“Come to the police station at once,” the person on the line told Rambati, the sarpanch of the Kakkalgur gram panchayat, created barely eight months earlier. “Two people have been arrested from Bhadrimau.” The para—neighbourhood—of Bhadrimau, where the two men had been arrested, came under the jurisdiction of the Kakkalgur panchayat. As sarpanch, the caller told her, she was required to come to the police station.
Rambati knew that five days earlier, on 9 September, paramilitary personnel had beaten up the residents of Bhadrimau with sticks at a weekly market in a neighbouring village. She also knew that on 10 September, people had been picked up from Bhadrimau: unexplained detentions are a part of Adivasi life in Bastar.
Rambati wasted no time after the phone call. She called her son, 17-year old Somaru, an eighth standard dropout, to take her to the station on a motorbike. About half an hour later, after a treacherous journey along the dirt track through the forest, they reached the thana—only to be told that Rambati was required at the police station in Jagdalpur town, 30 kilometres away.
The police offered to help. A policeman would take her to Jagdalpur on his bike, and her son could follow. The two motorcyles left for Jagdalpur at around 11 am but Somaru couldn’t keep pace. “I had learned how to ride a bike only recently, and was too slow to keep up with the policeman,” Somaru told me later.
At the thana, Rambati told me when I met her later that day, the policemen “asked me to sign a paper. There was something written on it. But I have no idea what it was.” Rambati and Somaru belong to the Durva tribe that, like other tribes in the area, has a rich oral tradition. Literacy and formal education are almost solely the preserve of younger generations in the area: only three people from among Kakkalgur’s 130 households have completed high school. Rambati herself cannot read and speaks only Durvi. She can understand a bit of Hindi, and knows how to sign her name in the Devanagri script.
“I told them I’ll sign the paper after my son arrives, since he can read and write, but they were adamant,” she said. “‘We’ve arrested them and we need your signature,’” she recounted the officials telling her. (According to Supreme Court guidelines, in the case of an arrest, the police are required to inform the family members of the person in question. There is no mention of the need for a signature from the sarpanch.)
I asked her if the police had explained what was on the paper. “No. They just told me two people have been arrested and you have to sign.”
By the time Somaru reached the police station, it was too late. Rambati had signed the paper and was waiting outside the station for him. Neither son nor mother had any idea what she had put her name to.
For all she knew, Rambati could have signed a statement confirming the two men from Bhadrimau were guilty of any number of crimes. This, too, is common practice in this area: fearing retribution from the security forces, the non-literate Adivasis often sign away papers written in alien languages.
I visited the Jagdalpur police station shortly after dusk that day to check what exactly Rambati had signed. The officials spoke as if the incidents of the morning had never happened.
“Kahan ka sarpanch?” (The sarpanch of which area?), they asked me. “Kakkalgur?… No sarpanch was here today.” Was I sure this was the thana I was looking for, I was asked. I was, because Rambati herself had shown me the station a while earlier. The structure was there, as were the officials. But there was no trace of the document.
War is a word you often hear in Bastar, especially as a journalist. It recurred, for instance, in conversations with senior police officials, who also made it a point to retract it. “Actually, it’s a battle,” many said, far more firmly.
Maoist rebels moved into the forests of what is now known as the Bastar division beginning in the late 1980s. At the time, the Maoist movement was at its peak in present-day Telangana. The division—about 40,000 square kilometres in area—was one single district in Madhya Pradesh. In 1998, the Bastar division was split into three districts: Uttar Bastar Kanker, Bastar, and Dakshin Bastar Dantewada. When, in 2000, the state of Chhattisgarh was created, the division became a part of it. In 2008, the districts of Narayanpur and Bijapur were carved out of Bastar and Dakshin Bastar Dantewada respectively, followed by another change in district boundaries in 2012. On the last occasion, Kondagaon was carved out of Bastar, and Sukma out of Dakshin Bastar Dantewada. Today, all seven thickly forested districts in Bastar division—Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Kanker, Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur, Bastar—are classified, according to the Indian government, as affected by Left-Wing Extremism, or LWE—the state’s official term for Maoist insurgency.
