The Mythic Ci­tadel

Abu­j­marh was por­trayed as the mil­i­tary HQ of the deadly Maoist in­sur­gency. Af­ter an ar­du­ous week-long trip, TUSHA MIT­TAL dis­cov­ers a to­tally dif­fer­ent picture

Tehelka - - COVER STORY - PHO­TOS BY TARUN SEHRAWAT

ON THE morn­ing of 15 March, a mes­sen­ger ar­rived on the run in Jat­war, a re­mote vil­lage on a stony moun­tain slope in Ch­hat­tis­garh, with news of march­ing troops. A black ra­dio, a 12-bore dou­ble-bar­relled gun, a whis­tle, a blue plas­tic sheet — all his ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions by his side — 21-year-old Nilesh was asleep un­der a thatched roof. A Maa­dia tribal, he had joined the Maoist Jan Mili­tia three years ear­lier. He de­scribes it as a “peo­ple’s squad to pro­tect the vil­lage”.

The morn­ing of 15 March was his first call to bat­tle. The news was that 3,000 armed men were headed his way. On cue, Nilesh slung his ri­fle over his shoul­der — a fam­ily hand-down from his grand­fa­ther who had used it to shoot birds — put whis­tle to mouth, and be­gan the evac­u­a­tion of all 30 huts in Jat­war.

As Nilesh led the vil­lagers to a safer spot in the jun­gle, the sounds of fir­ing be­gan. This would be soon fol­lowed by the sound of mor­tars and grenades. The leaf cover of Jat­war’s thatched roofs would be snuffed out by the pro­pel­lers of an IAF he­li­copter. There would be blood­stains by a tree where a CRPF jawan tried to hide, dodg­ing bul­lets from across the river. By af­ter­noon, Jat­war would be­come the epi­cen­tre of Op­er­a­tion Hakka: Abu­j­marh would have been breached by the In­dian State.

IN A world pre­ci­sion-mapped to an inch by Google and GPS, in a world where men have scaled the high­est peak and dived in per­son­alised sub­marines to its depths, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a place that has any mys­tery for the con­tem­po­rary imag­i­na­tion. But un­til barely a few weeks ago, Abu­j­marh — the al­most mythic ci­tadel of the banned CPI (Maoist) in In­dia — was such a place.

For decades, no one from ‘main­stream’ In­dia had ever been in­side the for­bid­den grove: 6,000 sq km of for­est, sud­den streams and surging moun­tains. In that time, Abu­j­marh — which means “the un­known hills” in Gondi — had swelled in peo­ple’s minds into a place im­bued with both fas­ci­na­tion and dread. Be it the State, para­mil­i­tary forces, so­cial ac­tivists or even sea­soned jour­nal­ists do­ing the con­flict beat, ev­ery­one was ac­cus­tomed to point in its gen­eral di­rec­tion and speak of it in whis­pered tones. No one knew what to ex­pect there. It was In­dia’s only fully “lib­er­ated zone”. A place where the ‘writ’ of the State had ceased to ex­ist al­to­gether and the reign of the Maoists had be­gun.

So deep was the fear of the un­known that when the In­dian forces stormed Abu­j­marh on 15 March in an as­sault co­de­named Op­er­a­tion Hakka, they went in with so­phis­ti­cated weapons like Swedish Carl Gus­tav rocket launch­ers and un­der-bar­rel gre­nade launch­ers. For sev­eral months be­fore, the forces had sent drones to fly over the moun­tains and bring back satel­lite images. The dark patches in the hills that the ma­chines brought back, they took to be armed for­ti­fi­ca­tions and trenches: a ci­tadel wor­thy of In­dia’s “great­est in­ter­nal se­cu­rity threat”.

It is a mea­sure of both the com­plex­ity and the bathos of the Maoist-tribal cri­sis in In­dia — and the in­ad­e­quate nar­ra­tive that has built up around it — that when Op­er­a­tion Hakka ac­tu­ally got off the ground, and the troops en­tered the great un­known, what they found in Abu­j­marh was not the mil­i­tary HQ of a deadly and well-or­gan­ised in­sur­gency but scrag­gly vil­lages and for­lorn clus­ters of leaf and bam­boo huts. Their big­gest re­cov­ery seems to have been an inkjet printer. “We had 13 en­coun­ters with vardi­wale Naxal,” says Narayan­pur SP Mayank Sri­vas­tav. In one, “a Naxal run­ning away with a lap­top” was pos­si­bly in­jured. “We could not get the lap­top but we got the printer.”

