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Does Kerala need a share of the Rs 200 crore Naxal pie?

This month the Kerala Home Minister approached the Union government to declare three districts from the state as Naxal-affected. But does the state have a Naxal problem and who would it benefit to have it declared so?

Wayanad scenery. Photo credit Wikimedia.jpgWayanad scenery. Photo credit Wikimedia.jpg

The most publicized recent case of people being arrested for ‘Maoist activity’ in Kerala is that of two human rights activists – lawyer Thushar Nirmal Sarathi (36) and Jaison Cooper (37), an employee with the state insurance department. Sarathi and Cooper were granted bail by the Kerala High Court on March 7.

Sarathi narrates one particularly absurd way in which he says the police had fabricated evidence against them. “The police found an article published in a leading Malayalam newspaper in Jaison’s laptop bag, which was actually an article criticizing the Maoist activities in the state. Its headline read, ‘To the Maoists, With Love: Support, But Don’t Hijack.’ The article was an appeal to the Maoists after the attack on the Nitta Gelatin office not to hijack the existing protests (led by environmental group) against the company. The police took it as propaganda material. And when they recorded its recovery, they recorded only a part of the article’s headline which read, ‘To the Maoists, with Love: Support’,” he said.

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On March 18, Kerala’s home minister Ramesh Chennithala met Rajnath Singh, the Union home minister, in Delhi and requested him to “approve at the earliest” the state’s proposal to include three districts in Kerala – Wayanad, Malappuram and Palakkad – under the anti-Naxalite Security Related Expenditure (SRE) scheme. A non-plan scheme first introduced in April 1996, the SRE scheme provides states with funds to tackle Naxalism in affected districts. An SRE proposal is now code for declaring a region Naxal-affected.

The SRE scheme is mainly meant for the training and operational needs of the security forces. Every financial year, the Center gives around Rs 200 crore in total to the 10 states under the scheme on a reimbursement basis. The states eligible for SRE can also be eligible for the Center’s other anti-Naxal funds such as the Special Infrastructure Scheme, which is meant to meet the infrastructural and weaponry needs of the security forces, the Scheme for Construction/Strengthening of Fortified Police Stations, which allocates Rs 2 crore for each unit, and the fund for setting up Counter Insurgency and Anti-Terrorism Schools (CIAT).

Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai P Chaudhary recently said in the Rajya Sabha that the inclusion of districts under the SRE scheme was “based on their violence profile.” The scheme presently covers 106 districts in 10, and has never included districts in Kerala, Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, but sources in the Union home ministry confirm that they’ve already asked the Cabinet to include at least six border districts in these three states under it. According to sources, the note to the Cabinet cites recent incidents of “Maoist violence” in the region, particularly in Kerala.

I see Maoist People

In Kerala, particularly in the northern districts, you can already spot fortified police stations – the kind you may have seen in Kashmir or Chhattisgarh. This is a recent development. Even though Kerala was once a fertile land for violent Naxal activity in the 1960s and 70s, the state and the police had crushed it in the following decades. The state was then believed to be ‘Naxal-free’. Many prominent Naxal leaders of those years such as K Venu, Civic Chandran, Philip M Prasad and others openly expressed their disenchantment with the Naxalite movement. In 1998, nearly 28 years after the killing of A Varghese, Kerala’s most celebrated Naxal leader, the state witnessed an unprecedented confession by a former police constable who admitted that Varghese had been killed in a fake encounter. In a first in the country, Kerala convicted a former top cop, K Lakshmana, in 2010 for ordering Varghese’s murder, sentenced him to life imprisonment, and directed him to pay a fine of Rs 10,000 to Varghese’s family. (Lakshmana was later released from jail by a government order under the provisions of the Kerala Prisons Rules 1958, according to which persons who were aged above 75 years and were in poor health could be released.)

Tushar Sarathi and Jaison Cooper, who were arrested on January 18, 2015, have been leading a human rights group called Janakeeya Manushyavakasa Prasthanam, the stated mission of which is to fight “state oppression and exploitation of the marginalized sections of the society.” Sarathi was picked up by the police after he held a press conference in Kozhikode condemning the police’s ‘Maoist’ hunts, while Cooper was arrested from his office in Kochi.The police invoked sections of the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against the two activists, along with the other people arrested. Sarathi and Cooper’s case invited sharp criticism against the way in which the police deal with ‘Maoist cases’.

This new wave of targeting ‘Maoists’ in Kerala began in December 2007, when talk of Naxal activities came back to the state when the police under the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government arrestedan Andhra Maoist leader, Malla Raji Reddy, and his wife in Angamali town. The home minister at the time, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, announced that Naxal leaders were traveling into and out of Kerala for meetings. Based on intelligence, the subsequent United Democratic Front (UDF) government started taking more measures to curb the Maoist movement, including creating Kerala Thunderbolts, a special commando wing, in August 2012.

