By Anil Dhir:
The rebels had approached the town from two directions. They came by trucks, jeeps and motorbikes. Some of them had even come earlier in the day by the regular buses, disguised as baratis of a marriage party.
Before the struck, they had disconnected all communication lines, disrupted power supply and blocked all entry points to the town. They used loud hailers asking the people stay indoors, making it clear that they would not harm the public, their target was the police.
Nayagarh, the district headquarter is a mere 80 kilometres away from the state capital Bhubaneswar. On the 15th February, 2008, the Naxalites laid siege of the town at 10.45 pm and for next five hours, blocked all entry and exit roads. The 500 plus cadres were a medley of Maoists from Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. One group struck at the Police Training School and the district armoury while other groups struck at the Mahipur police outpost, 11 kilometres away, Nuagaon police station, 20 kilometres away, and Dasapalla police station, 40 kilometres away from the town. These police stations were attacked to ensure that they faced no hurdles on their way back. They were using modern communication equipment like mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and had synchronised the attack time to perfection.
The Maoists killed 14 police personnel and two civilians. It was claimed that three Maoists too were killed by the police, but no bodies were recovered. At least 1,100 arms, including rifles, light machine guns, single loaded rifles, AK-47s and pistols, were looted. While around 650 arms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition were taken away from the PTS Arms Depot, 400 arms and 100,000 bullets were looted from the district armory and four guns each from the three police stations. The haul was too much for the vehicles they had come in; they hijacked two buses and loaded all the stuff.
At the end of the raid, the Maoists even found time to have tea at local roadside stalls and shook hands with the astonished townsmen, before leaving in the hijacked vehicles. They paid for the fuel they took in the different Petrol Pumps on the way. Strangely, the ultras could have looted many of the banks and the government treasury, they were left untouched.
The Nayagarh attack was the mother of all Naxal attacks. It made the political class sit up. This was the biggest uprising against the government since Independence. The country’s biggest ever anti-Naxal offensive was launched. The operations were led by the Orissa Police and Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel. Five companies of CRPF personnel were airlifted from Jammu & Kashmir and West Bengal and three units of Greyhounds personnel from Andhra Pradesh. The operations involved 1,500 personnel and were spread in the Nayagarh, Ganjam, Gajapati, Rayagada and Kandhamal districts. They were backed by helicopters and sniffer dogs.
The Naxalites escaped to new areas, dividing themselves in small groups to dodge the security forces. They travelled south and then westwards and reached the Gosama forest area along the border between Ganjam and Kandhamal districts, about 100 kilometres away from Nayagarh. The burnt down their vehicles and fled with the looted arms.
The absence of basic maps of the Gosama forest hindered the forces; they had to borrow maps from the Forest Department two days after the operations began. The ill equipped SOG personnel took positions in open paddy fields; they were sitting ducks for the Maoists who were in the hills. The first counter offensive resulted in the death three SOG personnel, including that of an Assistant Commandant. The Police claimed that they had killed 20 Maoists, but not a single body was recovered.
In the following week, the recovery of half a truck-load of arms and ammunition was described as 40 percent of the arms and 50 percent of the ammunition looted. On February 22, a further recovery of 150 .303 rifles, six INSAS rifles, one light machine gun and some quantities of ammunition were made in the Gosama forest. The Chief Minister claimed that the combing operations had “succeeded in hauling the largest quantity of arms and ammunition in the country”, he forgot to mention that mostly obsolete .303 rifles were recovered, the ultras has made away with the sophisticated arms.
A decade later, not a single Maoist was sentenced for the attack. A few arrested Maoists were let free, even Sabyasachi Panda, the most wanted Naxalite, who is in jail, has denied any links to the attack. Some of the small arms were recovered in different operations in Andhra and Odisha in later years, however the major portion still remain untraced.
I was in the Gosama area along with noted environmentalist Dr. Biswajit Mohanty last month. We went to the encounter site; the burnt trucks were still in place, a grim reminder of the tragic event. We even found scars on the tree trunks where the bullets had been ensconced. We tried to extricate a bullet from a tree trunk, chipping away the bark. The tannic acid had eroded the metal casing, but we did reach a few bullets. Not wanting to damage the tree trunks, we gave up and let them remain in place. The small hamlet nearby was inhabited by two dozen Kondh families. The simple adivasis recalled the horrific night when the Naxalites had come and melted into the forest, with the security forces in hot pursuit.
Has anything changed in the last ten years? The economic inequality has increased the social differences among the people. The rich have become richer, the poor poorer. Naxalism had started as a socio-economic problem but with the course of time has become a serious law and order problem. The government, over the years has miserably failed in tackling the menace.
Anil Dhir is an archaeology researcher. He is associated with INTACH and the chief project coordinator of INTACH Jagannath Sadak Project. He is also working as the National Secretary, Bharat Raksha Manch, Odisha.