BRIGADIER BK PONWAR
Is this the face of State repression or Chhattisgarh’s salvation? Close encounters with the maverick behind the Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College. Story and images by Garima Jain
AT 6AM, the sun quietly nudges up from the craggy hills of Kanker in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district. A lone bugle cries out from the morning silence. There is distant patter of horses’ hooves and a cloud of dust rises on the horizon. Immaculate rows of police trainees snap to attention as Brigadier BK Ponwar (retired) gallops to the parade ground on a majestically decorated Arab mare. Dressed in jodhpuris and flowing military headgear, followed by an infantry man carrying a four-metre pole displaying a military-style pennant, he appears as if he is going into battle. The rocks behind us are painted in bold four-foot capital letters: “Salwa Judum Jungle Ki Aag Hai” (Salwa Judum is a forest fire).
These high theatrics, reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia, are typical of all my encounters with the Brigadier at the Counter-Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College (CTJWC). We are just outside the town of Kanker, the gateway to the Naxalite-dominated district of Bastar.
On the first day, a pristine white fourwheel drive screeches to a halt outside my hotel and two armed officers in full combat gear jump out, machine guns ready as though on a mission to liberate me from the tackily decorated hotel. They whisk me away to meet the Brigadier at his secret jungle hangout. But as it happens, the college is only four km outside Kanker on NH 43, and there’s nothing secretive about it.
FOR SOME — Delhi’s Leftist intellectuals, as the Brigadier helpfully refers to them — Ponwar is the face of State repression in Bastar, while for others — such as the Chhattisgarh CM — he is their salvation. Before he was selected to set up the CTJWC six years ago, Ponwar, now 62, spent a long army career fighting insurgencies in places such as Mizoram, Kashmir and Ladakh. His maverick and gung-ho personality seems optimal for the job. The CTJWC trains police officers and CRPF (and previously, the Salwa Judum) in jungle warfare, usually in six-week courses. “You have to fight the guerrilla like a guerrilla” is another catchphrase painted all around the rocky outcrops of the 600-acre campus — as if enough repetitions, even in English, will permeate the trainees’ minds.
According to the Brigadier, police officers are lazy, disorganised, deskbound, fearful of the jungle and the Naxalites. Apart from imparting skills, he aims to make the police militarily superior to the Naxalites — to turn them into fearless fighting machines. For anyone who’s ever tried to get a cop to do something he didn’t want to, it seems like a tall order. “They arrive with pot bellies, chewing paan, and leave like tigers with a resolve to hunt and destroy the terrorist,” says Ponwar with a glint in his eye. We’ve moved swiftly from Lawrence of Arabia to Apocalypse Now territory.
Photos on his office walls show the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a police battalion; a sluggish row of Laurel and Hardy characters transformed into upright, proud soldiers. “My trainers are like blacksmiths,” says Ponwar. “We put the rod in the fire, take it out and push it in. And if it doesn’t work, we do it again. I say to my trainees, ‘You yourself don’t realise how tough you are.’” The day starts with a jog for everyone, including senior trainees. “I tell my men the bullets aren’t going to travel any slower just because you are 55 years old.”
The Brigadier is not unaware of the theatricality of his operation. “Get off the floor, you stupid man!” he barks from his horse at one of the exhausted recruits who’s fallen from the monkey ropes. He keeps repeating that the Naxalites will be defeated within three years and they have dominated the area until now only because of slack policing. “I tell my men the human body is capable of anything. It is the mind that stops us from achieving our goals,” he adds.
As a survival tactic, when supplies run short in the jungle, the recruits are taught how to kill and eat a cobra (there is also the vegetarian option of roots). “Shall we try it?” asks the Brigadier provocatively, dangling the irate and stressed-out six footer in front of my nose. Uncertain if he’s calling my earlier bluff of eating anything, but having learnt that it’s best not to test those like the Brigadier, I politely decline. He admits it’s unlikely the trainees will ever have to do this, but adds that once you have eaten something, you’re much less likely to be scared of it.
At the CTJWC, Ponwar is his own boss, calling the shots and getting everything he wants from the government, running the college without interference from politicians or the police. It suits him. He has plans for a golf course, an airstrip, and, given his love for polo, a field to play the game — if he can find anyone here to play it with. At times, the whole place feels like his own supersized playground, and doubtless it won’t be long before his dedicated instructors become polo experts too.
The Brigadier has no patience for his peer group of retired army officers who “moan endlessly about their health” on social networking websites. He says, “They don’t know what to do once they retire except read newspapers and wait for death.” He himself is supremely fit and disapproves of anyone who doesn’t wake up daily at 4.30 am. He eats mixed fresh fruits for breakfast with bean sprouts, among other healthy things. He usually skips dinner, having an apple instead. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” smiles Ponwar. Of course it does.
