The tale of adivasi warlord Kundan Pahan


BARIGADA IS 18 km towards the forests from the Tamar block bus stand on the Ranchi-Jamshedpur highway. A village with a middle school, it has 75 houses and a population of 450 that depends on agriculture and MGNREGS work for livelihood. Village records show Kundan’s father Narayan Pahan as a beneficiary of the MGNREGS. Narayan, 73, is still the village Pahan. “I perform the puja in our village serna (a grove of sal trees and a place of worship) and for our Bonga Buru (tribal deity). That’s why the tigers do not attack us. That’s why my family still lives with some dignity,” says Narayan.

“We urged Kundan, the youngest of our six sons, not to join the party, but he was stubborn. Then he became a leader. Why will a leader listen to us? We kept hoping against hope that he will come back,” rues Narayan, who last saw Kundan more than three years ago. His elder sons Dimba and Shyam, too, followed Kundan into the Maoist fold and are said to be part of the same squad, while Hari and Jungal became labourers in Ranchi. Only Lohar, the second youngest son, stays with his father. Kundan has an eight-year-old daughter who doesn’t live with her father, and Narayan is happy that she is not part of the violent world that her father has come to make his.

Surrendered Maoists have been turned into SPOs, spies and informers, though it is not a declared policy of the State

Every villager here remembers what the security forces unleashed during combing operations in the past decade. They recount in hushed voices those horrific nights when all the men would flee to the forest at any hint of a police raid. “Everyone feared for the boys and the village would be empty for weeks. Fed up with being thrashed every time and fearing for my life, I left the village in 2002 and stayed away for seven years,” says Eshwar Munda*, a resident of the village. In 2004, Narayan was arrested and accused of murder. He shudders remembering his 11 months in custody. It is suspected that his arrest was an attempt to force Kundan to surrender.

However, the police no longer seem interested in getting Kundan to surrender. “We will bump him off the moment we lay our hands on him. He has left us with no other option,” says a senior cop, a veteran of three operations hunting for Kundan. Indeed, the forces have gone to great lengths to find Kundan and neutralise him. Moreover, his former aides have publicly denounced his leadership and stories of sexual exploitation of women cadres have been highlighted.

“It is out of fear that the villagers feed him. He remains our biggest challenge since 2008, and we carry out at least four operations every month to get to him,” says Naushed Alam, Deputy SP, Bundu. Part of the challenge is to take on the military strategy adopted by Kundan’s squad. Two columns of 14-15 cadres are deployed at a distance from the core column of 40 to keep a look out for the police. Moreover, Kundan never camps anywhere for too long. “He is always on the run,” says Ramesh*, a former aide who is still underground.

Though many in the security establishment, including Jharkhand DGP GS Rath, deny it, Kundan would surely make a prize catch for the security forces today. After all, he is the only Adivasi to have made it to the leadership ranks after SAC member Samar ji, 45, an educated Adivasi of the Ho community. Given the Telugu-Bengali hegemony in the Maoist leadership, Kundan’s Adivasi identity and Mundari mother-tongue make him a necessary prop for the party in the region. Through levy-collection and extortion, he has contributed massively to his party’s funds, and brought in new cadres even as the Maoists face attrition in their ranks in Jharkhand, with several cadres joining splinter groups that are easier on the question of discipline.

Final payment? Cheque issued by a former Khunti SP to SPO Sanjay Purty
Final payment? Cheque issued by a former Khunti SP to SPO Sanjay Purty

“Kundan and his party have got into a spiral of violence. He cannot stop and think why he’s there, or why he’s on the run. I’m sure he cannot speak five cogent sentences on his party’s ideology,” says SN Pradhan, IG, Special Branch. “The way he perceives violence, he seems closer to the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a violent extortionist outfit with neither ideological commitment nor discipline.”

Pradhan, a 1988 batch IPS officer, quotes from WB Yeats’ The Second Coming to describe the current violence: “The centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…” He says, “There are so many groups here, and they are all contributing to breaking up the Maoist movement. It’s good in a way for us, but it’s also a tough job to deal with the varied sets of problems posed by different militant groups.”

Another top cop, who has led several anti-Maoist operations, says Kundan will most likely meet his death at the hands of another Adivasi. Besides the splinter militant groups that moonlight for the security forces for money and mercy, nearly 100 Adivasi SPOs keep a constant watch on the movement of Maoists in the Bundu-Tamar region. Among those gunning for Kundan’s life is Pankaj Purty, a Munda Adivasi, who was earlier with the PLFI and now leads his own group, the Village Republic Guard of India (VRGI), of 50 boys (all in the age group of 15-25), in the Arki block of Khunti district. The group aims to protect villagers from the Maoists and collects “donations” from traders, transport companies and villagers. Pankaj proudly claims that his group has managed to keep Kundan’s squad out of the area.

