India: Incipient Struggles In Kerala – Analysis
By Bulbul Prakash*
On March 15, 2023, a group of four Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres reached Arimala Colony in Tondarnad Grama Panchayat (village level local self-government institution) in the Wayanad District of Kerala and distributed pamphlets propagating their ideology. Of the four, three members of the Maoist group were suspected to be Unnimaya, Chandru, and Sundari. The identity of the fourth is yet to be ascertained.
On March 6, 2023, suspected CPI-Maoist cadres reached a tribal colony near Kapikalam Kuttiam in Wayanad District, entered a home, and looted food. Geetha, a resident, reported to the Police that a man and a woman armed with guns came to their home, attempted to beat her, and stole food from the kitchen.
On February 18, 2023, a four-member CPI-Maoist group reached a house in Koonampala colony in Kottiyoor Grama Panchayat in Kannur District and asked the family to prepare food for them. The suspected Maoists were two men and two women wearing uniforms; they later took away groceries, including rice. The group also gave the family a list of items to buy and handed over INR 4,000 to them.
On February 6, 2023, a five-member CPI-Maoist group reached the Vietnam Colony at Aralam Grama Panchayat in Kannur District, collected food items, and went back to the Kottiyoor Forest. The group was led by C.P. Moideen, and the other four Maoists were identified as Jisha, Jayan, Vikram Gowda, and Soman.
These four incidents reflecting Maoist presence have been registered in the residential areas of the State in 2023, so far (data till March 19, 2023).
According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 2022, at least seven such incidents were reported from three Districts [Kozhikode (four), Wayanad (two), Palakkad (one)]. Through 2021, six such incidents were reported from three Districts [Kozhikode (three), Wayanad (two), and Palakkad (one)]. Since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on Left Wing Extremism (LWE) violence, a total of 43 such incidents have been documented in the State. Significantly, the frequent Maoist presence in these areas, particularly near tribal colonies, is disconcerting. However, they have failed to win over the youths in these areas, mainly because of the relatively high socio-economic status and standard of living of the tribal population in Kerala, as compared to other LWE-affected areas, as well as better policing and increased socialization among tribal youths. These factors have made recruitment challenging and, typically, after collecting provisions from villages, the Maoists retreat into the jungles.
Maoist operations in Kerala have never targeted civilians or caused human casualties, highlighting their focus on ideological mobilization and propaganda-based activities. Strikingly, since March 6, 2000, the State has not recorded any fatality in the civilian and Security Forces (SFs) categories in LWE-linked violence, so far (data till March 19, 2023). However, nine LWE cadres have been killed by SFs over this period, one in 2020, five in 2019, two in 2016, and one in 2014, an average of approximately 0.5 fatalities per year over a 23-year period. The figures confirm that the State has successfully contained Maoist efforts to extend operations into its territories.
Other parameters of LWE activities confirm the Maoists’ failure to find roots in the State. The Maoists were not able to execute any violent incidents in 2022 as well as in 2021. The last violent incident was reported on March 5, 2017, when a high-intensity blast damaged properties and blew up a mud house on the fringe of a forest in Chappamala in Kottiyoor, a Naxal-affected area in Kannur District. No causalities were reported in the incident. Another incident was reported on July 8, 2014, when senior CPI-Maoist leader Sinoj alias Rajan was killed in an accidental blast, while assembling an explosive device in the deep forests of Wayanad District. Sinoj, one of the nine persons in the first lookout notice issued against the Maoists in Kerala by SFs, was a member of the armed platoon of the CPI-Maoist’s Western Ghats Special Zone Committee (WGSZC). He was also in-charge of the political department of the Kabani Dalam (armed squad) operating in Kerala. Maoist attacks on resorts and stone quarrying units were been reported in 2020. The quarries were believed to be operating illegally or encroaching on tribal lands. At worst, such incidents have been sporadic.
Naxalite activities in the State have, consequently, been mainly limited to the display and distribution of posters, pamphlets, and literature. In 2023, only one incident of recovery of such materials has been recorded, so far (data till March 19). At least two incidents of recovery of posters, pamphlets, and literature were recorded in 2022, in addition to five in 2021. A peak of eight such incidents were registered in 2014. Significantly, between 2000 and 2019, a total of 18 incidents of recovery of such material have been recorded. Overall, the data suggests that Naxalite activities in Kerala have remained relatively low-key, with no incidents of violence reported, and the focus has mainly been on propaganda and spreading their message through printed material.
