In May 2001, when I had gone inside the Nallamalla forest in Andhra Pradesh to interview top naxal Ramakrishna, one of the senior hands I met there was Chalapathi. I remember him as a well-built man, whose commitment to naxal ideology was evident in the manner in which he spoke. In that naxal theatre deep inside the jungle, it was also a revelation to see his tech-savvy side, as he discussed technology and gadgetry. From the manner in which he interacted with Ramakrishna, it was obvious he was a trusted lieutenant.
After dinner that consisted of rice mixed with chilly powder, we retired for the day. We were to trek back 6 km to reach the highway from inside the forest early next morning, more excited that we had to break the news that Ramakrishna in his interview had made the offer of a unilateral ceasefire by the People's War.
It was dead at night under the open sky and we, a group of journalists were sleeping in the middle of the dense forest under the open sky on tarpaulin sheets. I heard some whispers. At a distance, I could spot two people talking, the foliage doing little to drown the acoustics. The voice indicated that one of them was a woman.
The next morning, curiosity got the better of me as I quizzed one of the junior naxals in the squad about the identity of the duo. I was told one of them was Chalapathi and the woman was his wife Aruna. Given that their life was to be on the run all the time, trekking through the forest and ensuring they left no tracks behind, late night tete-a-tete of this kind was the only private time the couple got, I was told. When I asked Aruna how long did she see herself leading this kind of an imperfect marital life, she smiled and spoke about “a greater mission in life”.
Chalapathi and Aruna were among the 27 Maoists killed in the encounter with security forces in Odisha on Monday morning. In the last decade and a half, they had risen in the Maoist ranks to become East division secretary and Nandapur area committee secretary respectively.
Also killed was Munna, son of Ramakrishna. Reports suggest that Ramakrishna who is close to 70 now, was also present but managed to escape. The Andhra police estimate that at least 30 to 40 Maoists would have escaped in the hit that took place at the crack of dawn when 200-odd Greyhounds personnel swooped down in a precise surgical strike on the Maoist plenary camp, taking everyone by surprise.
The police have claimed that Gajarla Ravi alias Ganesh alias Uday is among those killed. Ravi was one of the three representatives of the Maoists in the failed peace talks with the then Andhra government headed by YS Rajasekhara Reddy in 2004. He along with Ramakrishna and Sudhakar, had walked out of Nallamalla to travel to Hyderabad to give peace a chance. The Maoist strategy was to use the time as a breather to regroup and strengthen themselves, but a shrewd YSR used the opportunity to track them down. Within a year, many Maoists were killed or chased out of Andhra Pradesh into Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
If Ravi, whose three brothers too were Maoists, is dead, it is a major loss for the Maoists. The likes of Ravi and Chalapathi were the leadership of the Maoists, adept at military expertise and planning and by aiming at the top, the Andhra police has dealt it a severe blow.
Given that the site of the encounter was close to Balimela, where 36 Andhra's elite anti-Maoist Greyhounds commandos were ambushed in June 2008, Monday's hit is seen as a revenge killing. Therefore, it seems rather strange that civil rights activists should label the encounter as state-sponsored murders where “the police have brutally gunned down the Maoists”. The demand to book cases against the DGP under Section 302 of IPC is ridiculous especially when the Maoists themselves are guilty of pulling the trigger to perpetrate their own reign of terror. Casting doubts over the genuineness of the encounter also does not make sense because if the encounter was fake, the Greyhounds would not have lost one of their own in the exchange of fire.
The question that arises is whether the Maoists were overconfident of the safety the area deep inside the Odisha jungle provided. What could have been the purpose of Ramakrishna meeting senior commanders like Chalapathi and Ravi? It would be of interest if the security forces also find any literature at the encounter site that could reveal the agenda of the meeting.
It would be naive to think that the Maoists will not retaliate. Having studied their style of operations, it is a given that they will go in for a single target action, preferably a big shot that will help them register their sinister presence. The handicap however, is that the Maoists have been wiped out of both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in the last decade and the outlaws would have to mobilise logistical support from either Chhattisgarh or Odisha to carry out such a mission. But given that they are masters of the surprise element, the security forces in Andhra Pradesh would do well to err on the side of caution.