The Invisible Man Sabyasachi Panda
It seems that the wake-up call given by Odisha’s new Director General of Police, Prakash Mishra has made an impact on the rank and file of the Maoists in the state. Mishra had clearly stated that he would try to segregate the local cadre from the ultras hailing from neighbouring Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
“Many Odia cadre in the CPI (Maoist) are unhappy due to interference of members from other states. The Odia cadres are also being harassed and tortured by them. Even the Secretary of Odisha State Organising Committee Sabyasachi Panda was unhappy due to interference of outside Maoists ,” Mishra had told reporters on the day he took over as DGP.
When asked if he would offer an olive branch to the ultras, the top cop said, “Certainly. We will be very happy, if Panda comes forward and surrenders. The Odia Maoists are not as cruel and ruthless as their colleagues from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.” Easier said than done, the state government had already announced Rs 20 lakh reward for the arrest of Panda.
The State of Odisha is one of the softest of the Naxal affected states in the matter of tackling the red menace. The government and its police and intelligence apparatus have failed to neutralise the spread of rebel activities. It is the only state in the Red Corridor where Maoists are making fresh inroads into newer areas. Besides the state is a safe haven for rebels who are on the run due to increased security forces activity in neighboring Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.
Twenty two out of the thirty districts are Naxal affected. Fresh intelligence inputs have suggested that Maoists are expanding base in Nuapada and Bolangir districts, while the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has taken the lead in opposing the establishment of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre. The central agencies have called for precise intelligence-based joint operations by security forces to rein in the Maoists who have become emboldened after the recent spate of abductions and negotiations with the state government.
A week earlier, Subhashree Panda, the wife of the top Maoists had hinted that Sabyasachi would surrender if the Odisha government withdraws all the cases against him. Sabyasachi Panda had also supported the Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s stand on NCTC.
Rumors have always been doing the round that the rebel may come over board and join the ruling BJD. His close links with the now estranged ex-big boss of the party were often the matter of discussion. However, it will be tough for a now wary Naveen Patnaik to take an open risk of inducting Panda into the BJD. The spate of killings of BJD party men, local sarpanches, and even an MLA, suspecting them of being police informers, will not be taken easily. Even though it is still believed that Panda had offered tacit support to the ruling party in the recent local body elections, the fallout after the polls has been bad. The killing of an MLA and the abduction of another will not go down easily with the party rank and file.
Panda has burnt all his bridges behind him. The enormity of his butchery in the last decade, especially the killing of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, will be a hurdle in his walking free after a conditional surrender.
Sabyasachi is a cornered man, and these surrender ploys are for testing the waters. Many believe that for him it is a dead end battle, if he does not surrender, he will be killed, either by his own men or by the security forces. He has hardly any committed cadres left with him, some say that the figure is in single digit.
In a recent press meet within the jungles of Kandhamal, the rebel leader had said that “ideology should control the gun and not vice versa”. He admitted that many of the outfit’s cadres were becoming trigger-happy due to an inadequate understanding of revolutionary movement and society. He has also expressed regret over the killing of Swami Lakshmananda.
Panda admitted: “Many of our cadres, who are armed, do not know about principles. As a result, they resort to killing without doing much homework. Those joining the movement do not know its objective. They are coming under different circumstances. They neither know about society nor about communism.” He also said that there had been a lot of erosion within the party’s ideology base. “The organisation does not have the strength to give these cadres proper perspective about the revolution. As the party is busy combating the state’s repression, not much attention is being paid towards training and orientation of the cadres. Action is being taken against undisciplined members. The party is demoting some cadres while some are being deliberately kept away from important assignments. In some cases, we are also suspending them from the party,” Panda had said.
The Invisible man. The Phantom of the forests. Sabyasachi Panda has several aliases. In police records he is also known as Sonam, Sarat and Sunil. The only known photograph of his that is available was taken when he was in his late twenties. However the Odisha police profile description of him is 46 years old, fair, five ft-six inches tall, lean and scrawny, well versed in Telugu, Kui, English, Hindi, Bengali and Odia.
A mathematics graduate from the elite SCS College Puri, Panda is amongst the most wanted Maoists of the country. He has over 110 cases registered against him in various police stations in the state. Not much is known about this shy and introverted man and his activities after he left home in 1991 to join the late Nagabhushan PatnaikCPI(Marxist-Lenin) ideologue and a contemporary of Kanu Sanyal. Intelligence officials who have tracked his rise in the Maoist movement say Panda soon developed serious differences with his mentor and in 1996 revolted against the CPI(ML) to form the Kui Lawenga Sangha and Chashi Mulia Samiti, both of which became the frontal organisations of the People’s War Group (PWG) in Odisha, before they were banned by the state in 2006. When the PWG and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) joined hands to form CPI (Maoist) in 2004, he was declared commander of the Vanshadhara and Ghumsar divisions of the rebels in Odisha and was active in Raygada, Gajapati, Nayagarh and Kandhamal districts.
