The Final Battle of Sabyasachi Panda

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Odisha’s top Maoist commander raises a huge stink in the Maoist establishment. The party reacts by expelling him

He was the poster boy of revolution. In Odisha, they called him Che Guevara. Tickets were offered to him by political parties, but he said he had gone off too far to be in the mainstream. Odisha’s deputy leader of the opposition once called him the “voice of 57 per cent in Odisha, who have only Rs 12 to spend per day”.

But today, Maoist commander Sabyasachi Panda is a lonely man. Expelled by his own party he helped grow substantially in Odisha, Panda today feels like an “old dog” his erstwhile party wants to eliminate. In a way, Panda’s expulsion was a face-saving act by the CPI (Maoist). Days before the party announced his expulsion, 43-year-old Panda had written a long letter. You could say it was his resignation letter. In fact, he wrote two letters—the first, a three-page letter addressed to party comrades in general. The second is a longer one, 16 pages in Panda’s own hand. It is addressed to the Maoist supreme commander Ganapathi and two senior leaders currently in jail—Narayan Sanyal (Vijay Dada) and Amitabha Bagchi (Sumit Dada). While Ganapathi has undoubtedly received it, it could not be ascertained whether the other two have. The Maoist courier (identified as Pravakar) carrying Panda’s letter is believed to have been intercepted by security agencies in Kolkata.

Sources in the CPI (Maoist) made the letter available to Open. Panda opens his heart out in the letter and raises serious questions over the functioning of the leadership of the CPI (Maoist). The letter also brings to the fore issues the Maoist leadership has been brushing aside as “enemy propaganda”, but with one of their own raising the stink (that too not under arrest), that won’t wash. Panda’s stunning revelations are bound to create ripples within the Maoist leadership.

A mathematics graduate from Puri’s Samant Chandra Shekhar government college, Panda’s father was a freedom fighter who later joined the CPM and won state elections three times from Ranapur, his home constituency. When the BJD (Biju Janata Dal) was formed, he crossed over. Sabyasachi’s elder brother Siddharth also joined the BJD. Panda worked with the CPM for some time and then with the CPI(ML)-Liberation. He was also close to the leadership of the erstwhile Maoist organisation, Party Unity (PU). In 1998, PU merged with the biggest Maoist party, CPI(ML) -People’s War, to form the People’s War Group (PWG). Panda joined the PWG the same year.

It was in 2008 that Panda came into the limelight after the assassination of popular Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanand Saraswati, in Kandhamal district. Though he was made secretary of the Odisha State Organising Committee soon after, it was also around this time that serious differences cropped up between him and some of the Central Committee members [the highest decision-making body of the CPI (Maoist)]. It was believed that the Maoist leadership was not happy with the outcome of Saraswati’s assassination. Panda had hoped that the ensuing riots (against Christians) would swell the Maoist ranks. But excellent coordination between the then district collector and district police chief ensured that about 3,000 men who had signed up for recruitment ditched them at the last moment.

Over the past few years, Panda had senior leader Kishenji watching over him. But after his death in an encounter in November 2011, all guns turned towards Panda. A month later, in December, Maoists held a state-level special plenum in Odisha. Right after the plenum, Panda is believed to have stopped communicating with the central leadership.

In March this year, Panda acted on his own and took two Italian tourists hostage. Then he declared a ceasefire with the Odisha government. To embarrass him, the Maoists’ Andhra-Orissa Border Special Zone Committee (AOBSZC) abducted a BJD MLA around the same time. From then on, it has been open season between Panda and the Maoist leadership.

‘Dear comrade GS (Ganapathi Sir, as Ganapathi is called by his cadre), Vijay Dada and Sumit Dada… with much sorrow I am writing this letter to you. After some developments of debatable questions in our state, I have no way but to write the letter,’ Panda writes at the very beginning.

‘Leaders are thinking [of] them[selves] as masters and cadres have no courage to oppose the leaders’ mistakes,’ he writes. At various points in his letter, Panda clearly refers to his repeated clashes with a Central Committee member Manoj, alias Bhaskar (Modem Balakrishnan) and BR (Basavraj, party name of Nambala Keshava Rao, in charge of the Maoists’ Central Military Commission). He quotes Balakrishnan as saying: “In communist party for faults of a party member we may suspend/ expel and if need kill him/her”.

