At the end of a lone street, there stood a blue house. Where lay nothing but mud roads that led to settlements near the hills, we passed by that house at a junction in Cholnar. A frail old woman stared ahead at nothing before her. She sat there at the doorstep most days. Her name was Jogi Mandavi. Asbestos sheets on the roof shone in the afternoon sun. Stacked in the courtyard were logs of wood in a neat file. Her eyes lingered at the crossroads ahead.
“Oh! This is where it happened,” exclaimed Mangal Kunjam, a local activist and journalist, whom we had spent an entire morning driving in and around villages in Kirandul. “It has been a few weeks since the incident,” he said taking long strides towards Jogi.
There were clothes hung in the hall behind her. They swayed in the breeze: some tattered, some carefully sewn in places where threads hung loose; a sea of colour. Her eyes followed us. She barely spoke above a whisper. “He never hurt anyone. He never beat his wife or children. He was never rude to his brother or sister-in-law. He was a good man. He took care of us,” said the 60-year-old in Gondi.
Her son Vijay Mandavi was an organic farmer. He was in his late twenties. In the weeks prior to his death, news of an impending wedding spread in the village. Jogi’s family were related to the bride. “From there, he walked towards home,” said the elderly woman pointing at a cluster of Chind and Mahua trees in the distance. That’s where it happened, she whispered. “That day, a large group of villagers walked to Khale para in the afternoon. It was the day of the wedding. Podatha babu podatha. (The sun had set babu. The sun had set.) I usually sit on the khatiya in our courtyard. It was getting late but I wasn’t worried. Vijay goes wherever he pleases. Sometimes, he accompanies his friends or brother to the other para. Vabor Vaboro (He isn’t here yet), I thought to myself. At the wedding, one must usually account for landa, mahua, sulfi, rice, vegetables and pig amongst other things. A few people called Vijay since he could write. Their home is on the other side,” she said pointing away from us, “There were other men with him. Since there were accounts pending for the last few weddings, he wrote down expenses for all of them. He wrote till the last page.”
There was nothing to write anymore. There were no more pages left in his book. So, he left only to never return home. She repeated events sometimes in an order that made seldom any sense to us. There was grief in her eyes. Sometimes, she fell silent and heaved a weary sigh.
The road ahead caught her attention again.
“Vabor Vaboro…” (He isn’t here yet)
On April 29, it was long after sunset when Vijay returned to his para. There were others with him. One of them was Kaidu who was Paiku’s son. Jogi tried to remember stories told to her by people who witnessed what had happened; by women who were inconsolable at her plight. “Vijay held his notebook in his right hand. He put his cell phone in his pocket,” she said turning around and lightly tapping her left hip, “There is a Mahua tree nearby. That’s where they had reached. There were some people walking behind him. They hadn’t said a word. Vijay turned around and asked them who they were. There was no response. They said nothing.”
A group of men watched him closely. They caught up with Kaidu, and threatened him to return to his para. Vijay turned around and yelled into the darkness. “Who is it: he asked repeatedly. No one answered him,” said Jogi wiping her tears, “Poyitor… Poyitor (They caught him.)”
Beside the mahua tree, were a cluster of chind trees from where emerged the men with weapons who cornered Vijay that late evening. “Oh! You have become a sahukar now. You are very rich. Poonjipati ban gaya hai tu. You are earning quite a lot now, aren’t you?” asked the men as they tossed him around all the while berating Vijay for constructing a bigger house and toilet. He pleaded with them to let him go. He asked them what he had done to deserve this. There were 10 to 15 men who had gathered in the dark. They stabbed him in the chest and hit him with a large stick until he couldn’t stand anymore. A loud noise shattered the silence of the village at night. The men had placed a firecracker in his mouth and set it on fire. When the villagers found Vijay’s corpse, a while later, his throat was slit and face dismembered. Some said they threw his lifeless body over a chind tree. The others said they placed branches of chind and mahua over his corpse.
“Oh ayo! oh babo ! Oh paglee! Nakeen auka muntor varato varato (Oh Mother! Oh Father! Oh Pagli (a term of endearment for his wife), he called out to us three or four times . Maybe more,” said Jogi as she held Mangal’s hand. “I didn’t hear him. I was asleep right there,” she said pointing at the floor inside her house, “I woke up suddenly and called out for Vijay’s wife. She was sleeping on the khatiya outside. I wasn’t sure what I had heard. She didn’t respond. With the gupti (long knife), they slashed his throat brutally to a point that there was nothing left in him, babu. They stabbed him in his chest over and over again. I don’t know who killed him. Where did they come from? Why did they do this to my son?”
