Kerala Faces an Uphill Task as Maoists Seek Sanctuary in the State

KOYAMOOPPAN, AS HE is reverentially called by his Tribal community, is more than a century old, but he doesn’t know his real age. “Yes, I am more than 100 years old,” he says after making a few calculations that receive a nod from his octogenarian wife who keeps a close watch on him. Notwithstanding the old, bearded man’s avuncular smile and calm composure, he is unwell today and has just returned home from the well-maintained, well-equipped local hospital of Attappadi, which falls in Kerala’s Palakkad district that borders Tamil Nadu. Koyamooppan doesn’t like hospitals, he avers, emphasising that he is happy resting at home. His wife nods her head at us in assent. His family lives in Manjakandi located on an edge of the Silent Valley National Park, not far from the hill where four Maoists were shot dead by the state police’s elite Thunderbolts command force in the last week of October in what it said was an encounter.

Hangers-on at the Spartan home of Koyamooppan (mooppan is an honorific title that stands for ‘chief’; he is the head of the numerically preponderant Irular tribal community in the hamlet) are curious about our visit, and shortly, happy to chat about the four dead men who, the police said, were killed in two separate shootouts. “Tribals here face a lot of trouble from local officials, all the way from Attappadi to Mannarkad (a town in the same district where Tribals have to travel to get certain official documents) who harass our people because we are mostly illiterate or semi-literate and unused to the ways of towns,” says Natesan (name changed), who is a breakaway from the usual mould of Irular farmers. He makes a living as an entrepreneur by renting out multiple vehicles for construction and travel purposes.

For his part, Koyamooppan, who couldn’t share his views with us because he was under the weather and was taking cough syrup, although the treatment he perhaps required was for his swollen legs and high sugar levels, merely says, “I will go to the hospital tomorrow.” But his wife disapproves. We later learn that Koyamooppan did not go to the hospital and died less than 72 hours after we left him.

We would never again get to hear Koyamooppan’s comments on the problems that Tribals have typically faced over time in Attappadi. Hoping to understand the history of the people in the region, we had set out to meet this centenarian chief of Irulars, the Tribal community that is famously blessed with the vast knowledge of snakes that, unfortunately, is likely to be forgotten by the next generation migrating elsewhere to do odd daily-wage jobs to make a living. They realise that they can’t afford to make both ends meet despite notionally owning acres of forest land that they can neither sell nor use for cultivation. What is clear, though, is that resentment against the local administration and forest officials runs deep in several of the 194 hamlets of Attappadi that Open visited.

Three key Tribal groups—Irulars, Mudugars and Kurumbars—live in these hamlets. It is this growing anger among Tribals that Maoists perhaps hope to tap—by endearing themselves to these marginalised communities and helping them whenever they come under pressure from forest officials.

Says Karuppan (name changed), who lives in a Kurumbar village: “They used to come to our villages and hold meetings until midnight. They usually come asking for food items, like rice and vegetables. They are around here but do not harm us. Neither do they make us do anything we don’t like to do. They are nice people,” says a villager we met near a vegetable market in Attappadi in Malayalam with a pronounced Tamil accent.

Adds Rajendran, a local in a village 15 km from Attappadi: “Those shots [that killed Maoists] could be heard here very clearly.” Rajendran says that last year the Maoists had held three meetings in his village. Topics such as lack of employment, the lackadaisical approach of government functionaries and the poor state of health facilities were discussed in the meetings.

Similar stories can be heard from villagers across this tribal belt. In Majakandi though, the villagers were given a more concrete demonstration of Maoist “support”: somewhere along the ridge on the other side of the village, the Maoists demolished a shack/hut belonging to the forest department. “They also told us that the forest guards won’t trouble us anymore,” a close associate of Koyamooppan tells Open.

These are classic first moves by Maoists in any area where they seek an opening. In the Bhadrakali area in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh near the triborder with Maharashtra and Telangana, observers recount similar stories. In 1980, when dalams (groups of Maoists) were dispatched from Andhra Pradesh to build a ‘rear area’ in the Dandakaranya region, the Maoists faced a similar dilemma. How does one build a base among a people who are otherwise happy with what nature provides?

The answer was staring at them: target those who come between the forest and the people. Soon enough forest guards and low-level revenue department officers were “disciplined”. Most ran away to the district headquarters. Those who dared to persist were dispatched to a different world. That initial sign of “support” paid rich dividends. Bhadrakali is yet to get a metalled road from the nearby sub-divisional town, and the levelled dirt-patch that goes in the name of a road has been built after the killing of a number of contractors and near-herculean efforts by security forces.