Panda refers to a Maoist unit being sent to his area of operation after he had abducted the two Italian tourists. His fear is that the 25-member squad, perhaps led by one Suresh, may have been sent with ‘bad intention’. ‘They (some CC members like Balakrishnan) want to politically eliminate me, if they cannot do it physically. They want to take some important contacts and other things from me, which they are not able to create but are much needed in war,’ he writes. ‘Kill the dog after it becomes old—which is exploiter ideology?’

He refers to what he calls the ‘superiority complex’ of the PWG cadre (essentially Telugu) and their disregard of members of other factions like the PU or the MCC [which merged with the PWG in 2004 to become CPI (Maoist)]. He refers to certain comments made by BR about Narayan Sanyal and Amitabha Bagchi (both from the PU). ‘After arrest of Vijay Dada and Sumit Dada, Comrade BR and Bhaskar (Balakrishnan) had tried to convince me that the [guidance] of Vijay Dada and erstwhile PU leaders in organisational matters and their approach on women cadres was not correct.’ Panda writes how BR did not even spare Kishenji. He quotes BR as saying that he (Kishenji) is not doing anything, not killing a single police[man] and giving statements. ‘As if killing [the] police is [the] only job for [a] revolutionary,’ Panda rants in his letter.

Panda comes down heavily on the practice of ‘unnecessary class annihilations’. ‘Beating and burning or eliminating someone by simply stamping him/her [an] informer is not the solution,’ he writes. He gives the example of five or six villagers from Sambalpur who were killed by the party in 2004 after being dubbed informers. ‘I alone opposed this… BR had given wrong information by saying that there was a Salwa Judum campaign in Sambalpur.’

‘Fabricated’ is how Panda describes ‘complaints’ against BJD MLA Jagabandhu Majhi, who was killed by a Chhattisgarh Maoist squad in 2011. ‘Out of fear he (Majhi) contacted me and wanted to surrender. But he feared to do that in front of AOB or Chhattisgarh comrades. I had reported this to CCMs (Central Committee members) long before. But without any response, he was simply killed… he was in a wheelchair, a handicapped person.’

‘We are too weak in [the] trade union movement despite our repeated views on this. But we had killed one CITU leader, Thamaso Munda, [on the] Odisha-Jharkhand border and demolished the TU (trade union) office. We can stamp anybody [an] informer and kill him… without responsibility to convince people [of] our action! This is our revolutionary birthright! But why will we demolish the TU office, the office of common workers?’ he asks.

Panda’s biggest grudge is what he sees as the hegemony of the Telugu-dominated AOB leadership. ‘Our AOB leaders are always for their superiority and [have] tried to keep [the] Odisha committee as subordinates… politically they never think about Odisha, its people’s condition and political acceptance.’ At another point he writes, ‘The local cadres who had been working with us to build [the] BSD (Basadhara Division, consisting of Raygada, Gajapathi, Kandhamal areas, where Panda was sent in 2006) movement were not promoted as needed. The so-called PR certificate was issued as per the mercy of leaders like Bhaskar (SZCM) of AOB.’

He goes on: ‘Actually in the name of promotion, rule one type of feudal democracy, similar to that of [the] fascist RSS organisation, prevailed in this party.’

He also accuses the AOB committee of only demanding the release of Telugu cadre in exchange of Malkangiri Collector, R Vineel Krishna (kidnapped in February 2011). ‘They had given false answers that they demanded for Ganonath Patro and Tapan Mishra of Narayanpatna movement,’ he writes.

In a section called ‘Cultural Sectarianism’, Panda recounts how Telugu food habits are forced upon other cadres, which, he says, is responsible for many members quitting. ‘One Telugu DVCM (Divisional Committee Member) Basant said pakhal (watery rice, an Oriya dish) is the food of buffaloes.’

‘Basant had advised in 2003 that if you will not take mirchi (Telugu cadre relish chillies and tamarind), then you cannot become [a] revolutionary,’ Panda writes. ‘You can take as much mirchi and tamarind you like, but you are not allowed to mix sugar in your tamarind water, or you cannot eat onion as substitute. If you eat, then you have to listen to cultural imperialists.’

