Sabyasachi Panda, the recently arrested Maoist who is the prime accused in the Swami Lakshmanananda murder case has become a hero of sorts for a section of the Odisha media. Assorted commentators with barely disguised Leftists sympathies have been waxing eloquent in Odia media to defend the dreaded Maoist while seeking to project him as a ‘messiah of the poor’. Joining this brigade of Left-leaning commentators was Narasingha Mishra, senior Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition in Odisha Assembly who has the audacity to hail Sabyasachi for — what he believes — his ‘sustained fight for welfare of the poor’.
It is important to fully understand Sabyasachi Panda’s activism and the kind of ideology that inspired it, to appreciate how misguided these sympathies of the media in Odisha are.
A product of the Missionary-Maoist-NGO nexus, Panda has been at the forefront of fueling mindless violence for the past 15 years. Panda, whose hands are soaked in the blood of many innocents, is wanted not only by Odisha Police police but also by in several Maoist-infested States. In Odisha he is an accused in as many as 65 cases. The cases range from criminal conspiracy to murder to waging war against the state. Officially, the Odisha Government has admitted that Panda was directly involved in the killing of 59 people, of which 24 were security personnel and 34 civilians.
By late 1990s, Maoists had started networking in 20 of the 30 districts in Odisha, thanks to the then JB Pattnaik-led Congress Government which provided them with political patronage and the missionaries who helped them with money. In 2000, Sabyasachi joined the erstwhile outlawed Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist). In the same year, the BJP-BJD coalition Government came to power. This was just a year after the BJP swept the 1999 Lok Sabha election in western Odisha riding the Atal Bihari Vajpayee wave.
By that time the VHP had expanded its ground level activities all over the Odisha hinterland. The VHP and its allied organisations Banabasi Kalyan Samiti and Hindu Jagaran Samukshya were working for the socio-economic well being of tribal communities across districts. It was not long before the VHP earned the ire of the missionaries who were using charity as a front to convert poor people and lure them away from their native faith and culture. To counter the VHP movement, the missionaries took the help of Maoists and provided them with huge funds. This was the time when the Maoist movement in Odisha took a decidedly anti-Hindu turn.
In 2002, the CPI (M-L) was merged with Peoples’ War Group (PWG). Sabyasachi became an active comrade of the PWG. In 2004, PWG and MCC were merged and the CPI (Maoist) was formed. Panda soon rose to be a mid-level leader within the of CPI (Maoist) hirearchy.
In 2006, Sabaysachi was appointed the secretary of the Odisha State Organising Committee of CPI (Maoist). He gained virtual control of over the forest hinterland in four crucial districts of western Odisha – Kandhamal, Gajapati, Rayagada and Ganjam. The dense forest in the belt also played a crucial role in the rise of Sabyasachi.
In March 24, 2006, the first major attack took place under his leadership with the armouries loot in R Udaygiri in Gajapati district. On the same day, Sabyasachi and his team stormed G Udayagiri sub-jail and freed as many as 40 Maoist cadre.
In February 2008, under his leadership, 500 heavily armed Maoists attacked the police training school in Nayagarh and killed 18 police personnel, including two women. The Maoists looted the district armoury in Nayagarh after virtually laying siege to the town.
After six months, in November 2008, Sabyasachi is accused of carrying out the macabre murder of VHP veteran Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and four of his followers at Kandhamal’s Jaleshpata hermitage through his two key lieutenants – Azad and Uday. Azad is currently locked in Jharpada jail and Uday in Kandhamal jail.
The Maoists might have pulled the trigger on the frail body of the 84-year-old Swami who was relentless in his struggle for the cause of tribal welfare, but several intelligence inputs suggest that the heinous act was committed at the behest of unnamed Christian Missionaries. Intelligence sources further suggest that a US-based Pentecostal Church funded Maoists to execute the attack on the revered Hindu monk. At this time there is no independent verification of these Intelligence inputs and no Christian Missionary has been charged with conspiring to murder the Hindu monk.
Intelligence inputs suggest that after the attack took place, fissures in CPI (Maoist) surfaced on the issue of sharing the supari amount. There are unverified accusations that Sabyasachi appropriated the entire amount meant for the killing of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Around this time the CPI (Maoist) Organisation was also said to have split into two major camps – the Odisha camp and the Andhra camp.
