While the Telangana police insist that Linganna was an armed Maoist, activists say that he was a tribal leader who had taken up the 'podu lands' issue in the state.

Maoist Lingannas death in Telangana Counter-insurgency operation or encounter
news Encounter Saturday, August 17, 2019 - 19:25

Tension has been brewing in the forests surrounding Telangana’s Gundala mandal in Bhadadri-Kothagudem district ever since July 31, after Linganna, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) New Democracy was killed.

The death triggered protests in the area. A video that surfaced within hours of the incident, showed local forest dwellers armed with sticks and stones, sloganeering against the police. As the locals pelted stones, armed personnel were seen backing away. 

So who was Linganna and what exactly happened? The Telangana police insist that he was an extortionist and a Maoist, who was the area commander for the armed wing of the CPI (ML) New Democracy. His party and civil rights activists claim that Linganna was an adivasi leader who fought for land rights and was tortured before being shot dead.

CPI(ML) New Democracy is a faction that broke away in 1988 from the CPI (ML) and has two factions within itself; one that takes part in democratic elections and another armed group or ‘dalam’ that operates like the CPI (Maoists), who are commonly referred to as Naxalites or Maoists. 

What the police say

The Telangana police allege that the dalam and CPI (Maoists) work "in tandem" and are in constant touch. All anti-insurgency operations against Naxalites and Maoists are carried out by the Greyhounds, a police special forces unit operating under the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana police departments.

According to the police version of the story, Linganna and seven other Maoists were surrounded near the Rollagadda forest area of Bhadradri-Kothagudem district bordering Chhattisgarh. The Maoists shot first while the police insisted that they surrender. Linganna was killed in the return fire, the police claim.

As the police were carrying away Linganna’s body, the locals protested and resorted to stone-pelting. Two other Maoists who were apprehended by the police managed to escape during the chaos, the police claim.

What activists say

The following week in August, members of the Civil Liberties Committee (CLC), a human rights organisation based in Hyderabad, filed a case against the Telangana police alleging that Linganna was killed in an encounter.

A fact-finding team from CLC also visited Gundalam mandal where the alleged encounter took place. Among the people they talked to was the eyewitness who allegedly saw Linganna being shot first and also two other persons, said to be his accomplices, who are now being hunted by the police.

Narayana Rao N of the CLC who was part of the team claimed that Linganna was first shot in the right leg and was caught, before being tortured and shot dead at point-blank range.

"He and his squad had been in Gundalam mandal for a very long time and the police knew about it but had never done anything. He was a semi-underground operative, who also lived with his family," says Narayana, who added that Linganna was barely 2 km from his residence when he was tipped off about the incoming police. He had come home to celebrate Martyrs Memorial Week.

Once the dalam was tipped off, eight of them split into groups of two and fled but Linganna stayed back as he had to collect a bag from his village at Rollagadda, the CLC claimed, adding that he got shot in the leg while attempting to flee.

"They first shot him in the right leg and caught him. Two of his associates were apprehended and were brought in to identify him. For the next two hours, he was tortured before the two eyewitnesses and then shot. He begged the police to not kill them but they shot him anyway," alleges Narayana.

Death related to ‘Podu land’ issue?

"The police knew for one week that Linganna was there near his village. Usually, when they come across them, they would leave them without any harm. This time, the podu land struggle is going on and the dalam were opposing a particular survey being done by the state government. They were killed as they opposed the state government’s action," alleges Narayana.

'Podu' cultivation is a traditional farming practice of forest dwellers, which includes tribal and non-tribal populations. The government’s afforestation drives on these lands are being met with resistance from forest dwellers, who allege that the Forest Rights Act, 2006, is being diluted.

The activists say that Linganna had recently taken up the podu lands issue.

Read: Encroachers or rightful cultivators? Why there’s unrest among Telangana's forest dwellers

Since June, the Telangana police said that they had been tracking the movements of close to 40 Maoists who were seeking to tap into the simmering discontent among forest dwellers, over the ‘podu lands’ issue, in order to boost their presence.

Read: Maoists trying to capitalise on Telangana's podu land issue to reemerge?

Bhadradri Kothagudem district Superintendent of Police Sunil Dutt in June had said that about 3,000 policemen were involved in combing operations in the forest and the police had even announced a Rs 5 lakh as a cash reward for tips on their whereabouts.

The battle in court 

While a first post-mortem was conducted shortly after the death, it did not satisfy activists, who approached the High Court seeking a fresh investigation and a second post-mortem. The findings of the second post-mortem were submitted to the High Court this Tuesday, the details of which are in a sealed cover.

High Court lawyer Ragunath V, who is questioning the procedure followed before and after by the Telangana police while confronting the dalam members, points out that the police have filed a case under section 37 (co-operation by doing one of several acts constituting an offence) of the IPC against a dead Linganna.

"How can they file cases against a dead person? My contention in the court is that a case of culpable homicide and an FIR has to be filed against the police," says the lawyer, who was also part of the fact-finding team.

Speaking to TNM, Linganna's son, Hari Babu, claimed that his father faced torture in the hands of the police before being killed, "His body had three bullets; in the thigh, heart and head. His face had severe injuries, his skin was peeled and it appeared like his hands were pinned and crushed with stones," Hari Babu alleged.

The police are yet to get a copy of the second post mortem report but now allege that the family of Linganna was forced to agree to a second post mortem. "The family was not happy with the second post mortem. They didn't want to go to court but are being instigated by certain people. They were not alleging any encounter initially and were willing to take the body," said Sunil.

Hari refuted this claim."They took his body to Kothagudem from Gundala by changing the vehicle, without informing us and conducted a postmortem. I even rejected to take my father's body as they conducted a postmortem on their own, without informing us," said Hari who added that the police denied them access and shut the gates of Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad where the second autopsy was being done on August 3.



Police deny allegations

The police have called all allegations of an encounter as baseless and denied the claims made by activists.

Speaking to TNM, SP Sunil Dutt said, "The podu land issue started recently but most of the cases against Linganna span from over a decade. They are mostly extortion and murder cases.”

"It's obvious that they (activists) will call it an encounter. He was an armed leader and always had an SLR, a deadly weapon, and everyone in their party knows this. The locals also know that he threatens people. It was only when they fired, that we fired back," added the officer.

Another person identified as Gopanna, an associate of Linganna who was with him when the exchange of fire occurred, has also been apprehended by the police. "We caught him last week. Gopanna has confessed that he also fired from his SLR. They left their magazine at the spot and based on his confession, we recovered his weapon," Sunil said.

Asked why no strict action had been taken against the dalam in the past, the SP replied, "There have always been efforts to nab them but the forest is huge. Previously also some people were apprehended and caught. Even Linganna was caught long back in Khammam district. That time, he was an overground worker and later went underground.

“These people have cases of murder against them. If anyone has any doubt over the police version, you can contact the victims whose family members were killed. Extortion money was being used by the party." stated the officer.

Dr Ashish Mittal the general secretary of CPI (ML) New Democracy told TNM, "The CPI (ML) New Democracy is not banned, they are saying this is an armed group and that's why they are being killed but in India right from the 1960s how many people have arms? In Uttar Pradesh you have BJP leaders flashing guns, dancing and shooting in the air. Will the police kill them too? They won't."

(Inputs from Charan Teja and Nitin B)

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