Photos By Tarun Sehrawat
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ON THE morning of 15 March, a messenger arrived on the run in Jatwar, a remote village on a stony mountain slope in Chhattisgarh, with news of marching troops. A black radio, a 12-bore double-barrelled gun, a whistle, a blue plastic sheet — all his material possessions by his side — 21-year-old Nilesh was asleep under a thatched roof. A Maadia tribal, he had joined the Maoist Jan Militia three years earlier. He describes it as a “people’s squad to protect the village”.
The morning of 15 March was his first call to battle. The news was that 3,000 armed men were headed his way. On cue, Nilesh slung his rifle over his shoulder — a family hand-down from his grandfather who had used it to shoot birds — put whistle to mouth, and began the evacuation of all 30 huts in Jatwar.
As Nilesh led the villagers to a safer spot in the jungle, the sounds of firing began. This would be soon followed by the sound of mortars and grenades. The leaf cover of Jatwar’s thatched roofs would be snuffed out by the propellers of an IAF helicopter. There would be bloodstains by a tree where a CRPF jawan tried to hide, dodging bullets from across the river. By afternoon, Jatwar would become the epicentre of Operation Hakka: Abujmarh would have been breached by the Indian State.
IN A world precision-mapped to an inch by Google and GPS, in a world where men have scaled the highest peak and dived in personalised submarines to its depths, it is difficult to imagine a place that has any mystery for the contemporary imagination. But until barely a few weeks ago, Abujmarh — the almost mythic citadel of the banned CPI (Maoist) in India — was such a place.
For decades, no one from ‘mainstream’ India had ever been inside the forbidden grove: 6,000 sq km of forest, sudden streams and surging mountains. In that time, Abujmarh — which means “the unknown hills” in Gondi — had swelled in people’s minds into a place imbued with both fascination and dread. Be it the State, paramilitary forces, social activists or even seasoned journalists doing the conflict beat, everyone was accustomed to point in its general direction and speak of it in whispered tones. No one knew what to expect there. It was India’s only fully “liberated zone”. A place where the ‘writ’ of the State had ceased to exist altogether and the reign of the Maoists had begun.
So deep was the fear of the unknown that when the Indian forces stormed Abujmarh on 15 March in an assault codenamed Operation Hakka, they went in with sophisticated weapons like Swedish Carl Gustav rocket launchers and under-barrel grenade launchers. For several months before, the forces had sent drones to fly over the mountains and bring back satellite images. The dark patches in the hills that the machines brought back, they took to be armed fortifications and trenches: a citadel worthy of India’s “greatest internal security threat”.
It is a measure of both the complexity and the bathos of the Maoist-tribal crisis in India — and the inadequate narrative that has built up around it — that when Operation Hakka actually got off the ground, and the troops entered the great unknown, what they found in Abujmarh was not the military HQ of a deadly and well-organised insurgency but scraggly villages and forlorn clusters of leaf and bamboo huts. Their biggest recovery seems to have been an inkjet printer. “We had 13 encounters with vardiwale Naxal,” says Narayanpur SP Mayank Srivastav. In one, “a Naxal running away with a laptop” was possibly injured. “We could not get the laptop but we got the printer.”
Both The Indian Express and The Hindustan Times, which reported the forces’ official account of entering Abujmarh some weeks ago, mentioned this contrast between expectation and reality. But it is not the irony of their misplaced idea of Abujmarh that seemed to have caught the forces’ attention. It is the psychological victory of having entered it.
“Our most significant achievement is that we have reached a stage where we can deploy 3,000 troops and prepare them so well that they can return unharmed,” says TG Longkumer, Bastar IG. “There was a time when we lost 76 jawans in an encounter. We have grown since then. We are more secure now. We felt ready for such a challenge. There was always a view that the forces can’t enter this area. It was very important to dispel it. We wanted to break the myth of Abujmarh.”
But if the old bogey of an impenetrable military fortress is replaced only by a monochromatic idea of frail and helpless villages, the myth of Abujmarh will not have been broken: it will only have been replaced.
The ambiguous story of the Maoist insurgency and India’s tribal crisis cannot be understood properly unless Abujmarh is really breached the way it needs to be: with layered understanding. For the truth is, Abujmarh is as much a physical place as a state of mind, a shifting line, a struggle for “area domination” between contesting stories.
