Tracing the Geographical transition of the Maoist Insurgency from the jungles of Dandakaranya to the Malabar

 By Tejusvi Shukla
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The Chief Minister of Kerala announced the construction of a 7 km long tunnel connecting the districts of Kozhikode and Wayanad in the Malabar region in the first week of October 2020.[1] Providing an all-weather access to tourist destinations, the tunnel is being projected as a boon for the regional tourism sector. Incidentally, apart from exclusively catering to the tourism sector, this project additionally casts serious implications on the national security front for two reasons: one, Wayanad and surrounding districts are home to the highest percentage of Kerala’s tribal population; two, the districts fall on the Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu (KKT) tri-junction, which has increasingly become a Maoist-safe haven since 2013. These, accompanied by the ecological sensitivities of the dense forests of the Malabar region with regards to crucially impacting the connectivity, the ecology of the forests, and subsequently the forest dwellers – a vulnerable geography and demography – bring immediate semblances towards the germination of a similar insurgency in Central Indian forests of Bastar in the early 2000s.

While the possibilities of Maoist presence in Kerala has long been neglected, however, recent incidents, especially since 2014, have turned perceptions towards other side.

Tracing the Maoist Presence in the KKT Tri-junction: 2013 and counting

Long considered to be nearly absent, the Maoists have been making their presence felt, especially in the heavily forested and tribal-populated KKT tri-junction since 2013. While security agencies had considered this to be a low-priority region with respect to LWE, in 2018, three districts – Wayanad, Palakkad, and Malappuram featured in Union Ministry of Home Affairs’ list of LWE-affected districts.[2] To look at the numbers involved, 23 incidents had occurred only between 2014 and 2017 in Kerala[3], with the Maoists killed by the Security Forces including a Central Committee member, Kuppu Devaraj, alias Kuppu Swamy in November 2016.[4] Currently, four dalams, namely the Kabani, Bhavani, Nadukani, and Varahini, function in KKT tri-junction area. The fourth one, Varahini, was formed to avenge the death of Kuppu Swamy and Ajitha in 2016.[5] Moreover, the arrest of Ramlu Korsa alias Deepak, the commander of the dreaded Battalion One of CPI (Maoist)’s Peoples’ Liberation Guerrilla Army[6], from the KKT tri-junction area, in 2019 came both as a shocker and an eye-opener. It must be noted here that Korsa, who had stayed undetected in the KKT tri-junction area since 2015, was involved in the dreaded attacks against the Security Forces including the one that resulted in the death of 76 CRPF men in Sukma in 2010.[7] Many officials, in fact, given the increased crackdown on the Maoists in Central and North India, raise the possibilities of the terrorists “seeking refuge in Kerala” to avoid police action.[8] As of 2019, the police had confirmed the presence of over 80 Maoist cadres in the area in question.[9]

 

Fig 1: Data compiled by the author through various open sources

Dense Malabar Forests: (Geo+Demo) graphically Sensitive

This growing presence cannot be studied before acknowledging the fact that falling in the Western Ghats, the area in question is home to a sizeable tribal population as well as some of the densest jungles in the country – and consequently highly inaccessible. Talking specifically about the newly proposed tunnel, for instance, it shall cut through the evergreen and semi-evergreen forest patches, marshes, and shola tracts, and run from Maripuzha in Thiruvambady village panchayat (Kozhikode) to Kalladi in Meppadi panchayat (Wayanad).[10] But, apart from resolving the limitations of accessibility to the area, the fact that projects like these simultaneously bring along with them a certain set of environmental costs – impacting the forests, and subsequently the forest dwellers – remains a point of contention.

