India

Under forest cover: How the Maoists-police stand-off turned Kerala’s Attappady forest a guerrilla war zone

The concertina wire on the unusually high perimeter wall of the Agali Police Station at Attappady in Palakkad district is the first tell-tale sign of unrest in this predominantly tribal region nestled below the Nilgiri Hills in the Western Ghats in Kerala. Armed commandos scour the locality from watchtowers. Police officers clad in battle fatigues and brandishing automatic assault rifles scan visitors with wary eyes.

Agali is one of the dozen-odd high-security police stations in Kerala fortified against a potential attack from Maoists. The fear of a retaliatory strike on the station is palpable following the controversial “encounter killing” of four Maoists, including a woman, by police commandos in the nearby Mele Manjikkandi forests on October 28.

Further to the north of the State is what the police call the ‘tri-junction’, a vast forested expanse linking Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The broad swathe of dense jungle spans the Muthanga forest reserve in Kerala and the adjacent Bandipur and Mudumalai wildlife sanctuaries in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, respectively. The forests are home to many tribal sects including the particularly vulnerable Kattunayakkan and Cholanayakkan groups that have a storied history of resistance to colonial masters.

Since the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government took power in 2016, a deadly cat and mouse game between the elite Thunderbolt commandos of the Kerala police and the elusive foot soldiers of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist) has played out in the dense forests with lethal consequences. So far, the commandos have killed seven Maoists in three separate operations over three years without casualties or injuries to those on the side of law enforcement. The tense stand-off has transformed the hilly locality into a veritable guerrilla war zone.

Conflicting claims

In 2016, the police gunned down Maoist leaders Kuppuswamy Devaraj and Ajitha in the Nilambur forests of Malappuram district. In March 2019, they shot dead C.P. Jaleel near a forest resort in Vythiri in Wayanad district. Last month, a Thunderbolt team killed Maoist cadres Manivasakam, Karthi, Arvind alias Suresh, and Rema in “retaliatory fire”.

The Pinarayi Vijayan government said the “encounter killings” were an “act of self-defence”. However, civil society in Kerala appeared revolted by the latest paroxysm of bloodshed in the law enforcement’s long-running campaign to prevent operational space for armed Maoist rebels in the State’s vast forests and tribal settlements.

Last Friday, a fact-finding team of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a principal partner in the ruling LDF coalition, visited the “encounter spot”. CPI State Assistant Secretary K. Prakash Babu seemed unconvinced by the official version of the encounter. Legislators E.K. Vijayan and Muhammed Muhassin and CPI district secretary, Palakkad, K.P. Suresh Raj, conducted the public enquiry. Last Tuesday, the CPI submitted its report to the Chief Minister in his chamber at the Kerala Legislative Assembly. Later, outside the Assembly gates, Prakash claimed the commandos had killed the rebels in cold blood.

According to the report of the CPI, the arbitrary police action caught the Maoists off guard. They were eating when they died in a hail of bullets. Local tribal leaders Shivani and Murugan were purportedly negotiating the surrender of the rebels with a senior officer when death came unexpectedly to the Maoists in the form of the commandos.

Prakash said Manivasakam was ailing from severe diabetic complications. Forensic doctors found his legs broken. The commandos seemed to have shot him from close range. The woman Maoist was in no condition to fight as she had given birth to a child recently, he said. “It is a cruel homicide by the police meant to force the Left government on the defensive,” Prakash later told The Hindu. He rubbished the police claim that the commandos had fired in self-defence.

But the Chief Minister was in no doubt that the Maoists had fired upon a police jungle patrol and the commandos had killed them in retaliatory fire. The police had seized an array of weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle, few .303 bolt action rifles, 12 gauge shotguns and country-made muzzle-loading rifles from the “rebel camp”.

While terming the loss of life as unfortunate, Vijayan said it was fallacious to portray armed Maoists, intent on toppling the democratic State, as “benign angels and harmless lambs”. The official narrative of a serious Maoist threat found substantiation in the combat training videos released by the police, which featured some rebels who broke out of their encirclement and fled.

