Retracing the steps of Prashant Bose, India’s oldest surviving Maoist leader
Rahul Pandita Rahul Pandita | 24 Dec, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
ON NOVEMBER 12TH, a posse of policemen in Jharkhand surrounded a Scorpio vehicle that had stopped at a toll point in Seraikela-Kharsawan district, close to Jamshedpur city, approximately 126 kilometres south-east of Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi. In a video of that moment, shot on a mobile phone, an old man wearing a monkey cap under which his sunken face has quite disappeared, is seen sitting next to a woman on its backseat. The four other men, two in the front and two behind the old couple, try to avoid looking at the camera, as if not looking at it would somehow make them invisible.
A few hours later, the director-general of Jharkhand Police, Neeraj Sinha, told journalists that the old man they had arrested was the “encyclopaedia” of the Maoist movement in India, and that the information extracted from him was like an ocean that would take months to analyse.
The arrest of Prashant Bose aka Kishanda aka Manish aka Nirbhay aka Mahesh, the oldest surviving Maoist leader, and second-in-command in the Communist Party of India (Maoist), comes at a time when many believe that the party’s strength is at its lowest in two decades. There is also speculation that his arrest was more of a surrender set up by Bose himself because he had become a liability for the party, owing to his ill health. The woman arrested with him turned out to be his wife, Sheela Marandi, one of the two women who ever made it to the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist), its highest decision-making body. Marandi had been arrested earlier in 2006 and had rejoined the party after her release 10 years later.
Whatever the circumstances of Bose’s arrest, a big chapter in the Maoist movement has come to an end with it. Bose is one of the many men (and women) who saw the dream of revolution in Naxalbari in the late 1960s, which China had called “a spring thunder over India”. But it is Bose and a few others who had continued with it even after the movement had been crushed in its first wave. It is they who saw the Maoist movement take shape in its current avatar, which is most likely its final phase by any reckoning.
From the image of his frailty today, it is difficult to see Bose as a man who evaded the police for over four decades, and as the leading light of the Maoist movement played a significant role in its expansion from pockets in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar to a force in the late 2000s that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed India’s “biggest internal security threat”. It is under Bose’s vision that Maoists, after facing failure in the first phase, built up gradually, in places like the undivided Bihar (now Bihar and Jharkhand), becoming famous as MCC (Maoist Communist Centre), also known in local lore as “Mudkatwa” or “those who chop heads”, alluding to the party’s treatment of those it considered “class enemies”.
In 1975, travelling through rural Bihar, when Maoists were making their inroads into the state from West Bengal, socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan had urged people to shun violence and work instead for “total revolution”. Narayan had told them that he won’t ask them to give up Naxalism if nothing changed in the next five years.
Around this time, Bose was in jail; he had been arrested a year earlier for his activities. In 1978, after his release, Bose and a few others, who had their own understanding of Maoism, chose to put that into practice in Bihar. With him were his old comrades like Sushil Roy, Pramod Misra and Sanjay Dusadh who, like Bose, believed in “individual annihilation”. In Bihar, Bose’s party aligned itself with the lower castes facing oppression from upper-caste landlords. The land-holding communities like the Bhumihars had created their private armies that would raid villages and kill people they considered beneath them.
By the late 1980s, MCC had unleashed reverse violence in response, creating “liberated zones” in many parts of Bihar. On May 29th, 1987, MCC guerrillas struck at the Baghaura-Dalelchak village in Aurangabad, killing more than 50 upper-caste Rajputs, including an 80-year-old woman, Sona Kunwar, and an 18-month-old child, Chotu. This continued through the 1990s. On the night of February 12th, 1992, armed MCC guerrillas targeted a small hamlet, Bara, in Gaya district, and killed more than 30 Bhumihar men, most of them by slitting their throats.
The guerrillas were looking for a man called “Diamond”, the nom de guerre of Ramadhar Singh, a self-styled commander of an upper-caste private army, the Swarna Liberation Front (SLF). SLF had less than two months earlier massacred 11 Dalits, mostly labourers, in an attack.
In many ways, the violence perpetrated by the private armies of the upper castes and MCC became mirror images of each other. They both attracted criminal elements for whom violence already was a way of life.
