These farmlands remained unseen. That was a different time, said the elders. Trees were taller, and the flowers bloomed in spring. Summers didn’t last forever. We tread carefully alongside these roads. Where the village ended, dead trees stood upright in corners. Before us, were lands that held nothing anymore; a vast emptiness that shrouded these villages; a silence that went unbroken. There were remnants of the times they spoke of; in dead trunks, and parched lands, in empty cattle sheds and dried taps, in grounds where cracks ran deep.
“The madrasas don’t have a play area,” said Ramdas walking in circles. He was a young man when he first set foot here. “I wish the schools had better facilities for children. I wish they had a better childhood,” he said pointing at broken swings and scraps of wooden ledges. It was better than most had seen, worse than those that thrived in larger towns. Some days, their sorrows crippled them. For now, this was all they had. “Summers are getting worse every year,” he said staring at the sea of dead trees swaying to the winds.
Towns replaced farmlands until there was nothing left save vast stretches of empty barren lands. Receding into the background were trenches and freshly dug pits across these villages that made it difficult to drive through these roads at dusk. A cloud of dust rose into the skies. Bullock carts, sheep herders, herds of goats and scores of automobiles: all struggling to find space on these paths. The national highways disappeared only to return with more broken stretches and potholes.
At an intersection where lorries were parked, a young man sat outside a makeshift shop with rubber tubes, tyres and old pipes. The sign board swayed in the winds. It read ‘Panchar Shop‘. “My name is Amol. I am 24 years old,” said the young man attending to our tyres, “The one to the right seems low on air.” He earned Rs 50 or Rs 100 in a day. He had three acres of farmland in his village. “Drought took away everything. This year, we planted soyabean. I could harvest just one sack. No more. There aren’t any farms left for us to work. There is no other source of income. So, we do what we can. We try,” he said with a smile.
A few miles ahead, as we drove through scattered towns, we came across a group of people standing beside brick kilns on the other side of the road. “There are 10 to 15 people who work here,” said a man as he led us to one of the makeshift homes nearby where families sought shelter from the heat. “Many of these people are landless. Some of them had farmlands that got destroyed due to drought. We usually start work after Diwali, and we continue till May. The demand for bricks has reduced these days. We buy water from tankers at Rs 600 per water tank. All construction work has stopped due to drought. If there’s no water, how will people build homes or offices?” said the man accompanying us.
Children stood behind piles of bricks, and giggled at us. Their mothers glanced at them from afar. Their daughters lent them a helped hand. “We are from Parbani. Schools are shut for the next four months. There is no water in our village too. Everything dried up. Nothing survived. It has been like that for a while now. So, the children accompany us wherever we go,” she said dragging her veil across her forehead. For 1000 bricks, they earn Rs 300. “We cant make more than 1000. We would die in the heat,” she explained to us as we walked back to our car.
Hours later, a truck swerved dangerously close to our vehicle. When the tyres slipped, as we missed the road by a narrow mile, at the next toll booth we decided to call it a night. The roads barely had any signs or warnings. After ten hours of driving on these treacherous narrow trails, we couldn’t go any further. When dawn broke over the horizon, trucks and lorries lined up at the booth. In two hours, after breakfast at a nearby tea stall, we decided to head towards Nagpur.
There, in many of the street corners, lay pamphlets strewn all over. Some blue, some saffron. Tiny flags hoisted on poles had phrases, partly visibly to passersby, that held disparities between ideologies that tore through the landscape of the region. In a few months, there were protests held in the city, we were told, against atrocities committed towards the Dalit communities miles away. They were pelted with stones, the story went. Some ripples were felt. Some whispers went unheard. They marched that day, nonetheless.
Most of the hotels, lodges and guest houses refused to provide us with accommodation. Over the last several months, vigilante groups barging into hotels to enforce a code of morality had wreaked havoc in the region. “No one can stop them,” said a manager. We had slept in the car the last few days, and soon realised we wouldn’t last the heat nor the exhaustion. We made a few calls to our friends some of whom were IAS officers. In an hour, we received a call from the then Superintendent of Police, Nagpur (rural) who showed incredible support towards our work. They offered to arrange for accommodation in the police guest house for a day. At the premises, we also met a few officers and constables who were returning from a recruitment camp nearby. We shared some tea and biscuits with them as they fondly reminisced about their homes and villages.