Both The In­dian Ex­press and The Hin­dus­tan Times, which re­ported the forces’ of­fi­cial ac­count of en­ter­ing Abu­j­marh some weeks ago, men­tioned this con­trast be­tween ex­pec­ta­tion and re­al­ity. But it is not the irony of their mis­placed idea of Abu­j­marh that seemed to have caught the forces’ at­ten­tion. It is the psy­cho­log­i­cal vic­tory of hav­ing en­tered it.

“Our most sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment is that we have reached a stage where we can de­ploy 3,000 troops and pre­pare them so well that they can re­turn un­harmed,” says TG Longkumer, Bas­tar IG. “There was a time when we lost 76 jawans in an en­counter. We have grown since then. We are more se­cure now. We felt ready for such a chal­lenge. There was al­ways a view that the forces can’t en­ter this area. It was very im­por­tant to dis­pel it. We wanted to break the myth of Abu­j­marh.”

But if the old bo­gey of an im­pen­e­tra­ble mil­i­tary fortress is re­placed only by a monochro­matic idea of frail and help­less vil­lages, the myth of Abu­j­marh will not have been bro­ken: it will only have been re­placed.

The am­bigu­ous story of the Maoist in­sur­gency and In­dia’s tribal cri­sis can­not be un­der­stood prop­erly un­less Abu­j­marh is re­ally breached the way it needs to be: with lay­ered un­der-

stand­ing. For the truth is, Abu­j­marh is as much a phys­i­cal place as a state of mind, a shift­ing line, a strug­gle for “area dom­i­na­tion” be­tween con­test­ing sto­ries.

As Dada, a Maoist area com­man­der in Abu­j­marh, says to TEHELKA, “We do not have a fixed mil­i­tary base. We carry ev­ery­thing on our shoul­ders. Wher­ever the party goes, that be­comes our strong­hold.”

Where then is Abu­j­marh re­ally?

JAN YUDH. Peo­ple’s War. A piece of white pa­per nailed to the bark of a tree brings our bikes to a screech­ing halt. “Or­di­nary vil­lagers of the peo­ple’s war zone, teach­ers, chil­dren, el­ders and oth­ers,” the pa­per says, “this is an ap­peal from the CPI (Maoist) party of In­dia. We are in­form­ing you that in the moun­tains, streams, vil­lages and fields of Marh, in var­i­ous places near the roads, ex­plo­sive tun­nels, mines and booby traps have been laid. Big holes with spikes have been dug across Marh. Travel cau­tiously. Do not ven­ture into the jun­gles. Any re­sult­ing fa­tal­i­ties will not be our re­spon­si­bil­ity. The In­dian Army, CRPF and Co­bra Force is ready to en­ter our Marh. That is why we have been com­pelled to do all this. This no­tice is be­ing given to you from 15 April 2012.”

It is 16 April now. Ex­actly a month since Op­er­a­tion Hakka and Day 1 of our own jour­ney into Abu­j­marh. TEHELKA pho­tog­ra­pher Tarun Sehrawat and I avoid each oth­ers’ eye. The ques­tion of back­track­ing can­not be voiced. We have no idea what lies ahead. We have packed our bags with 12 bot­tles of Bis­leri, some Maggi noo­dles and bis­cuits. As we left Narayan­pur town the night be­fore, a lo­cal con­tact stuffed half a bot­tle of Blender’s Pride whiskey into our hands: “It will numb the pain,” he said.

This morn­ing, we had set off early from Konda­gaon town, snucked un­de­tected past the CRPF camp at Kukra­jor, the last po­liced check­point in the area, and kept rid­ing in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of the hills. We won­der now if this tree bark, with the pa­per warn­ing flut­ter­ing in the wind, is where Abu­j­marh be­gins.

We ride on. The road slowly peters out into mud paths, criss­crossed by streams. The slopes be­come steeper, the sal for­est thicker. We keep climb­ing. Hours pass. There are no mines, no ex­plo­sives, no booby traps. We start to won­der: was the no­tice merely a psy­cho­log­i­cal tac­tic? (“Kuch cheez dikhane ke liye hote hai,” Ra­jesh, our Maoist guide, would laugh later into the jour­ney. “Some things are only for show.”)

As yet though, we have no guides. We are rid­ing through a land­scape of frag­ile, thread­bare beauty. ›very­where, the palate is red mud and stony brown. The lime green forests have a trop­i­cal feel but never seem to ac­quire any real den­sity. The most colour­ful things are Maa­dia graves — shreds of torn sa­rees sway­ing from tress to mark a life once lived. The vil­lage huts are all made of leaves and thin bam­boo reed.

