Back towards the crossroads we drove again for the weather turned rogue the third time we travelled to Mardum over the last few days. The village seemed far away. Ahead, the paths turned murky as we drove past signboards that led us back to Dantewada. Storm clouds hovered over the hills and the smoky trail of burnt firewood was visible in the horizon. The scent of petrichor and dense foliage wafted through the air. Before us, the fortress of green reverberated with chirruping of birds and insects as broken leaves swirled around farmlands across the road.
In February, 2016, Hadma Kashyap was picked up from his village by soldiers who belonged to the paramilitary forces at 3 am. He never returned home alive. Months later, when we first arrived in Bastar, we read his name in the local newspaper.
It had been ten days since we last drove towards Mardum from Dantewada. As the skies cleared, we left early in the morning. “Take the route via Sarguda and Anjar to Mardum. A man called Rohan will lead you to the hamlet. He will take you to the family,” said an activist whom we met earlier that week. En route, we picked up Manju – our interpreter — from Geedam.
“Have you been to Mardum before?” we asked Manju as the car meandered through narrow trails.
“Yes, I have. When we heard about the case, we rushed to the village. However, I have never taken this route before.”
“When did the incident happen?” we probed him further.
“He died five or six months ago.”
“Was he killed in jail or was he picked up from the village?” we asked him curiously while glancing at the road ahead.
“All we know for certain is that he was taken from his home at night. Everyone said he was a good man. He helped a lot of people.”
“Was there any attention drawn to this incident by the media? “
“Yes! This case was highly publicised both in local and national media. His family met the chief minister along with Soni Sori. It was a tragic event. At first, the CRPF soldiers refused to let us visit the family. They surrounded our car. We managed to sneak them out at 3 am. We drove straight to Jagdalpur where arrangements were made for them to drive to Raipur. And, that’s how they met the Chief Minister.”
“Are sangams active in Mardum?” we asked him. Upon establishing their presence in a region, Maoists mobilise villagers politically through their clusters called sangams in local parlance.
“It’s possible! One can’t escape them. They are present in almost every village including those closer to the roads. In such villages, their movements and operations remain clandestine.”
“Have you ever come across uniformed cadres?” we asked as we stopped by a tiny stall to buy some water.
“Yes. I have,” he replied looking at the settlements behind us, “Once they summoned me to their meeting in a hamlet. They wanted to kill me. They assumed that the police had handed me a mobile phone; that I had become their informant. A message was sent to Sameli. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I denied their accusations. ‘If you want to kill me, go ahead!,’ I said to them. They asked me to apologise. I refused to do so. I refused to be humiliated by them.”
“I don’t like them; any of them. They mean nothing to me,” he said with spite.
Farmlands disappeared, and the hills seemed distant. The roads changed direction and we no longer tread familiar trails with sparse settlements. We turned around and looked for the old junction again. At Kilepar, we turned right and crossed Sarguda. Once we entered Badeghumiyapal and drove past Dulapara, we spotted a drunken man asleep on the roadside near a tall tree. There were others who sat huddled beside one another. They broke into peals of laughter as we drove away. At every turn, the road swerved towards abandoned hamlets that bore no resemblance to where we ought to be that afternoon. “Bas idhar hi hai,” said every man we crossed paths with.
At Rohan’s home, the doors were sealed with a giant lock. In the neighbouring house, an old woman sat outside staring at the sky. “He just left. I am not sure when he will return,” she said. Rohan’s phone was switched off. A sharp rattle caught our attention. Somewhere in the distant farms, a tractor rumbled to life. Ahead as we drove towards Mardum, we spotted stalks of corn swaying to the afternoon winds. “Kasturpal is 7 kms away. If we take a right, the road will lead us to Mettapal,” said Manju, “We must wait for Rohan. He knows the family well.”
A slight chillness crept into the lands as storm clouds hovered over the forests where the paths swerved towards Mardum. In the impenetrable gloomy grey, we drove through isolated hamlets. There was no one in sight. Thunder rolled in the east and the sky opened once again. We stopped the vehicle near a tree and waited for an hour until we decided to turn around. “We can’t go ahead. We need to trek up the mountains. Their para is situated deep in the jungle. Let’s come back tomorrow,” said Manju.
