0N 29 DECEMBER last year, joint forces comprising the CRPF and state police busted a Naxal training camp during a combing operation in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district, 450 km to the south of Chhattisgarh’s capital city Raipur. TEHELKA visited Jappemarka village where the encounter had taken place and found that besides training camps, the Naxals were also running schools for children in the densely forested region.
It takes a two-day trek through forest trails, after crossing the Bailadila hills — known for the National Mineral Development Corporation’s iron ore mines and forming the border between Dantewada and Bijapur districts — to reach this village. In a small clearing amid the woods just outside the village, a group of children greet TEHELKA with shouts of “Lal Salaam”, reminding us that we are in Naxal country. They are students of an Ashram Shala (residential school) run by the Naxals for 30-odd children from the nearby half-a-dozen villages.
Then the children sing a song in Gondi, the local tribal language. The song is on “the importance of education in making a revolution”, we are told. This is a region where the Naxals have set up what they call the Janatana Sarkar, or “people’s government”.
Motiram, a student at the Jappemarka Ashram Shala, says he wants to become a teacher in a Naxal school. Motiram doesn’t know the national anthem, but he knows how to hide if the police suddenly show up. But his ‘teacher’ Sukhlal, who was once a member of a Naxal dalam (armed squad), claims the children are not trained in warfare. “They are only given general physical education like in government- run schools,” he says. “After the Salwa Judum (an anti-Naxal campaign) started, the government has closed down all schools in this area. As the villages here are believed to be Naxal-dominated, these children cannot go to schools elsewhere. The Naxal-run schools are their only means of getting education.”
The children are taught from textbooks prepared in Gondi by the ‘education department’ of the Janatana Sarkar, besides the same Hindi textbooks that are used in government schools in Chhattisgarh. Even the school uniform is similar.
Besides Sukhlal, the Jappemarka school has one more teacher and two cooks, who are paid Rs 1,000 every month. The school offers education till Class V. So what will the children do after that? “They can work for the Janatana Sarkar, teach in the Naxal-run schools or become village healthcare workers,” says Sukhlal, who studied till Class V at the government school at Mirtur, 10 km away. The exact locations of the Naxal-run schools are kept secret from ‘outsiders’ as top Naxal leaders visit them occasionally.
When the police raided Jappemarka village on 29 December last year, Sonu, a ‘Class III student’ at the Ashram, hailing from nearby Bechapal village, could not flee into the forests with the others. He says the police thrashed him and let him go only after he said he studied in the government school at Mirtur. Though the Ashram Shala was set on fire during the raid, the children say it is being rebuilt again at another “secret” location.
DURING THE two-day trek to Jappemarka, TEHELKA was accompanied by Mohan, the commander of the Bhansi local guerrilla squad. Mohan was a Class V student at the Mirtur government school in 2005 when Salwa Judum started operations in the area. He says atrocities by the Judum forced him to join the Naxals. Mohan showed us several spots where pressure bombs and booby traps had been planted. On receiving information of police presence, the pressure bombs are wired and the wooden covers removed from the trap holes.
Life in these villages is not easy. The villagers often have to spend the nights in the forests to evade police raids. Ramesh, a resident of Udepal village, says the monsoon months are the most difficult, when the tribals cannot even light a fire to ward off wild animals.
In Udepal, TEHELKA also met Dashru Mandavi, who says he once aspired to become a government officer. In 2005, after completing his primary education from Mirtur, he enrolled in the government-run residential school at Gangalur for further studies.
Salwa Judum was at its height at the time. One evening, some armed policemen from Gangalur police station came to the school, asked him if he was the dada (Naxal) from Udepal, and then took him away. Later in the night, Dashru told the guard at the police station that he wanted to use the toilet and managed to slip away. The police came to Udepal looking for him, but he had already escaped into the nearby forests.
Dashru says he has not joined the Naxals, but one of his brothers, Sukuram, was shot dead in Udepal in 2006, and two years later, three more of his brothers were arrested. Two of them, Misra Ram and Mangu, died in custody, Dashru alleges, while the third, Bugra, is still in the jail. Dashru claims the police did not even hand over Mangu’s body to the family.
Mahendra Karma, a senior leader of the Congress who is known as the founder of the Salwa Judum, told TEHELKA in Dantewada that if the police have indeed destroyed the Naxal-run school in Jappemarka, it was the right thing to do. “The Naxals have destroyed hundreds of government schools.”