Sud­denly we ar­rive at what seems to be the Abu­j­marh equiv­a­lent of In­dia Gate. An iron and steel arch­way boldly de­clares: Bharatiya Sena Va­pas Jao, Bas­tar vasi ba­hari nahi hai. Jung mat

It was In­dia’s only fully ‘lib­er­ated zone’. A place where the ‘writ’ of the State had ceased to ex­ist al­to­gether and the reign of the Maoists had be­gun

lado (In­dian Army go back. Bas­tar res­i­dents are not out­siders. Don’t fight a war with us). On the other side of the gate­way, a call to arms: Bas­tar ke yu­vao sarkar ke na­jais jang ke khi­laph jan yudh mein shamil ho jao (Youth of Bas­tar, unite against the il­le­gal war waged by the gov­ern­ment).

Af­ter this, we oc­ca­sion­ally pass clus­ters of stepped red mon­u­ments crowned by a ham­mer and sickle: Maoist homage to mar­tyrs. Sud­denly our bike sput­ters and stops. We stop at a vil­lage en route for help. An old man speaks in whis­pers. “I wanted a for­est patta but the party has warned us against tak­ing any help from the gov­ern­ment,” he says. “Many men have dis­ap­peared from this vil­lage. There is no count of the num­ber of peo­ple the party has killed.”

The man’s ac­count is a jolt. We had ex­pected our first in­ter­ac­tion in the party’s own strong­hold, the cru­cible of the rev­o­lu­tion, to ring with ful­some praise for the Jan­tam Sarkar. Had their dream vi­sion soured al­ready or were we not in Abu­j­marh yet?

We con­tinue on the end­less red dirt track. As dusk falls, we start to worry. No one is wait­ing for us. We have no point of con­tact. We had ex­pected to be stopped at Maoist check­points by Maoist sen­tries. In­stead, we are just strangers rid­ing into the dark­ness, hop­ing the party will find us. There is no way we can reach the in­te­rior vil­lages un­less the party sends es­corts. No vil­lager is will­ing to vol­un­teer tak­ing out­siders into Marh with­out their per­mis­sion. In the dis­tance, on the moun­tain­tops, a fire line ap­pears. Vil­lagers are clear­ing the for­est to plant the mon­soon crop.

Fi­nally, we are com­pelled to stop. It is too dark to go on. But by sheer ac­ci­dent, it seems we have ar­rived some­where. The men in the vil­lage we stop at have ra­dios and coun­try-made weapons. The ra­dio is sure sign of party mem­ber­ship in these parts. These men are part of the Sangam — the party’s mass front at the vil­lage level. We send word.

A short while later, we are met by the lo­cal Maoist Gram Ad­hyaksh — the Maoist equiv­a­lent of a sarpanch. A frail scrawny man, he asks us to write a let­ter ex­plain­ing our in­tent and asks to check our bags. We had evaded the CRPF’S search. It is strange to sub­mit to this. I ask for a woman cadre to do the search. There are none around, so an old man is de­puted in­stead. Turns out, the only thing that in­ter­ests him is our medicine. He has a wrack­ing cough. The Ad­hyaksh too is a hunch­back and suf­fers from crip­pling pain. He can­not risk go­ing to town for treat­ment and wants medicines too.

The Gram Sarkar Ad­hyaksh is a key piece of the Maoist hi­er­ar­chy and strat­egy. Twenty seven gram sarkars make up one area. Each area has a com­mit­tee with seven heads over- see­ing seven de­part­ments: ›co­nomic, Mil­i­tary and Se­cu­rity, Jus­tice and Law, Farm­ing, Health, Public Re­la­tions, and Cul­ture. An area com­mit­tee can have both uni­formed and non-uni­formed party mem­bers. Non-uni­formed mem­bers are con­sid­ered part time. They can switch be­tween home and field and have a do­mes­tic life. Uni­formed mem­bers have no per­ma­nent home and are al­ways in the field, and on the move. They can ei­ther be part of the Peo­ple’s Gov­ern­ment or the mil­i­tary wing, Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Guer­rilla Army ( PLGA). There is an on­go­ing de­bate in the party whether the Sarkar and PLGA should dress dif­fer­ently. The party de­cides who will work full time or part time. “We can’t have ev­ery­one in the party dress in uni­form or vil­lagers will think all the de­ci­sions are be­ing taken by an en­tity other than the Janta,” says an area com­mit­tee mem­ber. “Part-timers in­ter­act more with the ‘janta’ and there­fore have more in­flu­ence on the public.” Any­one who pays 5 an­nu­ally to the party fund qual­i­fies as the ‘janta’.