The next morning, when we took the detour to our right at Bastanar towards the treacherous trails that led us to Mardum, we received a call from one of our friends in Dantewada. “Turn around immediately! I was just informed that an intense encounter and cross-firing between the CRPF soldiers and Maoists cadres is underway in Mardum. Apparently, they crossed paths with each other during a searching and combing operation. Wahan khatra ho sakta hai. Abhi bhi udhar force bahut active hai. Agar aap log jaoge toh lafda ho jaega. Niklo wahan se.”
Within minutes, we lost connectivity. Mobile networks were restored the next day. We weren’t certain if it was due to multiple military operations active in the area or prior repair and maintenance work undertaken in the district. Nonetheless, we returned to Geedam dejected yet again.
Two weeks later, the rains subsided and we set forth on our journey to Mardum to meet Hadma’s family. Geedam was bustling with activity. Buses, mini trucks and wooden carts stacked high with plastic pots and floor mats jostled in and out of the bus station. Across crowded streets, in shadowed corners, sat traders and merchants .
At a tiny home on the roadside, we spotted three men sitting in a dark room while we waited for Manju. The curtains were drawn and we couldn’t see their faces. One of the men stood up and greeted us. “I am Rohan,” he said with a warm smile, “We couldn’t meet the last time. These men will accompany us to Mardum today.”
At the Mardum market, hordes of people thronged alleyways as men and women sold forest produce, wild fruits and local alcohol. Some held roosters and hens in their hands. A few walked in tandem towards massive trees seeking shelter from the sun. Women held sacks on their heads and walked briskly into pathways that led them towards their hamlets. We drove past the streets lined with temporary stalls towards a precarious path leading off the main road that we had once taken en route to Chitrakoot Falls from Barsur. The vehicle trembled at every turn and save the roaring engines nothing could be heard in the distance. We parked the car beside a tree and decided to trek through the forest in order to reach Hadma’s home. The steep hillock and wet ground from torrential downpour in the past week made it difficult for us to climb any further. A while later, Rohan realised he wasn’t sure if we were on the right path. An old man directed us towards the narrow trail that led to Hadma’s home.
Further ahead, deep in the forests, amidst tall trees and clusters of mahua that swayed violently in the sudden breeze, we asked two men to accompany us to the house where lived Hadma’s wife and his children. We followed them as they whispered amongst each other. Ahead, their glances shifted towards a distant rumble in the hills. A few moments later, we spotted corn fields adjacent to a traditional home where a toddler sat on the courtyard playing with broken twigs.
From afar, her red and green sari caught our attention. She walked towards the door, and waited for us. “That’s her,” whispered Manju as we gathered ourselves in her courtyard. There was no one around today. In a small iron bowl, there lay wild mushrooms gathered a few hours ago. A young girl dragged her feet towards us. Her dishevelled hair had streaks of gold and brown. She carried the twins on her hip. In the corner, there were soiled dishes lying in a pile. A few vessels were thrown haphazardly on the ground. There was no order here; nothing that one could discern looking at the surroundings. A sense of abandonment lurked in the corners. She was crumbling; one could tell.
She held on to one of her babies and swept the ground for us to sit down. Dust swirled in the air as the child clung to her arms. “When were they born?” we asked her. “They are two years old,” she replied. They looked far too young. Their hands were weak, and their eyes seemed droopy.
“Na pedder Gallo Kashyap,” she said folding her arms across her knees as she sat beside us, “I live in Temrupadar para (Sataspur Panchayat, Lohundigua tehsil). I have seven children,” she said, “What do I tell you about my life? What do I tell you about how we survive? Three of my children and I till the soil, rear animals and work in farms. What else can we do?” She tried to calm her fussy babies. She breastfed them as she reminisced the night before her husband was brutally murdered.
Hadma Kashyap was a farmer. “He was asleep right where you are seated. The twins slept beside him,” she said gingerly placing her hand on her baby’s head while pointing at the ground. There was sorrow in her eyes and her voice trembled as she spoke. “They took him from his own home.”
“Police thor ayyor,” she said. Her face suddenly took on a morose expression.
“Bey othor (Where did they take him?),” asked another man who had accompanied us to her home whispering, “She never revealed this earlier.” Their perplexed expression left everyone worried.
