Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ear to the ground

The old war cry, azhia muthalalithanam aathikkam (Destroy domination of feudalism); azhia nilaprabathuvam aathikkam (Destroy domination of capitalism) had long been silenced, buried deep down under the lush sugarcane and ragi fields of Nayakankottai, the Naxal hotbed in Dharmapuri. But there are murmurs of the war cry resurfacing. The district’s Socio-Economic Development Programme (SEDP) and the Naxalite Special Division (NSD), entrusted with the task of diverting jobless youth from the Naxal path, have barely made an impact. In 2003-2004, when the SEDP scheme was first launched, the then Jayalalithaa government sanctioned Rs 5 crore for youth development and upgrading infrastructure in villages.This increased to Rs 6 crore the next financial year. But in 2005-2006, along with political will, the funds too dipped to just Rs 2 crore. Dharmapuri in north Tamil Nadu is known primarily for being the state’s most backward district. Modest estimates put the number of youth in the 35 ‘Naxal’ villages at nearly 9,000. Of these, at least 50 percent could be unemployed, say officials. This was the main reason for the district’s turbulent history of left wing extremism. From the late 1960s, Dharmapuri launched into the Naxal movement, spawning its own ‘Makkal Yutha Kuzhu (People’s War Group) heroes and some ‘martyrs’. In fact, Nayakankottai is the only village in the entire state that has built statues for its Naxal leaders, L Appu and Balan. Due to its proximity to Andhra Pradesh, Dharmapuri was a safe haven for the state’s Naxalites. The district had drawn Naxal leader, Charu Mazumdar, to address a group of 600 youth in 1967 in picturesque Hogennekal in Dharmapuri district, close to the Karnataka border. The seeds of Naxalism were sown then, recalls ‘Thimmakkali’ alias P Chinnasamy, who attended the ‘historic’ gathering. Spurred by the ‘violent struggle against capitalism and feudalism’ line, Thimmakkali, now 76, accompanied by two associates, killed a moneylender and served a prison term of 14 years. Many young, poor farmhands who were drawn into the movement, were arrested for murdering moneylenders in those days. The state government came down hard on the Naxal movement in the district, putting officers W I Dawaram (who later headed the high profile post of STF chief in the nab Veerappan operation) and his associate, Sivaguru on their trail. Though accused of using oppressive measures, Dawaram and Sivaguru, were, however, credited with quelling the movement in a few northern districts of Tamil Nadu, including Vellore and Dharmapuri. Years later in November 2002, an incident shook the state administration out of its complacency. On a tip off, Tamil Nadu’s ‘Q’ Branch which deals with extremism, swooped down on a group of 35 youth in the dense mangrove of Jalajothipatty, about 30 km from Dharmapuri town, while they were undergoing training in guerrilla warfare. The group claimed to be members of the Radical Youth League and included six women, hailing from several districts, mostly Dharmapuri. The Uthangarai (a village close to the Jalajothipatty mangrove) operation lasted about a week and police managed to arrest 28 members, killing Parthipan alias Shiva. Of the arrested, 26 were detained under POTA, while two were let off. Jolted by the underground groups in the district, in 2003 the state government, then headed by J Jayalalithaa, started the Dharmapuri District Development Corporation, the nodal agency for the Socio-Economic Development Programmes (SEDP) to provide job opportunities in the district and improve its infrastructure. Says P V Arunachalam, the assistant manager who co-ordinates the SEDP schemes. ‘‘One of the reason for the Naxal menace in the district is that it remains utterly backward.’’ But SEDP’s Rs 13-crore fund hasn’t helped too many villages. A word of caution comes from A P Annamalai and D Murugan who head the Nadupatty village’s wing of the Farmers’ Freedom Front, claiming to be the democratic face of Naxalism.‘‘The movement can never be rid of completely.’’ Many such groups have sprung up across the district, tottering between democratic and armed struggle. ‘‘Though the government claims it has set aside funds for youth development, they are not reaching the villages,’’ says former Naxal M Jagannathan who’s still waiting for a loan under the government-sponsored ‘Naxalite Rehabilitation Scheme.’ H M Jayaraman, Dharmapuri District Superintendent of Police, says Naxalism has been completely wiped out in his district. ‘‘Our information network in the villages is very good. Moreover, besides the 14-member Naxalite Special Division team, 20 STF members have also been deputed on this task.We conduct regular surprise checks in villages.’’ R Senthil, Inspector of the Naxalite Special Duty Wing, says the state’s programmes for the youth have been successful. But in July 2006, his team nabbed a group of six extortionist who went about claiming to be PWG members. The district police also nabbed three Naxals including the fiery Sidhanand who had been absconding for more than 20 years. And the whispers wafting across the villages are that the youth have already turned to Andhra-based PWG-backed groups propagating armed struggle in hilly Pennagaram, the terrain where once Veerappan roamed.


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