By Fakir Mohan Pradhan
Inflicting a crippling blow on the expelled Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) leader Sabyasachi Panda, who had floated his own outfit – the Odisha Maovadi Party (OMP), Security Forces (SFs) on November 14, 2012, gunned down five of his cadres in an encounter in the Bhaliagada Forest in the Gobindapur panchayat (local self government) area under Mohana Police Station in the Gajapati District of Odisha. Another few extremists were also believed to have suffered injuries, as indicated by a trail of blood leading away from the encounter site. Two SF personnel were also injured in the encounter. SF troopers had conducted the raid after being tipped off about the presence of Panda and some 15 of his associates, including top aides Pradeep, Sagar and Nikita, in a camp. Panda and his aides, however, managed to escape. Police seized an Italian-made pistol, which is supposed to be Panda’s personal weapon. Four country-made guns, two 9 mm pistols, around 80 kilograms of explosives and 35 rounds of live cartridges, were seized from the spot.
Following up on the encounter, SFs intensified search operations against the group and, during separate raids, the Police recovered three landmines from Singaranga village in the Kotagarh Police Station area in Kandhamal District; and explosives, including 129 gelatin sticks, wire and ‘Tiffin bombs’, besides Maoist literature, uniforms and medicines, from the Narayanpatna area in Koraput District. Further, to keep up the pressure, posters of six prominent cadres of the OMP – Aruna, Krishna, Andrew Majhi, Pramod Majhi, Pratap Nayak and Prami Majhi – were put up at public places in Panda’s areas of operation in Gajapati, Ganjam and nearby Districts. With an estimated cadre-strength of less than 30, the combined impact of these operations on the OMP is already thought to have been devastating.
After being termed a renegade and expelled from the CPI-Maoist on August 10, 2012, Panda had been keeping a low profile, with speculation rife about his possible surrender, and ‘back-channel’ efforts reportedly ongoing. Civil society activists, including Sarvodaya leader Professor Radhamohan, had made appeals to him to abjure violence and return to the mainstream. Sabyasachi himself had publicly responded to these calls and had promised to avoid violence, as long as SFs did not attack him or his group. Panda had also asked civil society members to persuade the Government to stop Police action against him.
In the meantime, the CPI-Maoist reportedly formed a new unit, the Chhattishgarh-Odisha Border Committee (COBC), to strengthen their operations across the border areas of the two States, and specifically to counter Panda’s new outfit. Sources indicate that around 60 Maoist cadres were engaged in this work, and they had started scouting for new members at the village level to strengthen their units.
Desperate to regain some of his clout, Panda had been trying to expand his cadre strength behind the cover of talks of surrender. A senior Police officer, on conditions of anonymity, claimed, “Sabyasachi Panda had been using the surrender talk as a cover to consolidate his position. He had recently recruited 10 youth to his Odisha Maobadi Party (OMP) and was in fact conducting a training camp near Govindapur panchayat in Ganjam District when the DVFs [District Voluntary Forces] and members of the Special Operation Group (SOG) attacked them.” On November 14, 2012, Odisha Director General of Police (DGP) Prakash Mishra noted, further, “We have specific information that he (Panda) was for a big build-up. Reports say his group strength has increased to 27. He has been recruiting people to the group.” In late October and early November, posters asking people to join OMP were seized from Nuapada, Balangir, Bargarh and Koraput Districts, confirming Panda’s intention of extending his base beyond his traditional areas of dominance in Ganjam, Kandhamal, Rayagada and Gajapati Districts.
Bosusco Paolo, the Italian Tourist who was abducted and held by Panda in March 2012, had estimated that Panda had just about 20 cadres, including 10 women, each armed with a gun. Paolo’s disclosures indicated that the unit had one VHF set, one walky-talky, two ‘tiffin bombs’, one laptop with a data card, and one generator. He described the then Maoist Odisha State Organizing Committee (OSOC) leader as “sick”, and taking medicines regularly.
Intelligence reports suggest that, with the increase in anti-Maoist operations by the SFs in Kandhamal District, Panda had shifted into the Sorada and Badagada areas of Ganjam District over the past months. After camping in the jungles along the Ganjam-Gajapati border, Panda was trying to restore contacts with past allies in the Raipanka, Mohana, Adaba, R.Udaygiri, Luhagudi, Govindpur and nearby areas in an effort to revitalize his new outfit.
Panda’s strength had been reduced considerably over the past three years, as 86 of his loyalists had either surrendered or have been arrested by Police in Ganjam, Gajapati and Kandhamal Districts over this period. Another 14 of Panda’s associates were killed, including five in the November 14, 2012 encounter at Bhaliagada.
