December 2, 2019, passed off just like any other day. Two decades ago, it was on this day — December 2, 1999 — that the naxalite movement received one of the biggest jolts when three of its top leaders were shot dead in the Koyyuru forest area of erstwhile Karimnagar district. The three legendary naxalite ideologues — Seelam Naresh alias Murali, Nalla Adi Reddy aka Shyam and Yerramreddy Santosh Reddy, known by the nom de guerre Mahesh — were killed in arguably one of the most controversial encounters.
The naxalite party, then called the CPI-ML (People’s War), had held complete sway over large swathes of forest tracts and had spread the revolutionary movement to villages and towns too. The juggernaut was rolling and the naxalites presented a picture of being invincible, as the revolutionary movement grew by the day despite losing some important cadres. The military might of the most secretive underground party was on a roll and more and more areas were coming under its influence when the police forces struck on December 2, 1999.
The method in which the three Central Committee members were killed was always disputed. While the naxalites continue to argue that the leaders were nabbed in Bengaluru from one of their hideouts, driven down to Koyyuru forests and shot dead in cold blood along with another lesser-known naxalite activist, the police maintained that it was an exchange of fire that led to the killing of the trio.
The Koyyuru encounter, as it had come to be known, was the turning point for the Maoist movement on several counts. Though some top leaders were killed on earlier occasions, it was the first time that the Central Committee, the decision-making body, which was supposedly the most protected, suffered such a huge loss. All the three slain leaders were legendary not only for their ideological commitment to the cause of New Democratic Revolution (NDR) for which they were fighting for but also for their knowledge and expertise in military fieldcraft.
It was on the first death anniversary (December 2, 2000) of these three leaders that the CPI-ML (People’s War) formed the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), the military unit of the People’s War group. The PLGA formation signalled a decisive phase of the revolutionary movement, where the People’s War-led movement changed gears in the then Andhra Pradesh, parts of Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal.
The formation of the PLGA signified crossing a milestone in the Maoist movement as the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist (MLM) ideology of the CPI-ML (People’s War) believed in the theory that three critical weapons were required to to achieve its goal of capturing political power, heralding the dawn of NDR. The path chosen for achieving the NDR was a protracted armed struggle. The three weapons are: A strong organisation, army, ie, a body of fighters, and the third a United Front meaning alliances or linkages with like-minded groups that would facilitate in achieving its ultimate goal. Till the formation of the PLGA, which had a command control structure like the military, the armed cadres were classified in a different way.
There were squads (also called dalams) each covering five to 10 villages, reporting to a district committee, which in turn reported to State Committee and so on…but the formation of PLGA brought a tightly controlled military-like command structure. The squads were renamed Central Guerrilla Squads (CGSs) or Local Guerrilla Squads (LGSs), which when amalgamated would form platoons, companies and battallions. Though one or two battallions were formed in the Bastar forest areas of Chhattisgarh, at least platoon-level formation was reported from several States.
The PLGA formation indeed provided a thrust to the Maoist movement all over the country and the sudden surge in the spatial spread of the revolutionary movement led by the CPI-ML (People’s War) gradually resulted in the reunification of the revolutionary forces in the country. Various naxal groups like Party Unity (PU) got merged with the PWG in the South and the CPI-ML united with the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) in the North. In 2004, the PW and the MCCI merged to form the CPI (Maoist), thereby bringing large swathes of territory under the influence of the revolutionary party driven by the MLM ideology. The reunification of revolutionary forces built an aura of invincibility around the Maoist party.
Corridor of Control
The writ of the naxalite party ran for quite some time as one State after another started yielding space to revolutionary politics. The influence of the alternative political ideology strengthened so much that the Left Wing Extremist (LWE) movement was dubbed “the biggest internal security threat” in India by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2010.
The Maoist party’s activities attained that critical mass and appeared to succeed in establishing a red corridor from Nepal to Dandakaranya forests. The seizure of power in Nepal, in 2006, by the Communist Party of Nepal led by Prachanda, an ardent follower of the Indian revolutionary movement, projected an image of the CPI (Maoist) poised to hurl a serious challenge to the Indian government. It appeared as if the juggernaut was rolling.
But it was not be. Just as the movement outwardly appeared to spread, it was suffering setbacks. With growing militarisation and focus on carrying out intensified military actions against the police forces, security apparatus and so-called police informants, the red rebels were losing public support, the most crucial component of the protracted armed struggle. With the armed cadres carrying out executions in kangaroo courts at will and the security forces too refining their strategies and tactics in hitting back on the rebels, gradually, societal sections supporting the Maoists were moving away from the movement.
