In the latest of the state's march against the left-wing extremists, the Andhra Pradesh police in June 2016 declared the Nallamala forests 'extremist free'. In a media statement, the state police claimed to have been able to deal with the problem “with an iron hand” and has ensured the non-occurrence of “a single extremism related incident” in the area in the past decade. The history of counter-Maoist operations in Nallamala, however, makes this claim a bit of an exaggeration, and points at a decade long contestation by the police and the extremists to dominate the area.
Nallamala has a long history of Naxal activity. Spread across 4500 square kilometres, the dense forests are spread across five districts — Kurnool, Prakasam, Mahabubnagar, Guntur and Nalgonda. It remained one of the impregnable fortresses of the People's War Group (PWG) before the outfit's peace talks with the Andhra Pradesh government and the eventual formation of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist). After the peace talks failed, the police was able to mount one of the most successful operations recorded so far in India against the outfit. The CPI-Maoist retreated, but has since made several attempts to regain its foothold in the area.
The last major killing carried out by the CPI-Maoist in Nallamala was the killing of ten village elders in Nippula Vaagu in 2005. The outfit justified the killings as a revenge against the massacre of 12 Dalits by the village leaders more than 10 years ago. Despite its flight from Andhra Pradesh, the outfit managed to hold a week-long plenum in Nallamala in September 2015, which was attended by state secretary Akkiraju Haragopal alias Ramakrishna, other state leaders Shakamuri Appa Rao and Sudhakar. A 1000 member security force contingent which scanned the area after being tipped off could only recover copies of Telugu newspapers and biscuit packets from the venue.
However, the tide turned in 2006, the year in which the outfit's state secretary Madhav and seven other cadres were killed. Madhav had succeeded Ramakrishna who had partaken in the peace talks with the state government and was sent to the comparatively secure Andhra-Odisha border (AOB) area by the outfit. The outfit lost a number of senior level leaders in Nallamala including Appa Rao, Central Committee Member Matta Ravi Kumar, Prakasam District Committee Secretary Naveen alias Satyam in subsequent encounters. And yet, the Maoists managed to retain a skeletal presence in Nallamala. In July 2008, the outfit's cadres attacked a doctor and killed one his relatives in Mahbubnagar district. Few days earlier, on 29 June, 38 Greyhounds personnel had been killed in Balimela reservoir in Odisha after a Maoist attack leading the police to alert all the police stations in the Nallamala region and ask political leaders to curtail their movements.
By 2009, the outfit had almost been wiped out of Nallamala, a development that probably contributed to the Congress party's victory in the region in the parliamentary elections. The party rarely won elections in the Nallamala belt when the Maoists were active. In 2011, the Andhra Pradesh police claimed Nallamala to be extremist-free for the first time.
The 2014 bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh effectively split the Nallamala region among two states – Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Kurnool, Prakasam and Guntur districts went to Andhra Pradesh, whereas Mahabubnagar and Nalgonda districts became part of Telangana. The police capacities of erstwhile undivided Andhra Pradesh split too, especially the highly decorated counter-Maoist Greyhounds commando force, raising fears of a revival of the Maoist movement. War of words between the erstwhile colleagues and a sense of victimhood owing to a perceived unjust bifurcation of resources appeared to pervade both the state police establishments. The Andhra Pradesh police accused their Telangana counterparts of not parting with the list of informers and intelligence sources. On the other hand, the Telangana police somewhat drearily announced that they will manage with “whatever resources came to them (sic).” Nallamala's strategic location along the inter-state borders created a somewhat favourable condition for the CPI-Maoist to exploit absence of inter-state coordination.
In May 2013, security forces began combing operations in the Guntur and Prakasam districts along with the neighbouring forested regions of Warangal and Khammam. In the wake of a spate of extremist attacks in Chhattisgarh, special forces who were confined mostly to the police stations for the past two years were engaged in specialised operations. The lack of violent incidents had pushed the police into a complacent state.
By late 2014, Maoists had returned to Nallamala. Extortion activities and a lone incident of exchange of gunfire were reported from Belum caves area. In early 2015, tribals living in Nallamala reported not only increased movement of the Maoists but incidents of cadres taking shelter in the remote villages. However, the surge was claimed to have been controlled after the police arrested 10 suspected cadres in May 2015. In spite of the allotment of an additional Border Security Force (BSF) battalion to Andhra Pradesh, the director general of the Central Reserve Police Force in February 2016 predicted a return of Maoist extremism to both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
The recent claim of the re-cleansing of Nallamala would at best be a temporary setback for the CPI-Maoist attempting to regain a hold on an area that once served as its prime operational ground. The history of past decade showcases the ability of the extremists to revive, taking advantage of the lull in security force operations that invariably follows intermittent area clearing operations; and also to exploit the prevailing ‘objective conditions’ that allowed the movement to take root in the first place.