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Koyamooppan’s home in Manjakandi, Kerala

The enormity of goodwill among the Tribal population across huge tracts of forest land is a blessing for Maoists who are forced to flee from several other states under pressure from police in those areas. In these hills on the Western Ghats that is home to diverse flora and fauna, they seem to have found a safe haven outside of their former comfort zones in the Red Corridor, which covers multiple states.

“A raft of factors make the region favourable to them, including popular support among the natives of these green hills and the general sympathy for Maoists in the Che Guevara-worshiping state on account of the romantic notions that a large section of its people share about guerrilla warfare,” says a senior state official. He adds that the Tribals here also feel ‘threatened’ by the growing presence of ‘settlers’, non-Tribals who have migrated here over the past few decades and who enjoy a “good rapport” with local officials.

In fact, in the north, in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, Maoists are now at the receiving end of the security apparatus that has been toned up in the last two decades. Wherever there are roads in these states—and the network of security camps and roads is now being extended to the most remote nooks and crannies—the Maoists are pushed back. The age of safe havens in the thick forests of Dandakaryana and the Chhotanagpur Plateau is now coming to an end. In the absence of ideological traction in urban areas, new forested sanctuaries have to be sought. Kerala and the Western Ghats in general fit the bill.

The Maoists have upped their game in recent years. The Western Ghats Special Zonal Committee has been looking after the work of the Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu area for a while now. The number of incidents involving Maoists in Malappuram, Wayanad and Kozhikode outnumber actions in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The episode in Manjakandi is worrying because the village is located very close to the Tamil Nadu border and is populated with an Adivasi group that has linguistic affinity to Tamil. This opens the possibility of expansion towards the eastern reaches of the Ghats. So far the action has been in the western zone of the area.

Is Attappady block, and perhaps other nearby districts, staring at a similar future?

At first sight, no one is willing to believe this. Kerala, after all, is home to some of the best developmental success stories in India. Central India, on the other hand, is the graveyard of developmental efforts. But these differences are deceptive. For there are two things that are common to both regions: geographic isolation from key centres of governance and dense forests located at a junction with other states.

“It is not easy for the Adivasis to get anything done at the official level. We try and help children from local families educationally. But suppose some certificates are required for securing admission in an educational institution. That requires a journey to Mannarkkad, the taluk where all such administrative work is done. Very often, that requires multiple journeys. For Adivasis, that is a lot of money and, more importantly, time they cannot afford by deviating from the daily cycle of tending to whatever they are growing. Inevitably, it breeds alienation,” says a local observer.

This is one of those stories where a state government known for its developmental work tries to do as much as it can but gets defeated at the hands of geography.

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Koyamooppan, three days before his death

Before meeting Koyamooppan, we had climbed up to the spot where the encounter had taken place, wading through thick bush in a trek arduous for city dwellers. One of our guides said the Maoists were killed when they had come down looking for food, a common refrain among Tribals, suggesting that they could have been captured instead of being killed. They respond with their silence when you ask them to elaborate on what they mean.

The two villages where Maoists of the Bhavani dalam—named after the river that abuts Kerala and Tamil Nadu—operated are at a location where the Nilgiri Hills, the Silent Valley National Park and the Nilambur forest range in Malappuram district more or less adjoin each other. Further ahead, via Wayanad district, it is easy to cross over into the Bandipur National Park in Karnataka. Such areas are easy haunts for Maoists even as they are difficult terrain for any administrative machinery. An intelligence officer Open spoke to discloses that poor treatment by local officials, including those in the forest department, may have contributed to the affinity many tribal people have towards Maoists.

He adds, “That Maoists are now busy creating a safe zone in Kerala is beyond doubt. We have our people who keep us informed, but the terrain makes any search for these people difficult. They do have sympathisers but Maoists are careful at this stage not to use locals for their operations,” he says, adding, “But if the state government doesn’t crack down on them, the situation will change sooner or later and Maoists will start exerting more influence and power.” Of the four Maoists, three were shot dead in an exchange of fire between the police and the extremists on October 28th, the police said.

