A sense of normalcy prevailed. Unsettling and strange, it belonged here in the midst of a chaotic past and an obscure present. Normalcy: here in the constant is where one often sought its presence. “This is our normal,” remarked Suresh once when we spoke of solitary days and rains underneath an old mahua tree. Like most days, Dantewada bustled with activity. Hawkers pulled wagons bearing piles of fruit yelling in the streets looking for potential customers. At Teknar chowk, an old woman arranged sacks of wild mangoes on her mat. We found her there almost every evening smiling at passersby offering fruits to toddlers until the bazaar was shifted, one day, to an alley near the railway crossing, years later.
“Yesterday, there was a fake encounter. Today, the Maoists killed somebody. Tomorrow, someone else will die. The newspapers are filled with such reports. This is our normal,” said a group of people sipping on their tea, looking at children running astray while their mothers gathered around the hand pump with pots and buckets, “In the main town, however, one would rarely feel the burden of loss. You hear stories but never live their horror. The families, living in remote settlements, that bear the brunt of wrath and war may never recover from their loss. What else can they do? This is their life, their reality. This is what they live with: loss. Loss of life, land and identity.”
Normalcy: it made its discerning presence felt no more than the wisps of smoke rising in the distance behind scattered towns that held their own, beyond hills where we once crossed the Indravathi river on foot. The hazy amber blur cast a glistening halo in the evening skies today. At a distance, no more than a few paces ahead of the temple, a tiny swarm of birds flitted across the skies navigating through a mesh of electrical wires that hung loose above our heads. The deafening chirruping of birds had begun early. Beside the tree was an old placard that read Remembering Bastar Tiger: Mahendra Karma.
Some told stories. They were filled with dread. There were rumours of a team encompassing experts and academicians who spent the last two days traversing through the furthest settlements in the jungle. There were murmurs of women and young girls being assaulted and tortured during combing operations, of rapes that went unreported, of corpses lying in the mud. A few days later, we read about their experiences in the newspaper.
Maoist cadres were forbidden to get married, to have children, to build a life beyond the cause. They had to surrender to their fate. Those were the rules. The jawans knew them all too well. Across the courtyard, where the children took their first steps, where the first signs of rain brought in warmth, where in spring the faint scent of petrichor lingered in the air, there women were gathered in large groups. They stood in a neat file, eyes filled with horror. The soldiers squeezed their breasts. Those who didn’t produce any milk were rounded up. Lactating mothers were spared, we were told.
Some found them dead, a few days later. Some were raped and assaulted brutally. In its report, a few years ago, the National Human Rights Commission estimated that at least 16 women were assaulted across three villages in Chattisgarh. The report also stated that the women were prima facie victims of rape, sexual and physical assault by state police personnel in Chhattisgarh.
Kasauli wore a deserted look. At the check post, two soldiers wrote down our names and details in a book. Their nonchalant gaze followed us as we walked towards the house across the tea stall. A fortnight later, as we drove through the camp, at night, we spotted men wandering the dimly-lit alleys. A brooding gloom set sail here in its corners. Riding a tide of bereavement, its inhabitants seldom spoke of home: the one they lost many summers ago. Once, an old woman stopped a reporter in Kasauli and asked him if he happened to visit her village, if her home survived the fire. Faded memories, that’s all they had.
Once again, the air was heavy with the perfume of mahua flowers. Across the road, a group of bedraggled toddlers ran in circles. “He will be here in five minutes,” said a middle-aged woman as she brought out a tray with cups of tea. A young man held his gun a little higher as he patrolled the street. Another man stood beside us barely making any eye contact. Their posture straightened as Chaitram Atami walked out and greeted us with folded hands. “Please don’t click any photographs. Not today,” he said as we sat beside him on a traditional woven bed. He was one of the chief lieutenants of the Salwa Judum Movement, and had controlled operations in Dantewada.
“I have always dedicated my life to social service,” he said smiling at us, “Currently, I am a member of the Zilla Parishad. In order to understand the situation here, we must go back in time. 25 years ago, that’s when it all began. You will find the highest number of adivasis residing here. Yahan ke log itne bhole baale hain. They work very hard for themselves, for their families and their community. Ye shanti ka kshetra hai. We adivasis have such extraordinary practices and beliefs. Did you know that traditionally we did not milk cows? For, we believed that the milk was meant for their calves. Therefore, we never consumed milk. You will never find such practices stemming from the cities. My father bought some land here, and that’s why we shifted. My uncle, however, lived in Abujhmad and we visited him quite often. People say that adivasis are dying of hunger and starvation because of the inefficiency of the government. I can tell you with absolute certainty that no adivasi has ever died here owing to shortage of food. Ye sheher ki soch hai. People in the cities assume those who live in the forests are stricken with poverty.”
He lowered his voice and raised them in short staccato bursts. Every time he spoke, one of the soldiers gave us a quick glance before walking away. Class-based discrimination never existed here, he claimed. There was no divide, no distinction here. “It happened over a period of time,” he explained. In the last 2.5 decades, Chaitram believed that the area underwent a drastic transformation. “They did that. It happened because of Naxalism. Where people of the forest lived in peace, they decided to intercede and live amongst them. These Maoists learnt about tribal culture before mingling with them. Gradually, their numbers increased. Now, this entire region has been identified as a Maoist zone. Subsequently, the fight between the state and Maoists began. At first, they didn’t really bother anyone. Later, their demands rose. From food to supplies, they rely on villagers for everything,” he said.
He raised his arms above his head, and gestured towards the forests behind the web of concertina wires where the camps ended, and tiny settlements of villagers began. The rigidity of the barriers didn’t go unnoticed. Abujhmad, he said under his breath. There are no maps that can define its boundaries. There were no territories here none that were defined by existing norms. “Across the river exist such lands. They don’t come under the purview of our administration. No one has the map to these places. The entire region is spread across Gadchiroli in Maharashtra too. Not many have visited these areas. They are inaccessible. Can you imagine traversing through 100 kms of narrow trails only by foot?” he asked. It would take villagers at least two to three days to go to the bazaar. “There were no roads. They all ate and slept in the jungle. Gradually, the villagers were asked to do some work for them: andar wale or Maoists. Then, they asked them for food. No one could refuse them. Over time, their demands increased. They ordered everyone to give a portion of their rations to them. Eventually, they asked for a young man and girl from every household. Adivasis had no choice but to pay heed to their demands. They all feared for their lives. ”
He recalled events with great ease almost as if he lived them. We heard faint footsteps behind the door. The women scurried along. There were many claims that were made that afternoon. At first, he said, the Maoists imposed rules that could not be broken. For instance, whenever the armed cadres arrived for their meetings in the village, the villagers had to prepare food as well as set aside supplies meant for them. Secondly, they encouraged everyone to unite and work together. “Since you practise community farming in your village, we will require some portions of your farmland, they said. So, every person had to give 50% of whatever they earned from their farms to them. Be it paddy or tendu leaves, everything you earn had to be halved. People lost patience. They wanted to revolt. Sarkar ka koi bhi kaam nahin karna hai, hum jo kahenge bas wahi karna hai, they said to us. We were fed up. Villagers were forbidden from using hand pumps installed by the administration. Everything had to be done on our own from digging pits to even gathering raw materials for homes. We weren’t allowed to make use of any schemes or facilities provided by the government that would lessen our burden. Our troubles increased,” he said, his eyes darting from one corner to another, “People started telling them that they couldn’t give them their sons or daughters. Who’d take care of us when we grow older? Their pleas and laments fell on deaf ears. Whoever opposed the Maoists were presented at the jan adalat, and they were all punished. Many were burnt alive. People were killed in front of their families. It was brutal.”
Chaitram’s eyes fell on threads that gathered near his sleeve. It didn’t bother him. By now, shadows had crept into the streets. There was a strained moment of silence.
Not for long.
There were four brothers, he said. They worked hard, and built a decent life for themselves and their families. It was amongst the jan adalats held in 17 villages that the fate of the brothers was decided. Someone said the villagers even considered electing one of them as their Sarpanch. “They were summoned to the adalat. Anyone who worked hard and prospered was punished. The torture worsened over the years. Everyone wondered what to do. If they fled to towns or villages near the camp, the police would trouble them. If they continued to stay in their hamlets, the Maoists wouldn’t let them live. The police refused to file any reports. For, if they did, they would have to visit these settlements. They were afraid. Bohat pareshan hona pada humko,” he said shaking his head.
The brothers couldn’t stay hidden anymore. The Maoists discovered their location long before they had settled for the night. Word of the cadres marching towards the village reached them. Unknown to many, they fled through the forests. “The Maoists found their relatives. Their homes were burnt down. They destroyed their property, and everything they owned. Since the brothers escaped judgement, it was the relatives who bore the brunt of their wrath. They didn’t stop there. They burnt down the entire village: homes, cribs, roofs, memories. Everything vanished before their eyes,” he said wiping his forehead with a tiny towel. “In 2001, the entire village decided to go to the police station. They were then kept in a safe and secured place. We were here first. We have been living here our entire life. Why can’t we raise our voice against them? Everyone united and started asking them questions. We realised that they were wrong. It was in 2005 that we witnessed the birth of a revolution: Salwa Judum.”
According to Chaitram, Maoists attacked whomever they pleased. Roads were broken. There were blasts that claimed lives of soldiers every other day. Some were kidnapped and even brutally tortured. Retaliatory attacks became a common occurrence. He fell silent for a while reminiscing times when he marched the streets with several others.