Typically, there were different sections that extended wholehearted support to the Maoist movement. Most important among them were students, Dalits, workers, women, peasantry, and the middle class. One of the crucial components for the success of the Maoist movement was the students segment. Those youngsters who got attracted to the MLM ideology and joined the People’s War during the 1980s or the 90s were so committed to the ideology that most of them became extremely popular leaders and provided a line of direction to the revolutionary movement. The second most crucial segment was that of workers such as the miners in Singareni coalmines.
The workers segment stood like a rock in support of the People’s War. This segment was peculiar since the workers were living in towns but still did not lose their connection with rural life. If a worker was supporting, let’s say, the Singareni Karmika Samakhya (Sikasa), a militant outfit of People’s War for coalminers, the PW cadres enjoyed the support of someone who was living in a town and yet had active connections with his family members living in villages.
Incidentally, it was Sikasa, which organised the most successful strike for 56 days in the entire coal belt area, completely halting coal production in Telangana. The impact of the strike was such that it threatened to derail the Indian economy as power generation suffered extensively with coal production halting. And this strike was organised with a single press release issued by the Sikasa. Similarly, women, Dalits, peasants, middle-class sections actively supported the Maoist party.
Beginning of Downfall
Even as the Maoist party strengthened itself, its downfall was also beginning. The socio-economic conditions in the country were beginning to change with the impact of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation policies — introduced by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao — being felt by every section of society. The rise in income levels led to the creation of a massive middle-class segment and this, in turn, led to political empowerment of downtrodden segments.
The opening up of the private job market and rapid computerization, in addition to availability of latest technology ensuring benefits to everyone, brought a change in society. The students segment gradually got alienated from the ultra-left ideology and an element of careerism began overtaking their social consciousness. This led to a situation where mainly the illiterate or semi-literates started joining the Maoist movement, while the thinking sections of society maintained a distance as the underground cadre resorted to unbridled violence.
Security forces too changed tactics and used the same principles of surprise, speed and secrecy in the counter-revolutionary warfare. The state’s response to the developing situation too underwent drastic changes and security forces began using the same tactic of unbridled violence to curb red violence. Assassination as a tool of counter-revolutionary warfare became the primary method for security forces. As the crackdown continued, counter-revolutionary strategies were refined continuously and the state was responding proactively, unlike in the past when it was only reacting to developing situations.
With the security forces gaining an upper hand gradually, a semblance of developmental activities was also being taken up in the areas under the sway of the Maoists. A surrender and rehabilitation policy was implemented. The net result of the changing strategies and tactics from the state side was that while the Maoists continued to believe and practice the protracted armed struggle model, different segments of society continued to stay away from the revolutionary movement and the areas under the control of Maoists were freed.
The underground cadres were forced to retreat and the party had to concede that the movement was facing severe setbacks all over the country. Coupled with this was the careful elimination of the top rung leaders by the security forces that had a drastic impact. With the second line leadership not developing and the existing leaders ageing, and some getting killed and some surrendering themselves, the CPI Maoist now finds itself at the crossroads.
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The Koyyuru encounter has an interesting side story too. Generally, there is a veil of secrecy surrounding the names of the police officers involved in any encounter. But the Koyyuru encounter was different.
The name of Nalin Prabhat, then SP of Karimnagar district, figured prominently as being responsible for the killing of the three naxal leaders. In fact, while announcing the formation of the PLGA on the first death anniversary of the three leaders, the Maoists pledged to take revenge by killing him. The threat was repeated several times in the press statements issued by Maoist leaders and in their internal documents too.
In 2004, the name of Nalin Prabhat was taken at a public meeting by Maoist leaders stating that he would be killed. But by then he had moved on central deputation. Subsequently, there were threats to eliminate him anywhere in India.
Many years down the lane, the threat game continued, even as Nalin Prabhat returned in 2017 to Andhra Pradesh to serve as the Chief of Grey Hounds, an elite anti-naxalite commando force. There appeared to be a direct fight between him and Ramakrishna alias RK, who was the emissary of Maoists during the peace negotiations with the then Andhra Pradesh government. It was in the name of RK that many threats were issued to Nalin Prabhat. Incidentally, Grey Hounds managed to inflict many damages to Maoist cadres on the Andhra-Odisha borders where Ramakrishna, a member of the Central Committee, was working as the chief of the Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee.
The rivalry between RK and Nalin Prabhat continued with the latter continuously focusing on the anti-extremist operations and it is a known fact that RK managed to escape multiple times in 2018 and 2019 from some daredevil operations conducted by the Grey Hounds under Nalin Prabhat’s guidance. Again with Nalin Prabhat moving to central deputation, the tit-for-tat war between him and Maoists seemed to have come to a halt, but only temporarily. Nalin Prabhat has again been made in-charge of Operations of CRPF, meaning he would be overseeing all the counter-insurgency operations all over the country again.