No Maoist has been arrested in 2023, thus far (till March 19) or 2022; however, at least five Maoists were arrested in 2021. Notably, on November 9, 2021, the Kerala Police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) took into custody B.G. Krishnamurthy, a senior CPI-Maoist leader, who served as the ‘secretary’ of the ‘WGSZC’ and Savithri, alias Rejitha, the ‘commander’ of the group’s Kabani Dalam, in Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad District. Since March 6, 2000, a total of 49 Maoists has been arrested in the State.
No surrender has taken place in 2023, as in 2022, though a solitary case of Maoist surrender was reported in 2021. On October 25, 2021, senior CPI-Maoist leader P. Lijesh turned himself in without arms in Wayanad District. Lijesh, claiming to be the ‘deputy commander’ of the Kabani Dalam of the WGSZC, and worked for the organization in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Significantly, Lijesh’s surrender was the first since the State Government’s “surrender-cum-rehabilitation” scheme was introduced in 2018. As part of the scheme, surrendered Maoist Lijesh received a cheque of INR 394,000, a house, and educational assistance worth INR 15,000. Lijesh has revealed that he surrendered because “he realized that there was no point in continuing with the organization and that many young people were being misled by it.”
Significantly, terrorism related incidents in State reduced from five in 2021 to none in 2022. The geographical reach of LWE-linked activities contracted from five Districts (Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad and Wayanad) of Kerala in 2021 to one (Kozhikode) in 2022.
Of the 14 Districts in the State, Wayanad is identified as one among the ‘Districts of Concern’ by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), under its Special Central Assistance (SCA) scheme to fight LWE, as classified during its review of the categorization of Districts affected by LWE on June 19, 2021. This move followed intelligence reports regarding the presence and activities of Maoist cadres in the district’s forest areas. Wayanad will receive a total of INR 400 million until 2026 under the SCA scheme. Moreover, three Districts – Malappuram, Palakkad, and Wayanad – were also listed among the 70 Districts in 10 States that are covered under the Centre’s ‘Security Related Expenditure (SRE)’ scheme which funds focused operations against the LWEs.
Meanwhile, according to a September 12, 2022, report, to tackle LWEs in the State and their incipient challenge, the State Government created permanent posts for the Special Operations Group (SOG), for a sustained push against Left ultras operating in the forests in the northern parts of the State. Currently, about 200 personnel are part of the group, which comprises commandos and personnel from the anti-Naxalite force. The SOG has been trained in handling commando operations and has been very successful in diminishing the presence of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), the armed wing of the CPI-Maoist, in the forests in Kerala.
On February 25, 2022, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted searches at Wayanad District in Kerala in connection with the ‘PLGA recruitment case’. The NIA statement reads;
The case relates to the recruitment of vulnerable youth into the fold of CPI (Maoist) and further training them for induction into their frontal organisations for organising terrorist camps to further the activities of CPI (Maoist) and threatening the unity, integrity and sovereignty of India.
Also, the NIA seized various incriminating documents, digital devices, SIM cards and digital storage devices during the raid.
On the legal front, however, on March 17, 2022, the Kerala High Court quashed the charges slapped under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) against CPI-Maoist leader Roopesh in three cases registered at Kuttiadi and Valayam Police Stations in Kozhikode District, stating that the time limit for sanction was sacrosanct.
The Maoist threat persists. On December 18, 2022, intelligence agencies alerted the Tamil Nadu Police on the attempts allegedly being made by CPI-Maoist to revive the WGSZC in the tri-junction forests of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu (KKT). The location of the tri-junction is strategic for the Maoists to regain their strongholds in the area and take their agenda forward. In addition, field level officers across the State were alerted that the Maoists had launched a massive recruitment programme targeting youth, particularly students. Dozens of youths, including students of a law college in the southern districts of Kerala, had been inducted and subjected to systematic indoctrination in the “Marxism, Maoism and Ambedkar ideology.” Additionally, front organizations that endorse Maoist beliefs and similar interest groups have organized mass protests against the 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). These developments underscore the critical requirement for improved inter-State coordination to tackle the LWE challenge in the country, as the CPI-Maoist’s sphere of influence extends across multiple States.
Despite enduring and substantial pressure on their resources and networks since 2009 and the prompt detection of their presence by the State Police in Kerala, and the fact that the Maoists have not exhibited the same level of aggression in Kerala as observed in other regions of the country, Kerala remains a persistent target of interest for the Maoists. The State Government and SFs need to address the challenges of the tribal communities, struggling with various difficulties related to civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights, which the Maoists claim to be fighting for. A comprehensive engagement in dialogue with the tribal communities, redressal of their grievances, and providing them with the support they need to secure their basic rights, would be the most effective strategies to keep the Maoists out of the region.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management