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The Maoist threat in Wayanad

By Nikhil Lakshman
April 18, 2019 10:18 IST
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The NDA candidate tells the Election Commission that the Maoists plan to kidnap him.'s Nikhil Lakshman reports from Wayanad where Rahul Gandhi is contesting the Lok Sabha election.

A tribal hamlet in Wayanad. Photograph: Seema Pant for

IMAGE: A tribal hamlet in Wayanad. Seema Pant for

Waving his scary automatic rifle, the trooper, dressed in camouflage fatigues, asks the car not to enter the district police officer's office compound. Twice, we enter our names, phone numbers and addresses in police log books.

In the waiting area outside district police chief R Karuppasamy's office, police officers watch us suspiciously. One logs into to verify that our site exists while another hovers around, trying to gauge if my Kiplinger sling bag contains a weapon.

In one corner, below a map of Wayanad, is placed a kind of rogue's gallery with mug shots of wanted Maoists, apparently taken without their knowledge by village informants.

Hours earlier, the Maoists had planted posters in a forest enclave in Wayanad, calling for a boycott of the election.

A month earlier, Karuppawamy and Special Protection Group officers had reportedly nixed Rahul Gandhi's visit to a Pulwama martyr's home in Thirikkai, citing a Maoist threat.

Days before that decision was taken, a Maoist had been killed by the police at a resort in Vythiri when the Maoists apparently tried to extort money and food from the resort staff.

On April 13, Thushar Vellapally, the National Democratic Alliance candidate for the Lok Sabha election in Wayanad, shot off a mail to the Election Commission, citing 'Kerala police intelligence', stating that the Maoists plan to kidnap him, seeking protection for his life.

VIDEO: A glimpse of the dense forests in Wayanad. Video: Nikhil Lakshman/
Photographs and Video Editor: Rajesh Karkera/

The Wayanad-Naxalite word association is an unfamiliar one for the current generation in the district, but to those who grew up in a different time, like me, it revives memories of a gory time when policemen and landlords were hacked to death under the spurious banner of revolution.

Wayanad's dense forests provided sanctuary for the Naxalites who emerged from the jungles to wilfully spread terror in Malabar. My parents were originally natives of Kannur, the heart of the region, my father's younger brother was the DIG in charge of anti-Naxalite operations -- a young IPS officer, Ajit Kumar Doval, then served as SP in the region -- and as a child, one overheard macabre stories of what the Naxalites had done.

Unlike Bengal, where the Naxal reign of terror endured through the early 1970s, until Siddhartha Shankar Ray's Congress government crushed it with a pulverising display of State force, the Naxal spring in Kerala didn't last long. Many of its leaders were captured and the movement lost its momentum after A Verghese -- its Che Guevara-like figure -- was killed in a police Che-meeting-his-end-in-Bolivia encounter.

Wayanad still has its dense forests. Its tribals -- for it is a tribal district -- still live in startling poverty. As C K Janu, the tribal leader, told my colleague Shobha Warrier in May 2016, 'I will show you 100 Somalias in Attapady'.

A showroom for pre-owned cars in Wayanad. Photograph: Nikhil Lakshman/

IMAGE: A showroom for pre-owned cars in Wayanad. Photograph: Nikhil Lakshman/

But modernity has slunk into Wayanad as it has in many small towns in south India. Even though Wayanad may figure among India's most backward districts, prosperity is on show in Kalpetta and Sulthan Bathery, the two towns I visited last week.

All the auto majors, unhindered by the real estate prices of the big cities, have huge showrooms. There are pre-owned car retailers with countless cars on display and even the owners of tiny clothing stores in Kalpetta travel in spanking new cars.

The business boom in Wayanad has been led by the Muslims. Malabar -- as Professor John Mathai Nooranal, bursar and head of the department of political science at St Mary's College in Sulthan Bathery, explains -- traded with the Romans and Arabs for millennia until the arrangement was disrupted by the Europeans.

"Business is in the Muslim blood," says the professor," you go to any side road in the district and you will find young Muslim boys selling sugar candy. The trade in Sulthan Bathery is dominated by Muslims, they run all the mobile shops, for instance."

Muslim entrepreneurship in Wayanad -- and indeed, all of Kerala -- has been encouraged by its expat community's ardour to reinvest money earned in the Gulf in enterprises back home, unlike Christians and Hindu expatriates.

A shopping complex in Kalpetta. Photograph: Seema Pant for

IMAGE: A shopping complex in Kalpetta. Photograph: Seema Pant for

The Muslim profile in businesses in Wayanad has not provoked social resentment as it has done in parts of north India. Everyone we spoke to in Wayanad cited the area's communal harmony.

Shahnavas, a young jeweller in Kalpetta town, is bewildered by our question about religious tensions. "That is my best friend," he says, pointing to a young man lounging outside the tiny store, "He is a Hindu and his name is Santosh."

