18 years after India’s biggest jailbreak

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Ajay Kanu, 56, looks like any other middle-class man walking down a road in Bihar’s capital, Patna. He’s in blue jeans, black sports shoes, and a checked polycot shirt. He sports a bit of a middle-aged belly, and his spectacled, mildly pudgy face does not conform to the stereotype of a dangerous Naxal laughing in death’s face.

“It was in prison that I learnt who I was,” says Kanu, who has been a free man for a couple of years now, having served 18 years in several jails in the State. The erstwhile Naxal commander, accused in 50 cases of murder, today looks upon the world with forgiveness and some faith.

In 2005, Kanu, alias Sao, or the more sedate Raviji, was the reason behind the Jehanabad jailbreak that led to 389 prisoners, including several Maoists and hardcore criminals, escaping. Nearly a dozen people were killed and about half a dozen injured; police rifles and bullets were looted. The strength of the overcrowded Jehanabad jail at the time was 659; the official capacity was 140.

An officer, who later became Bihar’s Inspector General (IG) of Police in the early 2000s, says hundreds, both upper caste people and peasants, were killed in caste massacres in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Infamously known as the ‘killing fields’ or ‘flaming fields’, law and order in central Bihar — Jehanabad, Gaya, Aurangabad, Bhojpur, Arwal — was severely compromised.”

The main challenge for the police were the guerrilla warfare tactics that Naxals used, blowing up police vehicles and extorting money from private companies involved in construction. Their armed squads, sometimes supported by politicians, moved through the thick jungles of Jamui, Sasaram, Gaya, and Nawada, pitching their camps and planning attacks.

Towards the latter half of the 2000s, the Naxals shifted their base to the neighbouring Jharkhand districts.

The year of the Jehanabad jailbreak, Bihar recorded 13.4% of all crimes against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the third highest in the country. Patna recorded the highest cases of murder, robbery, and dacoity among cities.

Breaking out

On November 13, 2005, at 9.05 p.m., the first bomb exploded, not far from the jail. “A signal to fellow incarcerated Maoists that their comrades had come to release them,” says Kanu. This was the same month that the Bolshevik party had seized power in Russia in 1917.

In Jehanabad, about 1,000 armed Maoists besieged the jail, just 70 km from Patna, for over two hours. Then the piercing sounds of more bombs and bullets cut through the quiet of the town whose electricity had been cut off. The land around the jail and the roads leading to the national highway were carpeted with landmines. Every police picket was garrisoned. Soon, Kanu remembers, the jail was opened. “We just walked out; we didn’t even run.”

The senior police officer, who was involved in the probe, says Kanu was thrown an AK-47 that he used to kill two commanders of the Ranvir Sena, the upper caste militia group at loggerheads with the Maoists in central Bihar at the time.

The foot soldiers, wearing bathroom slippers and oversized police uniforms, appealed over microphones to the town’s residents to “remain indoors” as “we have no quarrel with the public, only with the prashasan (administration)”. People heard the sounds of crude ‘cane’ bombs (in milk cans) and gunfire, interspersed with dreadful silence. “If the deaf were to hear, the sound had to be very loud,” says Kanu.

Bihar was under President’s Rule and the State Assembly election was on. Much of the police force was away on election duty, so stealing arms and ammunition was easy. The operation was executed by the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (India), a militant underground unit of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), of which Kanu was the commander. The jail remained open until dawn the next day, for all to go and come freely. By the following month though, 269 prisoners returned of their own accord, but the Maoist cadre and Ranvir Sena members didn’t.

“It is the duty of revolutionaries to help the oppressed and free their cadre even by storming a jail,” says Kanu, sipping kum-cheeni-waali chai (low-sugar tea) at a roadside stall on a muggy day. Crowds bustle around. “I’m diabetic now,” he says, wryly, adding that he also has high blood pressure. His mind is alert though, and movements quick, always watchful of his surroundings. Over the years, he has been acquitted in most cases. “Very soon, I’ll be acquitted in the remaining six, and I’ll be a free man,” he says.

Ajay Kanu

Ajay Kanu
| Photo Credit:
Amarnath Tewary

The formative years

Kanu hails from Chauhar village, Arwal district, 34 km from Jehanabad. He comes from the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC), a clutch of communities that in Bihar’s 2022-23 caste survey forms 36.01% of the State’s population. “I want to work for the development and upliftment of 110 castes under this category,” he says.

Recently, he sold a part of his agricultural land in his village so his children could go to good colleges. His son is in a polytechnic, studying a technology-related course, and his daughter is working towards becoming a nurse.

After the jailbreak, the police demolished his house in the village. He now lives in an unpretentious but spacious house on Patna’s periphery, next to the bypass road. His wife, Sharda Devi, looks after the household.