As Dada, a Maoist area commander in Abujmarh, says to TEHELKA, “We do not have a fixed military base. We carry everything on our shoulders. Wherever the party goes, that becomes our stronghold.”
Where then is Abujmarh really?
JAN YUDH. People’s War. A piece of white paper nailed to the bark of a tree brings our bikes to a screeching halt. “Ordinary villagers of the people’s war zone, teachers, children, elders and others,” the paper says, “this is an appeal from the CPI (Maoist) party of India. We are informing you that in the mountains, streams, villages and fields of Marh, in various places near the roads, explosive tunnels, mines and booby traps have been laid. Big holes with spikes have been dug across Marh. Travel cautiously. Do not venture into the jungles. Any resulting fatalities will not be our responsibility. The Indian Army, CRPF and Cobra Force is ready to enter our Marh. That is why we have been compelled to do all this. This notice is being given to you from 15 April 2012.”
It is 16 April now. Exactly a month since Operation Hakka and Day 1 of our own journey into Abujmarh. TEHELKA photographer Tarun Sehrawat and I avoid each others’ eye. The question of backtracking cannot be voiced. We have no idea what lies ahead. We have packed our bags with 12 bottles of Bisleri, some Maggi noodles and biscuits. As we left Narayanpur town the night before, a local contact stuffed half a bottle of Blender’s Pride whiskey into our hands: “It will numb the pain,” he said.
It was India’s only fully ‘liberated zone’. A place where the ‘writ’ of the State had ceased to exist altogether and the reign of the Maoists had begun
This morning, we had set off early from Kondagaon town, snucked undetected past the CRPF camp at Kukrajor, the last policed checkpoint in the area, and kept riding in the general direction of the hills. We wonder now if this tree bark, with the paper warning fluttering in the wind, is where Abujmarh begins.
We ride on. The road slowly peters out into mud paths, crisscrossed by streams. The slopes become steeper, the sal forest thicker. We keep climbing. Hours pass. There are no mines, no explosives, no booby traps. We start to wonder: was the notice merely a psychological tactic? (“Kuch cheez dikhane ke liye hote hai,” Rajesh, our Maoist guide, would laugh later into the journey. “Some things are only for show.”)
As yet though, we have no guides. We are riding through a landscape of fragile, threadbare beauty. Everywhere, the palate is red mud and stony brown. The lime green forests have a tropical feel but never seem to acquire any real density. The most colourful things are Maadia graves — shreds of torn sarees swaying from tress to mark a life once lived. The village huts are all made of leaves and thin bamboo reed.
Suddenly we arrive at what seems to be the Abujmarh equivalent of India Gate. An iron and steel archway boldly declares: Bharatiya Sena Vapas Jao, Bastar vasi bahari nahi hai. Jung mat lado (Indian Army go back. Bastar residents are not outsiders. Don’t fight a war with us). On the other side of the gateway, a call to arms: Bastar ke yuvao sarkar ke najais jang ke khilaph jan yudh mein shamil ho jao (Youth of Bastar, unite against the illegal war waged by the government).
After this, we occasionally pass clusters of stepped red monuments crowned by a hammer and sickle: Maoist homage to martyrs. Suddenly our bike sputters and stops. We stop at a village en route for help. An old man speaks in whispers. “I wanted a forest patta but the party has warned us against taking any help from the government,” he says. “Many men have disappeared from this village. There is no count of the number of people the party has killed.”
The man’s account is a jolt. We had expected our first interaction in the party’s own stronghold, the crucible of the revolution, to ring with fulsome praise for the Jantam Sarkar. Had their dream vision soured already or were we not in Abujmarh yet?
We continue on the endless red dirt track. As dusk falls, we start to worry. No one is waiting for us. We have no point of contact. We had expected to be stopped at Maoist checkpoints by Maoist sentries. Instead, we are just strangers riding into the darkness, hoping the party will find us. There is no way we can reach the interior villages unless the party sends escorts. No villager is willing to volunteer taking outsiders into Marh without their permission. In the distance, on the mountaintops, a fire line appears. Villagers are clearing the forest to plant the monsoon crop.
Tribals cannot venture into towns. If they stay too long for business or even medical help, they become informers in the eyes of the Maoists
Finally, we are compelled to stop. It is too dark to go on. But by sheer accident, it seems we have arrived somewhere. The men in the village we stop at have radios and country-made weapons. The radio is sure sign of party membership in these parts. These men are part of the Sangam — the party’s mass front at the village level. We send word.
A short while later, we are met by the local Maoist Gram Adhyaksh — the Maoist equivalent of a sarpanch. A frail scrawny man, he asks us to write a letter explaining our intent and asks to check our bags. We had evaded the CRPF’s search. It is strange to submit to this. I ask for a woman cadre to do the search. There are none around, so an old man is deputed instead. Turns out, the only thing that interests him is our medicine. He has a wracking cough. The Adhyaksh too is a hunchback and suffers from crippling pain. He cannot risk going to town for treatment and wants medicines too.
The Gram Sarkar Adhyaksh is a key piece of the Maoist hierarchy and strategy. Twenty seven gram sarkars make up one area. Each area has a committee with seven heads overseeing seven departments: Economic, Military and Security, Justice and Law, Farming, Health, Public Relations, and Culture. An area committee can have both uniformed and non-uniformed party members. Non-uniformed members are considered part time. They can switch between home and field and have a domestic life. Uniformed members have no permanent home and are always in the field, and on the move. They can either be part of the People’s Government or the military wing, People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA). There is an ongoing debate in the party whether the Sarkar and PLGA should dress differently. The party decides who will work full time or part time. “We can’t have everyone in the party dress in uniform or villagers will think all the decisions are being taken by an entity other than the Janta,” says an area committee member. “Part-timers interact more with the ‘janta’ and therefore have more influence on the public.” Anyone who pays 5 annually to the party fund qualifies as the ‘janta’.
“Paanch rupay do aur umeedvari pakki,” he describes. When questioned on what benefits the Rs 5 brings to villagers, he says after a pause, “While there is no externally visible benefit, it gives them so much power that they can voice their opinion anywhere.” This ‘janta’ are the citizens of the Maoist State; it is in their name that the Maoists run the Jantam Sarkar. These are people who vote in the Jan Adalat and form its mass front.
For the Indian State, one of the key challenges of confronting the Maoist insurgency is to distinguish between ordinary tribal and ideologue. In Abujmarh, it is almost impossible to do so.
The presence of a Ramakrishna Mission in the village refracts that riddle further. This ashram is one of five such in Abujmarh. Clearly, Abujmarh has not been as impregnable as one imagined. We are told to spend the night there. As we step inside, we find kids in blue uniforms singing songs that tell of a united nation: Hind desh ke nivasi, sabhi jan ek hai. Rang, roop, vesh, bhasha chahe anek hai. There is a Maoist memorial visible through the window. The chorus of the kids’ voices transcends the idea and reality of Abujmarh. The distinction of where the village ends and party begins, gets infinitely more complicated.
OVER THE next six days and nights, Sehrawat and I trek 40 strenuous kilometres on foot to four villages — Toke, Kacchapal, Kodenar and Jatwar, deep inside Abujmarh. Each of these villages vividly demonstrates a sad trick of history: it is true that the Maoist insurgency raises just questions about the feudal and oppressive nature of the Indian State, but its own “liberated zone” is no song to freedom itself. The very idea of dissent itself seems alien here. Tribals from these villages cannot venture into the towns. If they stay too long for business or even for medical help, they become suspect. The Maoist sarkar thinks they have become police informers. Returning becomes fraught with danger.
Sometimes, this cleft stick can take on tragic proportions. In 2007, villagers say Sajnu Vadde, a tuberculosis patient, left Marh for treatment in Narayanpur town. When he returned, he was tried in a Jan Adalat for attending a police meeting, found guilty and sentenced to death. Sonu, a young man in Kacchapal, who was shot by the forces in the leg during Operation Hakka, is limping around. The bullet is still in his body a month later. The party tried treating him but even a surgical cut two inches deep could not locate the bullet. But Sonu cannot risk going to the city.