“They tricked him and dragged him towards the right,” she said pointing at the trees.
Hushed discussions ensued all around us as the men struck a conversation with Gallo. We later learnt that our interpreters insisted that she describe her ordeal and struggles in detail. “They kept coaxing her to talk about her misery and pain,” explained a man we met later in the evening, “Perhaps, they assumed this was one of the few chances she would have to share what truly happened that night. I am not sure. It is sad, nonetheless. She has been through enough agony.”
Hadma was fast asleep. In the shadows crept men who covered their faces with black cloth. At night, their footsteps were barely heard. They held guns and looked for him everywhere. Tedaa Tedaa, tedaa ra, eh comrade tedaa, they exclaimed all at once.
“Koya te kethor,” said Hadma waking up slightly. Silhouettes of soldiers remained hidden in the dark. The men spoke in Gondi. “They were one of us,” said Gallo taking a deep breath, and looking away from us. Her words rang in our ears for a while. Perhaps, he was innocent. Was this another case of local tribesmen or surrendered Maoists joining the armed forces and using their influence and authority to settle old scores with naive villagers? We couldn’t tell for certain. This wasn’t the first such case recorded in these lands neither would it be the last.
“Who is here? Why have you come to wake me up so late? Hadma whispered. It was 3 am. Benor Maani wathor, he kept saying to himself. The twins crawled on his stomach. He gently grabbed one of them and sat upright. I held the other baby. They dragged him by his arm; that’s all I remember. There were perhaps 100 or 200 of them in all. I am not certain. I couldn’t see very well in the dark. They pulled him away from us,” she muttered bitterly.
There were multiple accounts of this story written over the last few weeks. More than 25 policemen had surrounded her home. The soldiers were on the lookout for someone to show them the way out of the forest. Six of them barged into their home and dragged Hadma into the woods. Many years ago, he was arrested on false charges wherein the police claimed that he aided in crimes perpetrated by Maoist cadres. “This time, they didn’t utter a word. They just took him away without offering any explanation at all. The next day, the newspapers reported that a Maovadi had lost his life in an intense encounter between the armed forces and the insurgents. What encounter? What gun-battle? If an incident of such a massive scale had occurred in these regions, don’t you think the neighbouring hamlets would have heard something?” asked Manju gesturing the others to join us. “They refused to hand him over to us. For two days, we looked for him. The police station rang up the family. Can you imagine? After he was killed, they informed the family of his death. We went to Barsoor in search of Hadma’s corpse. There, we were asked to head to Mardum. It was ploy to keep us occupied and running in circles. From Jagdalpur police station, the body was shifted to Mardum once more. And, we kept looking for him. They threw him in jail and killed him there. Days later, one late afternoon, we discovered where Hadma was.”
There were bullet wounds all over his body. One couldn’t say for certain if there were signs of torture. Did he suffer before his death? Perhaps, he did. He pleaded with them to let him go. “It’s far too late to be venturing into the woods,” he said to them. “I’ll show you the way in the morning.” They hit him several times before forcefully taking him away with them. Once the body was retrieved by the family, they were offered Rs 10,000 for their loss. “That’s the price of his life!” remarked a man we met later in the evening, “They killed him and paid the family Rs 10,000. Will that bring him back?”
We wondered aloud if he ever had any communication with Maoist cadres in the past or if he ever partook in meetings or gatherings where their presence was noted. “Oh Dainor!” she exclaimed in fury, “If he was a Naxali, do you think he would have built a house? Do you think he would have had eight children? Do you think he would have earned as much as he did? Maoists don’t build homes. They don’t have a family. They don’t have children. It is forbidden for them to have anything: home or family. Why would he join them? After his death, I have not seen any soldier from the paramilitary forces set foot in this hamlet. Perhaps, they continue with their operations in the bordering hamlets and other settlements nearby. They don’t come to my home anymore. Hadma is innocent: I told the jawans over and over again. He isn’t one of them. They didn’t listen to my pleas. It didn’t matter to them. Pati ko maar daala, gussa toh aayega hi na! My husband is no more. What am I to do now? I have to survive at least for my children. I remember him all day. My memories of him haven’t faded yet. Perhaps, if he were here, my life wouldn’t be riddled with struggles. Yes, I remember him. Sometimes, my little ones look for their father. Some of them witnessed him being dragged away by the soldiers that night. I never told them what happened. Perhaps, they already know.”