“Initially, Bastar was more a shelter zone for the Maoists,” said Bela Bhatia, a scholar and activist who lives in a village near Jagdalpur. Bhatia has been living in the area since early 2015, and has played akey role in bringing to light several cases of human rights violation in the area. “During this early phase, they lived primarily among the Dorla tribals close to the border with Telangana, also the hub of the movement,” she told me. Gradually, Bhatia said, as the rebel forces moved deeper into the forests, they learned of the problems the Adivasis were facing. Then, there was hardly any government presence in villages across Bastar. The tribal people were at the mercy of forest officials and traders, and exploitation was rampant. The forest department regularly harangued the villagers. The Maoist rebels “got involved in movements in Bastar to get the Adivasis better prices for tendu leaves”—used to roll bidis—“and other forest produce,” Bhatia said. As a result of these movements, the daily torture and harassment from the forest department officials ceased, and villagers started getting much better prices.
Most Adivasis I spoke to said—some even grudgingly—that whatever is left of Bastar’s “jal, jangal,jameen” (“water, forest and land,” a popular slogan in these parts) is due to the intervention of thedadalog—the villagers’ term for Maoist rebels.
Many senior police and paramilitary officers told me they respected the integrity and passion of the rebels during the 1970s and 1980s. They said that the Maoists of the time were ideologically committed, unlike the current ones who “operate like a mafia.”
“They are just exploiting the tribals,” D Shravan told me in when I met him in October 2015. Shravan was then the superintendent of police (SP) in Sukma. “They’re taking advantage of their innocence,” he added.
The security establishment’s narrative on left-wing extremism in Bastar today is neatly laid out: the Maoists are outsiders who are using the innocent tribal people of Bastar to further their selfish agenda. According to the state, the rebels do nothing for the tribal people. The Maoist leaders, many state officials told me, just enjoy the spoils of ransom monies from the companies that want to set up projects in the area—the rebels send their kids to foreign universities, while the Adivasis and their kids die on the “battlefield.”
The largest urban agglomeration in Bastar division is in Bastar district, around its headquarters—Jagdalpur. Apart from residential, business and government establishments, it houses senior officials involved in countering the insurgency, as well as the District and Sessions Court, and the division’s largest jail. Large parts of the district have never seen any Maoist presence. From Jagdalpur, the closest areas with a presence of Maoist rebels, such as the Darbha and Jeeram valleys, are 30–40 kilometres away. Yet, suspicion runs like a viral fever through the roads and alleys of the town. “They pick up anyone they are a little suspicious of here,” a migrant shopkeeper from West Bengal told me in Jagdalpur, under the security of his mother tongue. “They take them to the jail and …”
In another conversation, a couple of Christian missionaries recalled their recent experiences in jail. They had been arrested in June last year for a having organised a protest against a 2012 incident—in January that year, Hindu right-wing vigilantes had desecrated a Christian graveyard in town. “We met so many people who were not Maoists. They were simple villagers and yet have been in jail for months and years,” one of the missionaries told me. “All of them have been beaten mercilessly at some point.”
Even then, very few individuals or organisations make public statements on matters such as illegal detention and torture. If they do, they draw the attention of the suspicion-gripped security apparatus towards them. The security forces often consider such statements proof of Maoist infiltration—of being a link in the rebels’ “urban network.”
The purported network “poses a huge problem for us. They’re the ones who are supporting the movement from the outside,” Shravan said. As far as the state is concerned, organisations such as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, that work to bring attention to human rights violations in the region; lawyers who take up the cases of accused Maoists or Adivasis; and sections of the media, constitute a support circle for the insurgents.
“Yeh human rights wale upari madad de rahe hain” (These human-rights activists are extending covert support to the Maoists), Kamlochan Kashyap, the SP of Dantewada district, said, livid. “Poore Bastar to criminalise kar diya Naxalion ne, phir bhi human rights wale is ko kheench rahe hain” (The Naxalites have criminalised all of Bastar, but these actvists don’t relent.)
Kashyap is an Adivasi himself. “Main Bastar ka beta hun” (I am a son of Bastar), he told me. But like the rest of the security establishment, he said, he “pities the tribal people.” “The villagers don’t know when they are made Naxalis.”
“Naxalis make people part of local committees very tactfully,” Kashyap added, noting that the Maoists ask villagers to dig up roads to prevent the entry of security forces into interior areas, or destroy school buildings that are often used by the forces as shelters. Even children are asked to watch out for police parties, he told me. “These are all criminal activities. Naxalis have turned the public criminal,” Kashyap asserted.
Since every tribe in the area has its own language, and although some languages are similar to each other, the range can be perplexing for the forces on the ground. During a conversation in his office in October last year, Shravan told me that, because he had studied anthropology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, he could comprehend tribal social structures and recognise persons of authority with relative ease.