In December 2012, the police arrested a group of people including two minor girls for allegedly conducting a meeting of Maoists in a lodge in Mavelikkara in Alappuzha district. The two girls were the daughters of a Maoist couple Roopesh and Shyna, who had been on the wanted list ever since they had been accused of harboring Malli Raji Reddy. Roopesh and Shyna (who had been an upper division clerk in the Kerala High Court) had been active in organizing trade unions, particularly in the Special Economic Zone. In 2008, Shyna, her two young daughters and a group of activists from Nandigram, West Bengal, had been arrested from the couple’s home. When they were released the couple went underground, leaving the children behind with their grandmother. In 2012, when the children were detained by the police along with others accused of conducting a Maoist meeting, there was considerable outrage in the state.

Since early 2013, the police and media started reporting the presence of Maoist flex boards and posters in villages in different districts in northern Kerala that called for ‘class struggle’ and ‘armed revolution’. There were also reports of Maoists sightings by village residents. Earlier, reports stated that the Maoists spoke amongst themselves in Kannada. Later, more such reports streamed in. It was said that often, a group of less than 10 members including women, would appear briefly in uniform, introduce themselves as Maoists, distribute pamphlets, put up posters and interact with village residents, asking them to fight against exploitation. At times, they even asked for food – rice, chillies and pulses.In March 2013, the absconding Maoist leader Roopesh published an article in the popular Malayalam weekly Mathrubhumi confirming that the Maoists had formed a new guerilla zone in the Western Ghats.

Towards the end of 2014, Kerala witnessed a number of attacks that were labeled Naxalite. Half a dozen such incidents were reported in November and December 2014. They targeted the corporate office of Nitta Gelatin, a company that has been accused of environment pollution, a McDonald’s outlet and a KFC outlet at Chandranagar in Palakkad city, the office of the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) in Kochi, resorts, forest offices and so on. The attacks, in which property, vehicles and paperwork were damaged, occurred when there were very few or no people present.The office of Nitta Gelatin in Kochi was attacked at 7.50am on November 10, 2014. No attempt was made to hurt any people – the vandals wore masks, shouted slogans and left pamphlets, billboards and posters at the site calling for revolution, according to witnesses.

The police have not produced any substantial evidence to establish Maoist links with these incidents except the claims made by unknown Maoists themselves. Maoists have claimed responsibility for these incidents through press statements and their clandestine information bulletin, Kattuthee(Wildfire).

In December 2014, Thunderbolt commandos claimed to have exchanged fire with Naxals near Chappa forest tribal settlement (in Vellamunda police station limits) in Wayanad district. The police claimed that the Naxals first fired at them when they were in search of the armed militants in that part of the forest. The police also claimed they had recovered part of an AK 47 gun and Maoist uniforms. However, there were no witnesses to this except village residents, who only heard the sounds of gunshots.

The police have since registered a few arrests in connection with Maoist cases in Kerala. On December 22, they arrested two college students – 22-year-old Sreekanth Prabhakaran, a BEd student, and 23-year-old Arun Balan, a journalism student – in connection with the attacks on the KFC outlet in Palakkad and the vandalizing of the Nitta Gelatin office in Kochi. Later the police also arrested Jose, a 50-year-old farmer and Ashraf, a native of Pandikkad in Malappuram, on February 3 and March 10 respectively.

In 2014, the police had issued a look out notice naming many social activists including Tushar Nirmal Sarathi  and Jaison Cooper.In December 2014, the police raided the office of Keraleeyam, a Malayalam magazine focusing on tribal issues.In July 2014, a Swiss tourist Jonathan Baud who went to a public meeting in Trissur commemorating a dead Maoist, was arrested minutes after leaving the meeting. The High Court later quashed the FIR against him saying the “continuance of this prosecution will be a sheer abuse of the legal process.”

Civil society in Kerala has also raised a stink about the way in which the state government and the police deal with ‘the Maoist issue’ in Kerala.

The police however have expanded anti-Naxal operations and they have alleged Naxal links in more cases in the state. They even alleged Maoist links in the Kiss of Love protests. On February 1, the police picked up a 24-year-old Adivasi man, Rajesh Koorankallu from the Koorankallu colony near Areekode, in Malappuram district, for allegedly sending a threatening mail to the District Superintendent of Police.

The police also disclosed to the media that they suspected Maoist links in the death of a 35-year-old hotel employee, K Benny, who was found murdered around midnight on February 12 in a forest area close to Bhavani River at Chindakki near Attappady in Palakkad district. According to news reports, Benny was shot by unidentified assailants.Even though there is little evidence to connect these cases with Maoists, they are definitely making news in the state.

