By Deepak Kumar Nayak*
On May 28, 2020, three People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI) cadres, including a woman, were killed during an encounter with Security Forces (SFs) in the hilly terrain of Manmaru forest within the Tebo Police Station limits in West Singhbhum District. The slain cadres were identified as Patras (40), Dadu Nag aka Champa da (30) and his 26-year-old wife (name not available). Rajiv Ranjan Singh, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Kolhan range, disclosed, “An unidentified cadre who sustained injuries in the gunfight has been admitted to the government hospital in Chakradharpur while a fifth rebel, identified as Manoj, has been arrested.” SFs also recovered one AK-47 rifle, live cartridges, explosives and Naxal [Left Wing Extremism, LWE] literature from the encounter site. PLFI is a splinter group of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist).
On May 17, 2020, a PLFI cadre was killed in an exchange of fire with SFs in a forested area near Benduchuan village in the Jaldega Police Station limits in Simdega District. The identity of the slain cadre is yet to be ascertained. Sanjeev Kumar, Superintendent of Police (SP), stated, “One PLFI cadre has been gunned down by the STF while another member of the group, who claims himself as ‘area commander’ of Bano area in Simdega, Praveen Kandulna, has received serious bullet injuries and has been rushed to the hospital.” Police added that five other cadres were also arrested. Their identities are being ascertained. A huge cache of arms and ammunition was also recovered.
On May 6, 2020, a tribal woman, Vinita Oraon, killed a PLFI ‘area commander’, identified as Basant Gope, in a bid to protect her family from a group of rebels at Brinda village in Gumla District. According to the Police, as many as six armed PLFI leaders barged into Oraon’s house and reportedly started manhandling members of her family. Vinita attacked them with a sickle in an act of self-defence. The rebels fled after one of them – the deceased ‘area commander’– sustained injuries. SP Hrudeep P. Janardhanan later disclosed, “The insurgent, who was stabbed, sustained severe injuries. We found his body at a nearby forest during search operations.”
According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), SFs in the State have eliminated another four PLFI cadres in the current year (data till May 31, 2020). During the corresponding period of 2019, SFs had eliminated at least 10 PLFI cadres. No other PLFI cadre was killed by the SFs during the remaining period of 2019. Significantly, at least 55 PLFI cadres have been eliminated in the State by SFs since 2007, when PLFI was formed. During this period, another 16 PLFI cadres were killed by the Maoists in six fratricidal clashes.Further, 18 PLFI cadres were killed by civilians in nine incidents. Thus, the PLFI has a lost a total of 89 cadres during this period. At least 533 PLFI cadres have been arrested since 2007, including 10 in the current year. 30 PLFI cadres have surrendered since the formation of the group.
PLFI-linked Fatalities in Jharkhand: 2007*-2020**
|* PLFI formed in 2007; Data Source: SATP, **Data till May 31, 2020|
PLFI was formed in 2007 Reports indicate that Dinesh Gope, founder and current ‘chief’ of the outfit, a renegade Border Security Force (BSF) trooper, was the younger brother of Suresh Gope, a petty criminal who operated in areas around Ranchi. Suresh had a rivalry with another gangster, Jayanath Sahu aka Samrat, principally over collecting ‘levies’ (extortion revenues) and expanding turf. Suresh was killed in an encounter with the Jharkhand Police on December 22, 2003, when he had gone to collect ‘levy’. Dinesh took charge of the gang and worked to extend its area of operation. The gang was initially named the Jharkhand Liberation Tigers (JLT) in September 2004. Later, in July 2007, Masih Charan Purti aka Masih Charan Munda, a renegade senior CPI-Maoist ‘commander’, defected with several of his ‘followers’ and joined Dinesh Gope. While Masih was being hunted by the Maoists, Dinesh was looking for ways to out-gun Jayanath due to the continued rivalry. It was a win-win proposition and Masih Charan and Dinesh joined hands to create PLFI. Masih Charan created the rudimentary structure of the outfit, even as PLFI declared itself a sworn enemy of CPI-Maoist. Though Masih Charan was arrested a year later, in 2008, PLFI continued to grow under Dinesh’s leadership. Other Maoist cadres who walked out of the parent outfit also joined the group.
The armed strength of the group, according to estimates, has fluctuated between 150 to 300 cadres depending on SF pressure. According to an August 19, 2013, report, Jharkhand State Police under its ‘PLFI Action Plan’, had conducted a survey on the cadre strength of the outfit, and found that there were 264 PLFI cadres across Jharkhand – 82 in Ranchi, 55 in Khunti, 44 in Simdega, 44 in Chatra, 17 in Gumla, 14 in Palamu, five in Lohardaga and three in Latehar Districts. No subsequent official figures are available regarding current strength. Compounding the problem is the fact that virtually all petty criminals operating in the area project themselves as PLFI cadres. The outfit functions through several ‘area commanders’ across an area of operation principally extending across Ranchi, Khunti, Simdega, Gumla, Latehar, Chatra and Palamu.