Under forest cover: How the Maoists-police stand-off turned Kerala’s Attappady forest a guerrilla war zone

The government has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the killings. But similar investigations into the encounter killings in Nilambur and Vythiri in Wayanad have revealed little. The killings took place in lonely spots in rugged forest terrain far away from human habitation, making it challenging to investigate conflicting claims. The Hindu could not independently validate the statement that the Maoists in Attappady were poised to surrender when the commandos shot them.

Fear in Attappady

Fear seemed to have gripped Attappady after the killings. Tribals were afraid to speak to outsiders. They seemed to be scared of both the Maoists and the police. “We did not see any Maoist. We did not even hear the gunshots,” said Chellan and Vijayalakshmi, an Adivasi couple living in a thatched hutment close to the spot where the police killed the Maoists. The tribal leaders who tried to broker amnesty for the Maoists with a senior police officer have also turned silent after the killings.

“It’s a fake encounter. Only a judicial investigation can expose it,” said CPI (ML) Red Flag general secretary M.S. Jayakumar after visiting the area. C.P. John, general secretary of the Communist Marxist Party, echoed a similar sentiment after a fact-finding visit to the remote locality.

Tribal leader Eswari Resan, former block panchayat president of Attappady, was vocal in her resentment of the police. “The tribespeople have had no issues with the Maoists. The Maoists have never attempted to turn the Adivasis of Attappady against the government. But the police action has brought fear to the hamlets in Attappady,” she said. The armed rebels often sought rice and other meagre rations from forest-dwelling tribes, she added.

The ongoing anti-Maoist operations have disrupted the life of forest dwellers. The tribal people are fearful of grazing their cattle on the grassy knolls of the Western Ghats or venturing deep into the undergrowth to harvest forest produce. They fear they might get caught in a sudden crossfire between the police and armed Maoists.

In a court filing in the District and Sessions Court, Palakkad, District Police Chief G. Siva Vikram said the Maoists were killed in retaliatory fire by commandos in two separate encounters on October 28 and 29. “It was a risky action by the commandos. The Maoists engaged them while they were patrolling the Gottiyarkandy, Mele Manjikkandi, and Mele Abannoor areas,” he told The Hindu. The 14-member Thunderbolt commando team that gunned down the Maoists had a definite edge over the ultras not only in training but in equipment as well. Vikram said the .303 rifles recovered from the Maoist tent were reported stolen from a police station in Odisha. The police were tracing the provenance of the AK-47 and other weapons. The police had complied with the 16-point guidelines set by the Supreme Court in the event of an encounter death, Vikram said. The court had accepted the police report and rejected arguments to the contrary, he added.

Pappan, a local whom the police had cited as a witness in their inquest report, said during the inquest formalities on October 29, “We were forced to lie down for over an hour when the firing took place. After the firing was over, the body of Manivasakam was recovered from behind a bamboo bush.” According to him, the body of the three Maoists killed on October 28 had begun to decompose when he saw them. “In the forest, decomposition takes place very fast,” Pappan said.

The Maoists had camped at a vantage point that afforded them a good view of the forest. The police had found cooked rice and sprouted green gram in the tent along with raw and cooked bush meat. The presence of cooked food had been cited to give some credence to the theory that the police had gunned down the rebels while they were eating in peace.

Outside the morgue

Sitting under a tree on the sprawling Thrissur Medical College campus, Meenamma sobbed inconsolably on October 30. She kept insisting that her son, Karthi, killed in Attappady, was no “Maoist”. Inside the hospital morgue, Karthi’s body lay on the autopsy table.

The presence of cooked food had been cited to support the theory that the police had gunned down the rebels while they were eating.

The presence of cooked food had been cited to support the theory that the police had gunned down the rebels while they were eating.
 
| Photo Credit: K.K. Mustafah

The police had brought the bodies of the four rebels to the hospital for a forensic post-mortem examination. They had thrown a security blanket over the morgue area fearing Maoist retaliation or disruption o

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