WANNABE ULTRAS: (Clockwise from left) Santosh Mandal, Biswanath Huika, Rajib Batrai, Ramakrishna Baidya, Prasad Karkaria and Uttam MandalOn the lookout for a living, the boys found theirs on the national highway. Donning olive-green fatigues and sporting red bandannas, they would wave down buses and ease the passengers of their money.,WANNABE ULTRAS: (Clockwise from left) Santosh Mandal, Biswanath Huika, Rajib Batrai, Ramakrishna Baidya, Prasad Karkaria and Uttam MandalOn the lookout for a living, the boys found theirs on the national highway. Donning olive-green fatigues and sporting red bandannas, they would wave down buses and ease the passengers of their money. By pretending to be Naxalites, they struck fear and rarely faced resistance.The going was good – until they made the mistake of targeting a police inspector travelling in a borrowed jeep. Before they could escape, the police officer arrested them.This comic incident involving an ingenious gang of highway robbers in Orissa’s Malkangiri district has passed into local folklore. But for an overwhelming population living in Orissa’s hinterland, it is no better than black humour. Life in times of the Naxalite menace has been hard for them in the far-flung districts of Malkangiri, Rayagada and Gajapati.The radical leftists, mostly from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, periodically seek refuge in Orissa to escape the long arm of the law and extort money in the name of their “revolution”.Making this situation infinitely worse have been the fake extremists like the youngsters in Malkangiri. While the real ones target only the state or those associated with it, the pretenders make no distinction. “The fake Naxalites are indeed a nuisance,” says Manmohan Praharaj, the IGP heading anti-extremist operations in Orissa.Many, however, insist they are more than a mere nuisance. Ask the three businessmen – a motorcycle dealer and two rice mill owners – of Similiguda in distant Koraput who received ransom notes demanding Rs 5 lakh each in July from a band of fake extremists. Police investigations revealed the demands came from no real extremist outfit. “Someone in the neighbourhood was trying to make a fast buck in the name of the Naxalites,” says Prabhakar S. Ranpise, SP of Koraput. Since it requires you to only have your wits about you, many in rural Orissa are tempted to earn a fast buck by becoming a counterfeit Naxalite. Like Prasad Karkaria.advertisementBored with being an ill-paid driver in Raipur in Chhattisgarh, Karkaria returned to his village in Rayagada to float the People’s War Gang. He didn’t have the slightest of ties with the real Naxals, but knew well enough that their groups were known as dalams. So Karkaria called his the Bhadrachalam Dalam. The rest was easy. Chintamani Panda, a schoolteacher, helped him draft ransom notes and a group member travelled all the way to Vizianagram in Andhra Pradesh to mail them. The recipients took the ransom demands posted in Naxal buroughs seriously and usually paid up. More would have capitulated had the police not arrested Karkaria and his associates in January while they were preparing to mail more ransom notes.The Orissa Police have succeeded in containing the Naxalite menace to a large extent, but taking on the fakes hasn’t been easy. “For one, there are more frauds around than the real ones,” admits a senior police officer. Though intelligence gathering has improved, there’s a lot of confusion due to the profusion of outlawed outfits.Inspired groups have even begun operating in urban Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. An employee in the Cuttack Municipality had an axe to grind against his boss and sent him a fictitious ransom note. It had the desired result: the boss nearly became a mental wreck. “We come across letters from fake Naxalites in hundreds,” says Praharaj.Others do it for more serious reasons, as some forest guards found out in August in the jungles of Rayagada. Having arrested two timber smugglers the previous day, they had gone back to arrest another when they found themselves surrounded by a group of self-proclaimed Naxalites.The posers detained the guards for a few hours before letting them off with a warning not to return to the spot. “It was obvious that the timber mafia was out to capitalise on the forest officers’ fear of Naxalites,” says R.K. Sharma, the Rayagada SP.The fact that Naxalites would never help timber smugglers deplete the forests that provide them with sanctuary was lost on everyone. But when fear rules, logic loses out. It has generally been the case with much of Orissa’s forested interiors where counterfeit Naxal gangs share space with real dalams.The end result is the same: they invoke fear that is chillingly real.