021. The Maoists described the EoF as a “typical concocted story and a clear fake encounter” but the joint combing operations of the commando forces of the two States did not stop.

A spree of killings

Combined squads of the police commandos of the two States received yet another shot in the arm three weeks later, on January 18, 2022, when they neutralised three more Maoists in the Karreguttalu forest on the Chhattisgarh-Telangana border. A woman was among the slain Maoists. Ten rocket launchers, a self-loading rifle and an INSAS rifle were recovered from the site of the EoF.

“This second EoF within a month has dealt a serious blow to the proscribed organisation. The fact that a Greyhounds commando sustained bullet wounds in the EoF shatters the ultras’ claim that the EoF was a fake encounter. The commando was airlifted to a hospital in Hyderabad where he is being treated,” a senior officer said.

The officer, who was unwilling to be named, described the killing of an ex-Sarpanch in Mulugu district by the Maoists as a strategic mistake. Maoist squads holding sway in Chhattisgarh executed the village leader, branding him a police informer, apparently in a bid to convey that they had not lost ground.

Nearly seven months earlier, on June 16, 2021, the Telangana Police had given ‘key inputs’ to their counterparts in Andhra Pradesh to help the latter ‘neutralise’ six Maoists in the Theegalametta forest area under Mampa police station limits in Visakhapatnam Agency. That was a serious blow to the operations of Maoists in the Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC). Three of the slain ultras were women. Of the remaining three, one was incidentally from a village in the Peddapalli district of Telangana.

Two months later, commandos ‘neutralised’ another Maoist, Madvi Ungal alias Chotu, in an EoF at the Bodanalli forest area of Charla mandal in Bhadradri Kothagudem district. With the death of Ungal, said to be the sibling of a top Maoist leader, Madvi Hidma, the police emerged triumphant yet again in the battle against the Maoists.

If a tip-off helped the police gun down six Maoists in Visakhapatnam Agency, a joint operation of the Telangana Police with their Chhattisgarh counterparts proved equally successful on October 25. This time, victory was recorded on Chhattisgarh soil in the Karreguttalu forest area of Bijapur. Three Maoists, all from Chhatisgarh, were killed.

Gaining an upper hand

The spree of EoFs have led the Telangana Police to claim an irrefutable advantage in the war against ultras not only in their jurisdiction but also in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

This is in stark contrast to what the people, the police and politicians had witnessed during the peak of Maoist activities in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The Maoists were fondly called ‘annalu’ (elder brothers) by some. The most dominant group of them was the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War. Hundreds of police personnel lost their lives during this period to Maoist attacks, including three IPS officers. K.S. Vyas, instrumental in the formation of the Greyhounds, was assassinated in 1993 in a surprise attack in Lal Bahadur Stadium in Hyderabad. The same year, Mahbubnagar Superintendent of Police G. Paradesi Naidu was killed along with nine other policemen in a landmine blast. Six years later, IPS officer Ch. Umesh Chandra, who was unarmed, was gunned down by Maoists at S.R. Nagar in the State capital while he was heading to office.

After these challenging times, the concerted efforts of Intelligence officials and the Greyhounds reduced the threat posed by the Maoists. By 2010, the Maoists began suffering more losses, while deaths of police forces dipped considerably.

In fact, when the agitation for a separate Telangana State peaked after 2010, those opposing statehood argued that the Maoists could take over Telangana. They cited the assassination of the then Home Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, A. Madhava Reddy, in a blast near Ghatkesar, less than 30 km from the Secretariat in Hyderabad on March 7, as an example of what would happen in the event of the creation of a separate State. Some even went to the extent of contending that the creation of a separate Telangana would mean offering the region to the Maoists on a silver platter. All such contentions fell flat with the police establishing control over the Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) movement after Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh on June 2, 2014.

In undivided Andhra Pradesh, at least eight districts out of 10 were directly or indirectly affected by the ultras. In the remaining two, Hyderabad and Ranga Reddy, there were reports of movements of couriers and Maoist sympathisers. These 10 districts were eventually re-organised into 33 districts in Telangana. Since the inception of Telangana, law-enforcement agencies have clearly established their command over LWE activists in all the districts barring Jayashankar Bhupalpally, Mulugu and Bhadradri Kothagudem. While Bhupalpally has a border with Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, Bhadradri Kothagudem has a border with Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Mulugu shares a border with the Bijapur and Sukma districts of Chhattisgarh, which is the present bastion of Maoists. “Soon the whole of Telangana will be free of Maoists and all LWE groups,” said Telangana Director General of Police M. Mahender Reddy after the deaths of six Maoists on December 27.

There is more than one reason for the State Police chief’s confidence. The Telangana Police never slowed down even after they gained the upper hand in the battle against the Maoists. In fact, they launched stronger offensives against the ultras soon after the administrative machinery settled down after initial hiccups of State formation.

In the new State, the police had their first face-off with the Maoists on September 16, 2015, with Sruthi and Vidyasagar Reddy getting killed in an ‘encounter’ in the Tadvai forests of Warangal district. Revolutionary writer Varavara Rao and several civil rights activists then alleged that Sruthi had been subjected to torture and acid had been poured on her before she was killed. The deaths of Sruthi and Reddy impacted the Maoists, who supported the creation of a separate Telangana State and were planning to regain their foothold.

