The message has not arrived. The Maoists do not yet know if their top commander Ramakrishna is alive or dead. Or is he arrested, injured or just plain missing? It is rather unusual for him not to contact a courier to inform of his well-being.
The Maoists have called for a bandh on 3 November but it is the outlaws who are getting shut out. It is 10 days since the security forces gunned down 30 Maoists inside a land-locked patch in Odisha, close to the Andhra and Chhattisgarh borders. It is referred to as the cut off area and was the theatre of action between the security forces and the Maoists on 24 October. It was touted as one of the biggest successes in recent years, a revenge for the 2008 ambush in which 38 elite anti-naxal Greyhounds personnel were killed in the same area.
Maoists understand the need to move on when they lose foot soldiers in the battle which they have waged against the state since the late 1960s. The concern now is about Ramakrishna. The top Maoist, whose son Munna was killed in the encounter, has been missing ever since. Civil liberties activists allege the police know where he is.
"We are not saying he is in police custody but the cops know where he and the nine tribals who are also missing, are," says Varavara Rao, revolutionary poet and a Maoist sympathiser. Rao alleges that all registered medical practitioners in the area have been picked up and a vigil kept on all medical shops. If this is true, it strengthens their suspicion that RK is injured and needs treatment. Their hunch is based on the fact that if he was not on the police radar, he would have established contact with the party by now.
The Andhra police deny that Ramakrishna is in its custody. It has also denied having any information on RK, claiming that he is perhaps not able to reach out because of poor mobile connectivity in the area. The Hyderabad High Court, where a petition was filed, has not bought that argument saying the Maoists have their own courier system of passing on information.
I have met Ramakrishna twice, in 2001 inside Nallamalla forests (where he first made the offer of peace talks in an interview) and in 2004 when he came to Hyderabad for the peace talks. Very professorial in his looks, he is one of the sharpest tactical minds in the Maoist outfit. Which is why this soft-spoken Maoist led the group when YS Rajasekhara Reddy government invited them to sit across the table in October 2004. When the talks failed and the police turned on the heat, he was moved out of united Andhra Pradesh post 2006 to Chhattisgarh and Andhra-Odisha border zone. Age has now caught up with him and the 60-something Maoist leader is said to have health issues now.
Which is why the Maoists are so tense about RK. Losing him either by way of getting killed or arrested, would be a body blow. It would mean losing the psychological edge as much of their top ranking leadership is already neutralised. As it is, the outlaws are finding it tough to get new recruits and their numbers and area of domination has been shrinking.
Privately the police admit there would be little use having RK in custody because he is a hard nut to crack, unlikely to sing during an interrogation. Killing him in an encounter can possibly have the effect of the Maoist sympathisers projecting him as a martyr. Making him go through the judicial process, they argue, is the best way forward by cutting off all communication with the outside world. "RK in jail is as good as dead. He cannot lead the party from prison,'' says a senior officer.
Officers in the Andhra Pradesh establishment rue that they did not finish off the RK story a decade ago. An officer recalls how in February 2005, soon after the collapse of the peace talks, the Greyhounds had surrounded 30 top Maoist leaders, including RK, inside the Nallamalla forest in Andhra Pradesh. But pressure was immediately mounted on the then Congress regime by their sympathisers to let them off. Home Minister Jana Reddy reportedly took the call to ask the Greyhounds who had RK, just a trigger away, to move back.
Maoist sympathisers are apprehensive that if the police have RK in its sight, another encounter is imminent. They already accuse the 24 October encounter was fake, alleging many of the bodies recovered from the site were mutilated, with heads and other body parts chopped off.
It is clear the Andhra and Odisha police are fighting this battle, keeping its cards close to its chest. Staying in denial mode also helps them ensure against a repeat of the 2005 episode when political orders from the top undid their efforts.