Fig 2: Illustration of the proposed tunnel (Source: Indian Express. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-a-proposed-road-tunnel-beneath-western-ghats-purpose-concerns-6705812/)

Recently, the Forest Department (and earlier the Gadgil and Kasturirangan committee reports) had identified this patch as a ‘no-go’ area for any new developmental activities.[11] The proposed tunnel, planned to cut across the Chembra and Vellarimala ranges (popularly known as the ‘Camel Hump’) is home to a wide variety of endemic species of flora and fauna – thereby making it the most ecologically fragile region of the Western Ghats. [12] Additionally, Eruvazhanjipuzha (a tributary of River Chaliyar which originates from these hills) forms the lifeline of the settlements in and around Mallapuram and Kozhikode – both comprising LWE-affected regions.[13] Only last year in 2019, an entire village of Puthumala, at an 11km distance from Meppadi (one of the exit points of the proposed tunnel), got washed away by massive landslides.[14] Environmentalists fear that any more change in the existing ecosystem could trigger similar instances affecting local inhabitants at a larger scale.[15]


Fig 3: Wayanad and adjoining districts fall in a combination of a vulnerable ecology as well as tribal population, thereby forming a fertile ground for LWE’s expansion. (Map Source: Maps of India. Available at: https://www.mapsofindia.com/maps/kerala/kerala-forest-map.htm)

Notably, both Mallapuram and Kozhikode, along with Palakkad and Wayanad are home to a significant tribal population – Wayanad alone summing up to 31.2 per cent of the tribal population from all of Kerala.[16] What is only unfortunate is that these tribal populations, like elsewhere in the country, have had similar stories of historical oppression, injustice, and usurpation of tribal land. Socio-economic inequalities touch a concerning high on most fronts ranging from Infant mortality rates (IMR) to literacy. In terms of IMR, according to the CAG report tabled in 2014, while the state average fell from 12 to 7 between 2008 and 2013, that in Wayanad rose from 7.73 to 9.67, with that for its tribal populations rising from 28.97 to 41.47 during the same time. [17]  This has been credited to widespread anaemia (among 80 to 90 per cent of the tribal population) due to malnutrition.[18] On the literacy front too, tribal literacy falls way behind the state average. Wayanad, for example, with the largest tribal population records a literacy rate of around 70 per cent. The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index of Wayanad recorded as 0.016 as against 0.005 of the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram.[19] While there have been efforts to bridge this gap, the issues surrounding health, education, and primarily tribal land, remain far from resolved.

Semblance with the Dandakaranya?

A close reading of the vulnerable demography and geography of the forests of Malabar along with the pattern of Maoist activities resonates the beginning of a similar insurgency in Central India’s Dandakaranya forests over two decades ago. While the appearance of the growth of the movement might have transformed, owing to the evolving times two decades since, the basic pattern and trends seem absolutely unchanged.

Choice of Geography. The most identical of these similarities is manifested in the choice of the geographical location for establishing a base. Put together, this can be summed up as a perfect troika: political geography, physical geography, and demography.

Fig 4: The Troika – Demography, Political Geography, and Physical Geography – is a marked commonality between LWE-activities across time and place of emergence and sustenance. (Curated by author)

Like the Chhattisgarh-Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra, the Chhattisgarh-Jharkhand-Bihar, or the Chhattisgarh-Odisha-Andhra Pradesh tri-junctions, the KKT tri-junction forms a meeting point of the boundaries of three adjoining states which in turn offers an escape for crossing over state borders to evade police action. This locational advantage is additionally enhanced by the physical geography which comprises difficult, dense and inaccessible forested lands. In fact, in terms of difficult terrain, the KKT tri-junction is among the densest among all of LWE-affected areas, similar to those Malkangiri, Vizag, and Koraput in the Eastern Ghats[20] – which have also been among the districts that have recorded a majority of violent incidents involving high casualties. To this, the demography, as highlighted earlier in this paper, completes this troika. The tribal population in Kerala, despite the state’s high HDI indices, have seen a prolonged period of negligence, as well as exploitation. The Maoists established their base on these piled up grievances in the Dandakaranya forests for over two decades, and are harbouring the same around the KKT tri-junction visibly since 2013. What makes this region different though, is, the fact that socio-economic inequalities in the case of this region are comparatively higher than elsewhere – only offering greater ground for tribal resentment. In addition to this, the possibilities of Urban Naxalism, that has indeed marked its presence more than once in Kerala in the recent times, is comparatively more concerning due to the high literacy levels in urban Kerala. These educated youth, once indoctrinated and radicalised, could act as replacements for the currently weak and crippling top Maoist cadres.

