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Reports From Ground Zero

By Tusha Mittal

29 May, 2010
Tehelka

A civilian bus is blown up. Six men are arrested below radar, a mindless cycle of violence rolls on in Dantewada

The mangled remains of a charred bus lie on an empty road in Chhattisgarh. On may 17, an ied blast trigged by the Naxals blew up a private bus travelling between Dantewada and Sukma. 31 died: all ordinary people with ordinary lives. Yet, distinctions emerged. There were 15 SPOs — special police officers, one CRPF constable, and 15 civilians.

Rummage amid the debris, where blood stained clothes have already begun to mix with earth — and the distinctions seem to melt. All you find are leftovers of lost lives. There is a diary page that rips at ‘I love V’, a wedding invitation to Shri padmbhan Thakur, an audio cassette of Gautam Kumar, a photo of durga, a ruled book with English Lesson 9: Whom does the sunshine wake up every morning?

In many ways, the distorted wreck tells the story of Chhattisgarh — a zone of escalated conflict, where it is becoming impossible to create any categories of hero and villain, victory and defeat, oppressor and oppressed; where everyone seems to be a victim first.

There are the nine Adivasi women of Durvaras village — all were on that bus, returning from Malaiwara with mahua fruit crushed into oil. Miraculously, all of them survived. Sodi Deva, 8, had crawled out the bus window to help the women. The incident has left many in the village scared of bus rides. “I’ll never again go on the same bus as the security forces,” says Sodi Huva, a farmer in Durvaras. “I’d rather walk for miles.”

There is the 25-year-old SPO, one of many survivors recovering at Jagdalpur hospital. He joined the Salwa Judum 5 years ago and earns Rs 2,150 a month. “I became an SPO to protect my country, but we have achieved nothing. The salwa Judum hasn’t solved the problem. The government has everything. The Naxals have nothing. They loot because if they don’t, how else will they eat?”

There is a CRPF jawan huddled in a tent outside a salwa Judum camp, which he is convinced the Naxals will attack in 25 days. “I’m counting down,” he says. “10 days up. I’m prepared to die.” And yet he reverts to the Mahabharata when you ask what he thinks of his enemy. “They are like Krishna,” he says with a long sigh. “There was a yug during which even Krishna had to kill the Rajas. It’s inevitable.”

There is Madvi Pojje, an Adivasi woman in Mukram village. Last week, an SPO threw her on the ground and tried to shove her into an irrigation sewer pipe. A few kilometres ahead, Madkam Deva was also hurled down, stripped and beaten so hard he limps now. Only days earlier, the cRpf had asked villagers from Mukram for fish from the pond. There weren’t enough to distribute even among the villagers, so none were sent to the CRPF. The anger resurfaced as Deva was being dragged to the camp. “Is our money any different from the Naxals. You give them fish. Why not us? You are with them,” the jawans bellowed.

Ever so often, a major event brings Chhattisgarh back into the national public gaze. Yet below the radar, a lowintensity conflict continues to simmer — a senseless cycle of violence and counter violence. Each local incident can be traced back to another, sometimes as micro as the outrage over fish. It is as if the Adivasis of Chhattisgarh have become pawns in a dangerous game of chess where every move is a trigger, an action and a reaction at the same time.

THE MOST recent move has come from the security forces, who have been on the back foot after a recent surge in Maoist violence. on April 6, the Maoists ambushed a CRPF patrol team in Chintalnar, killing 76 security personnel. It was the biggest Maoist attack in India. A bus explosion only a month later came as a major embarrassment. The report of the EN Rammohan committee highlighting procedural lapses in the Chintalnar incident and calling for the dismissal of both CRPF and police top brass only added to the disgrace. On May 21st, CRPF’s Deputy Inspector-General Nalin Prabhat, was transferred out of Chhattisgarh.

On May 24th, the Chhattisgarh Police announced a major breakthrough — the arrest of six Naxals — a “self-styled” Naxal commander called Barse Lakhma and five others — responsible for the Chintalnar attack. Only Lakhma was presented before the press. Police identified the five others as Podiyam Hidma, Oyam Ganga, Durga Joga, Oyam Hidma, Kawasi Budra, arrested from Minapa village on May 23.

“The six arrested were part of a 150-strong jan militia. Along with Barse Lakhma, the five men planned and executed the Chintalnar attack. They were arrested during recent search operations,” says Dantewada SP Amresh Mishra.

TEHELKA travelled to the village to verify police claims. The locals say that these five men were picked up a month ago and have been in police custody since.

A rugged pathway through the forests leads to the remote village of Minapa, about five kilometres from the sight of the CRPF ambush in Chintalnar. In Minapa, the huts are smaller and spread further apart; the women are skeletal, the children are mostly naked, and even many men wear nothing but a patch of cloth. There is a sense of bareness, even the usual flutter of chicken and wild boar is absent. The only sign of government is a pDs ration shop, 10 km away in Chintagupha, where Adivasis get 25 kilos rice monthly. Nothing else is available.

It is this Chintagupha market from where locals allege the men, excluding Oyam Hidma — were picked up. This is the version of their families: On April 10, the four men — aged 22-25, left for Gunjaigunda village in Orissa. It was haldi farming season during which locals customarily go to Orissa.

Podiyam Hidma, the village sarpanch’s nephew and Oyam Ganga, an ordinary farmer, had consecutively visited Orissa the last two haldi seasons. For the others, it was their first visit. The four boys returned from Orissa on April 14 and stopped at the Wednesday bazaar in Chintagupha. Forces arrived for random search and picked them up. Since the incident, the village women have protested at Chintagupha thrice, only to be turned away each time. Meanwhile, Oyam Hidma, 20, studies at a local school in Sukma town. His father alleges that Hidma was picked up from his rented room in Sukma.

After being held for 10 days in the Chintagupha station, the locals claim that on April 24, all five men where flown out on a helicopter from the Chintagupha camp. They say they received this information from other villagers living nearby.

While it is impossible to independently corroborate either version, travel through the Chintalnar forests and there is a sense that the security forces are escalating operations, under pressure to show results.

MUKRAM VILLAGE, around three kilometres from Chintalnar, has become the epicentre of another cycle of violence. This village is significant because it is here the 82-strong CRPF patrol party lost their wireless set. The security forces reportedly ate dinner here on April 5, hours before they were ambushed. for several days post the April 6 incident, the villagers of Mukram had abandoned their huts fearing a backlash.

Enter Mukram a month later and there is still an eerie sense of desertion. The first thing you see is a local school blasted by the Maoists, their signature scrawled across its broken walls: Sabhi Chunavi party dokhebaz hai. Dushman ke hathiyar hamare hathiyar hain. (All electoral parties are traitors. The enemies’ weapons are our weapons)

Walk on and a silent row of locked huts greets you. They are abandoned, but not by choice. On May 22, villagers say security forces entered Mukram at around 10 am and barged into the first few houses they found. Four Adivasis — Nuppo Bhima, Nuppo Hadma, Madvi Kosa, Iama Nanda, and the village Sarpanch Iama Ganga were picked up from their homes.

“I saw them beating my father. I don’t think they knew he was the Sarpanch,” says his son Keshav, a security guard in Raipur home on vacation. “When my brother and mother tried to save him, they were also beaten with sticks. I was too scared to come out.”

While Nuppo Hadma’s wife is able to produce his voter ID, others cling to newly made plastic cards. After the on-set of Operation Green Hunt, several villages including Mukram got together and trekked into town to have photos clicked and private IDs made. All have listed their occupation as “farmer”. Though the ID is not considered legitimate by security forces, it is telling of the fear psychosis the war has triggered.

Travel along the Dantewada-Sukma road, on which the May 17th bus attack took place, and every turn yields a potential trigger. There is Gumyipal village, where the security forces had conducted search operations on May 16, a day before the bus attack. Police claim to have killed two Naxals. But villagers claim they were innocent Adivasis. “Malla and Aituram were sleeping at home,” says Gujjo Bai, the sarpanch. “They were woken up and killed. Their houses and fields were burnt. They are not Naxals.”

While these claims cannot be independently verified, the incident is significant because it resurfaced in CPI(Maoist) leader Ramanna’s statement about the May 17 incident. he claimed it was revenge for the Gumyipal killing, and other such encounters.

Then there is Bhusharas village — the SPos at Jagdalpur hospital have told TEHELKA they were on a search operation here immediately before they boarded the bus to Sukma. Stop at Bhusharas at you will meet a frail a 30-year-old widow, Hidme Mandal. On April 21, at around 10:30 pm, the Naxals barged into her hut. Threatening Hidme into silence, masked men sliced a knife through her husband Manoj Mandal while he slept beside her. After the killing, they fired three shots in the air and disappeared into darkness. Mandal had been murdered for being a police informer, but villagers say he was an ordinary farmer.

MURLI KUMAR, a local teacher in the area is no stranger to such killings. it was the mid 1980s, Kumar’s family lived in a remote village in Bijapur district, where the Naxals ensured the local patwari and the local contractor could not overcharge villagers. “We thought it was a good thing. Everytime the Naxals called a baithak, we went for it.”

Things changed in the 1990s, when his father, an Adivasi farmer, was accused of being a police informer. “Some Maoist cadre started this rumour because of personal rivalry,” Kumar says. his father was called for questioning by the Maoist top brass — Ramanna and Ganesh VK. They found no evidence of guilt and let him go. Yet, a few months later, Kumar’s house was attacked, his family beaten and his father killed by the Maoists. Aghast, Kumar wrote a letter to Ramanna asking why his men had killed an innocent man. Within weeks, the reply came. An apology and an offer of compensation. “We did not know our comrades killed him. We are sorry. Come and meet us.” Kumar refused the money and left the village with his family.

If you travel the remaining 80-odd km up to Sukma town, the microcosm of violence becomes more evident. Mediyum Bandhi was shot inside Sukma Police Station on May 19, two days after the bus attack. Sukma Sho Sandeep Chandrakar confirmed the death of Bandhi, 25, but said he was shot while trying to flee from the police station.

According to Chandrakar, Mediyum Bandhi and Pariyam Kosa were picked up from Neelavaram village, a few kilometres from the station. “We found them randomly in another village. When asked why they were visiting, they could not answer, so we brought them for questioning. Soon after we received a message from the Sho of Gadhiras that they are wanted in other criminal cases,” he told TEHELKA. “on May 19, we brought them out of their lock up to have dinner. At around 7:15 pm, the Naxals fired at the station. The police took up their positions and began firing in return. Bandhi escaped from behind the policemen. he was shot by a police bullet while trying to run away.”

Bandhi and Kosa belong to the Aitpal village in Korra block. “Around 300 security forces came to Aitpal on the morning of May 16 and dragged them from their houses,” Korra deputy sarpanch Mooya told TEHELKA. “There are ordinary farmers like the rest of us. We feel helpless.” Again, the counter narrative.

WRITER’S EMAIL
tusha@tehelka.com