On October 8, 2012, Jharkhand formally launched a special security operation against People's Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a splinter group of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) in Khunti, Simdega, and Gumla Districts. Personnel from Central reserve Police Force (CRPF) including Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), Jharkhand Jaguar and Jharkhand Armed Police are participating in the offensive.
This is the first time in the State that the CRPF has been involved in an operation against a Left-Wing Extremist (LWE) group other than the CPI-Maoist, though the State Police have, on earlier occasions, launched offensives against LWE groups other than the CPI-Maoist. The current offensive recognizes the growing threat from PLFI.
As on October 13, however, the offensive was yet to produce any significant success. S. N. Pradhan, Inspector General of Police, Special Branch (IG-SB), and spokesperson Jharkhand Police stated, "The rebels seem to have either left the jungles or gone underground. Around 12 active members of the PLFI have been arrested from the three Districts." PLFI 'zonal commanders' Jidan Gudiya and Jetha Kashyap, and 'area commander' Tilkeshwar Gope, were reportedly 'surrounded', but managed to escape.
Earlier, PLFI 'sub-zonal commander' Mangal Nagesiya had called a bandh (general shutdown) on October 9 and 10 in Gumla and Simdega Districts against the operation. However, the bandh received lukewarm response, though a bus was set ablaze at the Gumla bus stand on October 11 by PLFI cadres.
Unconfirmed media reports claim that suspected PLFI cadres have killed 96 persons in Khunti District over the past 10 months.
Major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities), in which PLFI has been involved, include:
August 25, 2012: Three persons were shot dead by the PLFI cadres at Adeldih in Khunti District. A note left by the extremists accused them of being police informers.
June 6, 2011: A group of PLFI cadres, lead by it ´sub-zonal commander´ Mangal Nagesia, shot dead three persons, said to be supporters of the CPI-Maoist, at Jamgai village of Gumla District in Jharkhand. The incident was suspected to be a revenge killing, as five PLFI cadres had been killed by their CPI-Maoist rivals during a marriage reception function at Loki village, about half a kilometer from Jamgai on May 15.
May 16, 2011: Four persons of a family were killed by PLFI cadres at Dakeya village under Basia Police Station in Gumla District in Jharkhand.
May 15, 2011: Five PLFI cadres were shot dead by Maoists at a wedding ceremony in Loki village at Raidih in Gumla District in Jharkhand.
January 30, 2011: Around 10 to 15 cadres of the PLFI abducted and subsequently killed three youth in Hulsu village on the outskirts of Ranchi District in Jharkhand.
September 26, 2009: Four PLFI cadres, including an 'area commander', were killed in a clash with the CPI-Maoist at Nawatoli village in Gumla District.
May 9, 2009: Three suspected PLFI cadres were lynched by villagers at Kumaria in the Gumla District.
March 8, 2009: Three PLFI cadres were killed in an encounter with Security Forces (SFs) at Chatakpur village under Sneha Police Station in the Lohardaga District.
January 31, 2009: Four villagers were shot dead by suspected PLFI cadres in Chalgi village, Khunti District, possibly as a result of internal rivalry.
The PLFI's activities are principally connected with extortion and, according to one estimate, the organization collects over INR 1.5 billion annually in 'levies'. S. N. Pradhan, observes, "They (PLFI) have overtaken the Maoists and are flourishing, flaunting the name of Maoists." Ironically, the PLFI had earlier been 'used' by the Police to exploit the turf war between the groups and to weaken the Maoists.
The rise of PLFI, headed by Dinesh Gope, is an interesting story of crime, caste, politics and Left Wing extremism. Sources indicate that Dinesh Gope was a petty criminal working under his elder brother Suresh Gope, who operated in areas around Ranchi. Suresh Gope's rise had been facilitated by Rajputs of the area to counter another gangster, Jayanath Sahu alias Samrat. The Sahus are a powerful business-moneylender community. Suresh was killed in an encounter with Jharkhand Police on December 22, 2003, when had gone to collect on an extortion demand. Dinesh was also said to be present, but managed to escape. Thereafter, Dinesh took charge of the gang and worked meticulously to extend its area of operation. The gang was initially named the Jharkhand Liberation Tigers (JLT) in September 2004. The rivalry with Jayanth Sahu continued, principally over collecting 'levies', expanding turf and caste identity. Though he failed to neutralize Sahu, by 2007, Dinesh Gope had secured the support of tribals in the area through clever recruitment and maintaining 'good rapport' with tribal politicians.