Pattern of growth. The pattern of the growth of the movement is no different. Moving into the Dandakaranya forests in the late 90s, Maoists from Andhra Pradesh began with ideological propagation and influence operations. Having tapped on local tribal grievances, they began spreading the Maoist ideology by a word of mouth among local tribal population of Bastar and adjoining areas. Through mass interaction, they began projecting their ideology as a solution to the most immediate and basic problems faced by the locals. For instance, the wages earned by a significant section of the tribal population for picking tendu patta (used for making beedis) rose ten times after protests (including violence) by the Maoists. The popular support enjoyed by non-local insurgents originated through these grounded initiatives. Large scale violence and mass mobilisation for the same only came at a later stage. To look at it, this process finds absolute semblance in the instances recorded in Wayanad and surrounding districts.

An incident of lynching of a tribal youth in February 2018 in Palakkad’s Attapadi was followed by a protest call by the CPI (Maoist). Asking for “all the sufferers to rally together to resist those who perpetrate racial onslaught by beating to death even those who are starving”, the statement issued by the Western Ghats Special Zonal Committee raised protest calls against the “cruel racial onslaught by Malyalis against the tribal community.”[21] Another instance that seems déjà vu is a press note released by the Nadukanin Area Committee addressing various labourers working in cashew and rubber plantations in Nilambur – one of the major demands including a rise in wages from INR 361 to INR 800. Moreover, the opportunity costs of tourism, which is a widely growing sector in Kerala, on the tribal population directly, as well as through the impact the sector is having in the highly fragile ecology they live in, is a largely neglected aspect. Posters against the “mushroom growth of resorts in tribal areas” after a new resort came up inside a coffee plantation on the fringe of the Meppadi range under the South Wayanad forest division were sighted in as recent as January 2020.[22] In addition to this, relocation of forest dwellers from reserved forest areas, which is still an ongoing process even in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary[23] presents fertile grounds for Maoist expansion.

What next?

Having explored the possibilities of the geographical transition of the left-wing extremism in the country, it must be considered that the overall decline in the number of incidents and casualties in the favour of the State might not be the end of the story. Given the significant developments by the State on socio-economic fronts coupled with an ‘insurgency fatigue’ in the Central Indian forests, the possibilities of a re-emergence of a similar movement in the KKT tri-junction seem highly probable. In terms of socio-economic upliftment, that no progress has been made shall be absolutely untrue. But, the fact remains that the pace of this progress lies way behind than what is really required.

Fig 5: The resolution and containment of LWE in Kerala is based on historically pressing causes, which require historically relevant solutions. (Infographic curated by author)

To wait for this psychological war to turn into spiked casualty numbers as had happened in the Dandakaranya forests would only be tagged as a careless reading of history by India’s national security apparatus.

 End-Notes

[1] The Hindu, “Chief Minister announces tunnel road project works”, Dated: 5 October, 2020. Accessed on 25 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/chief-minister-announces-launch-of-tunnel-road-project-works/article32771442.ece

[2] The Economic Times, “Maoists area of influence shrinks, 44 districts removed from affected list: Union Home Secy”, Dated: 15 April, 2018. Accessed on 20 October, 2020. Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/maoists-area-of-influence-shrinks-44-districts-removed-from-affected-list-union-home-secy/articleshow/63769620.cms?from=mdr

[3] The New Indian Express, “Left-wing Extremists violence taking place only in Kerala: MHA report”, Dated: 24 January, 2018. Accessed on 21 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/2018/jan/24/left-wing-extremists-violence-taking-place-only-in-kerala-mha-report-1762369.html

[4] Redspark, “CPI (Maoist) increase and expand operations into Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu Tri-junction”, Dated: 10 January, 2020. Accessed on: 25 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.redspark.nu/en/peoples-war/cpi-maoist-increase-and-expand-operations-into-karnataka-kerala-tamil-nadu-tri-junction-area/

