By TS Sudhir
Police officers, particularly those heading anti-Naxal operations, aren't known to speak of the 'enemy' with admiration. So it is with raised eyebrows that you react when you hear senior cops talk of Maoist leader Malla Raja Reddy in glowing terms.
"He is very good, particularly in motivating people and the Maoist cadre. His organisational capability is tremendous, as good as Kishenji. He is a man for long-term missions," is the overwhelming verdict.
Reddy, who hails from Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, like most of the top leadership of the Maoist group, has now been appointed the first secretary of the Chhattisgarh-Odisha Border (COB) committee.
COB will be the Indian security forces' new headache as long as Reddy is at the helm of affairs. The committee will oversee the activities of the CPI (Maoist) in the eastern part of the Sukma-Darbha plateau in Chhattisgarh and the forest areas of Odisha along the border of the two states. The Mahasamund-Bargarh-Bolangir division will work under the COB committee. Much of this seamless territory was always under Maoist control—some sort of a 'liberated zone' as it were—but, to the credit of the security forces, the patch has considerably shrunk over the years.
But it is not as if the Maoists willed themselves to take this strategic step. They were in fact forced into it by a couple of developments earlier this year.
The first one was the CRPF raid on Abujmad, the military nerve centre of the Maoists deep inside Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh in February-March this year. CRPF officers say they have information that the Maoists lost significant cadre in that encounter while there were no casualties on the security forces side. Their assessment is that the attack made the top leadership of the Maoists realise that Abujmad was no longer impregnable and that the top leaders would need to scout for a more safe hideout. For the CRPF, the operation was a morale-booster, one that dispelled the popular notion that Abujmad is out-of-bounds for them.
The second and equally critical reason for the formation of COB was the rebellion of the secretary of the Odisha unit of the CPI (Maoist), Sabyasachi Panda. The assessment of the officers heading the anti-Naxal operations is that Panda's exit from the Maoist camp is a huge blow. And, therefore, something had to be done about Odisha before the writ of the outlaws started shrinking in the eastern state.
In a sense, the problem in Odisha was of the Maoists' own making. The domination of Telugu cadre in the Andhra-Odisha Border (AOB) committee, which is headed by Modem Balakrishna, alias Manoj, was instrumental in creating a huge rift with Panda whose foot-soldiers are all Odiya locals. In fact, his resignation letter, which he sent to Ganapathi and two other Maoist leaders in August this year, is now in the public domain. It uses strong language while pointing out the disastrous effects of 'foreign' rule in Odisha.
Panda wrote : "Our AOB leaders are always for their superiority and tried to keep Odisha committee as subordinates. Politically they never think about Odisha, its people's condition and political acceptance ... In the name of promotion, one type of feudal democracy, similar to that of fascist RSS organisation, prevailed in this party."
Pointing out that the AOB committee demanded the release of only Telugu cadre in exchange for the release of Malkangiri collector Vineel Krishna in February 2011, the letter, at other places, focuses on the difference in food habits and the taunts the Odiya committee members had to suffer. The faultlines were exposed and showed that the Maoists in Odisha are a divided and bitter lot.
The mandate of the COB is to box in Panda with AOB's help and spread the Maoist influence deep into Odisha. Sources in Odisha say over 60 foot-soldiers of the party have now spread into Kandhamal, Ganjam, Gajapati and Rayagada districts—all part of Panda's territory—to "talk to the locals" and to tell them that they can join the Maoist force and even rise up the ladder to become commanders. The effort is also to take them out of Panda's influence, by describing him as a 'renegade' and accusing him of joining hands with the police. The Maoists realise that the police could even use Panda in their fight to free the state of Red influence. Interestingly, the press releases of the CPI (Maoist) that were earlier being issued in Telugu have now started appearing in Odiya.
The big brother attitude of the Telugus in the organisation is not confined to Odisha alone. Even in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, which has a Maoist cadre strength of close to 1,800, about 450 of them armed, there are no local tribal commanders. The entire leadership is Telugu and the security forces are now trying to drill a divide, telling the locals that the outsiders are only exploiting them as foot-soldiers.
Police sources also believe COB will be the new alternate location for a hideout for the top leadership to hold conclaves, especially since Abujmad is no longer seen as 100 percent safe. The Maoist plan reportedly is now to increase its strength and presence in the border areas, particularly the tri-junctions of different states, which invariably are grey areas where no one's writ runs.
What helps the Maoists is that inter-state cooperation is, for all practical purposes, lacklustre or non-existent.