Uncomfortably, stories like this abound. In 2000, Mangru, a sarpanch in Kacchapal, abruptly left his village. He is currently the chairperson of the Abujmarh Development Authority but he cannot return to Marh. Sonnu Gotta’s story is even starker. Gotta and her husband had left Marh with a sick child. “We ended up staying in Narayanpur for four months. After that, we were too scared to return,” she says. “We are still Maadias but we like it in the town. The Maoists have called us back, but here we use our minds and make our own decisions. Farming was such a tough life. It’s so much easier to be paid to be a sarpanch here.” Gotta fought on a BJP ticket and won. It is from this pool that Special Police Officers have been recruited. There are at least 12 from Abujmarh. In a violation of Supreme Court orders, villagers confirmed that many guided the forces in during Operation Hakka.
But all of this comes later. On Day 2, we just wait endlessly to hear from the party. The men go for a swim in a nearby pond. I go to the anganwadi instead. Sukanya Salam, 22, the government anganwadi worker here, wears a sari and talks Hindi but is a Maadia from Gadpa village. I ask her what Abujmarh means to her. “It’s that area where people don’t know anything, don’t know how to talk Hindi or live cleanly. That area is Abujmarh,” she says. But isn’t she from Abujmarh too, I ask. “My village is by the road,” she says, “we had a government school. But in the interiors, they don’t know how to live.” To her, the Maadia customs seem foreign, a thing of the past. Adivasis in Marh just live together, she says. Once they have a few babies, if they are rich enough to afford it, they get married. The ceremony involves sitting together and pouring milk over cloth draped around the two. She wouldn’t like to get married that way. “Mujhe poora tel chadhane hai. (I want to do the whole oil and ritualistic fire thing).”
Finally, at 4 pm, word comes. We have been given permission to move interior. The Adhyaksh offers us three guides. They urge that we leave right away. We have to leave our bike behind. We fill our bottles. From here on, there are only goat paths through mountain and stream. And no more hand pumps.
In effect, the Maoist dominance of the Abujmarh story is only 10 years old. The Indian State had a 50-year head start. Why did it fail?
The trek to Toke — the first village to be surrounded by Cobra battalions — is very hostile. As evening falls, we walk with torches along steep slopes in single file, two guides in front, one at the rear. The night is moonless but brilliant with a million stars. Suddenly, one side of the track gives way to a steep ravine. Sometimes, it is impossible to spot a flat stone to balance on. After my first fall, I reach for a bamboo stick and don’t let go for the rest of the road ahead. The silence and glow of fireflies is broken only by our guides laughing at us. They race ahead as if this were a shining tar road.
At one point, two more men with guns join our convoy. They are our fortification against wild bears.
After over four hours of walking, we reach Toke. It is pitch dark but we finally feel as if we have entered Abujmarh. Perhaps, this has something to do with the disappearing roads, with the idea that a journey into Marh must test one’s endurance.
OUR FIRST sensory experience of Toke is the sight of children in uniform peering at us from behind the mud walls of a two-room school. Some are sorting rice in pools of blue torchlight. Here again is a government-run ashram deep inside Abujmarh. We begin to question the hyperbole back home of the unbreached bastion. In a moment, there is a roll call followed by the slow recitation of the Gayantri Mantra. A chicken is slaughtered for us. The school has a solar lamp. We eat by its light, then drag our cane beds outside and sleep under the open sky. It’s the last night we will have a bed to sleep on.
At dawn, I wake to a Maoist memorial amid empty fields. Suddenly, I have a feeling of being watched. I look to my right and find armed men, standing alert, looking on. Had they been guarding us all night? Attempts to speak with them fail. There are instructions from the party not to give any interviews. We’re told the “Raman Singh equivalent” of the Jantam Sarkar would like to speak with us directly. Until that happens, no one else has clearance to give an interview.
In the morning light, Toke, a village of 37 huts, is again a disorienting mix of the unusual and the ordinary. A group of Adivasis huddle in a circle to drink Sulphi, an alcoholic extract from the Sulphi tree. Others sit around weaving bamboo baskets. Two Jan Militia members sporting .303 rifles saunter into the school and carry away sacks of PDS grain. But there seems to be no tension over this. Children in government school uniforms mill around. It is difficult to tell where the “Dilli ka sarkar” segues into the “Jan sarkar”. The masterji at Toke wears jeans, a watch and is surprisingly urban. He is from Narayanpur town. He didn’t ask for Toke. The Indian government deputed him there.
