Who killed Swami Lakshmanananda?
Not the Maoists, everyone except some senior state government authorities maintain.
Even the top brass of the state police say it is improbable that Maoists were responsible for the murder of the Swami and four others at his remote ashram in Orissa's Kandhamal district on Saturday night. A senior state police officer said the modus operandi of the murders do not provide substantial evidence that the Maoists may be involved.
Here are the facts of the murder after preliminary investigations:
On Saturday, the ashram was celebrating Janmashtami, when around dinner time, a group of 30-40 armed assailants surrounded the place.
Eyewitnesses said about four of the assailants carried AK-47s and many others had country made revolvers.
Two of the four home guards stationed for security had gone to eat and only two of them were guarding the premises.
The assailants tied down the two guards, and gagged them.
They then sought out the Swamiji within the premises and opened fire on him.
The recovered bullets show they were from an AK-47, the police said.
The assailants then warned the guards not to raise an alarm and fled the scene.
Within minutes of the reaching the crime scene, the district authorities made a statement saying it was suspected Maoists who killed the Swami.
"Isn't it far fetched? District authorities blaming a particular outfit within minutes of arriving at a crime scene?" asked Ashok Sahu, a retired IPS officer, who specialises in left wing extremism.
There are two reasons given as to why the state could have taken the Maoist line. The first is obvious, observers say.
"In December 2007, the area witnesses some of the bloodiest violence Orissa has even seen after the Swami was attacked by Christians. The state might have wanted to avert a repeat of the communal clashes and therefore could have pinned the blame on the Maoists," one of them said.
Sahu said there could be more to the government's action than this.
"Elections are coming in a matter of months. The state has failed miserably in tackling the Maoist insurgency. A government that has been terrorised by the Maoists may in turn be trying to terrorise the people in the name of the Maoists" he said.
Why are so many people ready to debunk the government's Maoist attack theory so readily? The main reason is modus operandi of the execution.
"The central committee authorises the killings and the outfit issues statements owning up to the murders they commit. So many days after the murder, there has been no statement from the Maoists," a senior police officer said.
Sahu points out the following: "The five attackers who the locals caught and handed over to the police are not Maoists. They are from the region.
"Moreover, I see no reason why the Maoists will spare the policemen on duty. They would have killed them. Then, there are the leaflets that were thrown around the ashram in a very amateurish way. The Maoists are very organised. If somebody is carrying an AK-47 he must be at least a commander. And if there are four commanders to marshal the mob, there wouldn't have been indiscriminate firing like what we saw. And last but not the least, I have never heard or seen Maoists wear masks and hoods.
"They see themselves as revolutionaries. They never care about whether they are seen or not. In fact, I would say, they would very much want to be seen," Sahu said.
Then, the most important question? Did the Swami's activities in the jungle in any way make him an enemy of the Maoists? "Chances are very less. He was working for the welfare of the tribal people and against forced conversions in the region. There is nothing that suggests the Maoists would see him as a class enemy," a senior officer said.
A local outfit, the Hindu Jagran Manch said the Swami had mentioned to an office bearer that some Maoists had joined him in a program he had organsied for the tribal people. "One day last year, I was talking to the Swami on phone, and that time there was a lot of concern about his security. So, he said, don't you people worry. The Maoists are not a threat to me. In fact some of them are here with me," said Lakshmikanth Das, an officer bearer of the HJM.
But do these factors clearly rule out the role of the Maoists? It is tricky, say many experts who have been following left wing extremism. "The best way this could be phrased is: 'We do not rule out the involvement of the Maoists'." Sahu said.
There are many reasons why the experts are undecided. "After the December 2007 clashes, even the Hindu outfits agreed that the Maoists are working in tandem with militant Christian outfits,"
Sahu agreed: "A lot of Maoists were converts to Christianity and were involved in the December violence. But this attack does not look like their work," Sahu said.
The Maoists have long claimed that most of Orissa falls under the 'liberated zone'. Kandhamal district with its desnse forest cover is a haven for them. In fact, the police had claimed that the recent attack on a police party in Nayagarh, where the Maoists dealt a spectacular blow to the Orissa police, was planned and coordinated from Kandhamal.
If not the Maoists, who could have killed the Swami? The needle of suspicion swings towards the militant Christian outfits. "Let's face it, said Sahu, "even in times when the Maoist-militant Christian nexus was a possibility, there were numerous attacks and attempts on the Swami's life."
"There is a high possibility that this is the handiwork of militant Christian outfits. How they got such sophisticated weapons is something for the government to figure out," said Sahu.
"The government's responsibility to bring those responsible to book increases when you take into account the fact that the Swami received an anonymous threat only a week before he was killed. The local SP did not even register a case after the Swami lodged a formal complaint. They have to answer a lot of questions or this issue will snowball into a bigger issue than the December violence," Das concluded.
The onus now rests on the government, which has been boxed in from almost all sides.
It has been shown up with regards to tackling Maoists, with consecutive attacks. It's inadequacy in putting a lid on communal tension in Kandhamal have been exposed by the on-going violence in the district. And with elections looming, how it tackles the current crisis will go a long way in deciding its political future.