India’s Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, West Bengal Chief Minister (also in charge of the province’s home affairs) Mamata Banerjee, Union Home Secretary R K Singh, and the top bosses of the security forces involved in the operation have all been bent on establishing one point: that the alleged encounter in the Burishol forest in West Midnapore district, 10 km from the West Bengal-Jharkhand border, in which Mallojula Koteswara Rao, popularly known by his nom de guerre Kishenji, a member of the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI (Maoist)], was supposedly killed was “real”. Frankly, given the complicity of the media bosses and the journalistic profession (the latter, at the higher levels) with official mendacity, we must admit that the circumstances of his death are as yet unknown. A press statement from Abhay, spokesperson of the Central Committee of the Party, dated 25 November 2011, unambiguously states that Kishenji was killed “after capturing him alive in a well planned conspiracy”.1
The renowned radical Telugu poet Varavara Rao, who accompanied Kishenji’s niece Deepika to bring the body back to Kishenji’s hometown of Peddapalli in Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, is reported to have said: “In the last 43 years, I have seen so many bodies killed in so-called encounters but have not seen a body like this one. . . There is no place on the body where there is no injury.”2 Indeed, according to CDRO (Coordination of Democratic Rights’ Organisations) activists who saw the body before the commencement of the postmortem, “on the back side of the head, part of [the] skull [and] brain [was] missing”; the right eye had come out of the socket; the lower jaw was “missing”; there were four stab wounds on the face; knife injuries were observed on the throat; there were hand fractures and two bullet injuries under one of the arms; “one-third of the left hand index finger was removed”; there were signs of enrooted bullets through the lungs; the right knee was hacked; the foot of the left leg was “totally burnt”; in all, “there were more than 30 bayonet-like cut injuries on the front of the body”. And, while there were “bullet, sharp cuts and burn injuries”, “surprisingly” there were “no injury marks on his [Kishenji’s] shirt and pant corresponding to [those on] his body parts”. (The postmortem report is yet to be handed over to Kishenji’s relatives.)
A press release (“Killing the Talks and Faking an Encounter”, Kolkata, 2 December 2011) by the CDRO — based on the observations of a CDRO fact-finding team who visited the spot in Burishol forest where the alleged encounter took place on 24 November — states that “the extent of the damage caused to the body against the rather undisturbed surrounding of the spot where the body lay raises our suspicion about the official version”. Indeed, “right next to where his [Kishenji’s] body lay on the ground is a termite hill” that “remains undamaged by all the alleged exchange of fire”. Indeed, even nearby, “not a single termite hill was damaged and [there was] no visible sign of burn or fire due to heavy rifle and mortar firing!” Clearly, the veracity of the official story must be seriously doubted (actually, there are now versions of it that are contradicting each other!) and it is high time that an independent judicial inquiry headed by a sitting or retired Supreme Court or High Court judge into the circumstances surrounding Kishenji’s death is constituted at the earliest.
You Couldn’t Have Remained Unmoved by His Spirit
The Indian public knew Kishenji from the media’s cameras that showed his cotton-clothed back with a scarf around his head, a gun draped over his shoulder. Those who loved him were the ones who were to lose the most from the private expropriation and exploitation of jal-jangal-zameen (water-forests-land), part of the natural resource base of India’s eastern and central states, by multinationals, Indian and foreign. Those who detested him — and considered him and his party, the CPI (Maoist), the biggest internal security threat for the power elite and the ruling classes — had, in the name of peace, declared war — “Operation Green Hunt” — on the very people who backed him.
Born in 1954 in Peddapally town (in Karimnagar district, north Telangana), Kishenji was raised by his father Venkataiah (a “freedom fighter”, he called him) and his progressive mother Madhuramma. Inspired by the Naxalbari and Srikakulam movements,3 he became an active member of the Andhra State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) [CPI (ML)] in 1974 and played a prominent part in the peasant struggles in Sircilla and Jagtial taluks of his home district of Karimnagar that were declared ‘disturbed areas” in October 1978. It was in the course of the struggle in Jagtial that both Mupalla Laxman Rao (“Ganapathy”), the present General Secretary of the CPI (Maoist), and Kishenji came to the fore in the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Party because of their excellent organising abilities. Indeed, it was in Karimnagar and Adilabad districts of north Telangana that the first seeds of the fresh tactical line called “Road to Revolution” — formulated by Kondapalli Sitaramaiah and his close comrades after a thorough, critical review of the strategy and tactics of the CPI (ML) since 1967 — began to sprout in the peasant movement there, soon after the Emergency was lifted. Thus, the CPI (ML) (People’s War) [CPI (ML) (PW)], formed on 22 April 1980, was, so to say, the result of the actions of peasants, workers, and revolutionary intellectuals at the base.
