When the valley of Varayan Mala reverberated with gunshots

When the valley of Varayan Mala reverberated with gunshots
Thunderbolts in action during the 2016 operation in Karulayi forest. Photo: Sameer Hameed
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Even as the news of Maoist leader C P Jaleel getting killed in an encounter with police at Vythiri in Wayanad is coming out, the 2016 operation of Thunderbolts, the special Commando force of Kerala Police, in which three Maoist leaders were killed remains fresh in public memory.

Kerala Police had managed to thwart the attempts of the Maoist group’s attempts to camp in the Karulayi forest areas in Nilambur with the help of Q Branch of Tamil Nadu Police. The Maoist leaders Kuppu alias Devarajan and Ajitha alias Kaveri were killed in the encounter that ensued as the Kerala Police surrounded the Maoist camp in the deep forest area. Allegations that the Kerala Police had staged fake encounters had also risen at that time.

It was the Q Branch which had identified the Maoist presence within the forest area and information was passed on to the Kerala Police.

Tracking a phone call

The Q Branch officers had smelled Maoist presence in a phone call that had passed through the BSNL tower at Karappuram near Moothodam Grama Panchayat office in the vicinity of Karulayi forest area. Following that telephone signal, they were able to zero in on the Maoist camp. The information was promptly handed over to the Kerala Police. The Q Branch had spent many months in the forest areas in disguise, to watch the movements of the Maoists. They had also received information that Kuppu had arrived in Wayanad to oversee the functioning of Nadukani dalam of the Maoist faction. The Q Branch is well experienced in handling terrorist groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

When the valley of Varayan Mala reverberated with gunshot
The Kerala Thunderbolts bring the body of a maoist to an outpost. Photo: Sameer Hameed

The Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau of Andhra Police which has been specialising upon the Maoist activities was also on the tracks of the Nadukani Dalam for a long time. The AP Police’s Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau can track the movements of the Maoists even from deep forest areas. This fact is also known to the Maoists.

The dirt track that goes into the Karulayi forest area of Nilambur is blocked for vehicles with heavy chains. The thickly forested valley of Varayan Mala had reverberated with gunshots during that encounter. The police had not allowed anyone to the area where the encounter had taken place. It was a four kilometer trek to reach the foothills of Varayan Mala, from the Padukka Forest Station. The trek was dangerous with the presence of elephants and other wild animals along the route.

There are six tribal settlements a few kilometers from the encounter spot. Alakkal Colony was below the spot, while Uchakkulam, Mundakkadavu and Nedunkayam settlements lay to the right from there. Mancheeri and Mannala settlements were located uphill.

As Kuppu and Kaveri were shot down, others in the team had escaped into the deep forests of Varayan Mala. After two days, they appeared at the Mannala tribal settlement and informed the tribals that they were safe. After warning that they would seek revenge for their comrades, the Maoists disappeared.

Thunderbolts

The Thunderbolts had almost become a laughing stock of the local residents. There were numerous complaints that the government was wasting huge funds just for trying to catch three or four Maoists. The social media had raised scathing comments about the Thunderbolts that even though they were spending all these years in the forest, they could not come up with a single Maoist. There were also serious allegations that the encounter was staged, with the Maoists who were caught accidentally.

When the valley of Varayan Mala reverberated with gunshot
People gather outside the Padukka police station after hearing about the killing of Maoists in Karulayi forest. Photo: Sameer Hameed

However, the Thunderbolt team responded that all these years they were getting accustomed to the forest life. They were being given tough training so that they could survive for three days in the forest without food.

According to the police, around 12 Maoists were deployed for the protection of Kuppu, who was a Central Committee member of the party. The police had made an angular attack, which caught the Maoists by surprise who managed to flee with their weapons. They were also said to have fired at the police while retreating so as to prevent the police from following them.

The other Maoists must have fled when they were sure that Kuppu and Kaveri could not be rescued. It must have been impossible for Kuppu to fight the machine guns of the police with just a pistol. Kaveri who was ailing, had no weapon. All these facts point at the veracity of the fake encounter argument, according to human rights activists.

Marks on the trees

The Maoists usually put up camps within deep forest areas, unfrequented even by the forest officers. The Nilambur forests get rain almost for 10 months every year. It’s this weather that they have to survive. The team members do not smoke, fearing that it would give away their presence. They take care to dispose off any signs that would give away their presence, like remains of cooking or hunting for food. The team never stays at one place for more than a few days. Each person would carry their necessary things including tarpaulin for making camps at night. Rice is usually kept in pits dug in different parts of the forest. Around 75 kilograms of rice were found from Karulayi forest. This was what prompted the police to guess that they were not planning a long stay in Karulayi.

Usually, they make use of markings made on the trees to remember the way within the forest. To reach the settlements, often the Maoists have to trek for two or three days through the forests. After reaching the tribal settlements and talking about their ideology, the Maoists quickly disappear, reaching the forest within just 20 minutes sometimes. They know that the police need only 20 minutes to receive information of their arrival. The markings on the trees help them reach the forest safely.

Who are Kuppu and Kaveri? The police version

Kuppu was under the watch list of Andhra and Tamil Nadu police for a long time. There were many cases pending against him, including a bank robbery in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, in 1988. Tamil Nadu Police had declared a reward of Rs 10 lakh for anyone giving information about him.

Both Kuppu and Kaveri were born into Dalit families. An engineering graduate, Kuppu was the executive committee member of the All India League for Revolutionary Culture during the 1980s. Later, he became one of the top Maoist leaders. Kaveri, daughter of Paranthaman, who was working with Indian Railways, was practising as a lawyer in Chennai before she took to the path of guerrilla war.

Kerala Police had received information that the Maoists were trying to form committees with the help of the local tribal chieftains in some areas of Palakkad district. Their attempts to form a local administrative system eventually led to the Maoist goal of creating a parallel power structure. Acting on the information, the Kerala Police managed to thwart the attempt at the budding stage itself.

Similar action plans have been employed by the Maoists in various hamlets in different parts of India, trying to seize land and crop using the villagers’ committees. The Peoples Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) has been employed to protect the seized land and crop. Most of the Maoist encounters that take place in the North Indian villages happen between the PLGA and the Police. The Maoists were working at such a strategy at Pattakkarimbu Colony of Nilambur.

How Kaveri became Ajitha

In Kerala, the Maoists have four Dalams – Kabani, Bhavani and Nadukani. There are different committees, like Forest Committee and Coastal Committee. The spokesperson of the Special Zonal Committee is termed as ‘Jogi.’ That happens to be the name of the tribal youth who was killed in the police firing that took place at Muthanga, Wayanad, in 2003. Maoists usually do not use the real name of the spokespersons. Jogi is some kind of official title, under which the statements of the party will be issued. The party gives new names to each member. Usually, the names will be of old Naxal activists or Maoists or tribals killed in encounters. Kaveri was given the name of Ajitha – former Naxal leader. Each Dalam will have one militant commander and six members.

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