Malkangiri encounter: Ill-fated peace talks in 2004 with Andhra govt reason behind recent bloodbath
The location was just 30 kilometre north west of the region where Maoists had, eight years ago, blasted a boatload of Greyhound commandos on a combing operation with a rocket, killing 36 of them.
The process of eliminating the agrarian uprising led by Left wing extremists in rural Andhra Pradesh that began in October 2004 has almost concluded 12 years later — on 24 October, 2016. The cold blooded encounter at Janti village of Malkangiri district of Odisha on the upper part of the Balimela reservoir had taken a toll of 30 armed Maoists, almost wiping out the rebels’ leadership in the Andhra-Odisha Border (AOB) region, termed as the last post of the CPI (Maoists). The location was just 30 kilometres north west of the region where Maoists had, eight years ago, attacked a boatload of Greyhound commandos on a combing operation with a rocket, killing 36 of them.
The revenge attack by anti-Naxal elite commandos in the last week of October in AOB, was more gruesome than the Maoist attack. The ultras were chased for over 12 hours in daylight and gunned down. Four fleeing Maoists, who were elderly and injured, were hacked. ‘Show no mercy’ was the clear order of the Greyhound commander to his men before they began the raid in the wee hours of 24 October, catching most of them in their bed or while attending nature’s call in fields with their weapons an arm’s length away.
The Left wing extremists who began an agrarian revolution six decades ago, have lost over 4,000 cadre and the battle between them and the security forces has taken 9,000 civilian lives so far. The seeds for October’s bloodbath were sown on 20 October, 2004, the day the ultras had come out of their hide-outs in forests to conduct ill-fated peace talks, an olive branch offered by the YS Rajasekhar Reddy-led Congress government in united Andhra Pradesh.
The interlocutors between the government and the People’s War Group of CPI (ML) were a band of human rights activists and journalists, who had no experience of dealing with such negotiations. A tragedy of errors unfolded. “It is a loss of a golden opportunity to bring peace in rural India,” popular civil rights activist and mathematics lecturer at Warangal, the late Dr K Balagopal had said at the time. Balagopal had kept himself aloof and watched the developments with a mixture of mistrust and hope.
The Congress government led by YS Rajasekhar Reddy had announced peace talks with Maoists as one of the poll promises in the election manifesto when it romped home to power in 2004 ending the decade-long Telugu Desam Party (TDP) hegemony in the state. YSR, as he was popularly known, had after a marathon padayatra of over 2,000 kms in 2003 had a whiff of ground realities of rural AP, the campaign of the armed rebels and also received support of some of these groups. He was also influenced by a report compiled by a CCC (Committee Of Concerned Citizens) led by respected retired IAS officer SR Sankaran, who, after touring Telangana districts and studying the status of farmers and rural development, had laid threadbare the need for peace in the Telangana districts. “We presented a copy of the report to Rajasekhar Reddy. The CCC report spoke volumes for ground realities and drove both sides to come to the negotiating table, even if it meant disagreement on many issues,” said Sankaran to this reporter in 2004.
After the electoral victory YSR invited the ultras of PWG – the People’s War Group – the biggest Maoist group in AP, for talks within months of taking charge. He set the ball rolling by declaring a ceasefire for three months against the rebels and directed state police forces to not harm them when they came face to face four times in the jungles of Nallamala, Visakhapatnam and AOB. “At least five top guns including Amar, Riyaaz, Sudhakar could not have made it to Hyderabad for talks if we had had our way in the combing operations,” said former DGP MV Bhaskar Rao.
Clumsy And confused beginnings
Neither the PWG leadership nor the Congress party was prepared for the “historic talks”. It took a lot of backroom manipulations by mediators and police officials that made the talks happen and also fail. Police officials wanted to use the situation for gaining reliable data on the Maoists, their hide-outs and also their strengths. The ageing extremist leadership was already losing ground wherever development and welfare activities in rural areas were on an upswing. The attempts of the ultras to stop connectivity – mobile towers, roads, bridges, schools and hostel buildings – was disliked and also protested by the rural populace.
