Why are BJP and Congress at odds over the investigation into the 2013 Maoist attack?

Congress leaders have described the Maoist attack as a political conspiracy. AP
19 October, 2019

In May 2013, Maoist insurgents attacked a convoy of Congress leaders in Chhattisgarh. At least 27 people were killed, including the party’s top state leaders. The attack took place during the tenure of the BJP government led by chief minister Raman Singh. After the incident, the Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said, “It is not a simple attack. It is a political conspiracy.” He added, “Some forces don’t want Congress to come back to power.”

On receiving a report from the state government after the attack, the home ministry handed over the investigation to the National Investigation Agency, a central counter-terrorism agency under the ministry. Five years later, in December 2018, the Congress won the Chhattisgarh assembly elections. On 18 December, hours after taking charge as the state’s chief minister, Bhupesh Baghel announced the constitution of a special investigation team to further probe the Maoist attack. Referring to the incident as a “criminal political conspiracy,” he said, “The conspirators have not been exposed. No such massacre of politicians ever took place in history. To catch the culprits, SIT has been formed.”

But the central government refused to transfer the case to the state government. In a letter to the Chhattisgarh government, on 8 February 2019, the home ministry said that the NIA had already filed a chargesheet and the trial was ongoing. In August this year, two survivors of the attack, Vivek Bajpai and Daulat Rohra, filed a writ petition in the Chhattisgarh high court, challenging the centre’s refusal to transfer the investigation. Bajpai is the current secretary of the Congress’s state unit. The survivors requested the court to examine the entire records of the case. In September, the high court issued notices to the union government and the NIA, asking them to respond to the petition.

The Maoist attack took place on 25 May 2013 in the Jheeram Ghati in the Dharba Valley along Chhattisgarh’s Jagdalpur-Sukma highway. The convoy of more than twenty vehicles carrying nearly two hundred Congress leaders and workers was travelling to attend a rally as part of a Parivartan Yatra. This area lies in the “red corridor”—a term used to denote a region covering the central, eastern and southern parts of the country that have witnessed heavy Maoist activity. A team of 150 Maoists stopped the convoy by blasting a landmine and then opened fire. The former external affairs minister Vidya Charan Shukla, the former leader of opposition in the state Mahendra Karma, then the Chhattisgarh Congress Pradesh committee president Nand Kumar Patel, his son Dinesh Kumar Patel, and other Congress leaders including Uday Mudaliyar and Gopi Madhwani were among the people killed.

The Chhattisgarh police registered a case against unknown members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) under the Arms Act, Explosive Substances Act and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The next day, the Maoist party issued a press release taking responsibility for the attack. The release made it clear that Mahendra Karma was their primary target. Karma was the founder of the Salwa Judum—a state-sponsored vigilante movement launched in 2005 to counter the Maoist insurgency. The Maoists claimed that the government had tortured and killed many Adivasis across the Bastar region in the name of the Salwa Judum and Operation Green Hunt—a multi-state counter insurgency operation launched while the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power at the centre.

Two survivors Shiv Narayan Dwivedi and Chauleshwar Chandrakar, who were let off by the Maoists later told the media that the Maoists were shouting out for everyone to surrender. Dwivedi said, “I was lying on the road with a bullet in my right forearm and I saw Mahendra Karma lying safe on my side. Suddenly Naxalites reached near the car, calling name of Mahendra Karma and Nand Kumar Patel. … Karma stood up with around 10 people surrounding him and asked Naxals to take him but stop the firing. Naxalites then entered into forests along with others and after walking about 100 meters they separated Karma (from rest of the Congressmen) and killed him.”

While the home ministry handed the investigation to the NIA, the state government set up a judicial commission to look into the security lapses and preventive measures that could have been taken. The probe is ongoing.

On 21 March 2014, the investigation agency filed an application before the NIA court to issue non-bailable warrants against 26 accused persons including top leaders of the CPI (Maoist)—Ganpathi and Ramanna. Muppala Lakshman Rao or Ganpathi, as he is known, was the general secretary of the CPI (Maoist) at that time. Ravula Srinivas, also known as Ramanna, is a top Maoist leader in the region. The NIA court looked into the case dairy and witness accounts, and issued an arrest warrant against them.

The next month, in April, the NIA filed another application to notify seven of the accused who were absconding, including Ganpathi and Ramanna, to surrender. On 8 August, the NIA court ordered all the seven accused to surrender before it. It reiterated that the case dairy and witness statements clearly showed their involvement in the attack.

