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#4850, 16 March 2015

Red Affairs

Return of the Native: CPI-Maoist in Kerala
Bibhu Prasad Routray
Visiting Fellow, IPCS
E-mail: bibhuroutray@gmail.com

On 7 December 2014, in the first ever incident of its type, personnel of Thunderbolt, the elite paramilitary commando unit of the Kerala Police exchanged fire with a six-member team of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) at the Chappa forest area located on Kozhikode-Wayanad border. No casualties were reported as the Maoist team escaped following a 10-minute long encounter. In the subsequent days, small teams of Maoists vandalised forest offices at Wayanad and Palakkad and carried out an attack on a private quarry-cum-crusher unit in Kannur district.

On the basis of these three incidents that occurred within a span of two months (December 2014 and January 2015), it is difficult to conclude that Kerala could soon become a stronghold of left-wing extremists. However, what is undeniable is that the social conditions that allowed the rise of Naxalism in the late 1960s in Kerala continue to persist and are again being exploited by the extremists. Worse still, in spite of at least a two-year old input of the CPI-Maoist's foray into the region, the state administration has done little to meet the exigencies.

Inspired by the Naxalbari uprisings, Kerala witnessed the first incident of left-wing extremist violence in the form of a raid on the Thalassery police station in North Malabar's Kannur district on 21 November 1968. The attack, however, ended in a failure. Of the 1000 Naxals and their sympathisers planned to take part in the raid, only 315 turned up. A lone grenade hurled at the police station failed to explode and as the sentry at the police station set off the alarm, the group fled.  

Two days later, however, a successful attack was carried out on the Pulpalli police wireless station that resulted in the killing of some police personnel. Other raids on the same day targeted estates of landlords in the Wayanad forests by armed peasants, workers and students under the leadership of Kunnikal Narayanan. Grains seized from the estates were distributed among the poor. However, most of the people who took part in the attack, including Arikkad Varghese and Philip M. Prasad, were arrested.

Following these raids, Naxal supreme leader Charu Majumdar sent a congratulatory message hailing the "heroism and courage displayed by the impoverished masses of Kerala" which he said "have raised a new wave of enthusiasm among the revolutionary people all over India." However, apart from the fact that arrests played a role in weakening the Naxal movement in Kerala, Majumdar's insistence on targeting the unarmed landlords and zamindars further divided the Naxals in the state. Leaders like Kunnikal Narayanan wanted to remain focused on attacking the police stations.

Few more raids took place in the subsequent years. In 1969, a police station in Kuttiyadi was attacked, in which Naxal leader Velayudhan was killed. In 1970, Naxals killed a landlord in Thirunelly and looted grains from another landlord's house. 

The spike in extremist violence led the Congress party-led state government to launch an operation that led to several Naxal leaders being arrested. Prominent leader, 32-year old Arikkad Verghese, was killed in controversial circumstances. Such measures crushed the Naxalite movement in Kerala by 1976. Charu Majumadar's hope that the "heroic peasant revolutionaries of Kerala would lead the tens of millions of revolutionary people of India," failed to materialise.

The December 2014 and January 2015 incidents, have been interpreted as a resurfacing of left-wing extremism in the state after nearly four decades. Districts like Palakkad, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Wayanad, Kannur, and Kasaragod have been identified as areas of Maoist presence. State police sources indicate that these districts would link up the Eastern Ghats to the Western Ghats and provide the Maoists a safe route for movement of cadres and arms.

While these assessments could be true, what is being forgotten is that the CPI-Maoist has been building up its base in the tri-junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu at least since 2011. The Kerala government had been alerted by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2011 regarding the outfit's plan to develop the tri-junction into a ‘perspective area’ for their activities. However, riding on a lethargic state response, by 2012, the CPI-Maoist had prepared well for launching the second stage of its presence in that region by declaring the formation of the Western Ghats guerrilla zone in Dakshina Kannada. The outfit made an abortive bid to attack the Thirunelly police station on 18 February 2012 to mark the martyrdom of Arikkad Varghese. And yet, till the attack on December 2014 took place, the state administration did little in terms of a futuristic plan of meeting the extremist challenge.

In terms of human development indicators, districts like Mallapuram, Wayanad and Palakkad lie at the bottom, thus, constituting perspective areas for Maoist growth and operation. The CPI-Maoist is a far more organised and capable extremist outfit compared to the Naxals who were crushed in the 1970s. Kerala would do well to develop a synchronised plan of development and security to respond to the emerging threat.

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