Bhubaneswar, July 18: Police today arrested topmost Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda, who shot into international infamy with the kidnapping of two Italian nationals in 2012, from a house in Berhampur town, about 180km from here.
Panda had been on the run for nearly two decades.
The arrest followed an intelligence-based operation, led by Berhampur superintendent of police Aniruddha Kumar Singh. Director-general of police Sanjeev Marik said the rebel chief was alone in the house at Badabajar in the town when the police team raided his hideout at 1am.
“There was no exchange of fire during the operation,” said Marik, who described the arrest as a huge achievement for state police. Chief minister Naveen Patnaik told the Assembly about the arrest and announced rewards for the team that nabbed 48-year-old Panda, son of former CPM MLA Ramesh Chandra Panda.
In the evening, the rebel leader was produced before Berhampur sub-divisional judicial magistrate, who sent him to jail custody. Deputy inspector general of police (southern range) Amitabh Thakur said that the police had sought Panda’s remand.
He said the house at Mangalbari Petasahi in Berhampur’s Badabajar that Panda had been staying in for the past 12 days belonged to one A. Chandra Rao whose mother, A. Mahalaxmi, and one of her female relatives were also staying there. When the women initially refused to open the door, the police team entered the house from behind.
Panda made an attempt to escape by jumping into the neighbour’s house but was caught. “Though he carried a gun, he did not fire,” said Thakur, adding that the house owner would be charged with harbouring a dreaded Maoist. Rao is said to be in Vishakhapatnam now.
A mathematics graduate, Panda became active as a rebel in 1995. He first helped in setting up the pro-Maoist Chasi Muliya Adivasi Sangh and the Kui Labanaga Sangh and then founding the Vansdhara-Ghumsar division committee of the CPI (Maoist). He was later made the secretary of the Odisha State Organising Committee of the banned outfit.
Once the face of the Maoist movement in the state, Panda became a persona non grata in the CPI(Maoist) circles following the kidnapping of two Italian nationals by his group in 2012 without seeking the permission of the outfit’s top leadership. His relationship with the CPI(Maoist) leadership soured further after he wrote a scathing letter to its general Muppalla Laxmana Rao aka Ganapathi criticising the outfit’s policy of annihilation, the dominance of southern cadres and the exploitation of Odias by them. He was promptly expelled from the organisation, following which he floated the Odisha Maobadi Party (OMP).
This exposed Panda to attacks both from the security forces and his own former colleagues, who were baying for his blood. Things worsened for him when he started losing cadres in police encounters, the most fierce of them taking place at Bhaliaguda in Gajpati district in November 2012, in which five of his associates were gunned down.
Though Marik today claimed that Panda was hale and hearty when he was arrested, he was widely reported to have suffered a bullet injury during an encounter with the police in the Merikote forests of Ganjam in February. This was confirmed by three of his female associates, who were arrested during a combing later in the month.
With his base and the gang’s manpower terribly eroded, he was believed to be making frequent visits to places such as Berhampur for fresh recruitment. Thakur admitted as much when he said that the rebel leader was taking shelter at Badabajar mainly with to scout for fresh recruits.
But even as the top of brass of Odisha police celebrated Panda’s arrest, there were fears of Maoist violence escalating with cadres from Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh seeking to fill the vacuum likely to be created by his absence. Senior Andhra Pradesh leaders such as Ramakrishna, secretary of Andhra-Odisha border zonal committee of the CPI (Maoist), and Daya, secretary of the outfit’s Koraput-Srikakulam division, are calling the shots in Odisha.
“The vacuum likely to be created by Panda would be filled by cadres from Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — who are much more ferocious. Hence the fear of violence escalating unless the government steps up the combing to keep rebel activities in check,” said former director-general of police S.N. Tiwari.
Another former director-general of police, Gopal Nanda, said Panda’s arrest was unlikely to have much impact on the Maoist scenario in the state apart from the fact that the police might extract from him information about rebel activities and their leaders.
Sources said the development ought to be seen in the larger context of Maoists’ making inroads into newer areas such as Nuapada, Balangir and Angul. The rebel push into these areas is driven by their leaders from Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — who may now have complete control of the state in the wake of Panda’s departure from the scene. The arrest of Panda, thus, is a development fraught with ominous possibilities for the state.
Additional reporting by Sunil Patnaik from Berhampur