Photographs By¬†Tarun Sehrawat
THIS WEEK¬†marks the first anniversary of a brutal attack by the banned CPI (Maoist) party on India‚Äôs paramilitary forces. On 6 April last year, 76 jawans were massacred in the forests of Chhattisgarh. The carnage became a major flashpoint, renewing calls for an escalation in anti-Maoist operations. One year later, the same forests have witnessed another brutal carnage. As TEHELKA‚Äôs investigations reveal, this butchery comes not from the enemy, but from the ‚Äėsecurity‚Äô forces. Those attacked are India‚Äôs most invisible citizens.
In the course of a five-day operation in the second week of March, police torched three villages deep inside the jungles of Dantewada district. Three hundred huts were set on fire. Hundreds of tribals left homeless. Three women sexually assaulted. Three civilians killed. Granaries incinerated. Gold jewellery and thousands of rupees looted. One corpse left dangling from a tree. Another sliced with an axe. Two villagers kidnapped. Livestock stolen.
Barring reports in Hindi daily¬†Rajasthan Patrika, The Hindu¬†and a few local television channels, no independent verifications have been possible. While then Dantewada police chief SRP Kalluri ‚ÄĒ under whose command the paramilitary forces operated ‚ÄĒ called reports of the arson ‚ÄúMaoist propaganda‚ÄĚ, Chhattisgarh Home Minister Nankiram Kanwar said the Maoists are to be blamed for the arson.
In the last week of March, several teams were barred from entering the villages. Despite being accompanied by police officials and despite an assurance from the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, social activist Swami Agnivesh was attacked by enraged mobs. Local journalists were beaten and threatened with arrest. A truck driver carrying relief materials from the Dantewada Collector was assaulted by Kartam Surya, a Special Police Officer (SPO) earlier accused in a rape case, and declared untraceable by the police. A team of 11 Opposition MLAs were prevented from entering on the pretext of a security threat. After many embarrassing spectacles, the state government was forced to act. On 27 March, Kalluri was transferred and a judicial inquiry promised.
LAST WEEK,¬†bypassing the police barriers and going via a longer forest route, TEHELKA accessed the affected villages. Eyewitnesses revealed that the attackers were uniformed men, including the CRPF, the Cobra and Koya Commandos and the police. The team was aided by SPOs, some in uniform, others in civilian dress.
‚ÄúThe police believed that country-made weapons were being manufactured in there. They had intelligence that top Naxal leaders are hiding there,‚ÄĚ police sources said. ‚ÄúThese villages are supporting Naxals. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are in connivance. They helped kill 76 jawans.‚ÄĚ
A week after they were set ablaze, the tribal hamlets of Morpalli, Timapur and Tarmetla look like ghost villages. The landscape is filled with charred huts, their insides hollow, excavated like ancient ruins.
They are an eerie reminder of the early days of the Salwa Judum. The Judum is widely acknowledged as a State-sponsored militia responsible for the forced displacement of 60,000 people and the burning of 644 villages since 2005.
Though there is no similar mass exodus yet, many homeless tribals have left for Andhra Pradesh to work as coolies. Those who remain in the villages huddle together at night, sleeping under large trees.
Ironically, it appears that the men in uniform initially pretended to be Maoists. But locals say they can identify several men involved in the attack: Madkam Bhima alias Ramesh from Nagaram, Telam Anda from Lakaparo, Budke Mara from Morpalli, Kichche Nanda from Kurraparo, who is accused in the murder of 19 tribals in Singaram. And Kartam Surya from Misma, accused in the rape of four women. There are pending warrants and court orders for the arrest of Nanda and Surya. The police claim they are absconding.
Of these men, some are surrendered Maoists; some are former Salwa Judum activists turned SPOs; others are SPOs who have been promoted to Koya Commandos. It is this strange cycle that makes it impossible to distinguish where the Salwa Judum ‚ÄĒ which the state government claims is non-existent ‚ÄĒ ends and where the paramilitary begins. It also blurs the lines between the local and national, between operations carried out for personal revenge and a coordinated anti-Naxal strategy.
The insidious civil war becomes apparent when you meet Morpalli resident Budke Laccha, a father who wants his son dead. SPO Budke Mara is the man who led the forces into Morpalli and helped burn his own village. In the past few years, Mara had begun drinking and misbehaving with women, his father recalls. After he allegedly raped a woman, Mara earned a bad name. Upon being reprimanded, he fled.
‚ÄúI heard he was seen in AP working as a coolie. There too, wherever he took shelter, he stole cows, paddy and money,‚ÄĚ says Laccha. His son returned to Chhattisgarh last year and headed straight for the Salwa Judum camp in Konta. Within months, he became an SPO, donning a uniform, a rifle, and getting a salary of Rs 3,000. ‚ÄúIf he ever comes back to the village alone,‚ÄĚ says Laccha, ‚ÄúI will ask people to kill him.‚ÄĚ
SPO Budke Mara led the paramilitary into Morpalli and helped burn his own village. His father Laccha wants him dead
This is the reconstruction of what happened during the carnage based on the testimonies of eyewitnesses and victims:
11 March, 8 AM, Morpalli
The forces swarmed into Morpalli from two directions. The first team marched in from the side of a pond where Madvi Ganga‚Äôs children had gone to fetch water. Hearing sounds of their arrival, Ganga, 40, rushed to warn his family, but found himself in their way. Ganga, his daughter Lakkhe, 17, and son Bhima, were caught, beaten, taken to the village and tied up. ‚ÄúWhere are the Dalam members? Where are the Maoists?‚ÄĚ they were questioned.
By the time the first team reached Morpalli, all 200 residents had fled. They found no Maoists or weapons, only a 15- foot Maoist memorial commemorating martyrs. But a Maoist memorial does not turn villagers into Maoists.
At the other end, Aimla Pojje, 40, was tilling her fields when the second team appeared. ‚ÄúGet up. Move. We are the Andhra Dalam of the Naxals. We have to rush for a meeting,‚ÄĚ they declared. When she resisted, she was beaten with lathis and stripped. Her life savings of Rs 10,000 wrapped around her waist was snatched. Then, she was sexually assaulted in the presence of her two daughters. (Locals say that since the arson of the Judum days, the tribals of Bastar prefer to wear all their jewellery and carry all their money.)
Both teams arrived in Morpalli, matchsticks and cigarette lighters in hand, looting, beating and razing 35 homes. Farmer Karti Laccha‚Äôs mud hut had once before been burnt by the Judum, in 2006. ‚ÄúHow many times will I rebuild my home?‚ÄĚ he asks. ‚ÄúWhat if they come again? ‚ÄĚ
Another belonged to Anganwadi worker Chodi Shanto. Stocked with ration meant for pregnant mothers, Shanto‚Äôs house was perhaps the only face of the government in Morpalli. Curiously, schools, PDS ration shops, drinking water and everything else is outside the village, kilometres away, and often near CRPF camps and police stations. Two new ashram schools have recently come up in Chintagupha, 30 km away, in the shadow of the troops. In the way that Judum tried to empty ‚Äėinterior‚Äô villages, it is almost as if development is being strategically placed only along the roadside, as a bait to flush tribals out of the heartland, to keep them under constant watch.
With Morpalli aflame, one team left for Chintalnar Police Station with Ganga and his children. On the way back, the forces stopped, rested and cooked 50 stolen hens, two of which belonged to Ganga. At the station, Ganga and his son were beaten by SPOs. ‚ÄúWhy were you running away?‚ÄĚ the thanedar asked. Ganga detailed the burning and loot, but all the thanedar wrote down were the names of his family.