A top Maoist leader, Kishenji, believed among the top three figures in the Maoist organisation, has reportedly been injured by police during a shootout in West Bengal. Kishenji, real name Koteswar Rao, was a co-founder of the People’s War Group in Andhra Pradesh that merged with the Maoist Communist Centre in 2004 to form the current organisation.
He’s been one of the most prominent figures in the movement of late, giving frequent interviews to the local media, taking credit for a major attack on the Silda police camp in February and offering a 72-day truce to the government shortly afterwards.
West Bengal has been a scene of major fighting between the police and Maoist militants in the past few weeks as the state steps up its operations in an attempt to rebuild the presence it lost during fighting last summer. That conflict was centred on Lalgarh, where tribal villagers had set up the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) in protest against their treatment by officers.
West Bengal’s director-general of police Bhupinder Singh told me the other day that not a single atrocity had been committed by his officers and that this was just an excuse to set up the organisation with the help of the Maoists and establish a power base there.
Mr Singh told me: “[The PCAPA] drummed up support by cooking up stories about atrocities with the obvious backing of the Maoists. They made all kinds of demands that innocents be released, that people [the police] should come and apologise.
“If there were atrocities, you have to name the incidents and the people at the receiving end. There have been no such reports. It is only propaganda. Politicians make more trouble out of it – everyone is looking at voting patterns.”
Human rights groups such as Sanhati beg to differ and claim there have been extensive beatings, kidnappings, murders and rapes by police officers in the region. In February, police killed Lalmohan Tudu, president of the PCAPA. The cops say he was a Maoist who had attacked one of their patrols, although most people that had dealings with Tudu say he had tried to stay separate from the Maoist organisation and that his movement was a non-violent protest against, well, police atrocities. They say he was dragged out of his house and shot in front of his family. When they tried to reclaim his body, they were told only the family could see it. When a member of the family applied to the court, the police sent a team to the house and had Mr Tudu’s wife sign a notice saying she did not want the body. Mr Singh claims that tribal people don’t need the body – they just burn an effigy.
One activist who saw the post-mortem said it showed Mr Tudu had been killed at close range. The police have refused to release the post-mortem.
Mr Singh said: “People say he was killed in his house. The fellow doesn’t live in his house. You ask any of these guys where do you live? It’s not in their house.”
In the meantime, the police face a difficult task operating in forests and hills with minimal human intelligence and a thinly spread force. Mr Singh says they are getting more intelligence now that bases have been re-established in remote areas and that they are conducting intelligence-led operations on specific Maoist targets. They have also been helped by increased cooperation with the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, with joint operations in the densely forested border region.
The injuring of Kishenji represents a major coup for the police, but is likely to only reinforce its commitment to a narrow security-focused approach at the expense of any kind of comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy.