The Road to Jagargunda: The Indian state’s final push in the Maoist heartland. A special report from Dantewada (Photos: Raul Irani)
On THE NIGHT OF February 4th, two armed Maoist guerrillas abducted Suriyam Buccha from Merwahi village in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. The village is situated in a dense forest, about 18 km from Dornapal town. In the absence of a road, one can only reach there by foot or on a motorcycle. By the time Buccha’s wife and two children followed them to the forest, his abductors had killed him by cutting his chest open with sharp-edged weapons. As his wailing family looked on, the Maoists put an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) under his body. It was meant as a trap for police personnel who would come later to retrieve his body. But after much pleading by his family, the guerrillas relented and removed the bomb before disappearing deeper into the forest.
Buccha’s killing is not a lone case. In the past few months, Maoists have killed hundreds of civilians in their areas of influence along the entire Red corridor, especially in the Dandakaranya Special Zone Committee (DKSZC), of which Bastar division (now divided into seven districts, including Sukma) is a part. “Every day we come across such killings by Maoists in remote villages where no First Information Report (FIR) has been filed,” says Vivek Shukla, deputy superintendent of police in Sukma. Three days before killing Buccha, Maoists held hostage the entire villages of Burdikarka and Dhanikarka in the neighbouring Dantewada district and severely beat up dozens of villagers. People from these two and another village called Gadmiri had recently held a mass protest against Maoists. In a kangaroo court held by Maoists that night, a villager of Burdikarka called Samo Mandwi was pulled out and killed. Mandwi had, a few days earlier, taken part in a police recruitment programme. On March 5th, Maoists killed Kalmu Podiya in Sukma’s Rabripara village on charges of being a police informer. On March 3rd, they slit the throat of a young man called Mahender in Dhurawas village on similar charges.
The killings are seen as a sign of desperation as the Indian state pushes deep into the Maoist heartland, pressing thousands of security forces, who are for the first time now entering villages that have remained cut off for decades. In the entire Bastar division, roads and mobile networks are being built on a war footing. In areas where the Maoist writ has run large for at least three decades, road construction is going on in full swing, even at night, under a heavy security cover. In the past, construction companies were reluctant to bid for work due to the fear of a Maoist backlash. But now, in Chhattisgarh at least, no tender for road construction has gone unfulfilled.
Open travelled from Dantewada to Jagargunda, situated in the north-western tip of Sukma district. Jagargunda has remained cut off for 12 years. This stretch, a distance of over 180 km, runs through what the security forces call the ‘Maoist Tora Bora’. From Sukma town to Jagargunda, roughly a distance of 100 km, a new concrete road is being laid, which will take about two years to complete. Think of this stretch as the wings of a swan in flight (see map). Sukma is on the upper tip of the right wing, while Dornapal town is at the base of it. Then it rises towards the left wing with extremely sensitive villages on the way: Polampalli, Kankerlanka, Puswara, Timilwade, Chintagufa, Burkapal, Chintalnar, Narsapuram and finally to the upper tip of the left wing where Jagargunda lies. For years, the Maoists lorded over this stretch. The entire road, whatever existed of it, had been cut off and Maoist insurgents had laid landmines at several places to prevent the movement of security personnel. From Jagargunda, two roads lead in another V, one to Dantewada and the other to Basaguda in Bijapur district. At every point on the crucial Dornapal- Jagargunda axis (about 60 km), camps of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have come up. It is they who control the road now. But it has not been easy.
The presence of security forces has rattled Maoists to such an extent that they are now targetting areas where they once held pockets of sympathy
“For almost two years now, we have lost at least one boy every month to IEDs on this road,” says Jitendra Sahu, deputy commandant of one of the CRPF’s Cobra battalions, fighting Maoists on this axis. More than 130 IEDs have been recovered in that period. On the road from Jagargunda to Dantewada, about 100 IEDs were recovered in less than six months in 2016.
On both sides of the Dornapal-Jagargunda road is a dense forest area dotted with tiny hamlets. The security forces are just beginning to get a sense of the interiors here. The map of this region that the security forces use is more than 25 years old. “We still do not have correct maps. Many of these villages would not even exist now,” says a police officer posted in Chintagufa. From Dornapal till Chintagufa, though, the security forces have made inroads now in several villages to the north of the road. From Chintagufa to Jagargunda, on both sides of the road, the Maoists are still very much in power. “It is still their liberated zone,” says a CRPF official, “but once this road is built, we will squeeze them.” As the security forces develop more intelligence on ground, they have identified most local Maoist commanders and roughly know their areas of operation as well. “We know lot of things now,” says a police officer in Dornapal, “we know, for example, that the Maoists in this area buy most of their essential items from the weekly haat (market) in Burgalanka village [south of Polampalli]”.
It is a vicious cycle, though. The more intelligence inputs that security personnel are able to gather, the more Maoists get angry and kill civilians. This fuels even more anger towards them, which in turn helps the police strengthen their intelligence network.
Across the Red corridor, Maoists are known to ruthlessly kill police informers. But, as pressure mounts on them, they have recklessly begun to kill people on suspicions of divulging information about their activities to the police. On January 19th, Maoist guerillas killed a villager, Sukhdas Baghel, right outside the Chintagufa CRPF camp. Chintagufa is a Maoist stronghold; in 2010, about 6 km from here, 76 security personnel were killed in a Maoist ambush—the highest casualties inflicted upon security forces in a single incident anywhere in any theatre of insurgency in India. Baghel had an entrepreneurial streak; he had opened up a small eatery in the village that he ambitiously named Taj Haven. He sold snacks to CRPF personnel outside their camp. That afternoon, just a few metres away from the camp, two Maoist guerrillas waylaid him and slit his throat. A few minutes earlier, they had entered a school nearby and asked the children to scurry out. “When he fell, Baghel’s wife shouted, ‘Sahab, goli chalao (Sir, open fire)’. We could have easily killed his assailants, if it were not for the presence of school children,” says a CRPF officer who witnessed the killing from the camp. In a note left in Merwahi, next to Suriyam Buccha’s body, the Maoists accused Baghel of being a police informer. “We have undoubtedly built intelligence networks inside; but the poor guy was not our informer. He would come to the entrance of the camp to sell snacks to us,” says the officer.
The almost permanent presence of security forces on the road to Jagargunda has rattled Maoists to such an extent that they are antagonising people in areas where they once had significant pockets of sympathy. The woman sarpanch of Chintagufa, Podium Muia, was abducted and kept hostage for 15 days. “They hung her upside down and beat her up,” says a CRPF officer who claims that Muia had to pay Maoists a ransom of Rs 1.5 lakh to let her go.
THE MAOISTS ENTERED Bastar for the first time in June 1980. The newly founded CPI-ML (People’s War)—which later merged with another Maoist group in 2004 to become the CPI (Maoist)—led by its Andhra-based leader, Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, formed seven squads to create a rear base where safe guerrilla zones could be created. Four of these pitched camp in areas that are now in Telangana: Khammam, Karimnagar, Warangal and Adilabad. Three other squads went across the Godavari river, one of them to Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, while two of them went to Bastar (then a part of Madhya Pradesh).
I don’t know why Maoists killed my brother. He had no role to play in Salwa Judum or anything else
In April 2014, I spoke to Badranna, who was among the first batch of Adivasis in Chhattisgarh recruited by Maoists (he surrendered in 2000 along with his Maoist wife, Latakka). A Dorla Adivasi, Badranna was a teenager when the Maoists came to his village, Pamed, in Bijapur district. Initially, local Adivasis would run away in fear upon spotting Maoist guerrillas, some of whom carried rudimentary weapons. “Our elders told us that Maoists carried some potion that made people follow them,” he recalled.
Villagers in Pamed—and this was true of entire Bastar—lived a difficult life. Badranna’s family and everyone else he knew earned a pittance by collecting tendu leaves, used for the making of bidis. The Maoists gradually worked towards winning the confidence of Adivasis. On account of their strongarm tactics, tendu leaf contractors were forced to pay better wages, and they confronted petty government officials like forest guards as well. Around the same time, the Maoist cultural troupe, Jana Natya Mandali, began extensive tours in the area. The troupe adapted local folk forms to revolutionary themes that Badranna says galvanised the youth. Badranna and two other men from his village, Bimanna and Deva, joined the Maoist squad that had come visiting them. In a few years, Maoist squads had entered several villages, and many young men (and later women) got attracted to their politics.
Before 2005, Jagargunda used to be a thriving market. Traders from as far as Bhadrachalam in Telangana would come here to sell their wares
Electricity had come to Chintalnar village on the Dornapal- Jagargunda road in 1986. In the mid and late 70s, Thakur traders from Uttar Pradesh made Chintalnar their home. Some of them set up small liquor distilleries in the area. In 1987, a large platoon of Maoists burnt down over a dozen houses belonging to these traders and looted several guns that had traditionally been in their possession. By the early 2000s, Maoists had turned the entire Bastar division into a guerrilla zone.
And then Salwa Judum happened.
In 2005, the state government decided to patronise a group of vigilantes (called the Salwa Judum, which means ‘purification hunt’) who it said would help the police fight Maoists. The Judum divided Adivasis to the extent that in household after household, one brother would join the Maoists and other the Judum. It raised the level of violence in Chhattisgarh to unprecedented levels, displacing thousands of Adivasis. Many of those who suffered violence at the hands of the Judum fled to Bhadrachalam in Telangana, bordering Chhattisgarh. Those who were seen as supporters of the Judum were pursued by Maoists and had to flee to the safety of police camps.
In response to Judum, Maoists uprooted electric poles and destroyed transformers wherever they existed in their strongholds. “Imagine, I had almost 24-hour access to electricity in Chintalnar in 1986. More than 30 years later, I have to have my dinner under a solar lantern,” says a villager.
It is in 2005 that Jagargunda was cut off as well. The village was turned into a security enclave of sorts, as residents of four other villages—Tarlaguda, Milampalli, Kunder and Kodmer—were brought within the cordon by security forces; immediately afterwards, the Maoists labelled these villagers Salwa Judum supporters. There are currently 538 families (approximately 3,000 people) who live in the enclave under heavy protection. There have been several attacks on the camp. The Maoists demolished all government buildings in Jagargunda and damaged the Mallevaju Bridge on the Dornapal-Jagargunda road, cutting off access. From Chintalnar onwards, in the absence of any security personnel, Maoist guerrillas would come out unhindered and operate freely.
In the past, companies were reluctant to bid for work in the region. But now, in Chhattisgarh at least, no tender for road construction has gone unfulfilled
Rama Rao was 23 when Jagargunda got cut off. He has not stepped out of the camp since then. Vartami Ganga from Milampalli came here in 2007 after his brother Madkam Joga was killed by Maoists. “They accused him of being a Judum supporter and slit his throat,” he says. Gradually, Jagargunda fell off the map and Maoists took control of the entire area around it. For the past 12 years, its only contact with the outside world has been in the form of a bi-annual convoy of trucks rolling in under police escort with rations for its inhabitants.
But now with the road construction, the axis of control has changed. The Maoists have retreated from the road. Though still in constant danger of being attacked, the villagers of Jagargunda have begun to slowly venture out. For the last few months, a few residents have returned to farming in neighbouring villages. They have also started to get employment in government projects. According to government figures, development work under MGNREGA worth Rs 1.50 crore has been done for the first time with 1,340 registered families from villages on this axis, including Jagargunda.
Before 2005, Jagargunda used to be a thriving market place. Traders from as far as Bhadrachalam in Telangana would come here to sell their wares. Now, to achieve further normalcy, the police are encouraging small farmers and traders to restart the Sunday haat in Jagargunda. A few locals actually set up their shop at the haat on January 29th—after a 12-year gap—on the promise of police protection. But on the night before the next haat, scheduled on February 5th, a dreaded local Maoist commander called Papa Rao put up a notice in Chintalnar warning farmers and traders of dire consequences if they helped the police in the endeavour. As a result, they refused to venture beyond Chintalnar.
Subba Lakshmi, who is from Konta, had hawked vegetables in the Jagargunda market every Sunday for 20 years before 2005. After Jagargunda became out of bounds, she could only sell her produce in Dornapal. “I was twenty when my husband left me,” she says, “I raised two children by selling vegetables in Jagargunda.” But after the market wound up, business has not been the same. Though she did sell vegetables in Jagargunda on January 29th, she did not want to return after hearing of the Maoist threat.