The Maoists had, overtly or covertly, supported YSR over Chandrababu Naidu in the 2004 elections out of spite against the TDP supremo who had let loose a reign of terror in the jungles of Telangana and AP. Naidu had, in October 2003, survived an assassination attempt by the Maoists – a land mine blast near Tirupati and narrowly escaped.
Maoists had lost three Central Committee members Nalla Adi Reddy 'Shyam', Erram Reddy, Santosh Reddy 'Mahesh' and Seelam Naresh 'Murali' in 1999. A few Special Zonal Committee/State-level leaders such as Anupuram Komaraiah and some district-level leaders such as Polam Sudarshan Reddy, of Warangal and Nelakonda Rajitha of Karimnagar too had been killed during the TDP regime. The PWG had been wiped out from what they term is their flagship guerrilla zone - North Telangana Special Zone (NTSZ).
Then Congress Home Minister K Jana Reddy had told the state Assembly that he would never shake hands with extremists and that he had given freedom to state police to track and eliminate the “PWG menace”. But within two months, he signed an ordinance declaring ceasefire and also stood at the venue of the peace talks meeting to receive top PWG and Janashakti leaders with flower bouquets and garlands. Congress leaders, particularly Telangana leaders who had borne the brunt of extremist attacks, were wary of the YSR experiment. But the CM had convinced them that it would be a jackpot if the government pulled it through and resolve all land issues.
For the Congress party in Telangana, talks with Maoists was a good alternative as party cadres had turned extremist sympathisers in the battle against TDP. “We need to resolve issues with the extremists to bring peace in rural Telangana,” said Sridhar Babu of Warangal, a former minister and son of former Speaker Sripad Rao, who was killed by the PWG. The PWG had hoisted red flags in lands – private, forest and that belonging to the government Endowments Department - signalling that they stood occupied for redistribution among the landless.
However, the team of mediators led by SR Sankaran, KG Kannabiran, Gadar, G Kalyan Rao, and editor P Venkateswar Rao had tried to convince both sides that the peace talks would be in everyone’s best interests. A month ahead of the talks the mediators trekked to Nallamala forests and met Ramakrishna aka RK, secretary of the Maoists’ AP State Committee. “Maoists had a long list of complaints and were firm on keeping arms and countering state terror,” reminisced Pothuri Venkateswar Rao, senior editor who was part of the team of interlocutors.
Maoists come out of forests
Eleven Maoists who walked out of the Nallamala forest on 11 October were given a heroes’ welcome. Clad in camouflage fatigues, with rifles slung over their shoulders, they came out two hours behind schedule at 11.30 pm. Ramakrishna alias Akkiraju Hargopal had an AK47 hanging from his shoulder. A large contingent of police and plainclothesmen and electronic media besides some mediators had received them on the edge of the forest. In a ceremonial guard of honour presented by the Maoist cadre, the leaders returned their weapons to them and waited until the cadres disappeared into thick forests, as this reporter witnessed the proceedings.
With two police jeeps escorting them, the Maoist leaders travelled from Chinna Arutla in the Nallamala forests to Guttikonda near Guntur where they addressed a public meeting in the dead of night in the presence of local MLAs and police. Ramakrishna, who had been a legend for Telangana youth, had come out of the forests after 15 years. He was welcomed by villagers who raised slogans of ‘Lal Salam’ for him. RK spoke about jungle life, his commitment for land reforms and that power came only through the barrel of a gun. Later they were whisked away to Manjira guest house in Hyderabad which became their safe haven for the next four to five days. An entire floor was allocated to the Maoist leaders and mediators too stayed there. Later we were told that some of the 11-member team were actually the personal guards of Ramakrishna.
How the peace talks nosedived
Even before the talks began PWG leaders almost punctured the scope of talks. They released a press statement about the merger of the PWG with another group – MCC – now the CPI (Maoists) had become the largest armed rebel group in India with a presence in 14 states. The new outfit had set its goal to form a ‘Red Corridor from AP to Nepal’. Addressing the media, Ramakrishna also made the stand of the ultras clear — that they would not give up arms and also that they prioritised land reforms over everything. “The CPI (Maoists) would continue the protracted people’s war and the peace talks process would help in taking the movement forward,” he had said, making it clear that war against government was still the philosophy of the ultras.
