India: most-wanted Naxalite leader killed in “fake encounter”

Molajula Koteswar Rao AKA “Kishenji,” most-wanted leader of India‘s Naxalite guerillas, was killed in a gun battle with security forces in the Burisole jungle region of West Midnapore district, West Bengal, authorities said Nov. 24. Sympathizers of the Maoist rebel movement as well as human rights groups immediately questioned the government’s version of events, and charged that Kishenji had been illegally executed. Varavara Rao of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committeeo called the slaying a “political murder.” The New Power website said, “These fake encounters mask a campaign of targeted assassination.” (PTI, Nov. 27;, Nov. 26)

Kishenji was the public face of the Naxalites and a mediagenic figure, with trademark face-mask and AK-47. He was also instrumental in unifying the Naxalite networks in India’s impoverished eastern jungles. He helped found the People’s War Group (PWG) in 1980 and oversaw the organization’s merger with the Maoist Communist Centre of India to form the Communist Party of India-Maoist. He had been under growing pressure since the government launched “Operation Greenhunt” in 2009, with counterinsurgency operations throughout the Naxalites’ “Red Corridor.”

The government has also launched an anti-Naxalite militia network, the Salwa Judum, which has pitted villager against villager. Nonetheless, the Naxalites are said to control some 40% of territory in the Red Corridor across Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and other eastern states.

A politburo member of the banned CPI-Maoist and the group’s military leader, Kishenji claimed responsibility for the February 2010 Silda camp attack in West Bengal, in which 24 troops of the Eastern Frontier Rifles were killed. He told local TV after the attack: “This is our ‘Operation Peace Hunt.’ It is our retaliation against the Operation Green Hunt of the government.” (Indian Express, Nov. 27; PTI, Nov. 25; BBC News, Dec. 22)

The Naxalites, or Naxals, take their name from Naxalbari village in Darjeeling district, West Bengal, which was the scene of a May 1967 uprising after local goons attacked a tribesman who had been given land by the courts under the tenancy laws. In retaliation, the tribals attacked landlords and claimed the land‚ marking the start of the insurgency. The Naxalites say they are uniting impoverished peasants, dalits (“untouchables”) and adivasis (tribal people) against landlords and oppressive authorities, and fighting for a classless society. The movement has traditionally been divided into two broad regional alliances; while the Maoist Communist Centre is active in Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand, the People’s War tendency operates in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal and eastern Maharashtra. Critics say the Naxals extort money from middle-level landowners (since rich landowners invariably buy protection), and dominate the villages of the peasants and adivasis they claim to be liberating. (Rediff, Oct. 2, 2003)

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