Just before the attack, the cadres—a former MCC cadre once revealed to this writer in Gaya—would get drunk on the outskirts of the village. Afterwards, in that stupor, they would attack and kill hapless civilians. The killings, as Bose and his friends had envisaged, would be exhibitionist in nature. At the attack site, MCC often left pamphlets, explaining why they had done it, and warning upper castes and their armed gang members that they would be killed sooner or later. MCC also took great pride in seizing land in their area of influence and distributing it to the lower castes, many of whom became its supporters or sympathisers.
MCC also attracted Adivasis in hordes in Jharkhand. Prominent among them was Misir Besra, a young Santhal man who got swayed by a leftwing song and dance troupe visiting his village in October 1985. Besra was arrested in September 2007 in Jharkhand during a chance checking by the police. It was a big catch; Besra was the head of the Maoist’s Central Military Commission. In custody, Besra told this writer how a sense of injustice prevailed among his people that led him to join the Maoists. (He was later freed by Maoists during a court hearing in 2009.)
Action against adversaries continued well into the late 2000s, even after MCC, now led by Bose, and the People’s War Group (PWG), another prominent Maoist group active in Telangana, led by Ganapathy, joined in 2004 to form the CPI (Maoist). The modalities of unification were discussed threadbare for three months from September 2004, deep in the forests of Saranda, not far from where Bose was arrested. The state was vital to Maoists, lorded over by their Eastern Regional Bureau (ERB), of which Bose remained the head. In the 2000s, when Bose’s close comrade Sushil Roy was arrested, he told his interrogators that Jharkhand was the primary source of resources that ran the movement. It was obvious that they would protect this and try and remove any obstacle on this path.
In 2007, an attack, believed to be ordered by Bose, was carried out to remove one such obstacle. It was carried out in the village Baghuria, about 48 km from Jamshedpur, where the Tatas had built their first iron and steel plant. On March 4th, the Jamshedpur Member of Parliament, Sunil Mahato, was scheduled to visit the village to be chief guest at a football match. Mahato had been actively supporting a vigilante group, led by a man called Dhanai Kisku, who had waged war against Maoists with the help of the police.
That day, as Mahato sat on the dais, garlanded by the villagers, and flanked by his bodyguards, a few strangers in the crowd started inching towards him. One of them was a woman who finally climbed up on the dais on the pretext of garlanding him and in a flash took out a revolver fitted with a silencer and shot him.
In a second, the crowd knew what had happened. There was absolute chaos as villagers fled, some of them shouting, “MCC! MCC!” Four years had passed since MCC and PWG had become CPI (Maoist), but in these parts the Maoists still meant MCC.
A wounded Mahato tried to drag himself to safety. The other Maoists had in the meantime overpowered his bodyguards and snatched their weapons. Two of them were shot—one died on the spot, while the other’s body was found in a nearby field later. Two others had run away to save their lives.
Mahato finally fell down in the football field and bled to death.
When the police arrived about 30 minutes later, they found remnants of a stampede—slippers lying everywhere with fallen bicycles and motorcycles. The entire village had shut itself indoors.
Later, Ganapathy would say about the attack, “We do not kill everyone just because he/she is an MP or a minister… it is mainly a small coterie of political leaders that plays a crucial role in finalising the policies under the dictates of the imperialist-feudal combine. It is such political leaders that we single out for attack.” He said Mahato was killed for his involvement with the Nagarik Suraksha Samiti (NSS), which had earlier killed 11 cadres of the party at a village called Lango.
“Such punishments will be carried out where necessary on a case-to-case basis in a selective manner and this must not be treated as our general policy. We wish to make one thing clear: We are not for indiscriminate killing of leaders or ordinary members of political parties,” he said.
Bose’s men did not stop there. On the morning of January 5th, 2010, Dhanai Kisku, the head of NSS, stepped out of his house in the former copper-mining town of Mosaboni in Jharkhand’s Ghatshila to go to a nearby tea stall. His bodyguards were not with him. As he lifted a glass of tea to his lips, two motorcycles stopped in front of the stall. Two of the three men on the bikes walked towards him and one of them took out a pistol. A bullet was fired. Immediately after, the other took out an AK-47 rifle and fired a few more shots. Kisku took five bullets in all. He died at a local hospital less than an hour later.