After investigating for over an year, the NIA submitted its first chargesheet against nine CPI (Maoist) members in September 2014. “Investigation brought out that this ambush/attack on the convoy of Congress Parivartan Yatra was part of the larger conspiracy of CPI (Maoist) called Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) which is a declared party mandate and well planned activity of CPI (Maoist) conducted by its People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army from the month of February to May every year,” the NIA chargesheet said. “During this period, the cadres carry out attacks on security personnel and government establishments. … At the end of TCOC, review meetings are conducted at every level, from regional committees to Central Committee of the Party, for analysing the outcome of TCOC.”

Until then, the NIA had been carrying out its investigation treating Ganapathi and Ramanna as accused in the attack. However, without any explanation, the NIA dropped the names of Ganapathi and Ramanna from the list of the accused in the September chargesheet, even though they had earlier been asked to surrender before the NIA court. The chargesheet only named local-level leaders. Among the nine that it accused, several were cadres of the Darbha Division Committee, a sub-unit of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, a group operating in the Dandakaranya region.

In their petition, Bajpai and Rohra said,“The NIA filed first charge sheet … in which the statement charge [was] made in a manner that the ambush was carried out by the Dand Karanya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC) under a conspiracy hatched by its Local Level Commanders and Leaders.” The petition added, “There was no mention of any top level conspiracy involving top Maoist leaders like Ganapathi and Ramanna. There was no explanation made for such an omission.”

Despite this, on 20 November 2014, the NIA submitted a compliance report on the order to attach properties of the accused which again had the names of Ganpathi and Ramanna. Further, in its order issued on 21 January 2015, the NIA court said that no property was found in the name of the absconding accused including Ganpathi and Ramanna.

Nine months later, in September 2015, the NIA filed its supplementary chargesheet against 30 more accused persons. The petition further noted that the “NIA filed a supplementary chargesheet … again treating the incident as a local level ambush carried out by DKSZC which is very low in the command structure of the,”—CPI(Maoist)—“hierarchy with only one member from the central committee named as accused and none from the top body Polit Bureau named.”

After the NIA submitted its chargesheet, the Congress opposition called the NIA’s investigation “disappointing” and “incomplete,” and demanded a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation. On 28 March 2016, AN Upadhyay, the Chhattisgarh director general of police wrote to the principal secretary of the state reiterating the demand for a CBI enquiry. “The investigation conducted by NIA has completely ignored any alternative theories and has ruled out the possibility of a political conspiracy,” the letter said. It added that “the NIA chargesheet said that the attack was carried out by the Dandakaranya Zonal Committee which falls very low in the Maoists hierarchy and a decision to conduct the attack like this cannot be taken by such low rung leaders.”

The next day, on 29 March, Chhattisgarh’s home department issued a notification giving consent for a CBI enquiry. Over eight months later, the central government replied to the Chhattisgarh government, refusing to hand over the investigation to the CBI. In a letter dated 13 December 2016, the central government said that “the NIA has already completed the investigation,” and therefore, “the request of the State Government of Chhattisgarh is regretted.”

Two years later, after the Congress government came to power in the state and announced the formation of an SIT, the Chhattisgarh home department wrote to the NIA requesting the agency to transfer the case to the state for further investigation. On 29 December 2018, in a letter addressed to Yogesh Chander Modi, the director general of the NIA, the home department said that “the Government of Chhattisgarh is not satisfied with the enquiry investigation conducted by NIA.” It listed the same reasons mentioned in Upadhyay’s letter. The home department letter quoted from the NIA chargesheet which had described the attack as “part of a larger conspiracy of CPI(Maoist)” and had said that the TCOC was “approved in the meeting of Central Committee members in April 2013.”

The letter said, “Since the NIA has closed further investigation, leaving more than 100 persons involved in the Commission of the crime, the investigation is incomplete and the conspiracy part of the incidence is yet to be unveiled.” It added, “The State Government has strong belief that the conspiracy part which involves urban linkage…has not been properly investigated by the NIA.” The letter noted that the Chhattisgarh government has therefore constituted an SIT for further investigation, as “many mysteries are yet to be discovered and unfolded.”

However, the home ministry refused permission to transfer the case saying that the NIA had already filed a chargesheet and the trial was ongoing. In its 8 February 2019 letter, it said, “The state government can associate itself with NIA... for further investigation if some new facts have come to its notice.” But, neither the home ministry nor the NIA responded to the omissions in the investigation that the Chhattisgarh home department had pointed out.

The petitioners Bajpai and Rohra said that these were the reasons that motivated them to take the matter to the Chhattisgarh high court. They argued that despite being witnesses to the attack, the NIA had not listed Bajpai as a witness, and had not even recorded a statement from Rohra.