Gadchiroli was just a day away. One of our points of contact who was posted there informed us that it wasn’t the best time to visit the place. There was never a best time to visit Gadchiroli. “This is a Naxal-Maoist insurgent area. There are many operations underway. I don’t want to discourage you from visiting Gadchiroli but it is best you don’t come now,” he said. Since our acquaintance was one of the officers in higher ranks posted there, we wondered if we would be able to observe neutrally the reality on ground. After much deliberation, we decided to head towards Chattisgarh. There, we hoped to understand the plight of tribal communities and delve deeper into their diverse socio-cultural identity from a humanitarian perspective.
Three years later, news of a devastating attack on police forces in Gadchiroli shook the region. An improvised explosive device (IED) planted by insurgents blew up the vehicle carrying police personnel who were on their way to examine a site where the Maoists allegedly torched around 26 vehicles that belonged to a construction company. A year ago, in a standoff between Maoists and the police, the latter claimed to have gunned down 40 insurgents during an operation. This was a retaliatory attack. Over the next three years, we heard similar tales in Bastar where men and women picked up arms: some for the country, some for the forests, some for rebellions that lasted decades. Many died. A few survived to tell their tale.
The conflict claimed everyone: those who died, those who lived long enough to see its devastating impact on generations to come. Such was the burden of war. It resonated in the soils, in places where one seldom sought to look. “No one knows what the ‘cause’ is anymore. They all claim they are here to fight for us, for our rights, for justice: the Government, Naxal, mining companies, all of them. Adivasis are stuck in between,” said some elderly tribesmen we met months later deep in the forests of Dandakaranya, “What are we fighting for?”
As the conflict between Naxal and the state entered its fiftieth year, the former claimed to implement a better mode of governance by overthrowing the existing one while the latter continued to launch operations in the pretext of tackling insurgent forces. Over the years, many more were tortured, raped and massacred. Some called them police informants. Some called them Naxal sympathisers. The adivasis paid a heavy price.
They buried their dead amongst them. Some days, they were forbidden to mourn. Here, tales of brutality were never forgotten. Many a times, they wondered aloud if there would ever come a time when violence ceased to exist in these lands. “In the shadows of a gun, they can never be peace,” said Bela Bhatia – an independent researcher, writer and human rights lawyer — to us when we first met her in Pandripani.
“Whether you are a soldier or a farmer, it’s always the poor who die. Jawan kaun hai? Woh bhi toh kisaan ka beta hai, gareeb ka beta hai. The rebels too don’t come from rich households. In the fight for causes: political, social or religious, it is always the poor who are sacrificed. Never forget that,” said Sattar weeks ago.
The highway took us towards Telangana. We came across a small town called Adilabad, one late evening, where we stayed for a week recovering from exhaustion yet again. Summers took a toll on us. We spent a few nights on the road. The weather was unkind here but the people weren’t. We hadn’t checked our maps not for a while until we realized we had crossed the border from Maharashtra towards Telangana.
Where the crossroads led to tiny clusters of rural settlements in the outskirts, we stopped at a lodge hidden away amidst tall buildings. The décor was borrowed from several other inns on the highway. Some nights, drunk men stumbled outside the restaurant across the road. Sometimes, we heard them yell in the dead of the night.
It was around this time when we first came across the term – the red corridor. And, it was only a year later that we realized the historical significance of the place we had spent an entire week in the summer of 2016. There was a story that everyone remembered in these lands.
They spoke of a woman who belonged to the lower caste. They say she defied the upper caste feudal lords, that she – a lower caste woman — took 40 acres of land on lease from a landlord, that she stood up to those zamindars who claimed their right over her farmland. Her name was Chakali Illama. Her biggest crime, they say, was that she dreamt to free herself from shackles of slavery. What started as a revolt, an agitation against crime, exploitation and illegal means meted out by feudal lords, jagirdars and deshmukhs catapulted into the Telangana rebellion that ended bonded labour and gave rise to one of the most powerful peasant uprisings that the country had ever witnessed. Radicalisation of peasantry, some called it, as the movement opposing feudal state machinery and oppression of adivasis spread into neighbouring districts as well as other states. Tribal unrest in these regions began much before the ‘Naxal movement’ that spread across these belts over the decades. The razakars (Nizam’s mercenary army), army police and the landlords collectively had killed more than 4000 farmers in the region. Some spoke of detention camps where those who survived were tortured and killed. The agitation claimed many more over the years.
Dantewada was 500 kms away. In the last several months, we had pored over articles and essays trying to understand the nature of the Naxal-state clash in South Chattisgarh and the sensitivity of the conflict-ridden region. It would take us three days normally to cover the distance. For, we weren’t bound by time. The map showed us three routes. While one route required us to enter Maharashtra and make our way into Chattisgarh through Chandrapur, the other two went deeper into Telangana. Over the years of being on the road, we had come to realise that Telangana offered far better road side amenities to travellers. Like most days, we assumed we would spend the night in our car at one of the fuel stations on the highway. The proposed route led us to NH 16 and NH 163. The first night we stopped at Huzurabad. Between two lorries that carried vehicles and motorbikes, we parked the car, and drifted off into sleep.