On a hill called Cobra Top, amid the crackle of walky-talkies, I see recruits rappelling down from a mock helicopter (resting on a tall structure), running down a ravine and with rapid machine gunfire ‘neutralising’ a fake village in the valley. The Brigadier has quickly changed costumes and returns in army fatigues. “We also train the men to attack on motorcycles,” he says, and two bikers emerge from a track, firing at mock targets. The impressive show carried out for my sake is clearly being executed by Ponwar’s more experienced instructors and has been played out many times for media people before.
Back at his office, he switches off the officious frightening growl meant for trainees. How does he feel about the villages burnt down by the police, the rapes and the killings carried out by the CRPF? He believes none of these would have been done by men trained at his college. He concedes that while his recruits are taught not to behave like this, it’s possible that such acts could have been carried out as retribution for killed family members. Later, the young recruits in their tents tell me that these stories are Naxalite propaganda — the Naxalites dress in police uniforms so that villagers turn against them.
‘Shall we eat it?’ asks the Brigadier provocatively, dangling the irate and stressed-out six-footer cobra in front of my nose. I decline politely
Many of the booklets the Brigadier has self-published repeat the mantra: Population is the Centre of Gravity. He says that his war, like any war, will only be won by getting the general population on his side. The Salwa Judum was an organic response from the local population to the Naxalites’ bullying and that “Guns were only given to the Special Police Officers (SPOs)”. He sees the Supreme Court’s 2008 ban of the Salwa Judum as uninformed interference, and says the organisation continues under the name of the Bastar Suraksha Samiti.
The glint in his eye returns as he recalls how Arundhati Roy described him as “the Rumpelstiltskin of the jungle”. When asked about the claims that the CRPF have moved into areas of Chhattisgarh and Odisha to facilitate corporate exploitation of minerals amidst local opposition — rather than his goal of combating terrorism — he is evasive.
According to Ponwar, the government has brought the whole problem upon itself by turning its back on areas the Naxalites have now moved into. “The poorest people are the Naxalites’ support base,” he says, adding that tribal resistance to displacement is understandable — anyone would defend their land against infiltrators. But he also believes they must sacrifice their land to escape poverty. He’s impervious to my argument that many just want to carry on living the way they always have.
I suggest the idea that wealth will trickle down to the poorest is misguided. It took hundreds of years of trade union struggle in the “developed world” for people to get decent wages. Ponwar agrees the Naxalite mission to close the gap between the rich and the poor is understandable, even honourable. “Where they have gone wrong is in using guns rather than democracy to get what they want.” He doesn’t seem too bothered about the excursions outside the law by the government and corporations.
Forty-two young policemen — mostly in their 20s — have been posted at the CTJWC for two years now. Talking to them isn’t part of Ponwar’s media-love tour but he agrees to let me interview some. They have just returned from an all-night exercise in the jungle and he’s rewarded them with boxes of barfi. “We have ended up fighting the Naxals because we were unemployed and joined the police force,” says Karuna Sagar, 25. “The Naxalites are our younger brothers who have strayed off the path. Often innocent people get killed because we can’t distinguish between a villager and a Naxalite. They all look the same.”
THE BRIGADIER is confident the Naxalites are a motley crew lacking physical stamina, weapons and the knowhow, which the police now have thanks to his college. There are plans for 20 more colleges in India based on the CTJWC model. On the other side of the field are six dogs jumping through rings of fire. “A police dog is an essential component of a security force squad, missing in all the anti-Naxal operations,” he says. “I picked up four street dogs and we’re training them to sniff out the red brigade. They might be temperamental at times but they never get lazy on duty, hardly ever require a vet and are best suited for jungle terrain. They won’t fail us.”
On my last night, he asks if I’d like to meet the king of Kanker for dinner. I accept, although unsure if ‘the king’ will want to see us at such short notice. Ponwar dials the palace and says, “Hello Jolly, it’s the Brigadier. I’m bringing some people for dinner tonight. 8 pm sharp.” He’s a man used to giving orders. At 7.55 pm, he and his wife pick me up from my hotel. He’s wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. He has a sense of humour, but I don’t ask him if the T-shirt is meant to be a joke. The palace turns out to be a heritage hotel offering trips for guests to local tribal villages. During dinner, a royal wryly notes that Brigadier Ponwar is now the King of Kanker.
“I know that TEHELKA is a very naughty magazine,” Ponwar tells me before I leave for Delhi. “So perhaps you can tell me now the naughty things you’ll say about me.” I feel certain that in the Brigadier’s 48-point list of how to be a good soldier, one of the points will certainly be: Always pre-empt your assailant’s next move.
Garima Jain is a Photo Correspondent with Tehelka