“Paanch ru­pay do aur umeed­vari pakki,” he de­scribes. When ques­tioned on what ben­e­fits the 5 brings to vil­lagers, he says af­ter a pause, “While there is no ex­ter­nally vis­i­ble ben­e­fit, it gives them so much power that they can voice their opin­ion any­where.” This ‘janta’ are the cit­i­zens of the Maoist State; it is in their name that the Maoists run the Jan­tam Sarkar. These are peo­ple who vote in the Jan Adalat and form its mass front.

For the In­dian State, one of the key chal­lenges of con­fronting the Maoist in­sur­gency is to dis­tin­guish be­tween or­di­nary tribal and ide­o­logue. In Abu­j­marh, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to do so.

The pres­ence of a Ra­makr­ishna Mis­sion in the vil­lage re­fracts that rid­dle fur­ther. This ashram is one of five such in Abu­j­marh. Clearly, Abu­j­marh has not been as im­preg­nable as one imag­ined. We are told to spend the night there. As we step in­side, we find kids in blue uni­forms singing songs that tell of a united na­tion: Hind desh ke ni­vasi, sabhi jan ek hai. Rang, roop, vesh, bhasha chahe anek hai. There is a Maoist me­mo­rial vis­i­ble through the win­dow. The cho­rus of the kids’ voices tran­scends the idea and re­al­ity of Abu­j­marh. The dis­tinc­tion of where the vil­lage ends and party be­gins, gets in­fin­itely more complicated.

OVER THE next six days and nights, Sehrawat and I trek 40 stren­u­ous kilo­me­tres on foot to four vil­lages — Toke, Kac­cha­pal, Ko­denar and Jat­war, deep in­side Abu­j­marh. Each of these vil­lages vividly demon­strates a sad trick of his­tory: it is true that the Maoist in­sur­gency raises just ques­tions about the feu­dal and op­pres­sive na­ture of the In­dian State, but its own “lib­er­ated zone” is no song to free­dom it­self. The very idea of dis­sent it­self seems alien here. Trib­als from these vil­lages can­not ven­ture into the towns. If they stay too long for busi­ness or even for med­i­cal help, they be­come sus­pect. The Maoist sarkar thinks they have be­come po­lice in­form­ers. Re­turn­ing be­comes fraught with dan­ger.

Some­times, this cleft stick can take on tragic pro­por­tions. In 2007, vil­lagers say Sa­jnu Vadde, a tu­ber­cu­lo­sis pa­tient, left Marh for treat­ment in Narayan­pur town. When he re­turned, he was tried in a Jan Adalat for at­tend­ing a po­lice meet­ing, found guilty and sen­tenced to death. Sonu, a young man in Kac­cha­pal, who was shot by the forces in the leg dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Hakka, is limp­ing around. The bul­let is still in his body a month later. The party tried treat­ing him but even a sur­gi­cal cut two

inches deep could not lo­cate the bul­let. But Sonu can­not risk go­ing to the city.

Un­com­fort­ably, sto­ries like this abound. In 2000, Man­gru, a sarpanch in Kac­cha­pal, abruptly left his vil­lage. He is cur­rently the chair­per­son of the Abu­j­marh De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity but he can­not re­turn to Marh. Sonnu Gotta’s story is even starker. Gotta and her hus­band had left Marh with a sick child. “We ended up stay­ing in Narayan­pur for four months. Af­ter that, we were too scared to re­turn,” she says. “We are still Maa­dias but we like it in the town. The Maoists have called us back, but here we use our minds and make our own de­ci­sions. Farm­ing was such a tough life. It’s so much eas­ier to be paid to be a sarpanch here.” Gotta fought on a BJP ticket and won. It is from this pool that Spe­cial Po­lice Of­fi­cers have been re­cruited. There are at least 12 from Abu­j­marh. In a vi­o­la­tion of Supreme Court or­ders, vil­lagers con­firmed that many guided the forces in dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Hakka.