While they were attempting to regain strength, Koora Rajanna, a former Maoist of the CPI-ML, Chandra Pulla Reddy and some others ganged up to create a new splinter group. They secured firearms and were waiting for an opportunity to prove their might when the police struck in Tekumalla forest of Bhadradri Kothagudem. Nine persons, reportedly including a Registered Medical Practitioner who is believed to have tipped off the police about the group’s movements, were killed in the EoF in December 2017.

This ‘encounter’ sent the message that the Telangana Police were going all out to prevent all the attempts being made to revive the LWE movement. That they could be ruthless when tackling armed militants was established again in March 2018. Ten Maoists were killed when the Greyhounds carried out an operation jointly with the Chhattisgarh Police on the borders of the two States abutting the Bhadradri Kothagudem and Sukma districts. The Greyhounds too suffered a blow with one of their commandos losing his life in the fiercely fought gun battle. This and the death of a Home Guard in 2020 were the only losses suffered by the State forces in the war against LWE activists in the seven years and seven months since the creation of Telangana State.

Socio-economic changes

Besides the efforts of the police, socio-economic changes in rural Telangana are making it difficult for the Maoists to attract fresh blood. In the 1980s and 1990s, several families found it difficult to make ends meet in some interior villages of the region. The advent of television, mobile phones and Internet have changed the lives of youngsters. It has become tough for the Maoists to recruit cadres. They mostly recruit members of tribal communities like the Koyas or Guthi Koyas now.

An intelligence report says that of the total underground cadres of the CPI-Maoist Telangana State Committee, 50 are from Chhattisgarh and 11 from Andhra Pradesh. Only 30 are from Telangana. “Most people are getting land for cultivation… due to this people think there is no need of CPI-Maoist party for them…,” said the diary notes of Mailarapu Adellu, Maoist Adilabad District Committee Secretary, in 2020, who made desperate attempts to revive the party and recruit new cadres in the Adilabad and Kumuram Bheem Asifabad districts of northern Telangana. The Maoist leader, who is believed to have moved around without using a mobile phone to escape detection, narrowly escaped death in the hands of police forces in three to four EoFs in the two districts. During their combing operations, the police stumbled upon the diaries believed to have been penned by him. “Enemy (government) has increased… focus seriously. Wherever we go, people’s cooperation dwindled… though people have problems circumstances are not conducive to fight..,” he wrote.

Poor health was a major issue that prompted many Maoists to surrender before the police. Three months ago, a Central Committee member, Akkiraju Haragopal alias Ramakrishna, fondly called RK by his comrades, died of kidney ailment in south Bastar. His death is seen as a setback to the movement.

The pandemic has also affected the movement. Telangana Maoist State Committee Secretary Haribhushan alias Yapa Narayana died of a COVID-19-induced heart attack in Chhattisgarh in June 2021. Gaddam Madhukar, Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee Secretary, was caught by the police when he got admitted in a hospital for COVID-19 treatment in Warangal. He died later at the Osmania General Hospital of Hyderabad. The Maoists alleged that the police killed him. The pandemic not only claimed lives but also became a stumbling block in efforts to revive the movement. Mailarapu Adellu also wrote in his diaries that the lockdown in 2020 inconvenienced people and impacted attempts to bring people back under the Maoist fold.

For the Telangana Police, Jayashankar Bhupalpally, Mulugu and Bhadradri Kothagudem are crucial areas as the Maoists can enter through these regions from other States. Maoist presence in Maharashtra is not strong but it cannot be ignored. Despite multiple attempts by central paramilitary forces and local police commandos to wipe out the movement, the Maoists are operating their own government (janathan sarkar) in southern Chhattisgarh, which abuts the Mulugu and Bhadradri Kothagudem districts of Telangana. Maoist squads enter Telangana from Chhattisgarh through different villages of these two districts. They also sometimes go north, travel via the forests of Maharashtra and enter through the Adilabad, Kumram Bheem Asifabad and Mancherial districts. “They cross the Godavari river using rafts or mostly ferries but don’t travel during rainy season or when the river is in spate,” a police officer said. Posting policemen at likely entry points such as these is impractical. It is also illogical from a security point of view. So, State forces have developed a network of informants who keep track of the movements of strangers. When an input is received about ‘non-locals’, the police cross-check the information and send commandos for combing operations if Maoist movements are confirmed. In the past seven years, the police have succeeded in stalling, driving away or neutralising Maoists whenever they launched such operations.

A close watch

Back in the capital and in other parts of the State, there is strong surveillance of those who are even remotely attempting to connect to the Maoist movement. Social and women rights activist Sandhya of the Progressive Organisation of Women was at her home in Hyderabad when a posse of policemen knocked on the door at night on November 12, 2021. They took the activist and her husband to the local police station. The main charge against them was an alleged attempt to publish a compilation of stories related to the dead Maoist leader RK. Eventually, the police issued notices to them under Section 41A of the Criminal Procedure Code in a case registered under the Telangana Public Security Act. The case indicates how the Telangana Police are keeping an eye on every Maoist-related development, be it deep inside the forests on the banks of Godavari river or the publication of a book in the heart of the capital. The top brass of the police is reworking its strategies every day and analysing intelligence inputs and inputs from informants. With these persistent efforts, the question on everyone’s mind is this: Will Telangana soon become a Maoist-free State?

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