These roads led nowhere. While maneuvering irregular edges and giant potholes, the vehicle tumbled slightly to the right. Such rickety paths seldom held form. The rains worsened their structure over the last few weeks. Forest trails were strewn with broken twigs and branches. Occasionally, we would spot squirrels leaping from one branch to another before disappearing into the woods. Through a small clearing in the forest, we spotted some men sitting underneath a mango tree. “The route from Kirandul to Nakulnar is terrible,” remarked Manju whom we picked up at Geedam in the morning, “I am afraid the road to Sameli is no better.”
Near the junction adjacent to the police station where the road led to Sukma, we turned right towards Sameli. Over the two-lane road, we drove for an hour seldom looking behind us for there was no one that traversed these paths today. The uneasy stillness in the air returned a while later.
“People rarely travel this route due to Maoist presence in these areas. Once we make our way across Sameli, we won’t see anyone at all!” remarked Manju.
We crossed several abandoned hamlets and drove into the forests, that afternoon. There were no children running hither and thither in search of giant pebbles. As we scanned the trail ahead of us, a few paces away, we spotted a CRPF camp at Palnar ringed with concertina wires. “We will have to lower the barrier ourselves here,” said Manju stepping out of the car.
A young man at the watch tower lowered his gaze and signalled the soldier below. He held his gun and took a giant leap towards the gate. Another armed soldier trotted beside him. “Tamil vandi (car),” they said with a smile, “We are from Tamil Nadu too.” Their eyes followed us until we disappeared into the narrow paths ahead. Such check post barriers installed in the middle of the jungle wasn’t a rare occurrence here. Armed troops constantly emerged from corners of hamlets after conducting area domination exercises. In Sameli, some soldiers stopped our vehicle and checked underneath the hood while noting down our names and other details. They made an entry in their notebooks and nodded at us.
“Once we cross Sameli, we will reach Madenda. From there, we should be able to head to Nilavaya. Take the detour from Madenda and at the crossroads to your left is the path towards the settlement,” said Manju seated firmly behind us. His gaze never left the forest. At times, we caught sight of swarms of butterflies fluttering across farmlands and disappearing with the winds.
“When I was young I wanted to become a police officer. Well, not anymore!” he whispered glancing at the soldiers behind us.
“Why not?” we asked him.
“I don’t trust the Government neither the security forces; not after what I have witnessed.”
At Sameli, there was no one lurking in the street corners. There were no bustling alleyways here nor was there the distant hum of tractor engines. A few tiny stalls across the road had some basic supplies like milk powder, eggs, biscuits and tiny sweets wrapped in paper. Peeping through their windows were men and women who sat in adjacent stalls. “For another 6 kms, we will drive on these concrete roads,” said Manju stretching out his arms, “After that, we will take those paths that will lead us into the forest. Once we cross this stretch, take the left up ahead!”
Within moments, we circumvented a narrow muddy trail flanked by overgrown grass and shrubs on both sides into the woods. There were no signs of exit anywhere. Hidden in the wilderness were tiny creatures that sprang towards trees nearby. No cars or jeeps frequented these regions. Most villagers walked to the neighbouring markets. We drove for 30 minutes on the dirt trail that led us into isolated hamlets deep inside the forests. There were no farmlands that adorned rough stretches of land here nor was there any empty grassland where one would catch a glimpse of an occasional traveller.
“Looks like we have arrived!” we exclaimed upon spotting the first traditional hut to our left.
“Yes, we have. That’s where the family lives,” said Manju stepping out of the vehicle. We parked ahead under a cluster of tamarind and mango trees.
A woman walked out of the hut and gingerly placed the tasla she firmly held to the ground. She glanced at us and frowned slightly. Manju walked beside her and they whispered in Gondi. “Her son Ravi has gone to a neighbouring village with someone else in their tractor. This is his mother Poje Madavi,” he said stepping aside as he gestured her to join us. She bowed her head gently. “We will have to wait till he comes back. She will send someone to inform him. She won’t speak to us without him.” Behind us, a man took long strides towards trails that led to the neighbouring settlement.
Her gaze followed us until we sat on a khatiya that had seen better days in the courtyard. She looked away every time we spoke to her. In a while, she went to the garden to tend to her plants. Women and children gathered around us as other curious onlookers crossed our path. Moments later, some men surrounded the garden and gazed intently at us. We struck conversations with a few toddlers as two women walked beside them into the neighbouring house. Some stood on giant sticks lodged in the ground and others paced back and forth behind us.
A man summoned Manju into the adjacent hut. Fifteen minutes later, he emerged staring at the ground and scratching the back of his head. Silence befell the landscape as we stared at one another.
“Did those men and women belong to the sangam?” we asked him days later when we met again in Geedam.
There were four or five people seated in the hall. “Two of them were women,” recalled Manju, “The moment he asked me to accompany him I knew what was happening.” They inquired about us and wondered if our presence would cause them any distress. The conversation lasted several minutes. We were worried for Manju. An hour ago, a young man who spotted our camera and tripod from afar ran fervently through the forests to inform the others of our presence. “Maybe, he didn’t realise it was a tripod,” said a man chuckling to himself later in the evening.
“Who are they? Why are they here?” they asked Manju.
“They are here to meet Bhima Madavi’s family.”
“We are about to gherao them. Why do they want to meet his family?”
“To find out how they are managing to survive after Bhima’s death!”
“Can they get them justice and compensation for their loss?”
“If you people couldn’t manage to do that, how can you expect them to pull that off?”
They released Manju shortly afterwards. What transpired in those twenty minutes, we couldn’t tell. There were eyes on us from all corners. We couldn’t remember their faces. At times, they remained hidden in the shadows. We heard rumours of several armed cadres wandering the neighbouring hamlet. We didn’t traverse any further. “Their area of operation varies from place to place. They don’t stick to one particular spot for a very long time,” said a woman we met a week later.
A young girl walked bare feet around us. Her frail figure swayed every time she took a step forward. Her shy gaze never left us as we smiled at her. She was Ravi’s sister. “She doesn’t leave my side. I don’t know if I will ever send her to school,” said Poje with a grim smile. In an hour, we heard the grating rumble of a tractor engine coming towards us. At the cross roads where another narrow trail led to the adjoining hamlet, the vehicle veered off the road and sped towards farmlands in a distance. Poje ran behind the vehicle and begged Ravi to turn around. He couldn’t hear her. She couldn’t run anymore. “It’s alright!” we told her as she returned devastated, “We will wait for him.”
In a while, Ravi ran towards his home and greeted us with a smile. He spoke in broken Hindi. His mother nodded gently as she heard him narrate events that unfolded that day. The sudden pauses and whispers gradually faded into silence. Behind us, a group of people gathered quietly near the fence. We knew who they were. We didn’t turn around. Another man looked ahead and occasionally interrupted the young boy as he spoke.
Ravi barely uttered a word. His mother nudged him lightly when he looked at the ground. She spoke in short bursts and drew her veil across her head.
On October 6, 2015, 50-year-old Bhima Madavi was returning from Milkanpara hamlet to Patelpara in Nilavaya after meeting his sister. He was shot dead by security forces who were conducting an area domination exercise in the surrounding hamlets. He bled to his death. There were bullet wounds on his body near his heart.
“My husband was killed on a Tuesday. They found his corpse on Wednesday. He was cremated on Thursday. We don’t know why it happened. People from the neighbouring para told us that someone from the security forces shot him dead. They never entered our hamlet. They abandoned his lifeless corpse elsewhere. This happened ten months ago. We didn’t approach anybody for answers or help,” said Poje.
The soldiers returned the following day. They insisted on performing the funeral rites and have Bhima cremated immediately. The villagers refused to pay any heed to their demands. On a blank sheet of paper, they forced Ravi to put his signature and thumb print. At the cremation ground, the villagers laid Bhima’s body on the pyre. Accompanying them to the enclosure in the forest that morning was a posse of security force who allegedly urged the family to hurry with the proceedings and threatened to take the body away in case they refused to cremate him.
“I don’t think anything about the incident. I don’t feel any anger. Not anymore,” said Ravi trailing into silence. An occasional glance towards the gate indicated there were eyes on him that afternoon. He looked down and wiggled his toes against the ground.
Photographs of the young boy standing beside his father’s corpse, his vacant eyes and the grim faces of hordes of men and women gathered that morning emerged soon after. According to reports published by fact-finding teams and activists who spoke to the family and other villagers, people heard shots being fired the day Bhima died. It lasted a few seconds and nobody from Patelpara decided to investigate what transpired in the woods. These forests had witnessed far too many battles and gunfire. The next morning, one of men while grazing cattle in the grassland up head spotted Bhima’s dead body abandoned in a corner. While Poje was inquiring with others in the village if they had spotted him anywhere, she saw a group of men carry his corpse to their courtyard.
Villagers made arrangements to visit a hospital so that the medical examiner could perform an autopsy the next day. Meanwhile, hundreds of armed soldiers marched into their settlement demanding to hand over the body to them. Some reports suggested that one of the policemen accompanying the team was a surrendered Naxal cadre. In conversation with activists, villagers mentioned that they were threatened by security forces for refusing profusely to agree to their demands. A few days later, local tribesmen were accused of murdering Bhima and blaming the paramilitary forces for his death. There were several versions of this story that we heard over the next few weeks. However, they all paled in comparison to the sorrow and misery that Poje and her children suffered every day since Bhima’s death.
“My elder daughter is in Nakulnar. She works as a construction labourer. She hasn’t returned in a week. We work as agricultural labourers to earn a living. We also grow our own food. If we need more money, my son, daughter and I work as coolies at times. The other children are far too young. My younger son goes to school in Palnar. He is in eighth grade. I am not sure how we will survive. It has been especially hard since Bhima’s death. We borrow money when we are desperate,” said Poje.
“How do the security forces behave when they enter the settlement?” we asked her.
“Whenever they come, they do taandav! They take our goats, chicken and rice. Not once do they ask us before snatching away everything they find,” she said and let out an exasperated sigh.
“Why did you decide not to press charges or find out more about circumstances that led to Bhima’s death?”
“Who will go there to deal with them? What’s the point of going anywhere? Some people fought for us. Whatever had to happen has happened! Whoever had to go away has already gone. Bhima is dead. Nothing will change that.”
Her voice was barely above a whisper lest they heard her lament her woes. Who did she fear? We did not know. Here, in these lands, they were forbidden to commit such sins wherein the loss of a loved one beckons one to mourn. Although the perpetrators may have belonged to the other side of the spectrum, fear resided in all. Their loyalty was questioned everyday.
Against the wooden fencing, men and women stood gazing at us. Some returned to the hut where they questioned Manju hours ago. Their presence didn’t bother us. By now, we were accustomed to questions and endless vacant stares. Were they were curious onlookers or people that belonged to the Sangam? We may never know.
There were eyes on us, nonetheless.
“We must leave,” whispered Manju, “I don’t think they will talk anymore.”
As soon as they spotted our camera, the men turned around and walked away briskly. Poje and Ravi accompanied us to the car while the rest returned to their homes. They didn’t say anything nor did they turn around as we drove away. They seemed helpless. Perhaps, they were. Ravi slumped forward as he walked further away from his courtyard.
On our way back, we stopped at a tiny stall in Sameli to buy some biscuits and packets of namkeen. We hadn’t eaten anything all day. As we drove ahead towards Dantewada, two men on a bike waved at us near Palnar requesting us to pull over.
“Sorry, I need a lift till Dantewada. Do you mind if I join you?” said a young man holding a small handbag.
“Okay,” we said to him as Manju exchanged quiet glances with us minutes later. Unknown vehicles and strangers were unwelcome in these lands. We read his demeanour and surmised he was a part of the security forces. Silence ensued for the next ten minutes until we struck a conversation with him.
“Are you from Palnar?”
“No. I work here. I am a part of the Special Task Force (STF). My name is Mangal Giridhar Goswami.”
“Where are you from?” we asked him.
“I am from a place called Shakti which is situated between Raigad and Bilaspur.”
“Are you headed home?” we asked him.
“Yes. I have taken permission from my seniors. I am going home for a week. I have been posted here for a month or so. Toh, mama log mile kya kabhi aapko?” he asked sheepishly. His abrupt questions perplexed us.
“No. We haven’t met anyone. And, even if we have we wouldn’t know. Villagers all dress alike. You must have met them at some point here.”
“Oh yes! We have crossed paths several times especially on field. They hurl abuses at us from afar. We keep roaming in the forests all day. Not anymore. There was a time when we would spot ‘andarwale’ almost every other day in these areas. Now, we rarely spot them. They are quite active in remote settlements of Bijapur and Sukma. Have you heard of Abujmadh? They are spread all across the region. I have visited some really isolated hamlets. Muthbed bhi hua bohat baar. We would frequent the bazaars often. Once or twice, ‘they’ passed right beside us.”
“What we have understood based on our observations in Bastar is that the tribal community unfortunately bears the brunt of conflict between the Maoists and state.”
“You are absolutely right. People like us who hail from small villages are sacrificed in this war. Everything else is politics. Those sitting in power pass orders and we follow them. Despite not having any proper education, the Naxali army is quite intelligent. Once, we entered the forests of Abujmadh from Sukma along with two other soldiers who decided to take a nap after acting as posting guards to keep a watch out for the Maoist army. At first, one sentry surrounded us and started firing at us. They shot them both in the head. The cross firing went on for a very long time and we managed to catch hold of two armed Maoist cadres alive. We then informed the SP sahab of what transpired in the forests in the last few hours. The orders we received soon after baffled us. ‘Let them go,’ we were told. We couldn’t do anything else. All we are allowed to do is follow orders. You can’t just pick up people nor can you wander into places on your own unless you have been specifically asked to do so. Sab kuch upar se aata hai.”
“And, the Adivasis become inextricably entangled with the ‘war’ here,” we said to him.
“They aren’t as innocent as they seem! During our area domination exercises, we always end up finding something in their homes. Sometimes, it’s uniforms. Many a times, we also discover weapons.
“They are helpless in this situation. They can’t question them. They are expected to do as they say. Sometimes, they are even forced to feed them. If they don’t oblige, they will be killed,” we told him.
“Ye bilkul sahi baat hai. No one can refuse them. If they do, Maoists will place a gun on their foreheads. Adivasis will have to do everything they say to save themselves. But what are these Maoists fighting for? What will this war bring? I am yet to understand these things. Whose fight is it? I don’t know. It’s all a game and the rules are set by those seated in high chairs above us; those in power.
“Are there a few people misusing and abusing their power and authority while being a part of the CRPF, STF or other security forces?”
“Yes, there are a few especially those working in the local thana (police station) who abuse adivasis. They take away their rice, hens, goats and other supplies as we pass through villages during our operations. Some even misbehave with them. This is wrong! If someone treated my family members who reside in smaller villagers poorly, I would feel absolutely terrible. We can perhaps reprimand our colleagues who share the same ranks as us. However, we can’t utter a word to our seniors. That would result in unforeseen consequences! Sometimes, one must think about their own survival, you know. One of the soldiers from our platoon was honoured with an award a while ago. During an encounter (muthbed), he managed to attack Maoist cadres and didn’t allow them to proceed any further. There was another man who was shot before my eyes but he survived. He has now become an alcoholic. Since life gave him a second chance, he hopes to drown himself in alcohol. So, no one bothers him anymore,” he said chuckling to himself.
“Do you ever get afraid partaking in these operations?” we asked him.
“No. What do I have to fear? I am not afraid when we walk. However, when we travel by buses or cars, I get anxious and sometimes fear the worst may happen! We are huddled together in the bus after searching and combing operations. If 30 jawans are travelling together, there’s always the fear of an impending disaster around the corner. Have you heard of the Malewada blast that claimed the lives of seven soldiers? No one is aware of Maoists’ movements. They come and go as they please. This incident happened in the middle of the day. Who would have known that they had planted a bomb on the roadside. Bas marr gaye humare jawan! There are several such incidents. Sometimes, during an intense combing operation, we cross paths with mama’s (Maoist) armed cadres. Many a times, they would have died as we engaged in a fierce battle with one other. However, not everyone wears their uniforms. Since they would wear normal civilian clothes, orders from above would force us to dress them in their uniforms. What to do? What else can we do? We must follow orders or pay a heavy price.”
Manju cleared his throat several times before lowering the windows slightly. His eyes met ours in the mirror. We barely exchanged glances throughout the drive back to Geedam. Giridhar looked away. There were no signs of remorse or worry that crossed his face that afternoon. “I can’t believe he shared all that with us,” said a flabbergasted Manju later in the evening, “I don’t know what to make of this conversation.”
“How does your family feel about your job?” we asked him as we stopped near the bus station in Dantewada.
“I am deeply troubled,” he confessed to us, “When I was a bachelor, I could have managed this job. We would return from a particular place, head into the forests and receive our posting in isolated hamlets. Phir bhi chalta tha! Those who have a family and other responsibilities suffer the worst. I got married in 2014. I have a daughter. My wife and I have been quarrelling nonstop. It has now reached a point where I fear we might get a divorce soon. Bohat mushkil hai ye zindagi, kya batayein! That’s why I am going home for a few days.”
He shook our hands and left.
We never saw him again.
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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