The killing of four suspected Maoist guerrillas in Kerala and the subsequent arrest of two students have angered the public and riven the governing leftist coalition at a time when the communist movement in India is celebrating its centenary.
The Communist Party of India (CPI), which is part of the Left Democratic Front (LDF), has rubbished the claims of the police, calling the shootout in the forests of Palakkad a fake encounter. The police claimed that the guerrillas fired when the commandos approached their hideout in a shed at Attappady, which is home to destitute and ailing advasis.
Noted poet K Satchidanandan said, “The left has turned on the left.”
The chief minister was surprised that the CPI was the most vocal group and even fired the first salvo. The CPI has favoured talks over encounters. Indian Union Muslim League leader N Shamsudheen said, “The CPM is a party that opposes capital punishment. But in the case of the Maoists, there is no arrest, no trial, only shoot at sight.”
The previous government of Oomen Chandy had only arrested Maoists. None of them were killed. Legislators say that the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have better human rights records than the government of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Politicians and the media have raised several questions, but the government has not answered all of them. If it was an encounter, why was no policeman injured? Why were there no bullet marks on trees if there was machine gun fire? How did they appear after the CPI raised the issue?
How was a guerrilla — who was ailing and too weak to carry a gun and relying on a stick to walk — able to take part in a machine gun shootout? Why did a large police contingent block the CPI fact-finding team from going into the forest? And when they did relent, why did they go away and leave the encounter site unguarded?
A few Maoists have in recent months been keen to surrender. Did the police kill them to get promotions and get government funds? Most of the victims had been shot in the head. Was it a fake encounter?
Why were two students, who were members of the CPI(M) themselves, arrested under a harsh law just because Maoist literature was reportedly found with them?
Former police officials seethe at these questions. Former Raw chief Hormis Tharakan said, “Terming a genuine encounter as a fake one is more dangerous than labelling a fake one as genuine,” he said.
Since 2016, when Chief Minister Vijayan assumed office, police have gunned down seven guerrillas in three encounters. However, the enquiry reports were never made public.
The police had initially adopted a ‘surrender-and-rehabilitation’ approach, but it evoked a lukewarm response from the Maoists. It then switched to a ‘surrender-or-assault’ policy. Central and state agencies believe that, following a crackdown in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh by the Greyhound Commandoes, many of the Bihar-trained guerrillas have shifted their base to the dense forests in the tri-state junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Commandoes have stepped up combing operations, which include stopping vehicles and interrogating tribals. The adivasis are now reluctant to gather forest produce because the police could accuse them of having links with the Maoists.
The chief minister has said, “Maoists are trying to undermine the state’s democratic culture and its efficient law and order system. … It is the firing by the Maoists on this personnel that led to this unfortunate incident.”
CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran dismissed these as “meaningless arguments”. His party said that political remedies, not bullets, is the answer to the issues raised by ultras. Congress MP T N Prathapan said, “Opposition is natural when human rights are denied. Checking such protests from becoming armed attacks is the duty of the government. But the government is labelling such protests as security issues and implementing Stalin-model elimination policy.”
Immediately after the encounter, the Palakkad district police chief surprised the court and even the government’s own prosecutor by secretly filing a “confidential petition” seeking a judicial enquiry into the killings under the Criminal Procedure Code.
The court rejected the plea, saying it was not permitted under the law. It also prevented the police from cremating the bodies following complaints by the relatives that the 16-point guideline framed by the Supreme Court on such encounters was not followed.
In 2014, the Supreme Court suggested guidelines that included a compulsory magisterial inquiry, alerting the relatives of the dead, informing the state and national human rights commission and asking police to immediately surrender their weapons for forensic tests.
The woes of the government continued to increase, when the police arrested a law student and a journalism student under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, sparking widespread protests on Saturday (November 2). The government has hinted that they may review the charges.
The police told a court that the students had in their possession a bag containing pamphlets on Maoism, casteism, environmental degradation of the Western Ghats, and a banner condemning “trampling of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir”. The duo has been remanded for 14 days.
The two students and their families have been associated with the CPM for generations and their arrest under the Unlawful Activities law has angered many CPM members themselves. M A Baby, former state minister and Rajya Sabha MP, said, “Neither the CPM nor the Kerala government has any doubt that UAPA is a black legislation. However, some police officials in the state are yet to be convinced about this fact.”
Naxalism, a movement that started in the 1960s in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari, eventually morphed into the Communist Party of India (Maoist), an amalgam of several extreme groups drawing inspiration from the political philosophy of Mao Zedong. It has advocated an armed struggle to overthrow the government and has been banned.
In a highly politicised state such as Kerala, Maoists do not enjoy the kind of support in the poorly developed states of Jharkhand, Odissa, Chhattisgah and Andhra Pradesh. Their activity in Kerala has been confined mostly to distribution of political literature and stray attacks on police or corporate offices.