âIf they say itâs 4 oâclock, you canât argue and tell them itâs 5. If they say the sun rises from the west, you have to say it does.â
PULLAYA ERRAÂ Veladi knew exactly what he was talking about. He had spent five days and nights in captivity, a blindfold around his eyes. Kidnapped by the Naxals from his village â Jimalgatta in Aheri, a tiny block in the south of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, the heart of Naxal country. Flanked by the Naxal âheadquartersâ in Chhattisgarh on one side and their stronghold in Andhra Pradesh on the other. Veladi was kidnapped for being the sarpanch of the Jimalgatta gram panchayat for 20 years. It was part of the Naxalâs new game plan for Gadchiroli in 2012. A year when local elections were to be held in the district was a chance for the Naxals to turn what had been their âsafe zoneâ into a âliberated zoneâ. An extension of their ownÂ Jantana sarkarÂ from one side of the Dandakaranya forest in Chhattisgarh, to the other side in Maharashtra. By capturing and killing some panchayat and zila parishad leaders so that the rest resign in fear.
It has been a bad year for Gadchiroli. The killing of sarpanches and other panchayat leaders had begun in January. On the 28th of the month, in Bhamragarh block, three members of the CPI(Maoist)âs quick action team shot dead Panchayat Samiti Chairman Bahadurshah Alam while he was sipping his morning chai at a tea stall in the town square. Eyewitnesses told the local media that they shouted âAlam Murdabad, Lal Salaam Zindabadâ as they fled.
At least 16 other district- and village-level leaders were killed across Gadchiroli this year. By 15 July, over 200 elected members had resigned from panchayat and zila parishad posts. The last to be killed was a former sarpanch â Narayan Srirangi from the Sironcha taluka. Killed on 20 November, just a few days before TEHELKA visited the district.