Many people got caught between their fears and the forces pushing for business-as-usual. Several Tempo loads of vegetables and other products stood in a line in Chintalnar. The villagers refused to go further to Jagargunda and the police refused to let them go back and sell it elsewhere. Golak Mandal, who sells clothes in the weekly haat held in Chintalnar on Saturday, was one of the people held up. “Business was good in Jagargunda,” he says, “but it is better to sell less and stay alive.” On March 5th, though, the police managed to start the market again in Jagargunda.
Apart from Dornapal-Jagargunda road, several other roads through Maoist strongholds are being built under security cover. These include a road from Chintalnar to Maraiguda, a distance of 65 km that connects 13 villages. Another 20-km long road from Injaram to Bhejji and a 12-km road from Kistaram to Pedaguda are coming up as well. The mobile network has vastly been improved in the area with the setting up of 16 telecom towers. “Earlier, the Maoists would destroy mobile towers,” says a police officer, “But now they have been set up inside CRPF camps.”
To put further pressure on Maoists, the police have started a special drive in Sukma in villages where they have hardly ventured before. Inspired by the recent film, Udta Punjab, the drive is called Tedumanta Bastar (like udta, the term ‘tedumanta’ means flying). It involves police personnel going from village to village along with a cultural troupe of Adivasis to perform songs and short plays. “We are using the Maoist strategy now to counter them only,” says DSP Shukla. Just like Maoists, the troupe tells stories, in this case of Maoist atrocities, and urges the villagers to rise against ‘slavery forced upon them by Maoists’. The idea has yielded benefits, albeit slowly. Adivasis, for example, do not run away in most cases when they see the police approaching now. “Earlier, they would run off into the forest as soon as we entered,” says Shukla, “that is what Maoists had taught them.”
In this fight against Maoists, however, the question of human rights violations by security forces remains a salient issue. On January 29th, the police killed two Adivasis, Sukhmati and Bheema, in the Purangel forest area in Dantewada’s Kirandul police station. Both were residents of Gampur village in the neighbouring Bijapur district. Local residents contend that they were killed in cold blood, and hundreds of them had marched to Kirandul to protest against the killings. On February 17th, security personnel waylaid a group of Adivasis of Gampur, who were returning from forest after collecting mahua flowers, and beat them up severely. This, human rights activists allege, was done to silence the villagers into submission so that they do not raise questions about the alleged fake encounter. On February 8th, the Chhattisgarh High Court admitted a criminal writ petition in the case of the alleged gang rape and assault of 28 Adivasi women by security forces in Chinnagelur and Peddagelur in Bijapur district. The women had approached the court after the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) found allegations of rape and assault by the police on 16 women to be prima facie true.
In the Chintagufa CRPF camp, a group of young CRPF officers, who have gathered to speak to me and wish to remain anonymous, are hopeful that the Indian state will shortly prevail in the war against Maoists. “Earlier when we would distribute household and other items among Adivasis, they would throw them away on the periphery of their villages. But now, they come to us discreetly and take these items,” says an assistant commandant. Some of them go to the school nearby in their spare time and teach English and Mathematics. “Our cricket kits are extremely popular and we have distributed hundreds of them,” says another officer. Seven months ago, for a woman whose child died in her womb, the CRPF had sent an urgent request for an airlift chopper. On learning that one could not be made available immediately, the officers stumped up Rs 3,000 for a pickup truck to ferry the woman to Dornapal town. “Her life was saved and we were so happy,” says the second officer.
But there is sadness for their own who could not be saved. In August 2015, Sachin, a 25-year-old jawan from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, got badly injured in an IED blast just outside the camp. “We got him inside; as his life was ebbing away, his only wish was to speak to his family, to see his young son,” recounts the assistant commandant. They have now created a memorial inside the camp for Sachin. Outside the camp, there is another memorial for six CRPF soldiers who died fighting Maoists in April 2009. “By the time the war is over, this stretch will be dotted with such memorials,” says the officer.