"Wayanad's only hope is small scale business," says Professor Mathai, "and the Muslims do it peacefully."

Communal amity is one reason why Wayanad's residents believe the Bharatiya Janata Party will be unable to make political inroads in the district.

The other is what Professor Mathai calls "Kerala's democratised Communism."

"Indian Communists don't realise its potential, but democratised Communism (by which a Communist party participates in genuine elections) is very different from Communism in China," explains Professor Mathai. "Democratised Communism is what hold Kerala's political topography together."

"The north India template is very unlikely to work here," he argues. "There, the BJP filled a lacunae left by the Congress. That lacunae does not exist here."

Huge billboards of Marxist leaders Pinarayi Vijayan and Kodeyri Balakrishnan greet visitors to Wayanad. Nikhil Lakshman/

IMAGE: Huge billboards of Marxist leaders Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala's chief minister, and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, secretary, Communist Party of India-Marxist's Kerala unit, greet visitors to Wayanad. Photograph: Nikhil Lakshman/

In Kerala -- unlike Bengal which the Communists ruled for 32 years -- political power has oscillated between the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front every five years, sometimes with a mere 1.5% vote share separating the loser from the winner.

In Bengal, the BJP has currently moved in to gain from the political void relinquished by the Communist and Congress parties. No such void presently exists in Kerala.

An important constituent of the UDF is the Indian Union Muslim League whose green flags fluttered along the route of Rahul Gandhi's road show in Wayanad on April 4, and which the Bharatiya Janata Party's Amit Anilchandra Shah was quick to claim were Pakistani flags.

The League, Professor Mathai points out, has played a stellar role in holding Kerala's Muslims together, keeping most of them away from being lured by the call of radical Islam.

Though extremist Islamist groups have sprung up in recent years to challenge the League's suzeranity over the state's Muslim population -- some Muslims from Malabar also traveled to Syria to join ISIS -- the League has retained its relevance, by cleverly championing Muslim causes and dispensing old style political patronage.

St Mary's College in Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad.

IMAGE: St Mary's College in Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad. Photograph: Nikhil Lakshman/

Interestingly, professors at St Mary's College and Pazhassi Raja college in Pulpally highlight how young Muslim women are the toppers at their institutions. Many of them marry during their ungrad courses, even have children, then return to resume their education, often emerging top of their class.

Sadly, says Dr Sheba M Joseph, the principal of St Mary's College, many tribal students drop out of college after the first year. "They return to the forest, collect firewood." It is not an assessment Professor Saleel from Pazhassi Raja college -- an institution named incidentally after the only warrior the Duke of Wellington, the general who vanquished Napoleon Bonaparte, could not defeat -- agrees with.

"Not only tribals, but other students too leave if they find something else promising," he says.

A scene from Payeri village in Wayanad

IMAGE: A scene from Payeri village in Wayanad. Photograph: Nikhil Lakshman/

Agriculture, the district's primary source of employment, Professor Saleel asserts, is in crisis. "Agriculture cannot support a lifestyle in Wayanad," he says though District Collector A R Ajayakumar does not agree that falling agricultural prices has created a 'Vidarbha-like' situation, as one recent newspaper report stated.

Professor Saleel also believes that the issue of Left Wing Extremism is overstated. "Some people calling them Maoists are in remote forests," he says. "Posters appear now and then. We cannot call it a terrorist element."

R Karuppasamy, Wayanad's young district police chief, agrees. "There is no ecosystem for Naxalism to grow," says the 2013 batch Indian Police Service officer. "The State's reach is everywhere. There are anganwadis, schools, water, electricity, roads."

Moreover, asks Karuppaswamy, a native of Tirunelveli in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, "Rs 650 is the minium wage in Kerala. Which other state has such a minimum wage? Anyone who works 20, 25 days here can earn Rs 16,000."

An NDA election office in Wayanad

IMAGE: An NDA election office in Wayanad. Photograph: Nikhil Lakshman/

The Maoists, Karuppasamy believes, do not have the strength to disrupt the polls in Wayanad. The extremists, says the police officer who took charge of the district in May 2018, use the forests in the Karnataka-Kerala-Tamil Nadu as a sanctuary rather than to mount operations.

Nevertheless, he is prepared for any eventuality. 72 booths in the district have been classified as 'sensitive'. An Indo Tibetan Border Police company has arrived in Wayanad, ready to be deployed if Karuppaswamy needs their support.

Every officer entering the IPS these days, he adds, is trained in dealing with Left Wing Extermism even if s/he is assigned to a state outside the Red Corridor where the Maoists operate.

"The Maoist situation in Wayanad," asserts Karuppaswamy, "is not like Gadchiroli or Bastar."

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Nikhil Lakshman / in Wayanad
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