He said that he was relieved when Sukma was carved out as a separate district, in 2012. “It brought decision-making about our area right here. Files did not need to be sent to the district headquarters in Dantewada, or to Raipur. The collector’s office is here and we have been working with the administration to execute key projects. A lot of work is getting done here,” Shravan said. “The situation has improved.”
Proof of this, he said, was the main road of Sukma, on which the police headquarters is located. “Three years ago, you wouldn’t see a single person on the road after three in the afternoon. Now, look at the number of people roaming freely,” he said. “The security situation is much better.”
“Jahan jahan force jaati hai, road saath mein chalti hai,” (Wherever security forces have go, roads follow) a Central Reserve Police Force jawan manning a camp check post at Awapally, in Bijapur district, told me. I chatted with him briefly while entering my name, mobile number and vehicle number into a register. This is how the CRPF keeps a vigil on people moving in and out of the area.
The creation of new districts in 2012 fuelled a construction boom in the region. Roads, administrative buildings, paramilitary camps, helipads, and installation of mobile towers: everything began to be contracted out, at rates 30–40 percent higher than government-approved figures.
“Earlier, the bureaucracy in the capital would just not understand that unless we pay more than approved rates, contractors here would not take up work,” said the collector of one of the newly carved out LWE-affected districts, requesting anonymity. “At the local level here, we understand how grave the threat to contractors and machinery is. Despite full security arrangements from the police, no contractor will take up work at lower rates,” said the collector.
On roads across Bastar, I saw burnt chassis of backhoes, road rollers and police vehicles stand in testimony to the collector’s words. The rebels routinely attack and set on fire to machinery used for road construction because roads are central to the state’s effort to counter the insurgency—they quite literally extend the reach of the government.
Security camps and outposts also function as nodes of governance: departmental entitlements and doles for people, such as agricultural equipment, saplings, clothes and grains, are distributed at the camps as part of public outreach programmes by the security forces.
Since healthcare facilities are almost absent in the interior villages, the CRPF has also opened field hospitals in some of their camps. “Together, we have treated 1500 people over six months,” a CRPF functionary told me, before requesting that I not name him since he is not authorised to speak to the media. Although a lot of ground has been covered in these new districts, a lot remains to be done, said the functionary.
In an interview with the Press Trust of India (PTI) on 27 September 2015, the CRPF DG Prakash Mishra spoke in a similar vein. “South Chhattisgarh continues to pose the biggest challenge for security forces where almost 11,000 sq kms has no presence of security forces. This gives Maoists the liberty to unleash their free reign,” Mishra said.
According to Mishra, the CRPF’s focus had shifted to Bastar because the overall security situation in various LWE-affected states had eased. “It is only a matter of time before the void is filled,” he assured.
The “void”—where the security forces haven’t yet registered presence—is also where two major iron ore mines and steel plants, belonging to the Tata and Essar conglomerates respectively, are in the pipeline. The National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC), a central government enterprise, is already building a steel plant in Nagarnar, about 15 kilometres from Jagdalpur. These apart, a large number of units for sponge iron—a form of iron ore used to produce wrought iron—are under production. Units for steel casting, pig iron, among others, are either operational or proposed in parts.
Mishra didn’t mention any of these in his statement though—in fact, no one does in these parts. Certain things are papered over because they’re still only on paper: in many cases, companies have received mining leases but have not yet begun operations; in several others, an accurate survey of the riches under the surface hasn’t been undertaken yet.
According to the Chhattisgarh’s Department of Mines website, making these surveys, mining, and the industrialisation a reality requires “the necessary environment.” To put it simply, it requires that these areas be free of Maoist rebels—and those who sympathise with them.
For the last few years, the use of technology to counter insurgency has been steadily increasing. Security forces regularly use GPS, satellite maps, videography, and social media in their counter-insurgency efforts. During a visit to the Anti-Naxal Operations (ANO) office in the state capital Naya Raipur in October 2015, state officials told me that their intelligence network relies on applications such as WhatsApp for instant information sharing as well as circulation of photographs of suspected Maoists. A senior ANO functionary told me that the office also runs several social media accounts to counter “Maoist propaganda.” Government officials in the region routinely use social media to further what they consider to be the truth.
It is, however, drones that occupy pride of place in the use of technology among the forces. With the help of the Indian Air Force, security forces in Bastar have been employing surveillance drones for over five years.
