India's Panda: The rise and fall of Sabyasachi Panda in India's Maoist movement
Sabyasachi Panda is an ordinary man with a curious claim to fame. A mathematics graduate from a
middling college in rural India, Panda, with his custom short haircut (combed to the side), generic
reading glasses, and stock-standard moustache (almost universal amongst Indian men), speaks softly
and almost entirely in well-worn clichés. Unimposing (both in personality and physicality), neither
impressive nor unimpressive, intellectually unremarkable and entirely non-descript in appearance,
by all logic, Panda really ought to have lived out his days quietly and unnoticed in the shadows –
just another face in India.
The fact that he has not stands as an affront to any ideal of a merit based society. Pandaâ€Ÿs prominence, it seems, is an accident of history; something that should ordinarily provoke protests – he just does not seem like someone who deserves media attention. Yet it is safe to say that no one in India today envies Panda as he sits in solitary confinement facing an almost certain life sentence. His mug-shot remains the last and only indication that there might be something more to his character: the man now considered a martyr for his cause – „Indiaâ€Ÿs Che Guevaraâ€Ÿ (Pandita 2012) – is spitefully pouting as he stares down the camera in a final act of defiance.
Badabazaar does not appear on most maps. Tucked into the coastline of southern Odisha, surrounded by thick jungle, it is a sleepy Indian village without any significant industry. So in July 2014, as news channels began to tentatively report on the capture of Sabyasachi Panda in Badabazaar, there was an intolerable absence of information. Journalists simply could not locate the town, let alone find their way there for first-hand interviews.
They need not have worried; there was not much to miss. Pandaâ€Ÿs end was nothing like his life. Abandoned, sick and exhausted, the poster-child for the revolution was captured by the Indian security forces whilst trying to shelter from the seasonal monsoon. The arrest was fairly inevitable. Pandaâ€Ÿs support base had been melting-away for years – he was especially isolated after the police killed his deputy, Govinda Majhi, during a shoot-out in March 2013 (The Times of India 2014) – and he was being gradually suffocated as police methodically combed their way through the Ganjam and Kandhamal forests.
The arresting officers were quick to acknowledge: “this being the monsoon season it is difficult to hide inside the forests” (The Times of India 2014) and Pandaâ€Ÿs last days of freedom must have soaked him with a tremendously unpleasant realisation – whether on the run, or in custody, he was now irrelevant. As police intelligence was becoming impossibly accurate – “we were closely tracking his movements” (The Times of India 2014) – he would have been aware that his former friends were actively informing on him. Analysts were quick to point out that Panda had become so isolated that his arrest would likely have little impact on the movement he once headed. The only surprise it seemed was that at the time of his arrest he had managed to find someone – anyone – still willing to call themselves a friend, and importantly, still willing to provide him shelter.
The police force was positively giddy as they informed the media (strangely feeling the need to convince the public that their captive was unreformed) that among Pandaâ€Ÿs meagre possessions at the time of his arrest, were „Maoist documentsâ€Ÿ.
This was not necessary. Whereas international audiences would likely – upon hearing the statement „India arrests its most wanted terroristâ€Ÿ – turn their minds instinctively to jihadist groups or Pakistani militants, for Indians, there would be no such confusion. Panda lived the quintessential lifestyle of any self-respecting outlaw: launching brazen and deliberately public attacks whilst constructing a cult of personality around his leadership (not an easy thing to do considering how little there was to work with).
As the media began to preface any mention of his title as „Maoist leaderâ€Ÿ with the qualifying phrases
„so-calledâ€Ÿ, „self-styledâ€Ÿ or „self-describedâ€Ÿ, Panda must have been aware that he had well and truly
crossed the celebrity threshold. It is only after an individual or movement achieves real power or
notoriety that people begin to parse their language, suddenly tip-toeing over their words as a lastditch
attempt to undermine an already secured status and strength.