Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Orissa caught in Naxal spillover effect

The Naxal trail in Orissa begins in the deceptively beautiful Malkangiri district which lies on the southern tip of the state.

More than half of Malkangiri is dense forests and hilly tracts connected by a very poor road network.

The isolation of the terrain is further heightened by the rivers. River Sileru on one side separates it from Andhra Pradesh while Saberi on the other splits it from Chhattisgarh.

Malkangiri's Chittrakonda which lies near the Balimela Reservoir is the place where a motor launch carrying 50 Greyhound jawans capsized following a Maoist attack.

Thirty eight people were killed in the attack. This area is now known as the cut-off area where there are about 150 villages - all disconnected from the mainland.

The terrain is tough to traverse but for Naxals, it offers a suitable hideout as anyone trying to access the farthest point will take 10 hours on boat.

The government did try to ensure that there is some kind of connectivity for the area. The Gamon India bridge was meant to connect the area to the mainland but the Naxals ensured that never happened.

''It is really getting difficult on our part to complete the developmental work, especially that which can harm the interests of the Naxals like roads, bridges, culverts and all," said Nitin B Jawle, Collector, Malkangiri.

Malkangiri has always been Orissa's Naxal region and it's apparent from the fact that of the 280 incidents of Naxal violence in the state since 1991, 120 have taken place here.

But intelligence sources say that in the last two years, Naxals have decided to make Malkangiri their most critical long-term base. It saw a spillover of militia from Andhra when peace talks were on and now from Bastar as the government there gets tough.

''Peoples War Group, which is active in Telangana, made inroads into Orissa. On the other hand, what happened the Maoist Communist Centre, which was active in Jharkand and Bihar, made inroads into North and West Orissa," said S N Tiwari, Retired DGP, former Director, Special Protection Group.

A clear evidence of this spillover effect is the dramatic rise in attacks. On 16 February, 2008, 15 policemen were killed during a toot at the armoury in Nayagarh.

A couple of months later, on 16 July 2008, an anti-mine vehicle was blown up by the Naxals in Telarai killing 17 commandos.

These attacks are a signal to the security forces of renewed Naxal power. Their intent to rule this region has also been made clear to the villagers.

"Naxals don't come here. They move about only in the night. They are not visible during the day," said some of the villagers in Malkangiri.

Another cause of worry is a dearth of policemen or jawans in the area.

In these tribal villages there is no mobile connectivity, no road, no telephone, no electricity and no familiar signs of authority.

Even the Block Development Office that was constructed 25 years ago in Papermetla village was abandoned by the government in fear. This has led to a lot of brutality on the people by the Naxals.

"They removed the skin of a man here and asked him to walk. Can anyone walk in that condition? Then they removed the skin from his forehead and asked him if he could still see. Then they beheaded him," said a villager.

Malkangiri's tribals - about 58 per cent of the district's population - are among its most poor and marginalised. Thousands of them were uprooted from their native land by hydro-electric projects.

The fears of these tribals seem to be further aggravated in Tarlakota, another pocket of Malkangiri, where thousands of tribal families were settled following the Machkund Project since 1964.

But unfortunately, till today, they do not have pattas or rights over the land they till. Their anger had turned them against the state.

Thus, in 1967 when the Naxalbari revolution began there was support for it in Malkangiri. But the villagers never got any land and over the last 40 years, the Naxal saviours have become fearful oppressors.

Their violence has kept development out and fuelled greater poverty.

"They have given us NREGS cards, but no work. There are no jobs here. We have to beg and borrow to survive," said one of the villagers.

As Naxals get involved for the first time in ethnic and religious strife - taking blame for the murder of VHP leader Swami Laxmananand Saraswati in Kandhmal district - the strategy perhaps is to emerge from the depths of Malkangiri into mainland aiming for a larger political ground.

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