Sarathi told this correspondent that there was a kind of fear psychosis created in the state, especially after the arrest of Jaison and himself. “There is hardly any fact finding by civil society or the local media about the people so far arrested [for allegedly being Maoists]. I had registered a vakalat in court for Arun and Sreekanth [the two college students arrested in December]. But, after my arrest, the family members of these two students are reluctant to talk to me regarding the case,” he said. When the police cast suspicions on Sarathi for offering legal support to two young men they had charged with being Maoist, the two men’s families are also likely to think that altruism is probably undercover Maoism. Paranoia is a fertile crop. Sarathi said that the Adivasi people living in the areas where the state government has deployed special commandoes live in fear. “We are getting complaints from Adivasi people. They tell us that they are being questioned if they buy more pulses from shops or if they cook more rice at home for dinner, [with police] suspecting that they are doing so for their Maoist guests.”

For Adivasi activists such as CK Janu, there’s a clear plan at work. For over a decade, 45–year-old Janu has been at the forefront of adivasi movements in the state, particularly the movements for adivasi land rights. In 2003 she had led the historic Muthanga agitation for land rights during which the police fired at the protesting adivasis that left four adivasis and a police man dead. More recently,under the banner of her organization Adivais Gotra Maha Sabha, she had led the Nilpu Samaram, a protest where hundreds of Adivasis from different districts of the state stood for 162 daysin front of the state secretariat. The protest successfully achieved its demands for greater land rights for Adivasis, with the state government agreeing to provide one acre of land each to 447 tribal families evicted from Muthanga, besides agreeing to implement the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA).

Janu is highly skeptical of the Maoist threat-perception. “I haven’t seen a Maoist anywhere in Kerala. There are many independent organizations who work among the Adivasis in the state. The Maoist presence is used as a tool to suppress their activities. Something is mysterious there,” she points out.

Former Naxals see no chance of a Naxal return to the state, as they say “Kerala is a post-naxalite, post-Maoist state”. “Unlike the case of other states, Kerala’s Adivasis and Dalits have leaders who emerged from within. They don’t need a leader from outside,” says Civic Chandran, a former Naxalite, who outright rejects any scope for a Naxal movement in the state in the present day scenario. “It is the state’s ploy to get more funds from the Central government in the name of hunting Maoists,” he says.

Social and environmental activists like CR Neelakandan see this as a convenient way of shutting down social and environmental movements in the state. “Since the attack on the Nitta Gelatin office, the police have been using it as a tool to witch-hunt the men and women who had been already leading protests against the company,” he said.

The only people who could possibly be pleased other with the heightened threat perception other than the state is the near-comatose Maoist movement, which will get a shot in the arm. Kattuthee often publishes statements by Maoists claiming responsibility for attacks. In 2014, the 10th year of the formation of the CPI(Maoist), Roopesh released a video to the media from his hideout. In the video, Roopesh is wearing a Maoist uniform and calls for an armed revolution in the state. That year, Roopesh even attempted to reclaim people’s support for the movement by publishing a novel, Vasanthathile Pookkal (Flowers of Spring). The novel narrates the story of the arrest of a Maoist (who resembles the author) and the (imaginary) violent protests that followed. There was, however a small-scale feud between publishers over this book.

Maoist ideologues like Mundur Ravunni argue that the relevance of Maoist movement has only increased in the state. “Kerala’s existing social and environmental movements have become merely compromising,” he alleged, adding, “the marginalized sections of Kerala society, mainly the Adivasis, Dalits and the coastal people, will definitely defy the so-called Kerala model of development as they have not benefited from Kerala’s development at all.”

Both the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF and the Congress-led UDF in Kerala take a similar approach to the ‘Maoist question’ in the state. The home departments of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have held combined meetings to discuss the matter.With the state and the Maoists trying hard to create a hue and cry over the Naxal presence in the state for their own respective means, the state government is now looking towards the Center, to see whether it will sanction SRE funds for the state.Chennithala has also sought Singh’s “kind personal intervention for quick allotment” of a CIAT in Kerala, for which, he informed the Center, the state had already “earmarked a good piece of land” in Alappuzha district, Kerala’s best-known tourist destination.Such activities will definitely change the state’s existing socio-political atmosphere. Activists are already apprehensive, and point out that such a move will only help “militarization” of the Adivasi regions in the state, which will further alienate Adivasis from mainstream society. It is also suspected that this opportunity will help further exploit the vast natural resources in these areas, which have already been invaded by various mafias and groups with vested interests for the purpose of quarrying, setting up resorts, and cultivating ganja.

Will the Center enable the arresting of dissenters in Kerala? Considering the arrest last year of Delhi University professor GN Saibaba, who has been campaigning against Operation Green Hunt, the government’s anti Maoist offensive, perhaps the Center has already declared open season for those who question the government’s ‘Maoist’ witch hunts.

Thufail PT is a Delhi-based journalist.

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