His late father, Phagu Prasad, was a marginal farmer. “My father was more leftist than farmer. He has been the biggest influence in my life,” says Kanu, wiping his golden-framed glasses, and putting them back neatly on his face. “When I was in school and used to massage his tired legs at night, he would tell me stories about Bhagat Singh, Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara, and the Russian Revolution,” he remembers. Kanu’s father was part of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the 1980s and later started participating in ultra-left underground activity. “In fact, he indoctrinated me into ultra-left ideologies,” reminisces Kanu, a graduate in History from Jehanabad’s Swami Sahjanand College.

In college, Kanu says he was keen on sports, and won college championships in long jump, high jump, and running events. He got involved in student politics and was elected as college president from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He was soon disillusioned with right-wing ideologies because of the “divisionary politics of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the RSS”.

For financial independence after he graduated in 1989, he started a coaching institute called Navin Bal Vidya Niketan in Jehanabad’s Professor’s Colony, but had to shut it down after what he calls “treachery” from the upper caste owner of the space he was running it from.

The journey into Maoism

A series of events upset Kanu. First, he says, the village strongman got his brother and cousin killed in a petty dispute. “I was falsely implicated in the case. Then my father was beaten to death in a land dispute by another village strongman and his men in February 1994; again I was implicated. But by that time, I had started taking part in underground meetings of Maoists in the area.”

“The oppressor who beat my father to death was killed by Maoist cadre. I left my village to be with them, their ideologies. You can kill a man, but you cannot kill an ideology,” philosophises Kanu, truculence gleaming through his puckish smile. His understanding of the ideology, an athletic body, and the capacity to quickly learn about weapons, helped him quickly rise through the ranks in a couple of years. He was made a member of the central committee of the Maoists, whose operations spanned States such as Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Soon, he was made an area commander of the banned organisation, which is still in existence.

“Our fight was against oppressors, who at that time were landlords and zamindars. The Ranvir Sena would not spare women and children, but we [the Maoists] would only target able-bodied men,” says Kanu, whose name by that time began to be used as a way of keeping people indoors.

The State police announced a reward of ₹3 lakh to bring in Kanu. On August 28, 2002, he was arrested from Patna’s Bailey road when his wife was expecting their first child.

He says he was “tortured for 24 hours” by the police. A senior police officer who interrogated him says, “He was a very tough nut to crack.”

He was later shifted to the Jehanabad jail, where he read books and organised fellow inmates, demanding better living conditions and food, and speaking out against corruption by jail officials. He soon earned the respect of his fellow inmates and was feared by jail officials.

He also sat on hunger strikes inside the jail to “press for his demands”, which eventually got the prison inmates access to better food, living conditions, and facilities such as telephone, television, and medical care, he says.

The town’s residents throng the prison after the jailbreak.

The town’s residents throng the prison after the jailbreak.
| Photo Credit:
File Photo

Before and after the jailbreak

“Once I had a severe toothache and asked the jail authorities to shift me to Patna for better medical attention. The then District Magistrate (DM) visited the jail ward and humiliated me,” he says. He told the DM that he would get out of jail.

“We should have killed him [in an encounter] three years before 2005, when we arrested him in 2002,” says the senior police officer, who was involved in the initial arrest.

After the jailbreak, Kanu says, “I went to an abandoned kothi (large stand-alone house) in a village in Jehanabad, from where I escaped on a vehicle inside the jungle.” The police had announced a ₹5-lakh reward on him, and in 2007, he was re-arrested from the Burdwan railway station in West Bengal, while on his way to Gaya from Bokaro in Jharkhand, and shifted to Patna’s Beur central jail. He came out of jail in 2019, but was arrested again in what he says is a false case, and shifted to the high-security Bhagalpur jail. The Naxal leader was finally a free man in 2022.

That year, Kuldiep Singh, the then Director-General of the Central Reserve Police Force, said at a press conference that Bihar was free of left-wing extremism (LWE), and that the struggle against the Naxals was in its final stages.

Last year, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai, told Parliament that the number of LWE-related deaths had reduced from 1,005 in 2010 to 98 in 2022.

Through the conversation, Kanu gets many calls. After one, he is angry: “My blood boils, and I think of returning to the jungle with a gun in hand again.” A labourer was killed by someone with more money and power.

The Jehanabad jailbreak story was the subject of a web series, Jehanabad — Of Love & War, which began streaming online from February 2023. Kanu was consulted, but he says the final product was bizarre.

He’s sure he never wants to join politics, though he claims almost all the major parties have approached him. To run his home, he operates as a small-time thekedar (contractor), but wants to reopen the coaching institute.

“Those days were regrettable. Now, I want to concentrate on education.”

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