The Maoists’ press conference took the spirit out of the peace talks and even mediators were speechless. They had hoped to bargain with government and somehow seal a peace treaty.
YSR too was peeved at the directions of Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil to not sign any agreement with PWG leaders without approval from the Centre. “The PWG is not just a regional group now. After merger with MCC, they are a pan-Indian group,” Patil told YSR on phone and also sent a team of three Home Ministry officials, including a joint director of the Intelligence Bureau to “assist” the state government in negotiations.
YSR was further informed that the demands list of the Maoists had to be vetted at the Centre and not state level. The state home minister was told constantly to consult the emissaries from the Union Home Ministry. But Jana Reddy was shocked when he learnt that the central agencies had better information about happenings in the convention hall of the Manjira Guest House than his own officials.
This reporter, who interacted with mediators and also senior police officials, found that the outcome of the peace talks was already known to most participants including the negotiators and officials. A face-saving resolution was passed and both parties inked their consent to meet within three months and continue the effort to end violence in rural AP.
The agreement was violated within two months. “It is against our principle to give up arms,” said Maoist spokesperson Azad. “The Maoist condition that they carry arms but will not use it against police or innocents is hilarious and absurd,” retorted YSR.
Aftermath of peace talks
The aftermath of peace talks has been cruel to Maoists and to this day they rue having come for negotiations. They curse the mediators, who suffered later and became victims of state terror. “We were riding a tiger, either way, with govt or the Maoists. We tried sincerely in the interests of the rural peace and landless poor who were sandwiched between both,” said Pothuri Venkateswar Rao. Though Venkateswar Rao was spared, others like P Vara Vara Rao and G Kalyan Rao were arrested later and let off after months at Chanchalguda jail over false cases.
Human rights activist and a former secretary of AP Civil Liberties Committee Dr K Balagopal squarely blamed Chief Minister YSR for the failure of peace talks between the government and Maoists. “Dr Reddy always strived to scuttle the process. It is meaningless to tell Maoists that talks are being held to work out modalities for their disarming,” he said.
YSR is said to have washed his hands of the issue after the Centre stepped in and party president Sonia Gandhi urged him to lie low. His loss was that he lost a golden opportunity to consolidate the gains of his welfare measures and gains from the Padayatra.
On 20 October, 2004, when Naxal leaders went back to the forests, they were shown the path into Nallamala forests from Chinna Arutla from the same place where they had come out. Though the talks failed, it was a windfall for police intelligence agencies. “We gathered a lot of information on them individually,” an official told this reporter.
Four months later, on 3 February, 2005, Greyhounds commandos surrounded top Maoist leaders like Ramakrishna in their hideout in the Nallamala forests. As commandos awaited shoot orders from then DGP Swaranjit Singh, the Maoists roped in negotiators and got the government to call off the ambush and allow the Maoists to escape. Escape they did to Chhattisgarh. But the commandos smashed all the dens, arms dumps and informer systems in AP.
The intelligence gathered by the AP police was of great help to the UPA in the campaign against ultras in the north, particularly Chhattisgarh, Jharkand, Bihar and West Bengal. “Since the CPI (Maoists) is dominated by the Telugu speaking cadre, the info provided by AP police was of great help to keep tabs on the ultras in not only Chhattisgarh but also in West Bengal and Jharkhand,” said SRC Kalluri, DG of Bastar.
The Green Hunt campaign in Chhattisgarh brought windfall gains to the state BJP government and also to the UPA. And now, with the Janti village encounter in AOB, the Maoists have been hit hard. “We have lost our AOB leadership and connections with the tribal leaders. But the movement is not dead as the battle for land and livelihood of tribals and Dalits still rages on in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and also Jharkhand, besides AP and Telangana in a big way,” said CPI (Maoists) spokesperson Shyam.
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