In the meanwhile, Masih Charan fought the 2009 Assembly Elections from jail and there on followed his political path, consolidating links with the mafia and politicians. Though he ended a runner up in the elections, his influence has slowly increased, as money power attracted cadres as well as political patronage. The backing of the mafia purchased a measure of Police complicity, making PLFI the most prominent extremist group in Khunti and the adjoining region. Unemployed youth were lured into the group with the promise of easy money. As SAIR noted earlier, “the State Government has also been instrumental in sustaining PLFI during its initial days, using it to counter the CPI-Maoist. However, the strategy backfired and PLFI became one of the major LWE groups in the State.”
PLFI gradually became the second largest LWE group in Jharkhand, after CPI-Maoist. 19 Maoist splinter groups have been active in the State, each of which had broken away from the CPI-Maoist and formed independent gangs with purportedly different ideologies and purposes. Some of the other prominent splinter groups include, Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC), Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad (JJMP), Jharkhand Sangharsh Jan Mukti Morcha (JSJMM), Jharkhand Prastuti Committee (JPC), and Tritiya Prastuti Committee-1 (TPC-1), a breakaway group of TPC. PLFI is among the largest CPI-Maoist splinters in Jharkhand.
With time, PLFI’s extortion network and activities also extended into Odisha, particularly in the Sundargarh District bordering Jharkhand. On July 8, 2012, for instance, PLFI cadres shot dead Hardeep Singh, a block level politician of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), in Sundargarh. Further, the Jashpur District in Chhattisgarh, bordering the Simdega District of Jharkhand, has also witnessed PLFI activities. The group has been banned in Chhattisgarh since May 26, 2012. Commenting on the PLFI’s style of functioning, former Jharkhand Police spokesperson S. N. Pradhan stated, on August 7, 2013, “PLFI is a purely money-minting gang with no ideology or fundamentals.”
However, the outfit’s ‘operational capacity’ in the State has suffered during the last few years due to SF operational successes on the ground. In eight years between 2007 and 2014, the outfit lost 42 cadres, i.e. 5.25 cadres per year. Over the succeeding five years and more since 2015, it has lost 47 cadres, more than half of the total fatalities suffered by it, i.e. 8.54 fatalities per year. While these numbers seem low, the losses have been devastating for what is essentially a small criminal gang.
On the other hand, between 2007 and 2014, the outfit killed 79 civilians, i.e. 9.87 civilians per year. Since 2015, it has killed 27 civilians, i.e. 4.90 civilians per year.
The PLFI is currently involved in efforts to regain strength and relentlessly enrich its coffers through extortion. On February 15, 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in a press release stated that it had filed the first charge sheet filed in the case against the PLFI (RC-13/19/NIA/DLI) on February 14, 2020. The release noted,
Investigation has revealed that the above chargesheeted accused operatives of PLFI used to extort levy from the contractors of governmental development projects and transporters. Further, they acquired foreign made arms and ammunitions illegally which were used to intimidate the contractors and businessmen for committing extortion. Levies collected from them were not only used for terror activities of PLFI but also for acquiring immovable properties by their members.
The case pertains to an incident on December 3, 2018, in which PLFI cadres had gathered in the Titir Mahua Forest area of Balubhang in Latehar District and were conspiring to conduct unlawful activities. On the basis of credible information, a raid was conducted and four accused were arrested along with foreign made arms and ammunition. The case was first registered by the local police on the same day, and by NIA on February 26, 2019.
Earlier, on October 22, 2019, an NIA press release stated that it had filed another charge sheet (RC- 02/2018/NIA/DLI) on October 21. The release noted that during investigation it was established that a criminal conspiracy was hatched relating to channelizing of the extorted levy amount collected from the contractors/businessmen engaged in the developmental projects in Jharkhand and investing these funds into dubious shell companies formed with the partnership of PLFI associates and family members of Dinesh Gope. INR 2.5 million in cash which was being deposited in State Bank of India (SBI), Branch Bero, Ranchi had been seized by the Police on November 10, 2016. A case was registered by the local Police on the same day, and by NIA on January 19, 2018.
As PLFI is primarily a criminal group, it deliberately avoids direct engagement with the SFs, but continues with its criminal activities and efforts to extend influence and areas of operation. Indeed, PLFI’s areas of operation are among the country’s worst crime afflicted Districts. It is, consequently, imperative that the momentum of SF operations is maintained, till this group is entirely neutralized.
*Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management