But all of this comes later. On Day 2, we just wait end­lessly to hear from the party. The men go for a swim in a nearby pond. I go to the an­gan­wadi in­stead. Sukanya Salam, 22, the gov­ern­ment an­gan­wadi worker here, wears a sari and talks Hindi but is a Maa­dia from Gadpa vil­lage. I ask her what Abu­j­marh means to her. “It’s that area where peo­ple don’t know any­thing, don’t know how to talk Hindi or live cleanly. That area is Abu­j­marh,” she says. But isn’t she from Abu­j­marh too, I ask. “My vil­lage is by the road,” she says, “we had a gov­ern­ment school. But in the in­te­ri­ors, they don’t know how to live.” To her, the Maa­dia cus­toms seem for­eign, a thing of the past. Adi­va­sis in Marh just live to­gether, she says. Once they have a few ba­bies, if they are rich enough to af­ford it, they get mar­ried. The cer­e­mony in­volves sit­ting to­gether and pour­ing milk over cloth draped around the two. She wouldn’t like to get mar­ried that way. “Mu­jhe poora tel chad­hane hai. (I want to do the whole oil and rit­u­al­is­tic fire thing).”

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

Fi­nally, at 4 pm, word comes. We have been given per­mis­sion to move in­te­rior. The Ad­hyaksh of­fers us three guides. They urge that we leave right away. We have to leave our bike be­hind. We fill our bot­tles. From here on, there are only goat paths through moun­tain and stream. And no more hand pumps.

The trek to Toke — the first vil­lage to be sur­rounded by Co­bra bat­tal­ions — is very hos­tile. As evening falls, we walk with torches along steep slopes in sin­gle file, two guides in front, one at the rear. The night is moon­less but bril­liant with a mil­lion stars. Sud­denly, one side of the track gives way to a steep ravine. Some­times, it is im­pos­si­ble to spot a flat stone to bal­ance on. Af­ter my first fall, I reach for a bam­boo stick and don’t let go for the rest of the road ahead. The si­lence and glow of fire­flies is bro­ken only by our guides laugh­ing at us. They race ahead as if this were a shin­ing tar road.

At one point, two more men with guns join our con­voy. They are our for­ti­fi­ca­tion against wild bears.

Af­ter over four hours of walk­ing, we reach Toke. It is pitch dark but we fi­nally feel as if we have en­tered Abu­j­marh. Per­haps, this has some­thing to do with the dis­ap­pear­ing roads, with the idea that a jour­ney into Marh must test one’s en­durance.

OUR FIRST sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence of Toke is the sight of chil­dren in uni­form peer­ing at us from be­hind the mud walls of a two-room school. Some are sort­ing rice in pools of blue torch­light. Here again is a gov­ern­ment-run ashram deep in­side Abu­j­marh. We be­gin to ques­tion the hy­per­bole back home of the un­breached bas­tion. In a mo­ment, there is a roll call fol­lowed by the slow recita­tion of the Gayantri Mantra. A chicken is slaugh­tered for us. The school has a so­lar lamp. We eat by its light, then drag our cane beds out­side and sleep un­der the open sky. It’s the last night we will have a bed to sleep on.

At dawn, I wake to a Maoist me­mo­rial amid empty fields. Sud­denly, I have a feel­ing of be­ing watched. I look to my right and find armed men, stand­ing alert, look­ing on. Had they been guard­ing us all night? At­tempts to speak with them fail. There are in­struc­tions from the party not to give any in­ter­views. We’re told the “Ra­man Singh equiv­a­lent” of the Jan­tam Sarkar would like to speak with us di­rectly. Un­til that hap­pens, no one else has clear­ance to give an in­ter­view.

In the morn­ing light, Toke, a vil­lage of 37 huts, is again a

dis­ori­ent­ing mix of the un­usual and the or­di­nary. A group of Adi­va­sis hud­dle in a cir­cle to drink Sul­phi, an al­co­holic ex­tract from the Sul­phi tree. Oth­ers sit around weav­ing bam­boo bas­kets. Two Jan Mili­tia mem­bers sport­ing .303 ri­fles saunter into the school and carry away sacks of PDS grain. But there seems to be no ten­sion over this. Chil­dren in gov­ern­ment school uni­forms mill around. It is dif­fi­cult to tell where the “Dilli ka sarkar” segues into the “Jan sarkar”. The masterji at Toke wears jeans, a watch and is sur­pris­ingly ur­ban. He is from Narayan­pur town. He didn’t ask for Toke. The In­dian gov­ern­ment de­puted him there.

As we talk, our guide Ra­jesh fi­nally opens up too. He is a thin, cheery 23-year-old, with a slight mous­tache. He stud­ied at a public school in Narayan­pur town till Class VIII. Then his fa­ther, who had been part of the PLGA squad for 20 years, pulled him into the party.