There were no stars today. The moon disappeared between clouds. There was a stillness in the night broken only by the nocturnal buzz of insects hovering over the windows. We couldn’t sleep. Neither could our distant companions, strangers whom we were now accustomed to on the road. Truckers paced back and forth. Some sat together discussing home and family. In moments, the winds changed direction. A distinct earthly odour wafted through the air. It rained all night. The scent of petrichor lingered a little while longer. At dawn, the clouds disappeared, and the winds vanished. The day began just as it did yesterday. The skies were clear, the roads weren’t.
At 4:30 pm, NH16 was 70 kms away. Towns passed by, and the cluster of urban settlements reduced. Villages appeared in the fringes of towns where paths turned dusty. The landscape changed. Trees appeared taller, and the forests turned dense. Shadows flitted across the road as a flock of birds soared in the skies. In slow concentric turns, their ascension towards the horizon merged with the glare of the evening sun. The silence returned. A bed of brown leaves surrounded the landscape.
Somewhere ahead of us, in the wilderness, we heard footsteps that shattered the stillness. Twigs cracked, and the dry heave of broken branches and dead trunks resounded in the air; an almost intrusive plea that surged through these forests. We stopped for a while. The woods offered respite to travellers many of whom sought shelter underneath these trees. The silence in these jungles didn’t go unnoticed by us. There were barely any vehicles travelling through this stretch.
A few hours later, it bothered us.
As the sun went down, the meandering roads led us to the Rihand river glistening in hues of primrose and amber. To our left, as the river flowed below us, we drove towards the woods that led us to abandoned hamlets. The signs disappeared. At a crossroad, we came across an old dusty sign that read Telangana Limit Ends. The road soon disappeared, and we found ourselves braving large ditches and muddy trails through the jungle. For a few hours, we spotted no one save us. The vehicle roared forward leaving behind massive whorls of dust as we trudged along hoping the road would appear once more, and we would soon reach the neigbouring town.
We were wrong.
The signals disappeared at the border, and we had no way to confirm where we were. The journey slowed us down immeasurably. We spotted abandoned huts and tiny makeshift shelters made with sticks and branches of dead trees along the way. At dusk, as the skies turned pale, where the road turned narrow, at steeper edges, we spotted smoke rising in the corner. Then it appeared on the eastern stretch: a large trunk set on fire beneath trees that held their branches while a few twigs succumbed to its flames. They twisted and sputtered as broken shards hit the ground amidst dead leaves. We felt it; its faint warmth that rose through the forests.
There was no one around.
NH 16 was 35 kms away according to the map. We were in South Chattisgarh. It was a mystery to us why we didn’t find a single traveller on this stretch. There were no vehicles or people that crossed our paths. It was only weeks later that we learnt nobody ever used this route since the roads were in a state of shambles. In an hour, we stumbled upon a piece of land where JCBs, road rollers and dumper trucks were parked in a line. Owing to Naxal resistance, construction and repair work crawled at a snail’s pace in these regions. There were numerous instances reported wherein Maoists torched vehicles belonging to contractors thereby stalling road work. A few years ago, we were told, Maoists set some road rollers and dumper trucks on fire on this particular stretch. This perhaps explained why the vehicles were parked behind a temporary campus heavily guarded by the Central Reserve Police Force (CPRF).
The camp wasn’t crowded. Many suspicious eyes glared at us as we passed by them. They didn’t stop us. On the other side of the road, we spotted tents made of tarpaulin sheets: the kind that labourers usually installed on construction sites. The tribal settlements in these regions seemed distant and untouched. A group of children stood by the road. They held tiny twigs in their hands. Some had gold streaks in their hair. They all had swollen bellies: a sight we would soon get accustomed to in remote settlements.
We were now 30 kms away from NH16. The trail changed its direction every 100 metres and we couldn’t spot any signs of the road in the dark. As the path swerved left, a massive trench cut across the trail leaving us no choice but to traverse through the thickets, wild shrubs and trees. Within moments, we found a path that led us back to the dusty trail. We wondered aloud why the construction of the road was left abruptly without any cover or signs indicating the presence of an incomplete job. A few days later, we learnt that an IED blast had occurred on the same trail a week before we drove through the forests. We didn’t know.