Speaking to TEHELKA, Pankaj revealed that the local police had initially provided “all kinds of support”, though it backed off later. “It has been six years since I left home. I can’t go back and take up agriculture again until it’s more peaceful, but I don’t know when this conflict would end,” he says.

Indeed, no stakeholder in this conflict expects it to end any time soon. The CPI(Maoist), PLFI, Tritiya Sammelan Pragati Committee (TPC), TPC-1 (a breakaway group of TPC), Jharkhand Liberation Tigers, Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad, Shastra Pratirodh Manch, Swatantra Jharkhand Prastuti Committee and Jharkhand Prastuti Committee are all stakeholders in an “extortion economy” worth over Rs 200 crore per annum.

In fact, the groups have long held each other as enemies, even exchanging fire, killing cadres as well as civilians. Though recently they have made attempts to keep a certain distance from each other, the CPI(Maoist) still considers the splinter groups as “counter-revolutionary”, going by their central committee’s July 2012 bulletin. Even as the CPI(Maoist) faces attrition in its ranks, the other groups have thrived due to the initial benevolence of the state machinery and the mainstream political parties that nurtured them to serve their own needs.

Jharkhand DGP Rath denied any kind of cooperation between the State and the splinter groups. But another senior police officer admitted that district-level officers have sometimes actively nurtured elements inside these groups to target the Maoists. “Some SPs thought it would be beneficial for us to have these groups fight the battle on our behalf as they know the terrain and the language better, but the groups went on to become very violent and also rich,” he says on condition of anonymity. TEHELKA also spoke to two district-level police officers who confirmed this.

On 6 October, the DGP announced the starting of operations against the PLFI, the second largest of the militant groups. For the first time, the operations would also include the CRPF — earlier used only in operations against the CPI(Maoist). Though only the TPC is, technically speaking, a splinter group of the CPI(Maoist), having broken away from the MCC citing “cultural differences” before its merger with PWG, the State has clubbed all the groups under the Left-Wing Extremist (LWE) category.

“We are very clear and determined that we will not tolerate any non-State actor indulging in violence,” Rath told TEHELKA. Another police officer adds: “If we find Dinesh Gop, the leader of PLFI tomorrow, nothing will stop us from going for him. Though there is less political clarity on tackling Maoists in Jharkhand than in Chhattisgarh, even JMM chief and former CM Shibu Soren never stopped us from doing what we had to do, though he said elsewhere that the Maoists are his brothers.”

In this scenario, turning those who get caught in the vicious cycle of violence into SPOs is only a cynical “solution”, with devastating consequences, to what is otherwise a complex equation – though senior police officers may call it a “trick of the trade”. But it’s a trick that plays havoc with the lives of people, especially the poor and deprived.

Take the case of Sanjay Purty, an SPO who was close to some VRGI cadre in his village and was shot dead by PLFI cadres in Khunti on 25 September. When asked about Sanjay, Rath says, “He was probably an SPO in the distant past, but had gone astray and developed illicit relationships with some militant groups.” TEHELKA has in its possession a Bank of India cheque (No. 009324) dated 23 March 2012 for Rs 27,000 issued by former Khunti SP, M Tamil Vanan, to Sanjay as payment for his services.

IF THE DGP terms as “illicit” the hazy relationships that these foot-soldiers of chaos maintain in their microcosms, the Maoists and other militant groups, too, see the SPOs as “enemy agents”. Though it is not a declared State policy, surrendered Maoists and other militants have been turned into SPOs, spies and informers, thus pushing them into the same war they wanted to run away from.

The DGP himself admitted the lack of clarity on a surrender policy. Moreover, one of the senior-most cops in Jharkhand revealed that the establishment does not intend to make compromises with the “brains” of the Maoist movement. “In the case of Narayan Sanyal (alleged politburo member) and others in the CPI(Maoist) leadership, we are very clear that we cannot afford to have them out in the open. They will always try to strengthen the movement,” says a police officer handling intelligence in the case of 78-year-old Sanyal. The state police have tried everything in their hands to keep him in jail, despite a hunger strike by Maoist cadres inside Hazaribag jail where he is currently lodged.

“They want to make examples out of Sanyal and Sushil Roy, another Maoist leader currently admitted in AIIMS, Delhi, with a kidney ailment. They want both to breathe their last in prison,” says a Ranchi-based human rights activist, explaining the difficulties in ensuring human rights for Maoist prisoners.

It is keeping in mind this dark canvas that one needs to reflect on the tale of Kundan Pahan. In this war of all-against-all, where the line between perpetrator and victim is often blurred, the question of who’s fighting whom and for what cause becomes the least important factor shaping the fate of individuals. Indeed, Jharkhand’s bloody quagmire is pregnant with many Kundans and Bikrams — people swept away by the circumstances of their homes and surroundings into a tunnel with no light at the end.

*Names Changed On Request

G Vishnu is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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