“I came home for hol­i­days once and my fa­ther didn’t let me re­turn,” says Ra­jesh. “I was dis­ap­pointed but my fa­ther re­fused to budge. I didn’t know much about ra­jneeti (pol­i­tics) then. Now I un­der­stand my fa­ther’s decision. Now I know how Adi­va­sis live and suf­fer. I’m glad to be work­ing for them.”

Ra­jesh is a teacher as well in one of the party’s seven func­tion­ing schools in Abu­j­marh. Ra­jesh teaches math through a Gondi song; his his­tory lessons fo­cus on indige­nous re­bel­lions like the Bhumkal tribal re­volt of 1910; then there are classes on ra­jneeti and Hindi. The party is ex­per­i­ment­ing with English, but the teach­ers are un­able to go be­yond the al­pha­bet. Ra­jesh’s favourite movie is Sherdil. In an epiphanic mo­ment, we re­alise he means the Mel Gib­son-star­rer Brave­heart. He has watched it at a Maoist camp.

There are other things he has done in Maoist camps: he has been part of a Jan Adalat that sen­tenced three women from Kawal­nar vil­lage to death. They were ac­cused of try­ing to bring a con­tin­gent of 500 forces into Abu­j­marh and car­ry­ing poi­son. The poi­son was tested on a hen: it died. “If we let such peo­ple live, our lives would be­come more dan­ger­ous than it al­ready is,” says a Maoist cadre.

In the jour­ney ahead, it will be dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile this Ra­jesh, who beams with pride at the spot where the PLGA squad shot a CRPF jawan in Jat­war last month, with the jaunty Ra­jesh who sings Pardesi Pardesi jana nahin as we walk through the jun­gle; of­fers me his blan­ket on a cold night and teases us about drink­ing water from streams where buf­faloes are bathing. But the un­flinch­ing talk of sum­mary deaths through jan adalats is rou­tine for him and the other guides who join us later. It is just one face of Maoist gov­er­nance.

A lit­tle later, as we gather the vil­lagers at the Gho­tul — a sort of vil­lage com­mu­nity cen­tre — and ask about Op­er­a­tion Hakka, the flip nar­ra­tives of op­pres­sion be­gin.

How the para­mil­i­tary forces beat Aite Gota’s hus­band to death; how Keya Dhurva’s house was burnt; how Goya Dhurva’s chick­ens were stolen and cooked; how 40 kg of free rice that had cost a three-day walk to Kukra­jhor base camp and a

200 trac­tor ride was seized; how oth­ers’ cook­ing uten­sils were smashed, money was robbed, imli trees burnt and bhumkal grain razed to ashes.

As the tes­ti­monies fi­nally be­gin to wind

down, we pre­pare to leave. It is very hot out­side. There is no potable water. We boil water from a nearby stream and mix some cof­fee pow­der into it. It does not take the thirst away. I barely have the en­ergy to write notes. The next vil­lage Ko­denar is a 10-km walk in the af­ter­noon sun.

Over the next four days, this pat­tern would re­peat it­self. Long ar­du­ous walks. No water to drink. Plain boiled rice to eat. Fa­tigue. And nights un­der the open sky, ly­ing on mats next to pigs and bark­ing dogs. Through Ko­denar, to Jat­war and then back to Kach­ha­pal, the pat­terns and tes­ti­monies played them­selves out with a fa­mil­iar beat.

In Jat­war, we fi­nally meet Nilesh, the boy who rang the alarm about Op­er­a­tion Hakka on the morn­ing of 15 March. Barely 5 ft tall, dressed in a blue vest and brown pants, he blushes in the crisp jun­gle sun. De­spite his en­rol­ment in the Jan Mili­tia, Nilesh does not think of him­self as a Maoist. “They are the sarkar, I’m just or­di­nary janta,” he says.

That self per­cep­tion — that dis­tinc­tion be­tween tak­ing to arms as an ide­o­logue and tak­ing to arms as self-de­fence against in­tru­sion into one’s home and land — is very key to un­der­stand­ing not just the na­ture of Abu­j­marh but the fun­da­men­tal na­ture of the Maoist-tribal cri­sis in In­dia.

It is the dis­tinc­tion that will de­fine what ap­proach the In­dian State will fi­nally take to al­lay the Naxal cri­sis.

TEHELKA HAS been re­port­ing the Maoist cri­sis ex­ten­sively from the ground ever since the Salwa Judum be­gan to es­ca­late ten­sion in Ch­hat­tis­garh. