In The Shadow of The Gun

Ushinor Majumdar

By Ushinor  Majumdar

Published on 20th June, 2017

The government’s current arterial push through the heart of the Maoist insurgency is a road being built diagonally across Sukma district in south Chhattisgarh. It is only when blood was spilled during the road’s construction—26 paramilitary personnel were killed on April 24 in a Maoist ambush on a CRPF det¬achment providing protection—that nat¬ional attention shifted once again, albeit for a short while, to counter-insurgency and development in the forests of Bastar. To Maoists—going by interviews of top leaders and their statements quoted in media reports over the past few years—the region is a battleground where two ‘systems’ are locked in a life-and-death conflict. Much of local adivasi life has come to revolve around the consequent violence as the government tries to regain adm-inistrative control of tracts where the Maoists are dominant, besides aiming to put down the insurgency for good.

In fact, the conflict has divided the mostly Gondi-speaking adivasis into two camps pitted against each other: those who are part of village-level committees and militias, which the Maoist party has been organising in their areas of influence since the mid-1980s; and those working for the District Reserve Guard (DRG), which recruits locals, mostly former Maoists and SPOs (“special police officers”, formerly members of Salwa Judum, an anti-Maoist militia allegedly armed by the police and later outlawed by the Supreme Court), and forms the local component of the counter-insurgency spearheaded by central paramilitary forces. To the Maoists, adivasis are forever suspect as potential police informers, while to the security forces, any local without a uniform could be a Maoist courier or sympathiser.

“The central government should review why they have stationed us here because the villagers don’t seem to want development,” says a CRPF officer from the 74 Battalion stationed at Burkapal, who lost 26 colleagues in the April 24 ambush. No wonder villagers using the bus service between Dornapal and Jagargunda—recently restored after more than a decade—are viewed with extreme suspicion. The service had been stopped as the security forces found it risky after an incident where Maoist guerrillas boarded a bus near Basaguda in neighbouring Bijapur district, took it over and drove it straight into a paramilitary camp, spraying bullets at the jawans. Despite the inc¬onvenience caused by the air of suspicion around them, villagers prefer to take the bus rat¬her than settle for a 25-km ride on the back of pickup trucks by shelling out Rs 50 per head. The alternative is a walk of several hours. “The bus ticket is cheaper and there is also the bonus of not being exposed to the sun or rain like on a truck,” says ¬Lakka, a Gond adivasi who drives a pickup truck on the same route.

Several paramilitary camps dot the ¬Dornapal-¬Jagargunda stretch of the road. Most personnel do not venture out, exc¬ept for planned operations. Weary adivasi passengers alight from vehicles near one such camp, some distance away from a sentry sweating beh¬ind sandbags with an SLR pointed tow¬ards the road and only a tin roof to protect him from the merciless sun. Villagers are often stopped at such checkpoints as intelligence reports had suggested involvement of locals in the April 24 ambush. Most of those prevented from ¬going ahead are the ones without Aadhaar cards—now the standard proof of identity in these parts. “Who are you? What are you going to rep¬ort?” the sentry asks this correspondent. “You must tell us.”

A similar story plays out on the road being constructed bet¬ween Injira and Bhejji, where 13 CRPF jawans were killed in a Maoist ambush in March.

At Chintalnar village, Outlook meets a Bengali-speaking shopkeeper, belonging to one of the refugee families from Bangladesh settled here around the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. He pushes his children forward and says, “I want them to study. Can you help restore electricity here? The power supply was disconnected during the peak of the Salwa Judum activities.” There are many migrants from ¬other states who run shops and other businesses here. Around 25 km away, deeper into the forests surrounding Chintalnar village, guerri¬lla commander Malina tells Outlook that her party, the CPI (Maoist), too wants electricity in the remote villages, but not the roads being built, “which would be used to inc¬rease the militarisation of Bastar”.

Opposite the Chintalnar police station, a forest road curves westward towards Tim¬mapuram village¬—a stretch where the police ¬appear only sporadically. In 2011, 56 huts were razed here during an encounter bet¬ween the security for¬ces and Maoists. The forces accused Maoists of using villagers as human shields to escape into the forest and burning the huts as a distraction, but were themselves accused of setting the huts on fire in a chargesheet the CBI filed this year. Since the incident, some locals say they have got utensils and Rs 20,000 as compensation from the administration, though rebuilding each house, they point out, cost them around Rs 50,000.

Meanwhile, some villagers sent their children to ¬relatives in other villages or towns to study. Some of them are back for the tendu-leaf collection season, when an extra pair of hands means a few thousand rupees more for the family. At the current rate of Rs 2.12 per bundle of 50 leaves, families with five or more members are able to make up to Rs 10,000, of which around Rs 200 is allegedly “contributed” to the Maoists. For more read click here: 

This article was first published in the Outlook magazine and is reproduced here with due permission from the author. 




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