In the languid air, branches moved to and fro gently stirring blossoms that adorned these forests in summer. The winds carried broken petals across the road. Some days, riding an invisible current of air were butterflies that fluttered in clusters around plants.
The sullen murmur of insects caught his attention. His nonchalant gaze followed our car. There were many of them; young men in military fatigues sitting in rows behind one another seldom casting a glance at the paths ahead. They held their guns beside them. Where lay piles of leaves in a lone corner, we spotted a toddler playing with sticks and stones. The roads curved ahead. Save the roaring engines of the bus that crossed the junction in a hurry, nothing stirred the forests and hills that afternoon.
“They just returned from a searching and combing operation,” said Rakesh wiping his forehead, “The camp is nearby. They would have spent a few nights in the forest.” Through window panes, we caught glimpses of haphazard stares, bowed heads and faces covered in black cloth.
As we drove by Palnar, the gate leading to Fulpad was covered with sticks and a crude wooden framework. Ahead, the roads were blocked. “Take the path that leads to Bedma. You will be able to enter Fulpad,” said a woman sitting underneath a mango tree. Her hair gleamed in the afternoon sunlight.
Like a distant organ, the low rumble of a tractor came to life across the village. A man in chequered lungi and white vest held a bamboo pole and sickle, and took long strides towards the pond. As we drove back to Bedma, we spotted a broken board that had rust creeping along its edges. Warning, it read. Beyond the board, lay farmlands where clusters of mahua trees swayed in the winds. “An old board,” said Rakesh, “The underground pipeline by Essar runs all the way from Bastar to Visakhapatnam. If they manage to set foot here, they will destroy the farmlands and the hills. They want to build a stop dam here.”
At Fulpad, a few women pulled scattered weeds from their garden. Bulbs of yellow flowers cradled fallen twigs on ground. Distraught eyes spotted us in the corner. A paddling of ducks squealed in fright as we crossed their path. Outside the dilapidated structure at the entrance of the village, the broken bamboo fencing barely held together its form. A perforated lattice of light and shadows crept on the ground. Amidst mahua and mango trees, we spotted him staring intently at us. There were holes in his vest; his feet were cracked. His wife walked behind him. They knew why we were here. We didn’t who they were.
“That’s him,” said Rakesh stepping aside to greet them, “His younger brother was killed. Maoist cadres declared him a traitor and criminal.” They led us to their courtyard. There were torn sheets of tarpaulin peeking through thatched roofs. The women drew their veils and fetched us tumblers of water.
Here, flowers seldom held any cheer. Tiny sprigs bent and snapped at the center lay unattended on the ground. We sat on a wooden cot and stared at the garden across their home. “He went to attend the murga bazaar. That’s where they nabbed him. I am not sure how many of them were there that day,” he said in hushed tones. His glance shifted behind us. His shoulders stiffened as he moved away from Rakesh. In the shadows, there stood a man. Dotted with stubble, his face held no emotion; nor any intent. A few more joined him in the distance. They never looked at each other.
Sujit Kumar Midiyami was 25 years old. He was a postmaster. On December 28, 2015, a group of men charged into the bazaar and kidnapped him. Days later, some people found his corpse lying abandoned near the village. A case was registered in the Kuakonda police station. Soldiers from the neighbouring battalion rushed to the spot to discover the corpse. They declared that Sujit wasn’t their trooper or informant. It was perhaps paranoia, suspicion or petty rivalry with villagers that killed him.
“His wedding was a few weeks later. All preparations were underway. We had arranged for rice, alcohol, meat and anything else that was required for the rituals,” he said with a forlorn expression. His wife stood at the doorstep. She moved her head gently to gaze at something that caught her attention in the forest. She turned away and walked across the courtyard.
Manoj tilted his head sideways and whispered, “I can’t speak a lot about what happened. We are being watched right now. They are always here. They know. They barge into our homes at any time of the day or night. They question us, ask us to prove our loyalty. Here, in these lands, we live in constant fear. We aren’t afraid of the CRPF or police. At least, they are answerable to the government or law. Maoists answer to no one. They killed my brother. He was young. If we showed remorse, they would call us traitors. Sujit wasn’t a police informant as they claimed. Perhaps, it was rivalry. We can’t tell. They kill anyone who crosses them.”
He wept in silence some nights lest they heard him mourn the death of his brother. We couldn’t talk any longer. At first, we didn’t spot them. We felt their presence from afar. A man stood on one leg as he balanced a stick against the wall. His frozen glares followed us till the car. As we walked away from the settlement, a stone memorial with Sujit’s name inscribed on it came into our view.
“We must leave,” said Rakesh walking at a hurried pace, “We can’t talk to them any longer. There’s a chance that Maoist cadres may storm into their homes tonight. Kisi ki bhi hatya kar denge. When we found out about Sujit’s abduction, the next day, a few of us rushed to find out what had happened. We were far too late.” A similar incident had occurred in Dimrapara a while ago. On the streets, one morning, villagers spotted a young man’s lifeless body abandoned in the corner. The family received Rs 10,000 as compensation. “Apparently, he had a younger brother. In the name of communism, they have wreaked havoc in these regions. People who have joined the movement neither have purpose nor understand the ideology. They don’t know what they are fighting for. Bandook ke nok pe sab chal raha hai,” said Rakesh.