Gallo refused to eat anything until they discovered what happened to Hadma. Some days, her frail body collapsed with fatigue. Her twins suffered the worst. She wasn’t producing enough milk to breastfeed them. They starved with her. Upon learning of her plight, Soni Sori arranged for some packets of milk to be sent to her urgently. “She hadn’t eaten for a few days. We didn’t know,” she said when we met her some weeks ago. “Her babies are underdeveloped. One can tell. What happened to her family was inexcusable! They robbed those poor kids of their childhood.”
Before Hadma’s death, Gallo mentioned in conversation that the family grew rice, jondra (corn), kosra (finger millet) and ghatka (millet). “Now, I am alone. What can I do?” she remarked many times over that afternoon. She looked down picking lint off her child’s clothes, “My troubles never seem to end. How will I earn enough to feed my family and send my children to school? I sell datun (a tool made from the twig of a tree that is used to clean teeth) in the bazaar. Whatever I earn helps me run the household at least for now. Today, my daughter has gone to the bazaar instead of me. I was waiting to meet you. My daughters don’t go to school. They have been taking care of the babies ever since they were born. Who else will help me? Once I no longer have to breastfeed the twins anymore, maybe I will enroll them in school. I don’t know.”
“Where are your sons?” we asked her.
“One has accompanied my daughter to the bazaar. The other one has gone to our farmland to graze cattle. Two of them are in school at the moment.” We fell into silence for a little while as she lulled her babies to sleep. She gently caressed their cheeks and stared at the trees ahead. Her eyes darted across the landscape. She was the portrait of tranquility as she sat before us swaying her arms to and fro. Some days, she sought companionship in loneliness. Then, there was loss that roamed these lands and shrouded one in misery.
“I have no cows, buffaloes or any other animals. What will I get from this life? If my husband were alive, we would have faced all our struggles and challenges together. I am alone now. His brother lives far away and it becomes difficult for him and his family to visit us quite often. My uncles have young children who lent a helping hand with sowing rice in our fields. Women are forbidden to do so. My kids cry all day. I carry them on my hips and work in the fields,” she said looking down, “Yes, I am struggling. I have no one to till the farm with plough. Nobody can help me if the yoke and shaft need to be repaired. The villagers repaired it a few times. I have no one to fix the mud walls in paddy fields. Some roles are meant to be fulfilled by men. How much can I plead with anyone to help me? Hadma would always take care of these things.”
In patches of her land where water remained in excess, the mud walls built across paddy fields dissolved thereby making it inaccessible to reach the adjacent corner of farmlands. These tiny fortifications usually aid in water retention as well as functioning as pathways to cross cultivated farms. “I managed to sow some rice this season. In places where there is no water, it is impossible to do so,” explained Gallo, “I have young children. I can’t spend all day in the farms. I need to return home to take care of them.”
The nearest hospital is in Mardum. They walk several miles to procure medicines. Most days, they don’t visit doctors. “What future will my children have?” she asked furiously, “Na ki madat kithor? Do you think anyone helps us here? Nobody does; neither the government nor the police.”
As we rose to leave, she walked beside us. She raised her head above and gestured towards the corner where a small patch of land came into our vicinity. “We buried him here. His corpse returned home. The funeral happened right here, you know! People fought to make it happen. The villagers from our settlement too gathered and demanded answers from soldiers. Why did you kill him? What had he done to you? How could you do this to that poor family?, they asked. The jawans stood in silence. That’s the last time I saw them,” she said.
“And, the last time I saw Hadma.”
She stared at the patch of land where underneath the surface laid remains of her beloved. A while longer she stared as we walked away. The skies turned grey, that afternoon. As we gathered around the old mahua tree with friends and acquaintances from afar, at night, we thought of the young mother who breastfed her child and narrated gruesome tales of her husband’s murder…
[PS: Names and identities of ‘points of contact’, ‘sources’ and ‘interpreters’ changed to protect their privacy.]
(to be continued…)
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