As we talk, our guide Rajesh finally opens up too. He is a thin, cheery 23-year-old, with a slight moustache. He studied at a public school in Narayanpur town till Class VIII. Then his father, who had been part of the PLGA squad for 20 years, pulled him into the party.
“I came home for holidays once and my father didn’t let me return,” says Rajesh. “I was disappointed but my father refused to budge. I didn’t know much about rajneeti (politics) then. Now I understand my father’s decision. Now I know how Adivasis live and suffer. I’m glad to be working for them.”
Rajesh is a teacher as well in one of the party’s seven functioning schools in Abujmarh. Rajesh teaches math through a Gondi song; his history lessons focus on indigenous rebellions like the Bhumkal tribal revolt of 1910; then there are classes on rajneeti and Hindi. The party is experimenting with English, but the teachers are unable to go beyond the alphabet. Rajesh’s favourite movie is Sherdil. In an epiphanic moment, we realise he means the Mel Gibson-starrer Braveheart. He has watched it at a Maoist camp.
There are other things he has done in Maoist camps: he has been part of a Jan Adalat that sentenced three women from Kawalnar village to death. They were accused of trying to bring a contingent of 500 forces into Abujmarh and carrying poison. The poison was tested on a hen: it died. “If we let such people live, our lives would become more dangerous than it already is,” says a Maoist cadre.
In the journey ahead, it will be difficult to reconcile this Rajesh, who beams with pride at the spot where the PLGA squad shot a CRPF jawan in Jatwar last month, with the jaunty Rajesh who sings Pardesi Pardesi jana nahin as we walk through the jungle; offers me his blanket on a cold night and teases us about drinking water from streams where buffaloes are bathing. But the unflinching talk of summary deaths through jan adalats is routine for him and the other guides who join us later. It is just one face of Maoist governance.
A little later, as we gather the villagers at the Ghotul — a sort of village community centre — and ask about Operation Hakka, the flip narratives of oppression begin.
How the paramilitary forces beat Aite Gota’s husband to death; how Keya Dhurva’s house was burnt; how Goya Dhurva’s chickens were stolen and cooked; how 40 kg of free rice that had cost a three-day walk to Kukrajhor base camp and a Rs 200 tractor ride was seized; how others’ cooking utensils were smashed, money was robbed, imli trees burnt and bhumkal grain razed to ashes.
As the testimonies finally begin to wind down, we prepare to leave. It is very hot outside. There is no potable water. We boil water from a nearby stream and mix some coffee powder into it. It does not take the thirst away. I barely have the energy to write notes. The next village Kodenar is a 10-km walk in the afternoon sun.
Over the next four days, this pattern would repeat itself. Long arduous walks. No water to drink. Plain boiled rice to eat. Fatigue. And nights under the open sky, lying on mats next to pigs and barking dogs. Through Kodenar, to Jatwar and then back to Kachhapal, the patterns and testimonies played themselves out with a familiar beat.
In Jatwar, we finally meet Nilesh, the boy who rang the alarm about Operation Hakka on the morning of 15 March. Barely 5 ft tall, dressed in a blue vest and brown pants, he blushes in the crisp jungle sun. Despite his enrolment in the Jan Militia, Nilesh does not think of himself as a Maoist. “They are the sarkar, I’m just ordinary janta,” he says.
That self perception — that distinction between taking to arms as an ideologue and taking to arms as self-defence against intrusion into one’s home and land — is very key to understanding not just the nature of Abujmarh but the fundamental nature of the Maoist-tribal crisis in India.
It is the distinction that will define what approach the Indian State will finally take to allay the Naxal crisis.
TEHELKA HAS been reporting the Maoist crisis extensively from the ground ever since the Salwa Judum began to escalate tension in Chhattisgarh. Writing from the conflict zones of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Bengal, we have critiqued the Indian State; documented human rights violations; denounced the unjust takeover of tribal land and national resources and vociferously defended the right to dissent. We have also written of the plight of CRPF jawans, pushed into a deadly guerrilla war with inadequate preparation and battle-worthiness.
