ON 24 November, a bullet-riddled body was found in the jungles of Burishole in West Bengal. It lay slumped beside an AK-47, a checked scarf and a laptop bag. The body belonged to Koteshwar Rao, alias Kishenji, a CPI(Maoist) Politburo member, a man who once described himself as India’s Most Wanted No 2. Media-savvy, well versed in Telugu, Bangla and English, Kishenji had in many ways become the voice and public face of India’s Maoist movement.
But that is not the only reason his death is significant. His killing is crucial because it could be a game changer; it could spell the end of even a possibility of interim peace. The killing comes at a time when the West Bengal government had appointed interlocutors to facilitate possible dialogue with the banned group, described often as India’s gravest internal security threat.
On 7 July this year, in keeping with her pre-election promise of peace in Junglemahal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked “all armed groups” to restrain arms and invited them for peace talks. Six months on, the interlocutors have now resigned from their positions. “The prevailing situation in Junglemahal does not allow us to carry forward the peace talks. We have expressed our helplessness and inability to the chief minister of West Bengal,” they said in a letter.
This is not the first time peace talks with the Maoists have broken down. In Andhra Pradesh in 2004, party leaders were killed while returning to the jungles after failed talks with the AP government. More recently, in 2010, CPI(Maoist) spokesperson Azad was shot in an alleged fake encounter while carrying a message from interlocutor Swami Agnivesh to his comrades in Dandakaranya. It left the talks in tatters, and the mediators embarrassed. Kishenji too, sources say, had recently come to West Bengal to iron out details of a potential peace deal with the Mamata government, to possibly settle differences in the state leadership of the Maoist party.
The journey, especially of the past six months, points not only to the difficulty of peace talks, but also to the gaping hole in India’s Naxal strategy. It seems unclear whether the government is, as a matter of policy, even interested in dialogue. It is also unclear whether the Centre is willing to allow any state governments the autonomy of their own peace process. It also remains unclear whether the central leadership of the Maoist party will be able to restrain its cadres during peace talks.
During the past few months, the West Bengal interlocutors had met the Maoist state leadership twice at a hideout in the jungles. There have been five rounds of talks at the Writers’ Building with the top brass of the government. TEHELKA has learnt from credible government sources that even during this process, the interlocutors had been tracked; their phones tapped. Sources say the CRPF also has photographs of the places where the interlocutors met the CPI(Maoist) state leadership. It is possible that this surveillance may have helped intelligence agencies zero in on Kishenji.
“We have been able to gather better intelligence using modern devices like GPS. We were tracking at least 100 Maoist informers,” a police source told TEHELKA.
The Mamata government, on the other hand, has been maintaining that joint operations in Junglemahal have been stalled. The Maoists rubbish this claim and say at least 300 people have been arrested since May. CRPF sources confirmed to TEHELKA that while operations had not been “aggressive” and there were instructions to not raid entire villages, the troops were never instructed to stay inside barracks. Intelligence-based operations have continued. Meanwhile, the Maoists have killed at least five TMC workers.
Even if under a clime of mistrust, the interlocutors had soldiered on. As TEHELKA last reported, the stalemate seemed to be the insistence of the West Bengal government that the Maoist party agree to “not carry and show arms”, which the party refused to accept.
Meanwhile, in a significant move, the Maoist party had on 30 September offered a one-month unilateral ceasefire. There was no official response from the government. Explaining why, Purnendu Bose, Labour Minister and part of the government’s negotiating team, says: “It is not true that they declared a unilateral ceasefire. If you follow the language of their letter, you don’t find any feelings for peace. It was not a ceasefire situation. They were threatening villagers not to apply for police jobs and brandishing arms.”
“The administration read the Maoist offer for ceasefire as a sign of weakness,” an interlocutor told TEHELKA. “There was a theory that the party must be weak, and the government should strike when they are weak. After initial debates, that theory prevailed. This was a golden opportunity that the West Bengal government should not have missed.”
While there was no Maoist violence for one month, immediately after the ceasefire period was over, two more TMC workers were murdered by the Reds. On their part, the Maoists insist that the TMC workers were part of armed private-militias — the Jan Jagran Manch and the Bairav Vahini — supported by the TMC and West Bengal government. The killings triggered the launch of full-scale operations.
It is in this context that Kishenji’s death acquires greater significance, that peace acquires greater urgency. The urgency becomes clearer when you visit the home of Lalmohan Mahato, a TMC anchal president killed by the Maoists. Five men on two motorcycles had fired multiple shots in broad daylight as Mahato entered his coaching centre where he taught students. “The people’s court has punished you,” said posters left near his body. TEHELKA met his brother Parmeshwar Mahato, who confirmed that Lalmohan was part of the Jan Jagran Manch — a self-styled village protection committee. While the Manch conducts rallies without arms, reports suggest it is this same group that turns into the armed Bairav Vahini at night. If you listen to Parmeshwar Mahato, the urgency of peace talks becomes clear: “I’m happy Kishenji is dead. All the Maoists should be killed. If the government allows us, we can take them out ourselves. Lalmohan has been busy organising village protection committees in 33 villages (gram rakha committee). The formation began two months after the elections — people were deputed to guard villages. “After 10 pm, we do not allow any unknown person into the village. We defend ourselves with lathis, bows and arrows. We want weapons. I have even requested the government and party leaders and all of us want weapons to defend ourselves,” says Mahato.
Highly placed government sources confirmed to TEHELKA that the Subsidiary Intelligence Branch (SIB) has sent a report to the Union Home Ministry detailing the build-up of armed private gangs in contact with local TMC leaders. If it escalates, it could lead to another civil war-like situation in Bengal.