A man climbed the orange gates of Manoj’s house as we walked further from the dilapidated structure towards our vehicle. In the neighbouring fields, buried in a sea of green, were specks of blue and red. There were men hidden amongst tall grass who stood in silence observing outsiders who tread these paths.
“It’s difficult to trust anyone here,” whispered Manoj as he led us outside the settlement, “I can’t share my grief with anyone. I can’t mourn my brother’s death. We live in fear. All of us.”
They called him Bangali. He resided in Fulpad. Some say he dragged Sujit into the forests and murdered him. He answered to no one save his commanders while they relied on him for information. We heard his name again several weeks later. “His name is Chona Mandavi and he is a Maoist cadre. He has sexually assaulted several tribal women,” said Prashanth whom we spent an entire evening with walking in the woods nearby, “Such men are stripped of their ranks and ordered to leave. Many of them join the Indian army in retaliation. Some of them then return to the villages where reside women who spoke against them. There are many such instances in Bastar.”
At Kirandul, we stopped by a small eatery where we ordered ourselves a plate of samosas and kalakand. A man with a stoic expression on his face walked in and greeted Rakesh who seemed unfazed by his presence. There were two others who stared intently at us. As we drove towards Rakesh’s home, he received a phone call from the local Thana Inspector. “He never calls me. One of his informants would have told him about us,” said Rakesh.
“Where are you? Where did you go today? Who are you with?
“We went to Fulpad and a few other villages to meet some families.”
“I heard you had some foreigners accompanying you all morning.”
“No. They are Indian.”
“Wait at the college chowk! I will be there in a few minutes.”
There was no one around us. He knew where we were. At the crossroads where we stood, we spotted a Scorpio approaching our vehicle. Armed with guns, several men in military fatigues alighted from the car. They encircled us until they were signalled to step aside. “Manish,” said a young man as he walked towards us, “I am the Thana Inspector.”
“Why are you here?”
“We are researching the devastating impact of war and conflict on adivasis in Bastar.”
“What is your father’s name?”
“Why do you need that information?”
“You visited some of the zones that are known for intense Maoist activity and presence. In case you get abducted, we need to have your information. Ye aapki suraksha ke liye hai.”
Beside him, a young man placed his gun across his shoulder. He held a white cell phone that recorded the entire conversation. He walked further and clicked several photographs of the car. “The other group that had visited these regions weeks ago was from JNU. They created unnecessary controversies that led to issues in Bastar. Why don’t you keep us informed of visitors? Ye Bastar hai, ye conflict zone hai. This is a war zone,” he said to Rakesh.
“Do you have a copy of your organisation’s registration?
“Can we click a selfie?”
“I will click one more photograph of just the two of you.
“I need photographs of your passports.
“This is for your own safety. It is our responsibility to keep you safe.”
Was it paranoia that drove the police officers and armed guards towards interrogating us in Kirandul, that afternoon? We couldn’t tell. There was a strategic attempt at keeping outsiders away from Bastar. A war without witnesses: the words rang in our ears yet again. In the shadows crept uncertainty and the fear of death. Those who wished to make an earnest attempt to understand the complexity of Bastar’s relationship with prolonged conflict were shunned and driven away from these lands. At the tranquil sight of the forests, when the road swerved towards bustling towns ahead, we drove past those woods where broken petals lay astray on the ground. Melancholy stirred in these lands. A pervasive sense of loss crept in. And, we felt it everywhere.
In Dantewada, we were followed by constables who reported to the local police station. Upon further inquiry, we realised that Manish had informed them of our presence. They weren’t in uniform. On bikes, they rode towards us and parked behind our vehicle. “Who are you? Who funds you? Why did you come to Bastar? Our sub inspector needs your details,” they said repeatedly, “This is for your own safety.”
Crickets and cicadas stirred the stillness of the night that crawled into these lands. We looked for light in places where there were none. Hovering above the hills were dense clouds. Beams of moonlight dispersed through the woods. When we returned to the room, at night, we saw a young man seated in the corner. “This is Mohan,” said one of our friends whom we first met several months ago, “He used to be a CRPF soldier.”
He partook in eight searching and combing operations; some of which resulted in the death of Maoist cadres. “I am not sure if they were killed by my bullets. One can’t be certain during these events,” he said with a smile, “I have aided in at least 50 operations. I mostly served in the Dandakaranya belt. We were dropped by choppers into the forest. Sometimes, we would get caught in crossfire. Those were terrifying times. It’s all about saving yourself from the first bullet. If you are unable to position yourself correctly, then you might breathe your last soon.”