Intelligence sources further say the relationship between the two groups was strained further on the issue of sharing of women. It is believed that the Maoists would trap young girls, abduct them, employ them with fancy designations and simply use them as sex slaves.
As the fissures between the two groups widened, the Andhra camp asked Sabyasachi to own up responsibility for Swami Lakshmanananda’s killing, sources say. With diminished clout, it is believed Sabyasachi had no choice but to do that.
Six months after the brutal killing of the Swamiji and four of his followers, Sabyasachi called on a team of journalists consisting of Sampad Mahapatra, then chief of Bhubaneswar bureau in NDTV; Prafulla Das, Odisha bureau chief of the Hindu; and Apurba Mohanty, then correspondent with ETV in the deep forest hinterland. He owned up responsibility for the killing of Swami Lakshmanananda in their ‘exclusive interview”. But none of the journalists considered it important to ask him how he could justify the heinous killing of an 84 years old monk. All three journalists have since deposed before the Justice Naidu Commission of Inquiry whose remit is to probe the Swami Lakshmanananda murder case.
In 2012, from his hiding place in the forest hinterland in Jirakua Mangadakhari in Ganjam district, Sabyasachi Panda masterminded the kidnapping of two Italian nationals – Paulo Bosusco and Claudio Colangelo.
Many say it was a fixed kidnapping. Sabyasachi officially made a set of demands to release the two Italian nationals, but the BJD Government didn’t want to send a politically incorrect signal by abruptly agreeing to his demands.
Panda first released Bosusco, the Italian who was working as a tour operator in Puri. It is pertinent to mention here that Bosusco is a member of the Italy-based ultra-Left outfit Party of Committees to Support Resistance for Communism (CARC). The Italian national, who was running a travel agency in Puri, was involved in many illegal activities. Moreover, it is an open secret that he enjoyed the hospitality of the Maoists on several occasions. Jai Narayan Pankaj, the then SP of Ganjam briefly held Bosusco for questioning after his release from the Maoist captivity. But, he was soon released by an order of the then Director General of Police Manmohan Praharaj. Later, Bosusco was allowed to go out of the country without any questioning.
A team of journalists consisting of Sampad Mahapatra, Sandeep Sahu of BBC Hindi Services and Dayanidhi Dash, executive editor of OTV met Sabyasachi in the deep hinterland in Ganjam to secure the release of Claudio Colangelo, the Italian tourist. Their trip to Sabyasachi’s location was even telecast on television in a highly dramatised fashion. Some say a ransom was paid to Sabyasachi for the release of Colangelo, but who paid the ransom is unclear. Neither of the journalists have been questioned in this regard so far.
In 2010, it all collapsed between Sabyasachi and the CPI (Maoist). The Politbureau of CPI (Maoist) expelled Sabyasachi Panda, who then floated his own Maoist outfit – Orissa Maovadi Party. It was only in the last month that he changed his party’s name to CPI (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist).
Soon, Sabyasachi Panda’s cadre started deserting him and he became forlorn. It was around the same time that Panda became vulnerable to attacks from the Maoist leadership in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, who tried to kill him with the intention of gaining control over his territory. In February 2014, Panda was injured in an encounter with Ganjam police.
In a bizarre twist of fate, Sabyasachi’s arrest by the Government may have given him a lease of life as it ensured an escape for him from a possible death at the hands of his own Maoist fraternity.
It is hard to believe that the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD Government was unaware of the whereabouts of Sabyasachi Panda all this time. It clearly chose to sit on the information without acting. Now, the State Government is facing allegations that Panda’s arrest is ‘stage-managed’. How a dreaded Maoist, who virtually controlled the forest hinterland of western Odisha, could fall into the police net so meekly without even showing any resistance, lends credence to these allegations.
Sabyasachi’s arrest is not the end Maoism in Odisha. He however is a repository of information on the modus operandi of Red Terror. These inputs would be crucial for shoring up our internal security. Sabyasachi Panda should be jointly interrogated by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Chhattisgarh Police and Andhra Pradesh Police or alternatively the NIA should take over his case.
Either way, we must not repeat the UPA’s mistakes of viewing Maoist terror in silos limited by State boundaries. Sabyasachi Panda’s arrest should be treated as a national breakthrough in India’s War against Maoist Terror.