Senior security officials told me that the anti-Maoist forces now have three types of surveillance drones: ones with a range of 300–500 kilometres that are operated from the air base in the industrial town of Bhilai in Durg district; mid-range ones that can cover an area of 25–30 kilometres; and small ones that operate within a 3–5 kilometre radius. The small ones are launched by “throwing them like a javelin,” a CRPF official told me, and are mostly used by patrol parties to examine areas around their position in the jungle.
For the past few months, efforts have been afoot to beam the footage from these various drones into the swanky new police headquarters in Naya Raipur. The home minister Rajnath Singh in inaugurated the facility in May 2015. In October of the same year, officials at the ANO office told me that the office was trying to get a separate high-speed broadband line just for carrying live drone footage.
In due course, they said, all district police headquarters would be connected to the grid. Sharing data in real time will allow senior security officials to direct their teams more effectively, and allow forces to plan coordinated action.
The Chhattisgarh government and the anti-Naxal forces hope to use drones beyond surveillance. Although both the government and the IAF have previously clarified that they would not launch an attack on their “own people,” there have been reports signalling a change in strategy.
For now, drones meant for security are servicing the needs of industry. A project manager with the NMDC iron-ore mine in Bailadila told me as much on the sidelines of an environmental clearance-related public hearing at Tokapal, in Dantewada district, on 4 July 2015.
The NMDC had called the meeting so the residents could register objections, if any, to a slurry pipeline passing through their villages. The proposed pipeline would carry iron ore from the mine in Bailadila to the under-construction steel plant in Nagarnar, and onward, to Vishakhapatnam. The villagers at the hearing were enraged. Most of those present at the hearing had not known about the pipeline until three days earlier.
Representatives from among the residents took to the microphone to ask the officials how they were supposed to give feedback on a project they had known about for such little time. They also raised questions about the pipeline, asking who would provide them compensation for the damage caused due to pollution, or if they would be arrested if the pipe were damaged. A few among the residents said the public hearing was unconstitutional and an overreach in democracy. They called for its cancellation. The villagers then began shouting slogans against the decision, and staged a walkout.
While they filed out of the hearing, I asked the NMDC project director if the villagers had been consulted before the pathway was drawn up. “At present, the pipeline’s trajectory has been decided with the help of drone footage. No one’s met the people yet,” he said.
On 14 September last year, the Chhattisgarh Police announced at a press conference in Jagdalpur that two “dangerous Naxalis” had been picked up from Bhadrimau, a village in the Kakkalgur panchayat. On the same day, the police produced Bijja Podiami and Deva Muchaki from Bhadrimau, at the Jagdalpur district court.
According to a person who was present at the hearing, the police told the court that Podiami and Muchaki were caught a day earlier, in the forests near Bhadrimau, with tiffin bombs and explosives. The police’s account was thus: a patrol party comprising CRPF and district police had set out from the Sukma camp on 10 September. On 13 September, on their way back to the camp, they found Podiami and Muchaki hiding in the forest near Bhadrimau.
I later found that this account was suspect. According to the villagers, on 13 September, Podiami and Muchaki had already been missing for three days.
A few days later, in Bhadrimau, a group of men and women I met at the village square recounted what had transpired on 10 September, the day Podiami and Muchaki were picked up from the village.
That morning, they told me, villagers were to gather at the square in front of a government school to discuss preparations for Nuakhani, an Adivasi festival marking the day the season’s fresh harvest is consumed.
Podiami and Muchaki were among the first to arrive. They were seated under a mango tree when the Darbha thanedaar—police station in-charge—Durgesh Sharma announced himself upon the scene. “‘Who are Bijja Podiami and Deva Muchaki?’ he asked,” one woman recounted. The two identified themselves immediately. “They were ordered into the police Scorpio and taken away,” said a man.
It is commonplace for villagers to be taken to the police station at a moment’s notice, and to be questioned and even beaten for hours on end. And so, Bhadrimau waited a day. On 11 September, they called a person from the village who works in Jagdalpur as a security guard at a government office, and told him what had happened. They asked him to check if the villagers had been produced in the court or detained at a police station in Jagdalpur. The next day, their contact confirmed that the men were in police custody.
