The death of two Maoists in an encounter with the Kerala police in the forests of Nilambur, close to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, on Thursday, has led to serious fissures within the Left Democratic Front coalition government in Kerala.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) leads the ruling coalition, followed by the Communist Party of India and several smaller parties. The coalition came to power earlier this year.

The Communist Party of India has raised questions over the authenticity of the encounter with its state secretary warning Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan “not to ape the Narendra Modi regime” at the Centre.

“No government has a right to kill the voices that dissent,” said Kanam Rajendran, state Secretary of the Communist Party of India, in Alappuzha. “Such steps to do away with the people who raise genuine issues of the downtrodden should never be adopted by a civilised society.”

An article in the party mouthpiece Janayugom drew parallels between this encounter and the infamous fake encounter in 1970 in which Naxalite Arikkad Varghese was killed.

It said:

“…if Varghese’s custodial killing had shaken the entire civil society in Kerala 40 years ago, leading to the conviction of the police officer responsible for it, this time round it is the duty of the Pinarayi government to tell the people what really happened at Nilambur.”

Vijayan firm

Chief Minister Vijayan has brushed aside the allegations and has chosen to stand with the police. On Sunday, he ordered an investigation by a magistrate into the incident.

“There had been some Maoists activity in that area for the last few years and the police have been continuously attacked by this group,” Vijayan said in response to the allegations. “As far as I know this was a genuine police operation.”

However, the chief minister may not get off the hook easily as some niggles over the encounter remain.

For one, it is difficult to recall an encounter in Kerala in recent memory. Even when the previous Congress-led coalition – which is seemingly at ideological loggerheads with the Maoists – was in charge, despite conducting several raids in the Western Ghats section of the state, the police did not report encounters. All these years, a few arrests here and there were perhaps the maximum the administration did to keep Maoists at bay.

Secondly, the Maoists killed in the encounter, Kuppu Devaraj, a senior member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and Ajitha, a woman leader of the group’s Karnataka wing, do not have any cases registered against them in Kerala.

Members of Kerala’s highly-active civil society groups say that they have enough reason to suspect foul play and cite loose ends in the police version of the encounter to support their contention.

“The people have a right to know the truth,” said CR Neelakandan, a prominent activist. “On one side Kerala is governed by people who have a history of opposing encounter killings, be it in Gujarat or Mumbai or Bihar. On the other side they are not coming clean when it happens here. How can anyone blame the CPI [Communist Party of India] for raising the issue even if it embarrasses the government?”

While the police said that a few explosives, materials to make explosives, high-tech gadgets, some demonetised currency notes, a solar panel, a Wi-Fi router and some provisions were recovered from the site of the encounter, it is not clear if the Maoists were even armed when the operation took place. If they were, questions remain about what happened to the arms. Though the police say that they only fired at the Maoists after the insurgents attacked them, no weapons seem to have been recovered from the two bodies or the scene of the encounter.

Grow Vasu, a prominent human rights activist who advocates for the Maoist cause, has already called for a judicial inquiry into the killing.

“This was nothing but a well-planned murder of the two by the state,” said Vasu. “We need to know what really happened. I am ready to approach the court for a judicial inquiry as there is no other way to know what really happened.”

Nilambur, a Maoist safe haven?

Nilambur is a municipality in Malappuram district of northern Kerala that is bordered by the thickly-forested Western Ghats. Though Maoists have been known to be active in this part of the state, several raids by the Thunderbolts, Kerala’s elite police force, and the state police’s special anti-Maoist wing, in recent years, had yielded little.

The tent in which the Maoists, who were killed in Thursday's encounter in Kerala, lived.

Thursday’s encounter has come as a morale booster for the forces with senior officers saying that the group had busted one of South India’s biggest Maoist safe havens.

“We had credible intelligence inputs that this group was setting up camps in the forest here and hence the forces were engaged in combing operations,” said a senior police officer, who was part of the encounter team. “We chanced upon this team who started firing at us and we responded to their challenge.”

Police insiders said that the thick forests in the area gave Maoists much-needed cover, and that Nilambur was fast becoming the operational base for insurgents in three states – Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Insiders from the state police said that the Union Home Ministry had tipped off the Thunderbolts with precise intelligence about Maoist activity. They added that the police had also succeeded in inserting informants who were equipped with cell phones and other communication and tracking devices into villages in the area. This was crucial for the success of Thursday’s operations as while earlier the police came to know of the presence of Maoists two to three hours after the insurgents left the area, Thursday’s input was precise and timely.

With the elimination of Devaraj, who is said to be a top ranked leader and a member of the Central Committee of the Maoists, security forces say they have succeeded in leaving a huge hole in the ranks of the outfit’s operations in South India.

Meanwhile, local journalists recount the extent to which the Maoists have had a sway in Nilambur. Some say they had been getting regular press releases and pamphlets in the name of Nadukani Dalam, a Maoist sub group that was formed a year ago to take control of operations in this part of South India.