In July 2007, Masi Charan Purty, a senior 'Commander' of the CPI-Maoist, defected from the outfit with several of his followers. While Purty was being hunted by the Maoists, Dinesh was looking for ways to out-gun Sahu. It was a win-win proposition, and they joined hands to create the People's Liberation Front of India (PLFI). Masi created a rudimentary structure within the outfit, and provided a cloak of LWE ideology, even as PLFI declared itself a sworn enemy of the CPI-Maoist.
Purty subsequently landed in Jail, but PLFI continued to grow under Gope's leadership. The armed strength of the group, according to estimates, fluctuates between 150 to 300 cadres, depending on Police pressure. Compounding the problem is the fact that virtually all petty criminals operating in the area project themselves as PLFI cadres. The outfit functions through several 'area commanders'. The PLFI's area of operation of is mainly Ranchi, Khunti, Simdega, Gumla, Latehar, Chatra and Palamu.
The rise and growth of Dinesh Gope and his rivalry with Jayanath Sahu are also said to be entangled with Jharkhand's unstable politics. In 2005, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was trying to form a Government in the State with a razor-thin majority, one politician, Tileshwar Sahu, was said to have helped the Alliance to secure the support of a few independent MLAs. After the NDA managed to constitute the Government in the State, Tileshwar Sahu, was rewarded with the post of Chairman of the State Pollution Control Board. Tileshwar Sahu, as President of Chhotanagpur Teli Uththan Samaj (Society for the Promotion of Teli Caste), was a long-time backer of Jayanath Sahu. Earlier, Tileshwar Sahu had formed the Shanti Sena (Peace Army, an anti-Maoist private army), and was also said to be the brain behind the political rise of Enos Ekka, a first-time MLA in 2005, who had gained his clout through government contracts and an alliance with the Sahus. However, they fell out sometime in the latter half of 2006, as Ekka switched loyalty and the NDA Government fell in September 2006.
After Ekka broke away from the Sahus, he is alleged to have extended support to Dinesh Gope. On April 16, 2008, when Tileshwar Sahu's father was killed by unidentified extremists, he lodged an FIR against Enos Ekka for conspiring to kill his father. More recently, one of Tileshwar Sahu's cousins was also killed by suspected PLFI cadres. Further, on October 27, 2008, Lorence Mundari alias Carlos, a hardcore JLT/PLFI cadre arrested by the Police on October 26, claimed before the media that "JLT chief Dinesh Gope claims that the organisation has the patronage of Shibu Soren", the former Chief Minister of the State embroiled in bribery and murder charges. Soren denied these links. Nevertheless, it is clear that the PLFI has significant political linkages across the political spectrum in Jharkhand.
The activities of the PLFI are more akin to an organized crime gang than any ideologically driven movement. The group carefully avoids confrontations with the SFs and engages with them only if no other option is available. Its primary concern is extortion from contractors, businessmen, government employees and any one they can lay their hands on. Though PLFI has been involved in stray incidents of damaging economic infrastructure, they target contractors, their employees and construction equipment only when extortion demands are not met.
PLFI's extortion network and activities extend into Odisha, particularly in the Sundargarh District bordering Jharkhand. On July 8, 2012, for instance, PLFI cadres shot dead Hardeep Singh, a block level politician of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), in Sundargarh. The Jashpur District in Chhattisgarh, bordering the Simdega District of Jharkhand, has also witnessed PLFI activities. The group was banned in Chhattisgarh with effect from May 26, 2012.
The PLFI has risen under the very nose of the Jharkhand Police who, preoccupied as they most likely were with the greater threat of the CPI-Maoist. PLFI has profited from the lack of any sustained focus on its activities and also by recruiting CPI-Maoist deserters. The group's activities have, however, grown too far to be ignored any longer, and the present operations are timely - though they are yet to demonstrate results. Given the nebulous nature of the group, its principally criminal character, and its extensive political linkages, it is likely to be resistant to any simple operational strategy that does not involve tackling these peculiarities.
(The writer Fakir Mohan Pradhan is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)