But Abujmarh is proof — if proof were needed — that the Maoists have a lot to answer for as well. They may have catalysed attention to many right and just causes — and it is difficult for even their most bitter critics to grant them that — but clearly, in their own strongholds, they are replicating exactly that which they say they are combating. Ordinary life is lived on their watch. Their political expansion is a greater cause than the immediate needs of those they speak for. This is most evident when a party member reveals that they are debating whether to allow Ramakrishna Mission to continue functioning in Abujmarh. “They were not there at the time of our greatest need,” he says. The point of contention is PDS ration shops that earlier operated through the Ashram, but were gradually moved out as the conflict escalated in 2009. While the party holds Ramakrishna Mission responsible, CRPF sources confirmed to TEHELKA that it was a strategic government decision to move ration shops near CRPF camps so Naxals do not “steal ration meant for villagers”. This has led to Maadias having to walk many extra days across mountains to access subsidised rice.
To add a new layer of force and terror to this would be an unmitigated disaster. There is talk of expanding the paramilitary strength in the region and setting up of an army training camp on the border of Abujmarh. The day before we entered Marh, army chief Gen VK Singh visited Chhattisgarh. Unconfirmed reports suggest the state government has agreed to hand over land to the army, located in Abujmarh’s Ghamandi panchayat — exactly where the forces went in for Operation Hakka.
“Operation Hakka was a recce for future operations,” says IG Longkumer. “We wanted to see locations where we can set up our posts and camps in the future.” At present, Bastar district has 104 police stations, 56 CRPF camps and 30 BSF camps. “Look at Manipur. It has more than a lakh deployment. We are four times the size of Manipur and have half the number of troops,” Longkumer adds. “We need much more deployment. To address this area, we have to stay there. The takeaway from this operation is that the forces are willing to go inside Abujmarh and stay there.”
The point is, having dominated the area, what is it the Indian State would like to do there? Is the wreck of Manipur the model?
Narayanpur SP Srivastav has a much more cautioning voice: “We want to show the people that the government’s arms will reach wherever Indian citizens are. I was saddened to see the life the villagers are being forced to lead. I salute the villagers. It is true that on one side, the Naxals coerce them, and on the other, even when the police goes in, we can’t tell who is a villager and who is a Naxal. Posted in these areas, I have felt confusion and bafflement. We are a country in a transition phase, that is why we have such a gap between the mainstream and the fringes. It is as if everything is fluid. The Naxal strategy is to look for grouses, and there is no dearth of grouses in this country. It is high time this is resolved. Our goal is to give the government the security to do what it should be able to do.”
As we come out of the jungles of Abujmarh, we hear the shocking news: Collector Alex Menon has been kidnapped by the Maoists, his two guards killed in cold blood. Among their list of demands is the release of innocent tribals languishing in jails. Can’t the Indian government act on this itself without a ransom note?
For all its mythic reputation, villagers say that until 15 years ago, local thana police were seen at the fringes of Abujmarh. A village called Kokameta possibly had a police station and a government high school. It is only in the past decade that the party’s influence has spread. In areas we visited, people recall that in 2001, the Maoists first installed their own village head in a village called Iraqbhatti in Kachhapal panchayat. Three years later, they called their first meeting in the area. Villagers were mandated to attend. In effect, the Maoists’ area dominance of the Abujmarh story is only 10 years old. The Indian State had a 50 year head start. Why did it fail?
In the final count then, Abujmarh is not an impregnable fortress. Nor is it merely an innocent landscape of flimsy huts and primeval people. It is most essentially a rebuke for Indian democracy. The real tragedy of the Maoist crisis is that it has been reduced to a competition of equally false stories. Stranded in the middle is an ancient people. Their fight is not about who will control Red Fort in some distant future. Their fight is about the patch of land they stand on and the dignity of the self-owned reed hut behind them.
It is our last evening inside Abujmarh. In the distance, a Bhumkal — village cooperative — lies razed, destroyed in Operation Hakka, quintals of rice turned to black ash. Their backs to it, our guides sit inside the village Ghotul. The young starry-eyed comrade and an old, somewhat sceptical, party member, break into song. “Rise up, poor masses, let us walk together. Destroy the imperialists and fight for our rights. For generations, the fight has been on. The last fight will be won by the Red Flag.” As the song continues, torchlight flickers over an old inscription on a wooden pillar: Comrades, this is our mandir.
Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.