The immediate aim was to build guerrilla zones in north Telangana and Dandakaranya (as per the Party’s “Perspective for a Guerrilla Zone”) by the early 1990s, and in this, Kishenji played no small part. Under the leadership of the CPI (ML) (PW), a section of the workers, the poor peasants and landless labourers, dalits, the backward castes, and adivasis (indigenous people), stood up, with a voice of their own, the courage to speak out against oppression and exploitation and resist political domination. Kishenji was a member of the Andhra Pradesh State Committee of the Party when he was transferred to Dandakaranya in 1986 to expand and strengthen the movement there, parts of which emerged as a guerrilla zone where the Party and its mass organisations exercised power as long as the guerrillas had the upper hand over the state’s forces, the zone reverting to the state when the guerrillas were forced to retreat. In such a context, and now in the midst of Operation Green Hunt, the Party, the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), the mass organisations and the Area Revolutionary People’s Committees are still not able to assure the tribal peasants a modicum of security by preventing the Indian big bourgeoisie and the transnational corporations from destroying the adivasis’ human and natural environment. Indeed, such security seems a long way off, and the Party still has to work towards removing jal-jangal-zameen, labour and money from regulation by the market forces of neo-liberal globalisation. Besides physical security, there is also the question of assuring the habitability of the natural environment as well as the security of the tribal peasantry in their socio-cultural environment. Without the formation of base areas, all this will remain a far cry.
From the mid-1990s, Kishenji, now a member of the Central Committee of the Party, worked to bring unity among the revolutionary forces (those who had safeguarded the essential legacy of Naxalbari in the post-Emergency period) and to revive the Naxalite movement in West Bengal. In the Jangalmahal area of West Bengal, it was Kishenji and his close comrades, the late Sasadhar Mahato (killed by the security forces in an encounter in March this year) among them, who undertook — what Ho Chi Minh would have called — the long, patient organisational work which precedes the firing of the first shots. The unity of the CPI (ML) (PW) with the CPI (ML) (Party Unity) in August 1998 and later, in September 2004, of the CPI (ML) (PW) with the Maoist Communist Centre of India to form the CPI (Maoist) alarmed the Indian ruling classes; the revival of the movement in West Bengal in November 2008 unnerved the reformist CPI (M)-led government there.
Now in his mid-50s, Kishenji showed that he can still rough it out like a young guerrilla, inspiring his junior colleagues, those in the springtime of their lives. The energy and conviction with which he was imbued in the struggle for a better world led him to live a simple life, almost like that of an ascetic. The source of this morality came from, we think, the spirit and passion with which he went about the vocation of organising the class struggle. He lived what he advocated — that all comrades must care for each other, love and help each other, that the basic attitude of the “officers” in the PLGA should be one of sharing weal and woe with the “soldier”-guerrillas; the relationship with the latter had to be one of mutual respect; and respect for the human dignity of the “prisoners of war” once they had surrendered their arms had to be part of the guerrillas’ ingrained attitude. (The fair treatment of the former Sankrail police station Officer-in-Charge Atindranath Dutta, who was taken hostage by the Maoists in October 2009, might bear the latter out.) Kishenji built good relations with the people — he was always concerned about them and helped them overcome many of their difficulties — all through his long march from Jagtial to Jangalmahal. The PLGA had to become one with the people so that the latter see the guerrillas as their own.
Revival of the Combative Spirit of Naxalbari in West Bengal
This brings us to the Lalgarh movement, which was led by Kishenji on behalf of the CPI (Maoist). The West Bengal government had handed over some 4500 acres of forest land to the Sajjan Jindal business group at Salboni in the district of West Midnapore even as the government’s land reform programme of allotting pattas (formal rights) for cultivable forest land and forest land under cultivation to poor tribal peasants was kept in cold storage. The reign of terror let loose on the adivasis — in the wake of the detonation of a landmine that narrowly missed the cavalcade of the then West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee on 2 November 2008 on the way from after a foundation stone-laying ceremony at the site of the Jindal project — was actively resisted, for, with Maoist backing led by Kishenji, their dignity could no longer be crushed. By mid-November, the Pulishi Atyachar-er Birudhhe Janasadharan-er Committee (People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, the PCAPA) was formed to lead the mass struggle in Lalgarh and the adjoining areas.