The halo around Panda has grown not just because of his reputation of being a shrewd strategist and the most violent brain in the Naxal world, but also because he comes from a political family. He was born in Mayurjhalia village in the Ranapur area a place that is famous for its pre-Independence uprising that led to the murder of a British Army Major Bezzlegate. His father, Ramesh Chandra Panda, a freedom fighter-turned-politician, was a three-time MLA from Ranapur, and a committed member of the CPI(M) before he switched over to BJD soon after its formation. The senior Panda was the district president of the party till his death in 2003. Panda grew up with his four siblings and could have easily taken the political route, but instead chose to be a revolutionary.
In his early days he proved his mettle with a string of deadly attacks in Odisha, including the 2004 attack of Koraput district headquarters and armoury, attacks on police stations in Malkangiri and Raygada. He masterminded the killing of Laxmanananda Saraswati which led to the Kandhamal riots. Earlier Panda had scripted the sensational attack wherein over 80 armed Naxalites attacked the sub-jail and police station in R. Udayagiri town of Gajapati district on March 24, 2006. They freed the prisoners, killed two policemen, and took hostage the officer-in-charge of the local police station and the jailor, whom they later released.
The high point in his rebel career came in February 2008 when he planned and reportedly executed the attack on the police armoury in Nayagarh, which claimed 18 lives. The state police was caught as sitting ducks and the Maoists had control of the District Headquarters town for nearly eight hours. The Nayagarh attack gave the rebels a huge cache of weapons which included AK-47s, SLRs, INSAS rifles and hand grenades. Nothing was ever recovered. After this success, he became the self-proclaimed Secretary of the Odisha State Committee of CPI (Maoists).
His latest venture was the abduction of the two Italians which caused an international furore. His wife Subhashree alias Mili Panda, was arrested from Bhubaneswar in 2010 but was acquitted by the courts in March this year. Sources said Panda is allegedly responsible for the abduction of Malkangiri Collector R Vineel Krishna last year, and the killing of 36 personnel of Andhra Pradesh’s anti-Naxal Greyhound force after Maoists attacked a boat carrying them in the Balimela reservoir in 2008.
Intelligence officials have zeroed in on him and his present area of operation is confined to Daringbadi, Brahmanigaon, Kotagarh and Raikia area of Kandhamal district. Many close shaves with the police have only increased his cult status among the locals. A master at disguise and subterfuge, he slips in and out of the area unnoticed. The police claim that he has a chain of safe houses, and never stays in one place for long. It is also believed that he has the support of many ruling party politicians, besides white collar officials and businessmen. Of late he has turned media savvy, and has given many an interview to the press without showing his face to the cameras.
Sabyasachi is regarded as a somewhat maverick within the Maoist hierarchy, and has, on many occasions, been slapped with disciplinary action within the organisation. The killing of Swami Lakshmananda too was done without the Politburo or Central Committee sanction and that the party had later mulled his expulsion.
Recent reports suggest that the Central Committee of the Party has issued a secret whip to eliminate him. The whip of the Committee has come in response to the report submitted by the Andhra Odisha Border Zonal Committee. In recent days, Panda has been rather vocal about the growing rift between the Andhra and Odisha Division cadres. In fact the Italian hostage affair was a show of strength in the ongoing turf war with the Telugu dominant factions of the underground movement.
It is a known fact that Sabyasachi Panda is now fighting a lost battle. His organisation is becoming weak day-by-day. Within last few months, hardcore Maoists like Duna Keshav Rao alias Azad, Prakash Behera and his wife Sabitra Biswal, Toofan Sahu, Reeta and Sangeet Pradhan surrendered before police. His own bodyguard too surrendered before the police and has provided vital clues about his whereabouts and movements. Disillusionment and ideological differences have led to acts of surrender, the cadres have witnessed years of exploitation and difficult living.
While ‘Police’ and ‘Public Order’ are state subjects, the centre has a holistic approach towards combating left wing extremism. It is supplementing the efforts of the state governments over a wide range of issues including deployment of para-military forces, increased funding for implementation of development schemes, improving governance and capacity building. Only a combination of calibrated police action, focused development efforts and improvement in governance will yield the desired results against the Maoists.
In these circumstances, surrender by Panda will sound the death knell of the Maoist movement in the state. If he lays down arms, then the splinter groups too will come over ground. The Andhra factions too will not be able to function freely and will have to leave the strongholds. The state government’s track record in the matter of the surrendered Maoists has not been effective as they have not been properly rehabilitated. They have not been mainstreamed and the financial package that is announced is not doled out properly.
On the 21st July, the Maoist leader released another audio tape in which he scotched the speculations about his giving up arms, saying that the state police was spreading such silly rumours about him. In the tape he introduced himself as the Secretary of the Odisha Maovadi Party and not as secretary of Odisha State Organising Committee of the CPI (Maoist), raising curiosity about whether the state’s topmost homebred rebel has severed links with his mentors. In his message, Panda raved and ranted against the police excesses and atrocities on the innocent tribals.
In fact the State’s Intelligence Wing has issued a secret advisory to the government that Panda may soon stage another attention drawing drama. Elected representatives have been issued with strict instructions to maintain caution and not to venture into potential hotbed areas. A high alert has been sounded in the affected districts, with security forces being kept in readiness.
Hopefully, developments indicate that Odisha may soon see the end to this two-decade fratricidal conflict in which more then three thousand people have lost their lives.
By Anil Dhir from Bhubaneswar