As the night wore on, she saw silhouettes emerging from the darkness. They held a wooden cot above their shoulders. They cried and yelled as they walked towards her home. “I asked them who it was. I thought someone must have had too much to drink. Ayo, eega minde neeva mar Vijay (Ayo, this is your son Vijay), they said,” she said.
Villagers from the para slowly gathered in her courtyard. Women and men wailed aloud. Whenever he was away, she would sit in the courtyard waiting for him to return. Paapa oh paapa Vijay kai mandaanoni (Son O Son Vijay, you keep calling him) Where were you today? the women asked her. “What happened? Where is Vijay? I kept asking them. I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me. They pointed at the lifeless body and said that was my son. Auktor Bo (They killed him.) I wept like never before. He never fought with anybody. He never hurt anyone. Hai dhani, Hai dhani (Oh Lord! Oh Lord). There was a sound that came from the corpse as they carried him home. He was as tall as you,” she said pointing at Piyush, “The villagers took his name during the jan adalat. That’s why they killed him.”
Later that day, we passed by a military camp ahead of Cholnar. An odd sight of familiarity in these regions where amidst hills and forests one often spots concertina wires, soldiers and watch towers. It was the close proximity and sudden presence of armed forces that led to several surrenders in the neighbouring villages over the last few months. Many of them were Sangam members – Naxalite political agents who functioned as their eyes and ears on ground. One of the surrendered cadres was closely associated with the movement and perhaps held a higher position. Soon, word spread and discontent prevailed amongst the other ranks too.
With an increased presence of armed forces, fear prevailed amongst those villagers who pledged their allegiance to the sangam. One by one, they all surrendered. As soon as the other Naxalite members found out about their betrayal, they were all rounded up and beaten mercilessly. “That day, Vijay had gone to Raipur for Krishi Vibhag Training. So, they blamed him,” said Jogi, “In his absence, they said he was responsible for them surrendering to the army. He was then declared a police informant during the jan adalat.”
They found pamphlets and letters near his body calling him a traitor. The police and the army denied having any links with him. It was petty jealousy and rivalry amongst villagers that led to Vijay’s death. The higher-ranked cadres were fed with tall tales of treachery and police involvement. Soon, orders were passed and they decided upon the day of judgement. This wasn’t an isolated case. Over the last few years, it became clear to us that there have been many such cases wherein villagers belonging to the Maoist ranks or with links to Maoist commanders misuse their connections to get other villagers killed or ostracised from their own community in order to settle personal scores. Similarly, we heard stories of a few members of the Indian armed forces resorting to rape, plunder and murder of innocent tribal people during military combing operations.
Once, we met a young man from Jagargonda whose relatives had falsely accused him of being a police informant in order to lay claim over his ancestral land. “The sangam informed their commander. They then asked us to leave the village. And, if we refused, they said they would kill us,” said the young man.
Days after Vijay’s death, his killers lurked near Cholnar. They observed everyone from afar. Some evenings, people spotted them at neighbouring villages before disappearing altogether.
“Vijay’s wife isn’t here today. She went to Javanga to drop their children off at the hostel. They study there. I have an older son too. His name is Deva. He doesn’t live here. I am alone today. Every time someone passed by our house, Vijay would offer them something – landa, mahua, rice or anything that we had at home. People would rest here too before walking back to their villages,” said Jogi, “We had enough for ourselves. They couldn’t stand that. So, they killed my son. Na pilaan paap kitor. (They wronged him.) They committed a sin. Vijay didn’t get justice. He never will. ”
Jogi Mandavi breathed her last many months ago. They say disease took away her strength; perhaps, a prolonged illness or a fever. She lived with grief until the end of her time. Some days, we wondered if it mattered to her whether her son was killed by the Maoists or armed forces.
What did it matter to the old woman if she blamed her loss on one or another? Her loneliness consumed her. There’s a strange hollowness that one experiences in conflict zones. In vacant stares and pregnant pauses, in forlorn sighs, they often revealed much more than broken words. Here, many fled their homes. A few stayed back. They all lost everything.
Some days, they lamented their loss of identity; of belongings; of everything that reminded them of home.
But it was the loss of humanity that one never recovered from.
Beneath the earth where they buried several before now laid the frail old woman we crossed paths with three years ago. She carried her burden to her grave; her burden of loss. That afternoon, as we held her hands one last time before walking towards our car, she muttered under breath:
“Na pilaan paap kitor…”
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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