This is why the circumstances that led to Kishenji’s death matter. The immediate details surrounding the death remain unclear. While the CRPF says it was a “clean operation,” the Maoist party alleges it was a fake encounter; that Kishenji was picked up earlier and shot in cold blood.
IF YOU drive towards the forests of Burishole expecting dense jungles to be the hiding place of a dreaded Maoist leader, you’d be disappointed. In the end, Kishenji’s body lay in a one-square kilometre patch of sal and eucalyptus trees, a 30-minute car ride from Jhargram town in West Midnapore. An aerial view would reveal a small patch of forest surrounded by paddy fields, vast stretches of plain land and red soil roads. The Kangsabati canal stretches towards the right, and on the left, barely 500 metres from where his body lay is a football field. The patch where the forces claim to have found his body has now been marked with yellow contape. It is a three-minute walk from the mud road that divides the forest and paddy fields. Even 72 hours after his death, the soil is a damp red. Behind where his slumped body lay is a mound of mud, an ant hill of sorts, presumably something to hide behind while dodging bullets. Yet, there are no bullet holes in it. The trees all around this patch have several bullet traces, possible markers of a fierce gun battle. It remains unclear whether this was a stage set up after a fake encounter, or whether Kishenji was killed during combat.
Sources in Midnapore Medical College, where the post-mortem was conducted, told TEHELKA that there were more than bullet injuries on the body. According to CRPF sources, the force received intel inputs on 22 November that a team of 10 Maoist cadres, including Maoist Central Committee members Kishenji and Suchitra Mahato, were moving in the Kushboni forests near Jhargram. On 23 November morning, the CRPF began advancing into the forests of Kushboni for search-and-comb operations. Four Maoists were arrested. During their interrogation, it was learnt that Kishenji and Suchitra Mahato were hiding in the forests of Burishole.
The next day, on 24 November, about 200 jawans surrounded the forest. The COBRA 207 Battalion was called in. District police officers came in later. “As the CRPF began advancing, we were fired at. We fired back and hurled three grenades. About 30 rounds were fired. It seemed there was only one person firing back at us. It seemed to be coming from only one gun,” said a CRPF source. When the firing ceased, the forces found the body that has now been identified as Koteshwar Rao alias Kishenji.
Post-mortem reports revealed that there were more than just bullet injuries on Kishenji’s body
This claim counters the version of CM Mamata Banerjee, who’d said: “The Maoists were given three days to surrender. They fired 1,000 rounds.”
Villagers in Burishole say the forces surrounded the village in the early hours of 24 November. No one was allowed to leave. Away from the village, Kanchan and Malik Mahato were loading hay onto a bullock cart. It was around 4 pm. A group of 30 jawans walked through their fields towards the edge of the sal forest. Around 4.30 pm, the firing began. It lasted 20 minutes.
After the firing, as Kanchan and Malik Mahato began walking their cows back, they were spotted by the forces. “Yeh toh pakka Maovadi hai,” (this one is surely a Maoist) a CRPF jawan said, holding Malik Mahato by the neck. Both brothers were then hauled into the Sal forests. Hands and legs tied to each other, the duo was beaten with lathis, then tied to a tree barely 100 metres from the dead body. “What do you know? Is this Kishenji? Where is Suchitra?” the duo was interrogated. Both brothers remained tied for the rest of the night. Around 9 pm, four hours later, they claim they saw a larger contingent of forces join the troops already present near the body. “They began firing in the air again,” Kanchan Mahato told TEHELKA. “There was false firing for another 20 minutes.” Perhaps this was later described by officials in media briefings on 24 November as “the encounter being still on”.
It was only after this that the waiting local media were allowed to visit the spot and take pictures. The brothers were let off the next morning, but Kanchan Mahato, 26, has returned scarred. As part of the new Junglemahal Police recruitment drive announced by Mamata Banerjee, he has applied for the position of a junior constable. “Is this how the police behave? It was an eye opener. I’m not as excited about a police job now. But if I get it, I’ll take it.”
A week since the encounter, several questions remain unanswered. If the forces were fired upon by a group of Maoists, why are there not even reports of injury? Was Kishenji betrayed by his own men? What would have compelled him to travel alone, without bodyguards, in such plain territory? Was he arrested earlier? If so, what does his killing reveal about India’s Maoist strategy?
TWO YEARS ago, a young Maoist trekked into the West Bengal forests armed with a new book. Titled Aspects of India’s Economy, published by RUPE, (Research Unit for Political Economy) it had surfaced in Kolkata three days ago. Deep into the jungles, he presented it to a party leader and CPI(Maoist) Politburo member. “This is for you,” he said. “Thank you,” said Kishenji, “but I already have it.”
It is this awareness of the world that Kishenji most insisted upon in a midnight interview with this correspondent in November 2009. Born in Karimnagar, Andhra Pradesh, Kishenji was the son of a freedom-fighter and a Congress worker, the vice-president of the AP Congress committee. In 1973, he graduated with a mathematics degree and moved to Hyderabad to study law. He started his political journey with the Telengana movement. Around the Emergency of 1975, he had gone underground. “Two things motivated me,” he told TEHELKA. “The Revolutionary Writers Association founded by Varavara Rao and the political atmosphere of the nation at the time. I grew up reading Gandhi and Tagore,” he said. “I did not pick up arms without reading and understanding the history of the world.”
“Right now, there are 500 policemen in a camp 1.5 kilometres from where I am talking to you,” he added. “In 1,600 villages in Bengal, people are on guard at night to ensure the police can’t find me. The people of Bengal love me.” What changed in the past two years is perhaps the story of a fractured revolution, and an equally fractured attempt at peace.
Tusha Mittal is a Principal correspondent with Tehelka.