In 2009, Maoists had also managed to create a liberated zone in Lalgarh, in West Bengal, where the senior Maoist commander Kishenji, often confused with Kishenda (Bose), used the latter’s experience in West Bengal to rally Adivasis together. Bose was also instrumental in contacting insurgents in the Northeast, notably the Naga insurgent group, National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), with which it established contacts in China for supply of sophisticated arms and ammunition. That plot fell through after the insurgent group’s leader Anthony Shimray was arrested.
A few years ago, after Ganapathy retired, Bose was supposed to take over. But by this time he had become too old and frail, riddled with illness.
In custody, Bose told interrogators that he was based out of Parasnath Hills in Giridih district, guarded by a platoon of bodyguards. His courier, Vijender, would be his window to the outside world—fetching and delivering news to and from his hideout. The last meeting of the Central Committee of the CPI (Maoist), he said, had happened in February this year.
The previous year, he said, was declared a year of setback and the Maoist leadership agreed that their presence was only “respectable” in Bastar and Gadchiroli, part of their Dandakaranya Special Zone Committee. The death and/or surrender of senior experienced leaders like Dev Kumar, Jampanna (Ginugu Narsimha Reddy), Ramanna (Ravula Srinivas), Haribhushan and Deepak had set their party back. Also, apart from Ganapathy, several other senior leaders like Murali, Anand and Kosa were unwell and could hardly contribute to party affairs.
In 2007, an attack, believed to be ordered by Bose, was carried out to kill Jamshedpur MP Sunil Mahato at Baghuria village. A woman climbed up on the dais on the pretext of garlanding him and shot him
In the ERB, senior leaders like Pramod Mishra, Misir Besra, Anup Bikhari, Vivekda and Kanchanda were around. It was most likely, he said, that Besra would take his place in the ERB.
Bose told his interrogators that the party had suffered setbacks because of development work in rural areas and because the Maoist leadership had failed to bring about a change in their functioning as the times demanded. He said Maoist influence was also on the wane because of the decline of farmer and labour struggles. He said Maoists had also been unable to save leaders from arrest and extermination, and that their sympathisers in urban areas could not offer them proper support. In areas like Bastar, he said, the party was on the back foot because of an increase in security camps which has also led to a shrinking of their mass base. They had also suffered, he said, because of technological advancements that made things difficult for them.
From the ERB, no one had been able to attend the important meeting at the Central Regional Bureau earlier this year. Charting out a route that takes them from Saranda to Odisha and then to the Bastar region, Bose said it usually took the guerrillas about 45 days to undertake this journey.
The Maoist leadership now feels it should focus on migration, privatisation, unemployment, inflation, farmer and labour struggles and the citizenship laws. On Bhima Koregaon, he told the police that he had no knowledge but it might have been the CRB’s idea.
He said that one Rafiq from Punjab, a doctor, came to Jharkhand in 2015 and has been there since, treating Maoists and civilians. Known locally by the party name, Maldeep, he married a Jharkhand cadre, Rinki. The two live under the protection of Misir Besra. Similarly, someone called Vishvanath came along with his wife from DK to Latehar first in 2015 and has been in Saranda since 2018, where he is known as Siloy. The current supreme commander, Basavraj, brought him there as an explosives expert.
In October 2016, during a senior leaders’ meet, the entire ERB leadership almost got wiped out in Odisha as it came under heavy fire from the police, but were miraculously saved, Bose said. In this attack by the anti-Maoist Greyhounds force, 31 Maoists, including a few senior leaders, lost their lives.
For the ERB’s part, Pramod Mishra, Bose told investigators, has been asked to look at expansion in Punjab. For this, in 2019, a Punjab-based Maoist leader called Paramjeet and two others had travelled to Jharkhand’s Kolhan area to meet senior Maoist leaders.
It is most likely now that Bose will die in prison. Or, like several other ailing leaders like Sushil Roy, he will be let off in the final years of his life. But with him gone one way or the other, Maoists have lost one of their most experienced leaders.
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