“We have filed the petition because the NIA has closed the case without doing proper investigation,” Bajpai told me, claiming that the NIA had failed to pursue a “single thing about the conspiracy.” “Although, they have mentioned this in the charge sheet they haven’t investigated the conspiracy angle,” he said. “The investigation started from day of the incident and they didn’t bother to go back to the planning and preparation that had gone into the attack.” Bajpai said that the attackers must have planned the ambush in advance and done a recce as even their lives were at stake. “The Parivartan Yatra was announced a month earlier, so they had a month to plan the whole thing,” he said. “The NIA never tried to retrace all this. So, I think something is wrong.”

Bajpai questioned why the CPI (Maoist) had chosen to kill Congress leader Nand Kumar Patel and his son Dinesh Patel. “So far the Naxalites from Chhattisgarh had killed only those who are marked as their enemies,” he said. “There is no explanation for what motivated them to do the coldblooded murder of Nand Kumar Patel and his son.”

After the attack, the Maoists had apologised for killing Nand Kumar and Dinesh, admitting that they were not the intended targets. “The first mistake was the murder of Dinesh Patel because he had not done anything against our party or movement,” the party said in a June 2013 press release. “The decision to kill him was taken by the PLGA hastily,” the release said, referring to the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, the armed wing of the CPI (Maoist). It added that in the last ten years Nand Kumar had not been going “against our party or movement visibly,” and had “raised his voice” against the killing of tribals.

Bajpai further recounted what he had witnessed during the attack. “They took us to the jungle and asked us to lie down, and instantly they killed Karma,” he said “But they took more than two hours to kill Patel and his son. They were discussing things or negotiating with someone over walkie-talkie. There was no mobile coverage in the area where the incident took place, but five kilometers from there, mobile network was available. I believe they were getting instructions from someone who was within the mobile range through their walkie-talkies. It looked like the instructions to kill the Patels came from there. All this should be investigated.” Bajpai added that the NIA “cannot remove the names of the main accused like Ganpathi and Ramanna without giving any explanation.”

Subhau Kashyap, a BJP leader from Bastar, dismissed the Congress’ concerns. “The NIA is a central agency and the Congress should have trust in their investigation,” Kashyap told me. “They are talking unnecessary things to conduct the investigation their way. They are afraid of the investigation because their own people are involved. One of their ministers Kawasi Lakhma is involved this.” Lakhma, a Congress MLA, had survived the attack. “Maybe this is why they want to do the investigation their way,” Kashyap said.“The NIA has conducted the investigation in the right direction.”

Soon after the 2013 attack, the state BJP had accused Lakhma of being involved in a conspiracy with the Maoists and demanded that NIA conduct a narco test on him. However, his name did not feature anywhere in the NIA reports.

On 11 October, a spokesperson in the office of the home secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla responded to questions The Caravan sent about the case. “The case is very old as it was transferred to NIA way back in 2013 on the report of the State Government,” the email reply said. “NIA has completed major part of the investigation and been able to nail down the culprits responsible for the commission of offence. The case is at an advanced stage of trial (36 witnesses already examined). The central government has examined the request of the State Government to transfer back the case to it but did not find any merit in it. The State Government was advised to associate itself with the ongoing investigation by NIA.”

The reply added, “NIA has filed charge-sheet against 39 accused persons. Considering the gravity of the offence, NIA is also simultaneously continuing its further investigation and supplementary charge sheet has been filed on 28.9.2015. One of the accused was later arrested on 26.8.16 and sent to judicial custody. Hence, it is not correct that NIA has closed its investigation.”

According to the activist and lawyer Sudiep Shrivastava who represents the petitioners, there were serious security lapses during the Congress rally. Shrivastava also represents the Congress party before the judicial commission.

“If we compare the rally called Vikas Yatra organised by the Raman Singh government during the same month, we could see a stark difference in the security cover provided,” Shrivastava told me. “Then CM Raman Singh and then education minister Kedar Kashyap had Z-plus security as per protocol. Around 10 secretaries from various government departments had participated in the rally which covered 35 kilometres by road. They were guarded by 1,782 police personnels.” Z-plus level security is the highest the government can offer. Meanwhile, he added, Congress leader Karma had Z-plus level security, while Patel and Lakhma had Z level security, and there were around 200 other participants. “But the Congress’ rally which covered 45 km and crossed troublesome Darbha and Jheeram valleys were guarded by only 138 police personnels,” Shrivastava said, “not even one-third of the force provided to the CM’s rally.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly included Phulo Devi Netam among those killed in the Maoist attack in May 2013. She was injured in the attack, but had in fact survived. The Caravan regrets the error.