As we made our way towards the highway, a few bikes rode in the opposite direction. This was the first time in hours that we came across motorists on the trail. NH16 wasn’t far away, and we hoped the road would give us a break from the precarious trails that curved through the woods, and find us a safe shelter at night. The map indicated that we were on the right path. We were certain that we weren’t.
For, the road was no better. There were no paths here. At a tiny village, where lights flickered from a distance, we stocked up on water and biscuits hoping it will get us through the night. The lone street light offered assistance to those travelling through these paths at night. “The road gets better ahead but don’t get your hopes too high,” said the shopkeeper to us. What was meant to be a peaceful drive through the woods was now turning into an unpredictable journey. We were 150 kms away from Dantewada. We had no option but to continue driving until we reached the nearest town. An hour passed by, and there were no signs of towns or settlements. The trails led us to what were once ‘roads’. At 9:30 pm, we noticed that we had been driving at an average speed of 20 km/hr. Visibility was low, and the paths turned dusty with every passing minute.
In a few moments, we realised we weren’t alone. Occasional headlights flickered from behind, and in the night it seemed as though we were being trailed by an autorickshaw. On these rickety paths, we barely moved a mile in the last several minutes. The speed at which we were being followed bothered us. Our vehicle now jumped at several places as we raced ahead creating enough distance between us. The road turned narrow, and ditches were in plenty. As our minds ran through numerous possibilities of being followed, we spotted street poles in a distance.
The road turned wider, and we found ourselves in the middle of a deserted town. Outside a tiny hand pump where a few people lived in buildings that barely stood up, we parked the vehicle and decided to rest for the night. As it turned out, it wasn’t an autorickshaw after all. Through the tinted windows of a newly registered Scorpio, we spotted the driver gazing at the road signs ahead intently. He was a lone traveller too. Upon discovering another car in these isolated woods, he was relieved to find us, and followed our vehicle throughout so that we both got out of these jungles safely.
We found a small hut that sold some rotis and potato curry wrapped in an old newspaper. Most of the places remained shut. We didn’t know where we were. But in that moment, we didn’t care. The stillness returned at night. By now, we were accustomed to it. We slept in the car, and no one bothered us.
At dawn, the town changed character. What seemed menacing and daunting at night as shadows crept into corners had now transformed into a bustling town nestled in the midst of the forests. Sounds both jarring and mellow travelled far and wide. An engine cranked into life; an auto horn blared in the distance, the ring of a bicycle resounded in the air as the cyclist cut across a busy junction, vehicles halted to a stop near stalls that served breakfast. The serenity of the forests was replaced with the cacophonous trails of vehicles in a distance.
Soiled dishes were piled high near the hand pump. It was only when we stepped out of the car, we realised that we had parked right outside the police station. The tea stall was crowded as people read their morning newspaper. “This is Bijapur,” said a man who had travelled from Raipur that morning. He had overheard us asking the tea stall owner where we were earlier. “Dantewada is just a few hours away. The roads are slightly better than the stretch you covered. Nobody really takes that route,” he said with a warm smile, “You must be new here. You will get used to it. 30 kms away, there’s a mobile tower. You should get network there. You can then track your route. Twenty years ago, the situation was far worse, you know. There was no road or connectivity. Sometimes, we would be stuck here for weeks while our families wondered where we were.”
The summer breeze stirred in the trees. In the morning, the forests glistened as we drove through settlements scattered in their midst. In an hour, the signals returned. We then managed to get in touch with Shalini Gera from Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (also known as JagLag a non-profit organisation that provides free legal services to adivasis in South Chattisgarh’s five Naxal-affected districts) who then provided us with contacts of a few people in Dantewada and Geedam.
By noon, we had reached Dantewada and decided to stay in Madhuban hotel for a day or two. The rooms were tiny, and the cooler barely worked. It hissed in moments that at times led to its demise. But, after the last few days on the road and high tension late night drive through jungles of Bijapur, having a proper bed to sleep on was a relief. A middle-aged man would gather a large brown pipe and fill it with water every two hours. Wires hung loose, and the walls were green; an odd colour; an unimpressive hue that changed in the afternoon light. It was draped in grim, sullen tones: the kinds that reminded you of a forlorn night. Cracks slipped through the peeling paint in corners where no one looked.
“The younger generation doesn’t want to work anymore. They are lazy, ” he said lamenting the loss of earnestness in society today, “Everybody wants a good life without working for it.” He belonged to the Gond tribe. His village was a few hours away.
Two days later, as we left the lodge, the manager who had the reputation of being unkind to his customers said to us with a smirk, “Inspector General Kalluri was asking about the two of you. He was wondering who you are, and why you are here. What is the purpose of your visit?”
(to be continued…)
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