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Odisha: Cops left with egg on face after tall claims on top Maoist

By Sandeep Sahu

Bhubaneswar: It has happened often enough in the past and it happened yet again last week. After building up expectation and excitement over the ‘imminent’ surrender of Sabyasachi Panda alias Comrade Sunil, the enfant terrible of the Maoist movement in Odisha, the state police has cut a sorry figure—for the umpteenth time, one must say—as Panda has kept dodging and taunting them.

Police officers, from the thana level right up to the Director General of Police (DGP), while briefing the media after a supposed ‘encounter’ in the Bhaliaguda forests in Gajapati district last Wednesday that left five ‘Maoists’ dead, gave the impression that several other cadres, including Panda himself, had been badly injured in the shootout and all of them would be nabbed soon. In the days following the encounter, the police launched what is purported to be the ‘biggest-ever manhunt’, involving about 1, 000 personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the state’s own elite anti-Maoist outfit Special Operations Group (SOG) and armed police from four districts, to catch Panda.

Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda. Image courtesy Sandeep Sahu

Police plants in the local media suggested that a badly injured Panda had been well and truly cornered and was holing out near a waterfall on the Ganjam-Gajapati border with only a handful of cadres to guard him. Some reports even suggested that the bullet wound(s) on Panda’s body had caused septicaemia and gangrene in the absence of treatment. “It is only a matter of hours before he is captured, dead or alive,” boasted a top police official closely involved in Operation Sabyasachi on Saturday.

Cocking a snook at the police the very next day, Panda released an audio tape to select journalists of the state—his preferred mode of communication with the media and at times with the state government—claiming that Odisha Maobadi Party (OMP), the outfit that he formed in August this year after being expelled from the CPI (Maoist), had suffered no casualties and not even injuries in the Bhaliaguda incident which he dubbed ‘cold blooded killing’ of innocent tribals.

“They were shot dead by the police even as they had raised their hands in surrender,” claimed the man who shot into international fame in March this year after taking two Italian tourists hostage. If the tone, tenor and timber in his voice were anything to go by, he certainly did not sound like a man suffering from septicaemia. He even had the cheek to call a shutdown today to protest the ‘organised killing’ of innocent tribals.

Meanwhile, after six days of massive combing operation, aided by a Pawan Hans helicopter, security forces are no closer to nabbing Sabyasachi than they were on Wednesday. On Sunday, DGP Prakash Mishra had thundered that the operation would end ‘only with the capture of Sabyasachi’. By Monday, however, he appeared to have substantially lowered his expectation. “If he indicates that he is willing to surrender and join the mainstream, there is no reason for us to continue the operation,” he said on Sunday. It was evident that he was banking on the good sense of the rebel commander then the ability of his men to capture him.

This ‘surrender and joining the mainstream’ charade with reference to Sabyasachi Panda has been repeated far too often in the past by the minders of the Naveen Patnaik government to have any credibility left. At the height of the hostage drama in March, sections of the local media, clearly fed by the police, started speculating about a surrender plan having been worked out between the two sides. Some reports even went to the extent of suggesting that a decision had been taken to field Panda as the ruling BJD candidate from the Ranpur Assembly constituency in the 2014 elections. But nothing came out of it.

Talk of his imminent surrender got a fresh lease of life when a group of nine Gandhian leaders took it upon themselves to broker a truce followed by his surrender in September. Both sides paid lip service to the idea without in any way allowing it to influence their respective agendas.

The ongoing talks did not stop Sabyasachi from regrouping or the police from launching the Bhaliaguda encounter. Asked on Wednesday whether the encounter earlier in the day did not go against the spirit of the peace talks, DGP Mishra had said, “We have great respect for the Gandhian leaders. But we could not possibly have allowed Sabyasachi to use the truce to regroup his cadres and become a bigger menace then he is now.”

Sabyasachi, on his part, has done nothing to even remotely suggest that he is contemplating surrender. Asked by this reporter about such a possibility during a meeting deep inside the jungles on the Kandhamal-Ganjam border to facilitate the release of Italian tourist Claudio Colangelo on 24 March, Sabyasachi had this to say; “The thought has not struck me even once. If I surrender, I will be admitting that all that I have done or stood for in the past was wrong. And I know for sure that I was not wrong.”

Panda has made such assertions repeatedly. But that has not stopped the Naveen Patnaik government from planting speculative stories in the media about his ‘imminent’ surrender. To make such speculation appear more convincing, the reports have pointed out that the rebel leader is on the run not just from the security forces, but also from his former comrades in the CPI (Maoist) who are constantly looking for an opportunity to bump him off.

Interestingly, the state government has not spent this kind of time, energy and force in convincing (or forcing) any other major leader of the CPI (Maoist) to surrender. The fact that Panda happens to be the only home-grown Maoist leader of stature in the Maoist hierarchy may have something to do with it.

But the more likely reason for this is the fact that he appears to the police the most vulnerable and amenable to reason. After all, the writ of the state government simply does not run in the territory controlled by the ruthless Andhra Odisha Border (AOB) committee and the security forces neither have the spunk nor the wherewithal to do any damage to them. Thus, the only ‘trophy’ that the state government can realistically expect to lay its hands on is the ‘Boy from Ranpur’.

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