It is true that under our last Chief Minister Digambar Kamat governance was conspicuous by it absence. That is because of his sheer incompetence and turning a nelson’s eye to the misdemeanors of the place. But there other areas like “the Unknown Hills of Gondi” or Abujmarh in Bastar, the near-mythical citadel of the CPI (Maoists) in India, where 60,000 sq. metres of forests, sudden streams and surging mountains are a sort of no-man’s land. As for the Bastar tribals they are virtually between the devil and the deep, blue sea.
Bastar has 104 police stations, 56 CRPF camps and 50 BSF camps but Manipur has one lakh deployment. “We are four times larger than Manipur and have half the number of deployment,” says Narayanpur Superintendent of Police Mayank Srivastava. It is a clear case of the survival of the fittest.
For the Indian state the key challenge of confronting the Maoists insurgency is to be able to distinguish between an ordinary tribal and an ideologue. In Abujmarh it is almost impossible to do so. It is true that the Maoist insurgency raises questions of the feudal and oppressive nature of the Indian state but its own “liberated zone” is “no song of freedom” either. And they can be as ruthless as the Indian state when dealing with offenders or who they believe are offenders.
Tribals cannot venture into towns. If they stay too long for business or even medical help, they become informers in the eyes of the Maoists. They find themselves in a “no win” situation through no fault of their own.
“We are a country in transition phase that is why we have such a gap between mainstream and fringes. It is as if everything is in flux,” goes on Srivastava but how long will Abujmarh, or for that matter Bastar or Chattisgarh remain a sort of no-man’s land? Are the tribals more sinned against than sinning or is the Indian Army’s approach to the Maoist problem flawed? That is the million rupee question and it must be addressed soon. Like Bastar there is Gadchiroli in Maharashtra that is a hot-bed of Naxalism and the state has not been able to deal with the issue for decades.
Tehelka’s fearless team of reporter Tushal Mittal (27) and photographer Tarun Sherawat (22) undertook to go deep into this forbidden area on April 16. Packing 12 bottles of Bisleri and some maggi noodles and half a bottle of Blender’s Pride (given by a Narayanpur local saying “it will numb the pain”). Their trail in the dark forests is a story of great courage and reads like Ripley’s “Believe it or Not.” and should do the profession proud in these days of “paid news” and fake journalism
This was exactly a month after “Operation Hakka” was launched on March 15 when Indian troops entered the great unknown. It was India’s only “liberated zone,” a place where the “writ” of the State had ceased to exist altogether and the reign of the Maoists had begun.
On that morning a messenger arrived on the run in Jatwar village on a stony mountain slope in Chhatisgarh, with news of the marching troops. A black radio, a 12-bore double-barrelled gun, a whistle, a 21-year-old Nilesh was asleep under the thatched roof. A Maadia tribal, he had joined the Maoist Jan Militia (people’s squad for the protection of the village) three years earlier. It was his first call to battle.
The news was that 2,000 armed men were headed his way. As he put his whistle to mouth and began the evacuation of 30 huts in Jatwar to safer areas in the jungle he heard the sound of mortars, grenades and firing. An IAF helicopter hovered above snuffing out the thatched roofs. There would be bloodshed galore as Operation Hakka had begun.
What they found in Abumarh was not the military HQ of a deadly and well-organized insurgency but scraggy villages and clusters of leaf and bamboo huts. As Dada, a Maoist commander of Abumarh claimed “we don’t have a fixed military base. We carry everything on our shoulders wherever the party goes, that becomes our stronghold.” A mobile stronghold is not easy to locate or attack.
Bastar Inspector-General T.G. Longkumar said “our most significant achievement is that we have reached a stage where we can deploy 3,000 troops and prepare them well so that they can return home unharmed.”
Now these are two sides of the story but in reality Abumarh is as much a physical place as it is a state of mind, a shifting line, a struggle for “area domination” between two contesting stories. And how long it will stay that way remains to be seen.
Of course, this writer owes all this information to journalist Tushar Mittal and has culled out portions of Tehelka’s article to abridge it so that it reaches a wider audience. Earth-shaking stories like this need to get wider coverage, but the story has a sad ending. Photographer Tarun Sherawat died of Falciparium Malaria after a week’s fight against the dreaded disease. We salute the lad.