“There was one such occasion during the weekly bazaar when the Maoists gathered villagers and ordered them to loot the bazaar, and get supplies including potatoes, onions, rice, etc. The villagers obeyed them. What else could they do? They had guns placed on their heads. Nobody wants to die. In another instance, they used villagers as shields to protect themselves from the army during an attack. Many innocent people died. It was because of this injustice that Salwa Judum gathered momentum in Bastar. In Gondi, it means peace march. Ab isko ek andolan ki tarah chalana tha. The plan was to gather whoever was wronged and come up with a solution together. Since then, those who surrendered were given protection by the police. A lot of people decided to lend us their support too,” he said.
What started on a smaller scale with a group of people received tremendous support from the government, he claimed. If anyone was attacked, it was the government’s duty to provide them with safety and protection from insurgents. “Judum went very well,” declared Atami, “At some point, during the conflict, a lot of soldiers were brutally killed. All the different Maoist groups in Bastar united which resulted in the police increasing the number of troops stationed here.”
Although it was the growing sense of discontentment with the Maoists, and violence committed by their cadres against adivasis, that led to the genesis of the movement, Salwa Judum took a devastating turn claiming many lives and causing destruction that lasted a lifetime. In 2011, the Supreme Court declared the movement unconstitutional as well as issued orders for the disarming and discontinuation of special police officers (SPOs) in combat operations in a significant verdict.
We asked him what he believed was the main purpose of the Maoist movement. What did they wish to achieve in Bastar? If both the government and the Maoists claimed to wish for development and progress in tribal belts, why then did arise a conflict between them? Why was there a fight at all? He smiled and shifted his glance away from us. His expression altered as he clinched his hands together.
“I remember the day they asked the villagers to loot the bazaar. I wrote them letters and asked them where we could meet. We told them a few of us — representatives of the government — wanted an audience with them. Abujhmad, came their response. They gave us a place, time and date. I took hundreds of people with me. They too had come in great numbers. There were many commanders in the area,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper, “I told them about innocent villagers being arrested by the police. Many were thrown in jail. If they saw anyone with new items in their homes, they were accused of robbing the bazaar. They were accused of sympathising with the Maoist cause. I told them you robbed the bazaar while our people were taken away by the police. So, the commander said to me: We didn’t do it. The janta robbed the bazaar. To that, I replied, “Aadesh toh aapka hi tha na.” The commander later agreed. In fact, he had also given them three specific orders: (a) Reduce the rate of rice. (b) Increase the rate of forest produce (c) Reduce the rates of other pulses. I scoffed at his suggestions and reminded him that it was the responsibility of the administration to ensure fair rates not the public.”
Behind us, a tractor roared to life. A young man walked towards the Special Police Officer (SPO) seated behind us. An hour earlier, when we first spotted him walking across the road, he refused to speak to us for he hadn’t the faintest clue who we were. “Talk to Chaitram ji and if he agrees, then you can talk to us,” they said.
They never spoke to us, and we walked away.
“In conversation, I asked them why are you here? What do you want? So, the commander replied: We are here to fight for you, for your rights. I immediately retorted and said: Alright, where are the roads? Where is the hospital? What did do for the development of our region? To that, they replied: We don’t provide those facilities. We are here to save you from corruption. We are here to save you from discrimination, oppression and injustice. We wondered aloud who’d ever come to Abujhmad to treat us poorly? No one from the government has ever set foot here. I asked the men standing behind me to walk ahead and present themselves before the group. They were all beaten up by Maoist cadres,” he said standing up to walk towards his home. It was almost time for him to leave for an official meeting, “While pointing at each and every individual stood before them, I then asked the commander specifically the reasons for their punishment and brutality. He then told us that they were beaten up because they were acting as police informants. Whoever complains about us to the forces, we will slit their throats, the commander said to us. These are our so-called saviours.” He smirked and bowed his head before disappearing into the hallway of his home. The soldiers remained alert by our side as we walked to the tea stall.
There were many questions that were left unanswered. What led to the mass exodus of adivasis from their ancestral lands to fortified camps? If the Salwa Judum movement was indeed a peaceful revolution as Atami claimed, why then did tales of atrocity echo in these lands? We never could ask him. For, we never crossed paths again. We looked for answers elsewhere and found them in grieving sighs, in resilient spirits, and broken souls over the next few months. Some lived long enough to tell the tale. Some died before anyone could hear their sorrows. They all lived their misery.
Later at night, as many gathered in the front yard listening to stories he had narrated to us all morning, Akhilesh turned to us and said, “I have killed many with my bare hands, Chaitram said to us once. This was a while ago. There were two or three of us, I can’t recall. But I will never forget what he said.”
“Inhi haathon se maine maara unko…”
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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