The next day, according to the police, the rest of the team of Maoists, who were hiding near the spot where the encounter took place, opened fire on the elite forces of the Kerala state police, when they arrived at the scene. In the gun battle, Manivasakam, head of the Maoists’ Bhavani dalam, was killed, the police said. Among the dead, Manivasakam and Karthik were from Tamil Nadu while Sreemati and Suresh, the two others killed along with Karthik, were from Karnataka. Meanwhile, two more Maoists managed to escape, the police said.

Shortly after the deaths, a controversy began to brew, alleging that the encounters were fake and that Manivasakam was captured along with the others on October 28th and then tortured and shot dead the next day. Interestingly, this charge against the police was raised by the second-largest constituent of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala. It was a case of hyper-local politics having a state-wide as well as national impact. We will return to this later.

Now, standing amidst the wild grass, facing tall trees and lush foliage covered in mist in a place where the forces killed the Maoists is an evocative moment. A powerful wind disperses some of the mist for a few moments, allowing us a glimpse of the dark hills ahead. Then, it is noon and even the thick forest cover is not to be seen amidst the tireless, swirling mist.

KOYAMOOPPAN, NOW DEAD, held enormous clout in the hills of Attappadi, not only as a leader of the majority Tribal community of Irulars, but also president of the Puthur grama panchayat for 30 years and a prominent CPI leader. It was not rare to find photos of his with senior BJP leaders in the CPI mouthpiece Janayugam in Kerala. When he died, senior leaders of the party went to pay tributes. In fact, local leaders bid adieu to the veteran tribal leader by performing ‘Adivasi kooth’ (Tribal dance) around his dead body that was garlanded and kept on the ground, in line with the traditional custom many of them followed.

The CPI’s official line against the coalition leader, the CPM, over the deaths of Maoists in Attappadi was attributed to the party’s ‘grassroots knowledge’ of the encounter. The CPI said that its local leadership confirmed that the Attappadi encounter was fake. And its most influential local leader in Attappadi was Koyamooppan. The CPI, claiming reliable local intelligence, also dispatched a team to the spot of the killing at Manjakandi following which it described the police action as “a cruel homicide”, much to the embarrassment of the state government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the CPM. More trouble was in store for the state government when it used provisions of a law that the CPM had vehemently opposed earlier against two young men who were arrested on suspicion of being Maoists. The CPM Politburo demanded that the Kerala state government revoke the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that was invoked against the duo who were CPM workers. The Chief Minister, however, refused to relent and maintained that they were arrested for their Maoist links.

A police officer close to the matter notes that unlike in other states infested with Maoist violence, “Kerala is a highly politicised society where any action by the police to contain Maoist activities attracts accusations of human rights violations, making it much tougher to clamp down if these organisations are able to establish a solid presence”. Worse, says a senior minister in the cabinet, the reputation of any government in the state “either of the Congress of the Left” depends on public opinion and media scrutiny. “No government here can ever take the risk of alienating itself by not taking media pressure, appeals from human rights groups and the public seriously. That is the rule of the game in Kerala,” he notes.

Some others in the state government, on the other hand, place hope in the fact that Kerala doesn’t appreciate Maoism beyond its romance, as evident from the plight of the Naxalite movement in the late 1960s and the 1970s. College graduates had retreated to the hills of the Western Ghats back then to organise the Tribals and also to launch select attacks on police stations and some individuals, but the movement soon lost its momentum. Over the last few years, the police had hunted down some Maoist leaders in parts of the Western Ghats, prompting various civil society groups to demand a judicial inquiry.

“Romanticisation of this violent movement is a problem that one has to still encounter in parts of Kerala,” adds a senior police officer involved in anti-Maoist counter-insurgency operations. He adds, “Perhaps the only solace is that these are not areas where corporates would have any interest because they are not rich in natural resources that attract mining, and therefore, result in unscrupulous exploitation of Adivasis like other states.”

These are, however, early days in what is a developing situation. The trouble is that administrators only wake up when they discover a full-blown battle on their hands. Setting things right at that stage becomes next to impossible and the only option is to fight it out. That is always a long haul. Kerala, a peaceful state compared to many states marred by Maoist violence, is probably not ready for the grim fight that arises with certainty in such cases.

The best bet for the government is to prevent Adivasi alienation in its far-flung regions of the Western Ghats—and pull the plug on Maoist buildup. That too may prove an uphill task with the Tribal population deeply distrustful of local officials, especially forest officers, and politicians who tend to favour the ‘settlers’ for electoral reasons. At least for now.

With Siddharth Singh. First published in Open

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