[5] On Manorama, “Kerala Police launch Operation Anaconda to flush out Maoists”, Dated: 5 January, 2019. Accessed on: 23 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.onmanorama.com/news/kerala/2019/01/03/kerala-police-launch-operation-anaconda-flush-out-maoists.html

[6] Redspark, “CPI (Maoist) increase and expand operations into Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu Tri-junction”, Dated: 10 January, 2020. Accessed on: 25 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.redspark.nu/en/peoples-war/cpi-maoist-increase-and-expand-operations-into-karnataka-kerala-tamil-nadu-tri-junction-area/

[7] The Hindu, “Maoist held in Coimbatore associated with armed wing”, Dated: 20 November, 2019. Accessed on 27 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/maoist-held-in-coimbatore-associated-with-armed-wing/article30024136.ece

[8] The Hindu, “A hint of increased Maoist activity”, Dated: 28 October, 2019. Accessed on: 26 October 2020. Avaialble at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/a-hint-of-increased-maoist-activity/article29816483.ece

[9] On Manorama, “Kerala Police launch Operation Anaconda to flush out Maoists”, Dated: 5 January, 2019. Accessed on: 23 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.onmanorama.com/news/kerala/2019/01/03/kerala-police-launch-operation-anaconda-flush-out-maoists.html

[10] The Indian Express, “A proposed road tunnel beneath Western Ghats in Kerala: purpose, concerns

”, Dated: 7 October, 2020. Accessed on 25 October, 2020. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-a-proposed-road-tunnel-beneath-western-ghats-purpose-concerns-6705812/

[11] Dated 16 October, 2013. Accessed on: 27 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/dHtigN5WivWhITdZCbON5N/Environment-ministry-accepts-Kasturirangan-report-on-Western.html

[12] The Times of India, “Mr CM, Please listen to the last crackle of the Banasura Chilappan”, Dated: 7 October, 2020. Accessed on: 26 October, 2020. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/Second-Nature/mr-cm-please-listen-to-the-last-cackle-of-banasura-chilappan/

[13] Ibid.

[14] The New Indian Express, “Rain sweeps an entire village in Kerala, six bodies found so far”, Dated: 9 August, 2019. Accessed on: 26 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/2019/aug/09/rain-sweeps-away-an-entire-village-in-kerala-six-bodies-found-so-far-2016531.html

[15] The Times of India, “Mr CM, Please listen to the last crackle of the Banasura Chilappan”, Dated: 7 October, 2020. Accessed on: 26 October, 2020. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/Second-Nature/mr-cm-please-listen-to-the-last-cackle-of-banasura-chilappan/

[16] The Hindu, “Kerala’s Tribal People take the road to literacy”, Dated: 29 March, 2020. Accessed on 26 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/keralas-tribal-people-take-the-road-to-literacy/article31191956.ece/photo/1/

[17] The Telegraph, “Not Somlia, but still a low”, Dated: 16 May, 2016. Accessed on: 26 October, 2020. Available at:

[18] Ibid.

[19] Oxford Poverty and Human Poverty Initiative, India MPI District Table No. 5a, Dated 2015/16. Accessed on 26 October, 2020. Available at: https://ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Table-5a-India-District-MPI-2018-1.xlsx

[20] Dated: 26 November, 2016. Accessed on 27 October, 2020. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/kerala-encounter-kuppu-devraj-killing-major-loss-for-maoists-4395472/

[21] Dated: 26 February, 2018. Accessed on: 27 October, 2020. Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/63086206.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

[22] Dated: 16 January, 2020. Accessed: 20 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/suspected-maoists-attack-resort-in-wayanad/article30573207.ece

[23] Dated: 13 November, 2019. Accessed on 27 October, 2020. Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/2019/nov/13/amid-maoist-insurgency-rhetoric-relocation-of-tribals-in-kerala-yet-to-be-finished-2060957.html