From December 2008 to June 2009, as long as Maoist politics was in command, what was really heartening were the direct forms of people’s democracy in practice: each village now had a gram (village) committee with five women and five men on it; two persons, a man and a woman from each village, were a part of the central coordinating committee; the manner of taking and ratifying decisions was utterly democratic; officials were made to sit on the ground on handwoven mats on equal terms to negotiate with the committees. And, with the meagre resources at its command, the PCAPA-led mass movement was able to run health posts with doctors from Kolkata coming in once a week, construct and repair embankments, dig ponds, set up tube wells, teach the local language in some schools, a lot of all this through shramdaan (voluntary labour).4
Spring, it seemed, was truly in the air. As long as it lasted, for seven months the PCAPA and the CPI (Maoist), led by Kishenji, together seemed to have struck an astute balance between political mobilisation, armed actions, and social welfare/”development” activity. But when they destroyed the “White House”, a symbol of the “ancient regime”, the palatial house of Anuj Pandey, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] zonal secretary, at Dharampur on 14 June 2009, that was the last straw. The Joint Forces (JF) of the central and state governments moved in like an occupation army, with the CPI (M) harmads acting as their local collaborators. The Maoist tactics of successfully combining mass political mobilisation and armed struggle suffered a setback. Moreover, Kishenji erred in handling the contradictions between the CPI (M), then the ruling party, and the Trinamool Congress (TMC), led by Mamata Banerjee, then the main opposition party. And, his aggressive sectarian and ultra-left adventurist tactics cost the Party and the mass movement dearly, for these acts brought on state repression a multiple of what it would have otherwise been. The contradictions between the Maoist revolutionaries and the social-democratic CPI (M) at the local level need not have been escalated to the point of becoming intensely antagonistic. And, some of the (excessive) killings — were the Maoists really annihilating class enemies? Ultimately, it was the Trinamool Congress who took advantage of the situation to defeat the CPI (M) candidates in the area in the assembly elections in April-May this year.
As part of her promise of ushering in parivartan (change), Mamata Banerjee pledged the withdrawal of the JF that, for the adivasis, has been an occupying force since mid-June 2009, the unconditional release of all political prisoners, especially the hundreds of adivasis arrested and dumped into jail in the course of the JF operations, and a dialogue with the Maoists; but, on assuming power, she has now reneged on all of these pledges. Instead, the recruitment of some 10,000 special police havildars (constables), on the lines of the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh, is on the anvil. And, the TMC’s own Bhairav Bahini has been assisting the JF just like the CPI (M)’s harmads did as collaborators of that occupational force. Indeed, many of the harmads have shifted allegiance to the TMC’s Bhairav Bahini. A “development package” with “surrender” sops, the re-deployment of the JF with the Commando Battalions for Resolute Action, the so-called COBRA, at its core, the stepping up of training of the state’s armed police in jungle warfare, a strengthening of the Naxalite section of the Intelligence Bureau on the lines of the Special Intelligence Bureau of Andhra Pradesh (APSIB), and the state’s Counter Insurgency Force along the lines of the Greyhounds, all these are seen to have yielded results — a mood of triumphalism now prevails after the “hunting” down of Kishenji.
Now, while much of the credit for the revival of the Maoist movement in the Jangalmahal area of West Bengal must go to Kishenji and his close comrades, like the late Sasadhar Mahato, they will have to bear much of the responsibility for the present setback there too.
‘Encounters Are Murders’
“Encountering” (extra-judicial killing) of Maoist leaders is not new; neither is the main component of the Indian state’s counterinsurgency strategy of killing the top leadership of the revolutionary movement in order to wipe out the Party. Vempatapu Satyanarayana (popularly known as ‘Gappa Guru’) and Adibhatla Kailasham — school teachers who organised the Girijan peasants of Srikakulam since 1955, launched an armed struggle in 1967-68, and joined the CPI (ML) in 1969 — were “encountered” by the police in July 1970. Subbrao Panigrahi — known for Jamukulakatha (theatrical rendering of songs in a folk idiom) — who played a major role in extending the Srikakulam movement into the province of Orissa, was captured and murdered by the police in December 1969. Indeed, one recalls with horror the encounter killings in Andhra Pradesh prior to and during the dark days of the Emergency period, a few of which were investigated in detail by the committee (set up by Jayaprakash Narayan, as president of the Citizens for Democracy) headed by V M Tarkunde, due mainly to the painstaking work done by K G Kannabiran as member-secretary and a group of committed civil liberties activists.
More recently, and again, much of it related to tragic happenings in Andhra Pradesh, at the core of the target of the counterinsurgency operation was the Party leadership — to be physically eliminated. We list here the killing, in cold blood, of some members of the core of the leadership of the Andhra Pradesh unit or the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist), among the most outstanding the Party had nurtured and developed over the years.
- Settiraju Papaiah (alias Somanna), a member of the Special Zonal Committee of north Telangana, was abducted by the APSIB in Bangalore (the capital of the province of Karnataka) on 29 June 2006, brutally tortured, and killed on 1 July; and his body was thrown in the forests of Warangal in Andhra Pradesh.