He occupied the lower ranks in paramilitary forces and was a constable. He quit three years ago. Since then, he has been supplying vegetables to portacabins in and around Dantewada. “It all happened three years ago,” he said looking at the wall behind us, “I was travelling with my brother and brother-in-law through the forest. They were both jawans. My brother was 100 metres away from me while my brother-in-law rode about thirty paces behind us. Within moments, there was a blast; a resounding thunder that shook the landscape. A crude bomb was planted by Maoists underneath the surface of the road. It was detonated when we crossed that stretch of land,” he said frowning slightly.
His brother-in-law didn’t survive the explosion. They couldn’t recover his body. For, it remained scattered amidst other debris all over the ground. Mohan gathered 56 body parts, put them in a bag and returned home in a daze. “I had to tell my sister that her husband was dead. We tried to assemble the body parts for the funeral. We couldn’t,” he said trailing into silence. He looked up at the rickety ceiling fan and observed its blades for a while. The winds changed direction again that night. Silence befell the forests.
He saw no purpose in working with the paramilitary forces anymore. “I have seen many of my friends die. People who stood next to me during operations were shot dead. These were the people I lived with. I spent most of my days with them. Their deaths affected me sometimes but I could move on quite easily. Maybe we were trained to do so. Our life was constantly filled with fear and anxiety. Every step could be our last. Every breath could be our last. The day I saw my brother-in-law blow up to pieces, I couldn’t do it anymore. Kya zindagi hai ye? Kaise jeete hain hum? Aur kab tak jeeyenge? These questions bothered me. So, I left and never looked back. Today, I am happy.”
He narrated tales of systematic torture and abuse perpetuated by some insensitive soldiers who served in the paramilitary forces. A few would often resort to illegal, immoral and unethical tactics to ascertain their power and influence over vulnerable tribal communities. In the past few days, we had heard several such stories of rape, harassment and torture during and after combing operations.
If people who have been subjected to oppression their entire lives were given the authority to possess firearms or interrogate anybody, the authority to take life: a random face, a nameless voice, an inconsequential person who perhaps they would never set their eyes on again; it would lead to devastating consequences.
Mohan paused for a while and heaved a sigh before explaining, “Yes, There are many such cases. When you give guns to an unstable mind, this is what happens! Sometimes, we remain helpless. We choose not to stand up to our seniors. We choose to look away. There are some who voice their opinion against those who abuse their authority: Nahin sir ye galat hai. Hum aisa nahin kar sakte. Ye humare orders ke khilaaf hai. Unfortunately, they bear the brunt of their actions. They get transferred to remote locations in the mountains or deep in the forest with no water, connectivity or electricity. We have heard stories of jawans committing suicide by placing their guns in their mouths and pulling the trigger. They kill themselves because they have nothing else to live for. Once, there was a soldier posted in a remote location. His wife had just given birth to their baby. He was miserable. There are many like him in the forests broken in spirit. It’s your job to die for the country. That’s what we are meant to do. We have no say in anything.”
He later revealed that he had worked with a notorious commander who was a part of the Maharashtra Police’s C-60 Commando group; a special anti-Maoist force of policemen belonging to tribal communities in Gadchiroli.
Eleven years ago, the commander along with his team visited a settlement as a part of searching and combing operations. He led the soldiers into hamlets where numerous reports suggest that they fired at a young man who escaped and ran into the woods behind a tribal family’s home.
The soldiers barged into their hut and demanded to hand him over. According to human rights activists and other fact-finding teams, they dragged a young girl by the hair and threw her into a hut where they housed several other suspects. The next morning, soldiers blindfolded her, tied her hands and raped her several times. In the official reports, the young girl revealed that the first person to rape her was ‘the commander’.
“I have heard such terrible tales about him,” said Mohan, “He would abuse his power and was quite the taskmaster. He was also an incredibly corrupt official. There were several rumours about his involvement in murder, fake encounter and even illegal transportation of timber and teak wood which was used in construction of his massive home. There were trucks travelling a great distance. The drivers never got paid. They would get a free meal at the end of the day. Once, we were instructed to pick up a potential suspect from a village. Apparently, he couldn’t speak the local language very well and owned a 9 mm pistol. We were asked to retrieve the weapon and pick him up. We went to the village in civil clothes and observed our surroundings. We spotted the man under a tree. There was a courtyard beside us. We asked him a few questions and he fumbled with his response. He literally gave himself away. We took him into the forest. We were there for seven days traversing the woods. One day, ‘the commander’ entered the jungle and took him away. We couldn’t see anything save the bed of green. We heard footsteps. After a while, we heard shots fired. I saw a pair of legs walking towards us. It was done. If they had conducted an inquiry, we would have had to bear the brunt of what he did. Nothing happened. On paper, it was yet another encounter.”
There were many such cases that went unnoticed. There were several people like the commander who committed atrocities against tribal communities. A few went unreported. Others were transferred. “After that incident, I was scared for a few days. Everyone knew our faces. All the villagers had seen us. Perhaps, they knew who we were. No one asked us. And, we didn’t tell,” he said as he stood up to leave.
“It’s all a game of survival, you know! We were around death, throughout. Men died before our eyes. Some we knew. Many we didn’t…”
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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