‘I had asked for sugar to add in tamarind water every day. I had also advised other cadres to ask [for] sugar… seeing this, the in-charge comrade told me: you’ll suffer from sakar bimari (diabetes) if you take sugar every day. I replied: yes, comrade, we will have sakar bimari, but you’ll have karom bimari (ulcers).’

Panda also defends his insistence on using Margo soap cakes instead of the usual Lifebuoy bar used by Maoist cadres. ‘We are writing… about imperialist assault on local products, but we are not ready to use local products. If you buy Margo soap for squad members instead of the Maoist brand Lifebuoy, then CCM like BR will comment on that.’

Coming down heavily on the practice of shaving private parts (he says it is prevalent among Telugu cadre), he writes: ‘Women cadres are regularly advised to do so. And it is also said that all should bathe without clothes. What is the relation [between] revolution [and] such stupid theories, I could not understand.’

Panda also raises questions over financial irregularities within the party. ‘So many DK (Dandakaranya region) cadres and main force activists are expending as per their wish and giving round accounts… by saying that all 10 thousands we have done expenditure… I have marked the financial anarchy in this party from [the] very beginning,’ he writes. ‘A Bengali comrade, Ashok, did not give accounts of 15 lakhs… had not the best cadre of AOB, Binoy, accumulated money from different sources before he fully surrendered?’

Sometimes, Panda directly addresses his opponents as ‘sectarian comrades’. ‘You have fewer sources of A&A (arms and ammunition) and explosives. The same explosives you have been taking through me in quintals have separate rates in separate sources… from [Rs] 200 to 1200/kg. And someone can give the highest rate in account.’

Panda accuses his ‘sectarian friends’ of distributing pamphlets against Christianity in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district (AOB) to strengthen the party’s hold on the Sora tribe. ‘As per the new theory of these CCMs, Christianity is the main obstacle [to] building [a] revolutionary organisation and people’s power and hence we have to target it… CCM Manoj (Balakrishnan) said because Christianity is an organised religion, it is from village to Rome.’

Panda draws a very bleak picture of the party’s preparedness in cities. ‘Our party has no members in the city, they have no legal ID, no cover… there is no collective planning for cover, ID etc.’ He also indicates that some information about urban bases may actually have been leaked by insiders. ‘If you discuss plans before committees, there is no guarantee that this will not go to [the] enemy in [a] few days… some CCMs are not in a position to keep secrets about comrades in cities… all information is going to [the] enemy.’

Panda writes in detail about the ‘shortcomings’ of the Nayagarh raid (of February 2008, in which Maoists raided a police training school and armoury and looted a huge cache of weapons). He says he had asked for six vehicles with six drivers and a minimum of 300 people for the attack. But only 160 guerillas could be arranged. One driver apparently returned because Panda’s team could not arrange a hotel room with a TV for him. “In doubt and due to lack of proper class education, our forces killed as many as 14 common policemen; those who were not retaliating and mostly had sympathies for our movement,” he writes.

In his final assault, Panda writes that in spite of having worked with tribals for 30 years, the CPI (Maoist) has not developed a concrete model for development of tribal zones. ‘Your janatana sarkar (people’s government) is not the tribal autonomy body or it is not governed by traditional tribal rules, not even partially… what type of tribal autonomy do you want to give after [the] revolution?’ he asks. ‘You have no alternate agricultural, industrial, medical, educational policies,’ he says.

‘They (tribals) have to hope for one good heaven only after their death. As we cannot think [of] a better tribal autonomy as we have promised, we are taking the help of such theories of wrong class lookout to exercise our authority over the backward tribes by using the tiny and non-antagonistic contradictions among them,’ he writes.

‘While I write the letter to GS, some Maoists have been killing people without proper investigation… I would like to open the matter before the people with a commitment [to] real democracy. But all this should be done before the sectarian friends can kill me,’ he writes.

Sabyasachi Panda has fired his last shot. His wife, Subashree, has been sending feelers to the state government to show leniency to pave the way for his surrender. On his part, Panda has already announced the formation of his own Odisha Maovadi Party. His close associates say that Panda would not like to be seen as a betrayer of the revolution. But his erstwhile party sees him as just that. While announcing his expulsion, the CPI (Maoist) said Panda had ‘betrayed the party and revolution and the great cause of the toiling masses, particularly of the oppressed masses of Odisha and proved himself to be a renegade.’

Only history can judge him.