It is also common for villagers in LWE-affected areas to wait for a few days before raising a “missing” alarm. Every so often, local police stations offer to negotiate a settlement and release the nabbed person without registering a case—for a price. According to the villagers I spoke to, in Bastar, this amount was usually Rs 10,000–15,000. Once the police have named a price, the villagers must choose to either pay or find a lawyer to represent them in court. The latter, I was told, could cost them at least Rs 50,000.
Though the state allocates free lawyers for every accused who can’t afford otherwise, very few of these legal-aid advocates meet their clients: during jail visits, lawyers must get their photos taken, and appearing in front of the jail CCTV camera too often is akin to courting a “pro-Naxal” tag.
Perhaps it is because the advocates at Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG)—a non-profit that provides free legal aid to Adivasis in the region—go about their business despite these risks, that they enjoy the faith of scared, unquestioning Adivasis. In their three years of operation here, JagLAG advocates have defended several accused under trials.
Podiami and Muchaki’s case was no different. On 13 September, Podiami’s brother later told me, a group of young men from Bhadrimau travelled from the village to meet lawyers from JagLAG the at the district headquarters. The group met Isha Khandelwal, one of JagLAG’s founders. The next morning, Khandelwal filed an application at the district court. Within an hour, Podiami and Muchaki were produced in the same court. The court sent them to judicial custody pending the trial.
Between September 2014 and 2015, ten people—including Podiami and Muchaki—were arrested from Bhadrimau. They were charged with participating in “Naxali gatividhiyan”—Naxalite activities—and booked under several sections of the Explosives Act and the 2005 Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act. All the accused were lodged in Jagdalpur jail. Many in Bhadrimau told me that two of those arrested were part of the rebels’ village committee. (The Maoists often form informal administrative bodies to help villages coordinate festivals and community farming activities.)
According to independent research conducted by JagLAG in 2013, most undertrials spend an average of three to five years in prison for a single case, and are routinely denied bail. JagLAG also found that the length of imprisonment of undertrials awaiting a verdict in Jagdalpur Central Jail and Dantewada District Jail is significantly longer compared to national and state figures. As a result, jails in the Bastar region are packed to 250–600 percent beyond capacity.
Bhadrimau has nearly 140 households. Villagers said the rebels no longer hold meetings in the village, unlike during the first half the 2000s. Then, at village meetings, the dadalog would ask the residents of Bhadrimau not to give up their land for factories and mines, and not to entertain the forces.
In the latter, the villagers didn’t really have choice. Since 2005, following the establishment of the Darpha outpost 15 kilometres away, the CRPF started coming to the village in larger numbers, accompanied by the local police. At present, residents said, patrol parties visit every two or three days—always during the day. Located on the fringes of the forest, Bhadrimau is the last village on their regular patrol route.
The Maoists visit the village occasionally, and people readily give them food—as do the Adivasis in most other villages. Though not a crime, this is something the security forces loathe. “It comes out when they beat us, in their frustrated rants,” villagers told me. The rants of the personnel, they said, come out in bursts, like machine gun fire. The villagers told me that security personnel criticised them, telling them that they were ignorant, and that their lives—so much of which are spent in the forest—were pointless.
This modus operandi of the forces is common to all of Bastar. When security personnel visit a village, they often berate the men of the villages. “They beat us in front of the women,” a villager from the Sarkeguda block in Bijapur district told me. The personnel call out the women and harass them: they are touched, squeezed, and made to take off their clothes. Some have had jawans forcefully suckle at their breasts. Adivasi women are regularly traumatised, raped, and gangraped, but few report it to the police for fear of reprisals. On the rare occasions they do report these crimes, they are faced with a state machinery that does not want to acknowledge alleged human rights violations.
Via pamphlets, posters, statements, and announcements over radio, television and social media, the state calls on Adivasis who are part of the armed squads of the Maoists to surrender and enjoy a life of “freedom and security.” Bhadrimau residents told me that, of late, patrol parties included surrendered Maoists. “You can always spot them from their black masks,” a villager said—the surrendered cadre wear these masks to conceal their identity during field operations with security forces, fearing reprisals from Maoists.
In reality, the life this cadre leads is very different from the one advertised in official communication. “The state’s support for rehabilitation of surrendered Maoists will depend on their cooperation in anti-insurgency activities,” states the fifth point in Chhattisgarh’s surrender policy, which was sanctioned in 2004.
