Protected by Naxalites

The author, then a district revenue officer in the Naxal-hit area of Khammam district of undivided Andhra Pradesh, recalls a night of being protected by a group of Naxalites. Vivek Agnihotri, former secretary-general, Rajya Sabha, Parliament of India

Of late, there has been some talk about 'good' and 'bad' terrorists among the various Taliban groups.  While certain countries, in their own narrow self-interest, attempt to make a distinction, many other objective observers feel otherwise. I would, however, like to recount my simultaneous experience with 'happy' and 'unhappy' naxalites.

The Naxal movement in Andhra Pradesh (AP) has had a chequered history.  It began as an off-shoot of Telangana movement, which had its origin in the poor living conditions and the barbaric zamindari system in that region during the Nizam's rule.  It came into its own in 1960s.  The movement was considered to be strongest in Adilabad, Karimnagar, Warangal, Khammam, East Godavari, Visakhapatnam and Srikakulam districts.  I happened to be posted in Khammam district in the early 1970s, when Naxalism was quite prevalent there.

Khammam District is a unique blend of Telangana and Andhra regions of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh.  It was carved out of Warangal (Telangana Region, now Telangana state) and East Godavari (Andhra Region, the current Andhra Pradesh state) districts. 

Two of its sub-divisions (Khammam and Kothagudem) were part of the Telangana region, while Bhadrachalam sub-division belonged to Andhra Region.  It is  the only district of the erstwhile AP which has now been divided between the two states after the creation of Telangana state in 2014; a part of Bhadrachalam sub-division has been taken over by the residual Andhra Pradesh and merged with East Godavari district. 

Another important feature of Khammam district is that it has extensive forests - about 47 per cent of its total geographical area, which provided excellent hideout for covert Naxal operations. 

The revenue systems of the two regions are quite distinct since the Telangana Region subscribes to the Nizam system while the Andhra region follows the Madras Presidency system.  I had quite a tough time trying to master two different systems in order to perform my supervisory functions of jamabandi

Summer, particularly the period after harvesting of the Rabi crop and closing of schools, is the time when the 'operation jamabandi', ie annual reconciliation of revenue accounts of the villages, takes place.  The farmers are free and the school buildings are also available for holding the jamabandi meetings. 

My responsibility as the 'district revenue officer', as the post was then named for what is today 'joint collector', was to do a random check of the village accounts, which had already been checked by the concerned Tehsildar. 

The summers in Khammam could be unbearably hot.  In the revenue division of Bhadrachalam, where I had done the jamabandi some time earlier, I had experienced 500C.  I have had similar experiences, in various places during my district life; another one in Khammam was watching in shock and awe the movement of an iguana on the wall of a guest house in Wyra Tehsil Headquarters.

Returning to revenue matters at hand, it was the height of summer and I had gone to Sattupalli, along with my wife and two children aged about 3 and 1, for jamabandi operation.  It was an erstwhile taluk headquarters of Khammam District, before 'mandalisation' (through which the Taluks were replaced by smaller and a larger number of 'revenue mandals' and made co-terminus with the development blocks, in order to bring administration closer to the people) and, much before the bifurcation of the composite state of Andhra Pradesh.

We were accommodated in the guest house of Public Works Department (PWD).  After my work during the day, we had dinner by  a Petromax (a brand name for a type of pressurised paraffin lamp).  Since it was hot, we decided to sleep in the guest house lawns, which were circumscribed by a thick hedge for privacy.  Two beds were laid out and were covered with mosquito-nets.  Late in the night my wife woke me up to tell me that she had heard some movement outside the hedge. I was aware that the patwaris (village accountants) from the villages, the jamabandi of which was due next day, used to arrive at odd hours during the night.  I told her not to worry and go to sleep.

Next morning when my wife and I were sitting in the portico having our morning cuppa, she spied a figure moving suspicious behind the pillar.  My wife got scared thinking that the naxalites had come to attack us. 

It was actually the tehsildar, who did not want to come in the open, so long as I was in the company of my 'family'.  I, however, persuaded thim to come out of hiding, which he did with great reluctance.  We discussed the schedule for the day.  My wife then enquired of him about what she thought was some suspicious movement in the night around the hedge of the guest house lawn. 

After some humming and hawing, he told us there were some naxalites in his area who were happy with my work; but there were others who were in any case unhappy with everything.  The 'unhappy' ones were keen on bumping me off.  The 'happy' ones had, therefore, formed a ring around the lawn where we were sleeping in the night in order to protect us.  We heard this a mixture of of shock and relief.

The tehsildar told us that the police had identified the hideout of the 'unhappy' naxalites and also found out who among them was their leader.  This they were able to do because their informant had taken a photograph from a treetop as the group was having lunch in a forest clearing. 

The photograph showed an assembly of men sitting in a ring formation.  Each one of them had in front of him a platter, in which a pile of rice and other eatables could be seen clearly.  All except one were seen eating out of a banana leaf.  But there was one who had a stainless steel thali before him.  He, obviously, was the leader.