From the forest base
At a naxalite base in Karnataka.
THE main area of operation of the leading naxalite party in Karnataka, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), is concentrated in a zone within the heavily forested Western Ghats region that includes parts of the districts of Udupi, Shimoga, Dakshina Kannada and Chikmagalur. It is to this region that the State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (People's War) shifted in 2000-01 as part of a conscious policy to open another front of operations following a series of setbacks owing to the arrest of several of its leading cadre in the Kolar-Tumkur-Raichur region of the State in 1999 and 2000. After the merger last year of the two major naxalite formations in the country, the party changed its name to Communist Party of India (Maoist).
The Western Ghats region was one of the five distinct zones in Karnataka that a perspective plan document drawn up by the party in 1987 identified for building armed struggle. Its thick forest cover made it a zone "strategically important for revolutionary war". The State unit of the CPI (Maoist) operates within a strip, roughly 140 km by 40 km, within which lies the Kudremukh National Park (KNP).
The area was declared a national park in 1987. Exactly 10 years later came the first official notification on the "rehabilitation" of 1,300 Adivasi families who lived within the park area. The moves towards the operationalisation of a rehabilitation package, which envisaged the eviction of thousands of poor families that had hitherto lived on the minor forest produce gathered from the forests, coincided with the shift of the party to the region. The party built its base by espousing the cause of the Adivasis who faced crushing forms of oppression by landlords, middlemen and forest officials. The eviction of Adivasis from the KNP, a process that has still not begun, became the central plank of the Maoists' demands.
The numerical strength of the CPI (Maoist) in its forest base, according to a source close to the party, comprises four armed squads of eight or nine cadre each. Its support base is widespread, says the source, as it has won the sympathy, trust and support of the local people, particularly the Adivasi population, who regard the cadre as committed and selfless protectors of the rights of the poor.
The extent of popular support the naxalites actually enjoy is, however, arguable. Media reports appear to concur on the issue of a solid naxalite support base in the region. "People may come if the naxalites call a meeting, they are readily provided food. They can move around because of the huge freedom that the dense forests offer them and the terrain disadvantages for those who pursue them. That suggests support of a kind, but how deep and sustained is it?" asks a senior government official, who did not wish to be identified. On the only real test of popular support, namely the mobilisation of affected people in mass struggles around the issues that the party espouses, such as eviction of Adivasis, wages, the condition of the plantation labour, falling arecanut prices, and harassment by forest officers, the CPI (Maoist) has failed. There has been no direct mobilisation in the past five years since the party shifted base, although the cadre and sympathisers are believed to work with several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on ecological issues concerning the Western Ghats.
The killing by the police of several key cadre over the past two years has been a major setback for the movement. In November 2003, two senior women party functionaries and squad members, Parvathi and Hajima, were gunned down in Eedu, a village near Karkala in Udupi district, in a police encounter. In a major public relations exercise during the period, in 2004, when negotiations were under way between the Andhra Pradesh government and naxalite groups, the CPI (M-L) (People's War) invited a team of journalists to their stronghold. Saketh Rajan, alias Prem, State secretary of the party, and Murthy, district secretary, spoke at length to journalists on ideological and political matters. Their main demands, conveyed through the media, were that the government must stop the eviction of tribal people from the KNP, and call a halt to combing operations and encounters.
If anything, the police-led operations only intensified, and each encounter was followed by a retaliatory strike. The biggest loss to the party was the killing in February 2005 of Saketh Rajan, whose contribution to the political and organisational growth of the party was critical, and his associate Shivalinga by a police combing party at Menisinahadiya in Chikmagalur district. In a swift and brutal retaliation, armed naxalite squads from Andhra Pradesh struck at a police station in Pavagada in Tumkur district, killing 11 policemen.
The response of the N. Dharam Singh government, or indeed any previous government in the State, to just about any facet of the naxalite phenomenon has been ad hoc and devoid of serious intent or purpose. To begin with, it has hardly addressed the very real issue of backwardness of the Western Ghats region, and has persisted in going ahead in the KNP with the now discredited approach to environmental conservation, namely, ousting those who live in and off the forests. A senior official told Frontline: "There is nothing even close to a reflective approach to the issue. The State just manages the problem at the level of symbols and posturing, especially in response to pinpricks from the media." After the killing by armed squads of an alleged police informer in the same village where Saketh Rajan was killed, the State government in May set up the Anti-Naxalite Force (with 543 officers and men), a special force reconstituted from the Special Task Force that was established to apprehend the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.