Surrendered cadre are sent to take on Maoist guerilla squads, and exposed to the same immediate violence they likely sought to flee. For those who perform well—a few encounters, some arrests—promotion to the position of a fully recognised “arakshak”—a guard—with a salary of Rs 15,000 or thereabouts, is possible. The surrendered Maoists are housed within the district police headquarters, and must necessarily take the permission of the SP in case they want to venture beyond a five or six-kilometre radius.
Bhadrimau doesn’t have any surrendered cadre or jawans serving on the side of the state—one of the reasons, the residents reckon, they are targeted.
“They come with money and chocolates,” the villagers in Bhadrimau said of the security forces’ patrols. Anyone can recognise money and chocolate as ready influencers, especially in a region where the villagers get about Rs 150 for filling a tractor-cart with stones for a chip stone quarry—a job that takes four men and five hours of chipping away at a hill to complete. Sometimes, the patrols would bring small presents for the villagers, in an effort to appease them.
But not all patrols use the carrot technique; some use the stick. One of the women at the village square said security personnel “make whatever they can get their hands on their own, whether it is hens, cattle or women.” “They take away all our home-brewed liquor. They break into houses and beat us up for no reason,” said one of the men. Villagers in Bhadrimau told me violence by security personnel on villagers escalated around mid 2015. Several “adhikaris”—authorities—also visited the village in the latter half of 2015, they said, but the villagers were not told who they were or the organisations they represented.
Two of the men lifted their t-shirts to show me several clots on their back and legs. “We’d gone to the forest to get some wood a couple of days ago. They beat us mercilessly, all the while questioning what we were doing in the forest,” one of them said. “‘You’re all Naxalis,’” the men recalled the officials saying.
The villagers told me that if the security personnel found them walking in the forest, they would bombard them with questions. “They beat us up and shove us with their boots when they find us sleeping in our fields inside the forest, even though we tell them we’re only guarding our crops from wild animals,” a young boy who had just returned from the high school located 15 kilometres away, told me. Many people said they had reduced visits to kin in faraway villages to avoid this harassment.
For the paramilitary personnel on patrol, every Adivasi is a suspect. “We don’t know who is a villager and who is a Naxal,” a senior CRPF jawan at one of the checkposts said. “We pass them now and they’re standing idle; we turn our backs and they could pick up a weapon. Naxalis!”
Most of the paramilitary personnel on duty in Bastar are from outside the state and are not familiar with the local culture or terrain. The district police, also a major player in counter insurgency operations, has a clear advantage over the paramilitary force: it has among its ranks many Adivasis. During CRPF patrols—which, as per the CRPF Act of 1949, must have district police representatives—young tribal boys are sent to converse with villagers in their language.
Since most of the tribal jawans in the district police have grown up in the jungles, they’re also far better acquainted with the terrain.
But though the district police and CRPF constabulary do the same job on the ground and have the same range of weapons available to them, there is a substantial difference in their salaries. The central force’s pay is almost double that of district forces: about Rs 32,000 a month for the rank of a jawan, compared to around Rs 18,000 for the district police.
“Yet it is they who die whenever there is an encounter,” a young jawan belonging to the Gond tribe, and enrolled with the Jagdalpur district police said. “Remember the time when 76 security personnel were killed in a Maoist attack in Dantewada?” he asked, referring to a 2010 incident during which security personnel were killed in a Maoist ambush. “Only one of those killed was from the district police. The rest were all CRPF.” He and his colleagues, fellow Adivasis from the Gond and Durva communities, then burst into laughter.
The jawan had no doubts about who was the better of the lot. “It is we who do all the work. They can’t even fire properly. They fire bullets after bullets—khat khat khat,” he said, imitating the sound of gunfire. “We pull the trigger once and the job is done.”
But he was also remorseful of what his job entailed—turning against his own people. “Pet ke liye karna padta hai”(I have to do it for a livelihood) he said in a hushed voice, after looking around to ensure that his supervisors would not see him in conversation with a stranger.
Despite the higher wages, most of the CRPF personnel opt out of Bastar at the first opportunity. “Around 80 percent among us opt to serve in other areas after the mandatory four-year period. Who would want to stay here?” a CRPF jawan named Anil, who only offered his first name, told me. When I met him at a bus stop on the Sarkeguda-Bijapur road one October afternoon, Anil was supervising the loading of luggage onto a bus to Bijapur, the district headquarters. A few jawans had been granted leave, and since the forces didn’t have vehicles to spare, they were going to take a public bus.
