The arrest of a senior Adivasi Maoist following the Kerala Police’s ‘encounter’ killing of four rebels in October last year may change the perception about the insurgency in India’s southern peninsula. First, it is the biggest Maoist killing in the south of the river Cauvery. Second, and most important, it confirms the presence of Bastar rebels in India’s south.
Four decades ago, educated Naxals from Andhra Pradesh had arrived in Bastar, Chattisgarh, to make it their guerrilla base and converted forest-dweller Adivasis into fierce fighters. The Adivasi, equipped with ideology and military expertise, is now in the south to transform another tribal land.
It was believed that the Maoists operating in the Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu (KKT) tri-junction area are merely a bunch of Left radicals from these three states. They did not indulge in violence, limiting themselves to spreading propaganda, mostly in the forested tribal belt of Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu tri-junction.
While all four deceased rebels were residents of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the arrest of military commander Ramlu Korsa alias Deepak has surprised the police. Arrested by the Tamil Nadu Police, he was brought to Chhattisgarh on a production warrant on 23 November and is now lodged in Jagdalpur Central Jail.
“This arrest is very significant. This is the first case that confirms the links of Dandakaranya’s Adivasi Maoists with the KKT region,” P. Sundarraj, Bastar’s Inspector General of Police, told me.
A resident of Mankeli village in Bijapur, Chhattisgarh, Ramlu Korsa, in his early 30s, is a senior commander who was sent to the Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu area in 2015 after working in Bastar for over a decade. A member of Battalion One of the CPI (Maoist), the most dreadful military unit that operates in Sukma, Dantewada, and Bijapur districts of south Bastar, Korsa was involved in some of the biggest attacks on security forces, including the April 2010 Dantewada Maoist attack in which 76 CRPF personnel were killed.
When Korsa was brought to Bastar, several surrendered Maoists, who are now in the Chhattisgarh Police, were part of the interrogation team. Korsa refused to divulge much details even to his former comrades. Instead, he chanted “Inquilab Zindabad”.
Bastar Adivasi in KKT’s tribal zone
The jungles in the Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu tri-junction area house a significant tribal population among whom the Maoists have been trying to gain a foothold for nearly a decade now. The presence of an Adivasi military commander in this area for nearly five years is significant on several counts.
First, the Maoists operating here were considered to have little experience in guerrilla warfare. Second, it was believed that the Adivasi cadres were confined to the jungles of Dandakaranya, and not assigned major duties like going to an altogether different linguistic state to build a military base there. This created a vacuum of second-generation leaders who could succeed the senior cadres from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Bastar has seen the maximum expansion of Maoists in the last four decades. Yet, few Adivasi cadres have reached senior posts.
In a rarity for an Adivasi, Ramlu Korsa speaks six languages, including Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada. As a military and communications expert, his long presence in the south indicates that the second-generation leadership, particularly of trained and polyglot Adivasis, is gradually emerging and reaching distant zones as well.
His prolonged presence indicates that the Maoists are trying to turn the Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu zone into a similar laboratory that they made Bastar four decades ago. It is no longer about the peaceful spread of the ideology; it carries a distinct armed component.
Though the police forces of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala have shown good coordination, and reduced the likelihood of any major violence in the near future, a senior military commander who did not belong to the region was able to establish his base and went completely undetected for five years. This at a time when three adjoining districts of Kerala – Malappuram, Wayanad, and Palakkad – appear in the latest list of LWE districts prepared by the Union Home Ministry.
The Maoists have been able to turn their bases into ‘sensitive’ zones, which are being closely monitored both by the Narendra Modi government and the police in several states. Their ability to send Bastar Adivasis to the south confirms their capacity to carry out their operations but also indicates the failure of the agencies to detect the long period of preparation. After all, the guerrilla zone of Bastar could be built only after the sustained but quiet activities of the Maoists in the cities of Raipur, Bhilai, and Bilaspur.
The significance of tri-Junction
The area referred to as ‘TJ’ (tri-junction) in Maoist documents has emerged as a major geographical unit of their Western Ghat Special Zonal Committee. After thoroughly studying the region, the rebels began sending their cadres from various states to the area in 2012. One such document states that “this area has as many as 50 tribal communities including Paniyar, Adiyar, Kattunaikkar and Kurichyar” who have been “living here for thousands of years”. The document details their deprivation and exploitation over the centuries and notes that material conditions are favourable to convert it into another Maoist base. “Local people are helping us. Dalam members have made them aware of their socio-economic situation. They are full of admiration for the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army,” the Maoist document says.
The Maoists hope that the tri-junction’s topography and population may support a similar kind of guerrilla activity that Bastar has afforded over the decades.
The ‘TJ’ has seen a substantial Maoist presence with three armed dalams (squads) — Bhavani, Nadukani, and Kabini, the last one named after a local river that is mentioned as “the lifeline of the tribals of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala” in Maoist documents.
In November 2016, the central committee member Kuppuswamy Devaraj alias Yogesh da/Ramesh da was killed along with a woman cadre P Ajitha alias Kaveri in an ‘encounter’ in Malappuram district, Kerala. Devaraj was the third CC member to have been killed in an encounter after Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad in 2010, and Mallojula Koteswara Rao alias Kishenji in 2011. Another senior cadre C.P. Jaleel was killed in March 2019 in Wayanad.
A native of Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, Devaraj was the in-charge of the tri-junction area for over a decade. Operating south of Mangalore, his movement was reported in areas bordering Ooty in Tamil Nadu and some districts of Kerala. Devaraj joined the CPI (M-L) People’s War in the 1990s and was later made the secretary of Karnataka region replacing Rajkumar Azad. Kaveri, according to the Maoist documents, was an advocate in Chennai and worked with a women’s organisation.
Besides, there have also been major arrests – K. Murlidharan alias Ajith, secretary of the CPI(ML) Naxalbari before it merged with the CPI (Maoist), in 2014; and Roopesh, president of the Western Ghat Special Zonal Committee of Maoists, in 2015.
After Devaraj’s killing, K. Vijay Kumar, Senior Security Advisor to the Ministry of Home Affairs on Left-Wing Extremism, had told me that the “forested zone of KKT is denser than any other location in LWE area, barring eastern ghats in Koraput and Vizag and parts of Malkangiri, making it difficult for the counter-insurgency forces to conduct operations”.
“Maoists operations in these areas are about expanding their base, spreading propaganda and occasional attacks on forest staff. They are keeping the violence level low to build up the public support before they could militarise,” he had told me.
Little did forces know that senior military commanders from Bastar were already operating in the region then. As Ramlu Korsa’s case now unfolds, the Maoist presence in the tribal zone could offer new surprises.
The author is an independent journalist. Views are personal.