- Burra Chinnayya, alias Madhav, state secretary of the Party, and seven of his comrades were killed on 23 July 2006 when the Greyhounds and a special police force of a battalion size attacked the headquarters of the AP State Committee in the Nallamala forests. The attackers had precise information; it is said that they even knew the exact tent of which Madhav was an occupant.
- Raghaulu — a member of the A P State Committee of the Party who came from a poor peasant family and grew up as a cattle-herd boy — and eight of his comrades were killed on 8 November 2006 in a forest area in Cuddapah district.
- Chandramouli, a Central Committee member of the Party and a member of its Central Military Commission, and his wife Karuna, a barefoot doctor, were cold-bloodedly murdered in the Eastern Ghats on the Andhra-Orissa border on 29 December 2006, when they were on their way to the Party Congress.
- Patel Sudhakar Reddy (alias Suryam, Vikas), a Central Committee member, and his comrade Venkatayya were picked up in Nasik (in the province of Maharashtra) on 23 May 2007, airlifted to Warangal, brutally tortured, and murdered the next day; and their bodies were thrown in the Lavvala forests there.
So Kishenji’s killing is very much part and parcel of the established criminal practice of state terrorism.
Can this utter contempt for the law go unchallenged? These state-sponsored terrorists have to be stripped of their impunity and brought to justice. Early this year, a bench of justices Aftab Alam and R M Lodha of the Supreme Court said, responding to two public interest litigations related to the fake encounter in which Cherukuri Rajkumar (“Azad”), CPI (Maoist) politburo member and party spokesperson, and journalist Hemchandra Pandey were shot dead in Adilabad district on the night of 1-2 July 2010 by the Andhra Pradesh police after being picked up at or near Nagpur: “We cannot allow the republic killing its own children”. Like the Azad fake encounter case, the Kishenji one too seems to be part of the genre where “impunity breeds contempt for the law”. Such scorn for the legal code is by now ingrained in the wielders of repressive power — recidivists in the coercive apparatus of the Indian state. Kishenji’s elimination is really vendetta killing by such recidivists, for he, above all, combated state terror to the very end.
Raise the Red Flag, Sing the Internationale
No doubt, as the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist) puts it, “the martyrdom of comrade Koteswara Rao is a great loss to the Indian revolutionary movement”, but it is that very movement — with all the ups and downs, blunders and triumphs — that still holds out hope for a better world. The unprecedented deployment of police on 27 November in Kishenji’s hometown of Peddapalli couldn’t deter the thousands upon thousands of mourners, a multitude, who came to pay homage to the memory of the Maoist revolutionary on the day of his funeral. His mother Madhuramma, now in her mid-80s, was inconsolable; she hadn’t seen her son for more than three decades, and now, it was his dead body. The anguish Madhuramma felt must have been unbearable. The day after her son was killed, she put it poignantly:5
My son believed in something and he was murdered for that. I want to know how and who are the people behind his killing. I will go to the Calcutta High Court and, if necessary, to the Supreme Court to find out why they killed him like that. . . . I have not seen my son for 37 years. Now I cannot bear to see his body. I waited all these years to see him once before I die. I hope I die before his body arrives, I cannot live anymore.
Meanwhile, the songs that the balladeer Gaddar rendered brought tears to the eyes of those who had gathered there. Madhuramma was not alone, for there were thousands of saddened admirers of the son she had raised, who had gathered to form the multitude. Kishenji’s memory, his life, his work belongs to those who want to create a better world. Cries of “Amar rahe Kishenji”, “Johar Amarajeevi Kishenji” and “Comrade Kishenji, Lal Salaam” filled the air — his heritage truly belongs to the poor peasants, the workers, the revolutionary intellectuals. No doubt, Kishenji will hold an important place in Maoist revolutionary history for he truly brought to bear on his practice the Maoist adage that “revolutionary war . . . can be waged only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them”.
3 Sumanta Banerjee’s In the Wake of Naxalbari (Kolkata: Sahitya Samsad, 2008) — first published by the Calcutta publisher Subarnarekha in 1980, and then by Zed Press, London in 1984 under the title India’s Simmering Revolution: The Naxalite Uprising — is an authentic and moving account of the Naxalbari (chapter 4) and Srikakulam (chapter 5) movements.
5 “Not Seen Son for 37 Yrs . . . Can’t Bear to See His Body: Kishenji’s Mother” (Indian Express, 27 November 2011).
Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai. He thanks Gautam Navlakha — conversations over the phone with Gautam helped for bring a semblance of clarity to the thoughts expressed over here.