Bus rides can be risk a for security personnel in these parts. Only a week earlier, the Maoists had set a bus on fire not far from where we stood. “But today should be okay,” Anil said confidently. “There are many villagers in the bus, and they”—the Maoists—“don’t do anything in such scenarios. If the bus had one or two civilians and the rest, our men, that would have been risky.”
In recent years, the CRPF has lost more men to land mine blasts than to direct encounters with Maoists. In his September 2015 interview to PTI, the CRPF DG Prakash Mishra said that the force is trying to “check these incidents by inducting some advanced field gadgets and developing newer standard operating procedures.”
While Mishra said the Maoist’s emphasis on Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) is “an indicator that the rebels are not willing to take us head on as they fear losses,” it is also possible that the rebels are trying to minimise loss of civilian lives—collateral damage, in the language of conflict.
“Come to the police station tomorrow morning.”
On 28 September, over two weeks after Podiami and Muchaki were picked up, the residents of Bhadrimau received another visit from the Darbha police station personnel. They were asked to present themselves at the police station in connection with the release of five undertrials from the village. Like all Adivasis in Bastar, they knew that a call from the police must always be honoured. And so, they reported to the police station en masse on 29 September.
On reaching the Darbha police station, they found the place decked up, with a canopy, a big stage, and neatly arranged ornate chairs on the dais. In attendance was the Bastar Inspector General, SRP Kalluri, and other dignitaries. The officials sat on chairs, and the villagers on bare ground. One by one, the latter were called and handed out new clothes, towels and food, while photographers on duty clicked away.
During the function, Santosh Yadav, a local journalist who had helped Bhadrimau residents get in touch with JagLAG following Podiami and Muchaki’s arrest, had a public altercation with senior police officials present there.
Eyewitnesses from Bhadrimau told me that police officials questioned Yadav about why he was present at the venue, and with what authorisation. Yadav raised questions about the intent of the programme, given that villagers had been asked to report there in connection with the release of undertrials. “When Santosh said he was a journalist, the officials dismissed it,” a villager told me. “Kalluri told him that he was a mere stringer”—a correspondent who sends inputs and reports to other journalists and media organisations, but often doesn’t receive bylines or public recognition. “Stringers are not journalists and you have no business being here,” witnesses recalled Kalluri telling Yadav.
The next morning, on 30 September, local newspapers in Jagdalpur such as Nai Dunia reported that the entire village of Bhadrimau had turned up at the Darbha police station the previous day demanding protection from the Maoists.
The same day, Yadav received a call from a police station in Sukma district, asking him to report to the station to meet Kalluri. Two days later, he was presented in Jagdalpur court, where the judge sent him to a 10-day police remand.
Almost a year on, charged under several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, along with murder, rioting and intimidation, Yadav remains in jail. Since then, other journalists reporting from the region have been attacked with renewed gusto; some are arrested and put behind bars, while others are driven out by threats. Vigilante citizens’ organisations sympathetic to the police have rallied against lawyers, activists, academics and researchers. In effect, anyone talking about the rights of the Adivasis in Bastar has been branded guilty of stalling the development of the region.
In February this year, Podiami and Muchaki were acquitted. After hearing the testimonies by police officials, the judge stated that the case against the two seemed fabricated. The cases against other men who were arrested from Bhadrimau, however, are still ongoing.
Then again, where is Bhadrimau? The residents have biometric Aadhaar cards and voter IDs with the addresses listing Bhadrimau village. But in the official survey map of India, Bhadrimau doesn’t exist—its official location is yet to be approved by the government. If and when it is notified, it could be anywhere within the current pin code. For now, when its residents meet security forces in the forest, the personnel threaten to wipe off the village. It’s easy: if there’s no village on paper, there’s no war.
Correction: Bijja Podiami and Deva Muchaki were acquitted in February 2016. The sentences: “Meanwhile, as opposed to life in the forests and under the open sky, Podiami and Muchaki are counting their time in barracks where prisoners sleep in shifts because there isn’t enough space for all inmates to lie down at the same time,” “But if JagLAG’s data on past arrests is anything to go by, the court is unlikely to give them bail despite a weak case” and “Chances are, those ten, and the thousands of other undertrials in Bastar, will spend many years in jail awaiting a verdict” were removed to reflect this. The Caravan regrets the error.
Aritra Bhattacharya is a principal correspondent with The Statesman and a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He can be reached at [email protected] and @b_aritra on Twitter and Instagram.http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/no-war-bastar-battles-bhadrimau