Sabyasachi Panda is the son of the late Ramesh Panda, a former three-time Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Odisha representing the Gunpur constituency from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), who had later joined the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and was acting as the Nayagarh District President of the Party till his death in 2003. Sabyasachi Panda joined the Naxalite movement in 1991 and is credited with rejuvenating its activities in Odisha (then Orissa) by 1996. A mathematics graduate, Panda worked with the Communist Party of India – Marxist Leninist – Liberation [CPI(ML)-Liberation] and Party Unity (PU) before joining the People’s War Group (PWG). He had formed the Kui Labanga Sangha to spread Maoist activities among the Kui tribals in Odisha’s Kandhamal District. Sabyasachi Panda is also alleged to have links with several influential persons in the State’s power centres. The then Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, Narsingha Mishra (Congress Party), had, for instance, stated in February 2008, “His (Panda’s) voice is the voice of 57 per cent people in Orissa who have only Rs 12 [INR 12] to spend per day. It’s this injustice against poor, which made him a Naxal. I admire his ideas but disapprove of his violence.”
Panda gained notoriety for masterminding the Nayagarh Armory raid on February 15, 2008. His involvement in the June 29, 2008, attack on the elite anti-Maoist Greyhounds personnel in the Chitrakonda Reservoir was also strongly suspected. While Panda had been a source of significant strength for the CPI-Maoist in Odisha in the past, his autocratic and corrupt ways of functioning soon caught the attention of the Party’s central leadership. Panda planned and executed the assassination of the Hindu religious leader Swami Laxmanand Saraswati in Kandhamal District in August 2008, without proper authorization from the central leadership, provoking widespread riots against Christians. These events widened the differences between Panda and the Maoist central leadership. Panda had risen to be the secretary of the OSOC of the CPI-Maoist and the most influential Odia leader among the Maoists. However, his base remained the Ganjam, Gajapati, Kandhamal and Rayagada Districts, comprising the Bansadhara and Ghumsur Division.
In the run-up to his expulsion from the CPI-Maoist, Panda developed serious difference with Modem Balakrishna, a Central Committee (CC) member, and was reportedly unhappy about the ‘hegemony’ of Telegu (Andhra) cadres over Odia cadres. Nevertheless, Politburo member, Mallojula Koteswar Rao aka Kishanji apparently supported Panda, and that kept him going within the Party. However, after Kishanji was killed in November 2011, Panda’s distance from the central leadership grew, and he stopped communicating with the top Party leadership at this time.
The relationship was pushed to a breaking point when, in March 2012, Panda took two Italian tourists hostage without consulting the central leadership. At this stage, he also declared a ‘ceasefire’ with the Odisha Government. In order to embarrass him, the Maoists’ Andhra-Orissa Border Special Zone Committee (AOBSZC) abducted BJD MLA Jinna Hikaka, even while the Italians were in Panda’s custody. Reports at this stage indicated that Suresh, a ‘unit commander’ of the AOBSZC, backed by about 30 cadres, was searching for Panda across the tribal hamlets while one Italian hostage was still held by him.
The tipping point came with a 60 page letter (including a 20 page ‘Basadara Report’ dating back to 2003) by Panda, criticizing the central leadership, recent strategic failures, and purported ‘deviations’ – ideological, tactical and cultural – including allegations of an increasing proclivity to autocratic command, regional partisanship (in favour of Telugu cadres and leaders), the absence of grievance redressal, ‘cultural hegemony’, intolerance of dissent, “financial anarchy” and sexual improprieties.
The CPI-Maoist hit back with an expulsion order on August 10, 2012, declaring him a renegade.
Today, Panda seems to have been cornered and much of his clout has been dissipated. At the same time, Maoist activity in Odisha has declined in many of the Districts earlier affected. DGP Prakash Mishra claims there is now hardly any Maoist violence in Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Jajpur, Dhenkanal, Sambalpur, Deogarh and Nayagarh, all significantly afflicted in the past. However, in the western Districts of Balangir, Bargarh, Nuapada and Nabarangpur, the Maoists continue to make determined efforts, even as they continue to hold their ground in the south-western Koraput and Malkangiri Districts.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, just three fatalities – two Naxalites and one SF trooper – have been reported across Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Jajpur, Dhenkanal, Sambalpur, Deogarh and Nayagarh Districts in the current year (as on November 18). However, the Western Districts have seen nine fatalities – seven civilian and two SF personnel; and Koraput and Malkangiri together accounted for 32 fatalities – 16 civilians, 12 SFs and four Maoists, over the same period.
Panda’s break with the CPI-Maoist has weakened the Party and has devastated the new formation he raised, creating a significant opportunity for the state’s Forces to consolidate these gains and push the Maoists out of the State. This will, at best, be a small window, and unless the SFs push forward with extraordinary vigour, the CPI-Maoist can be expected to restore processes of consolidation both in its present areas of dominance, as well as in the areas earlier under Panda’s influence.
Fakir Mohan Pradhan
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management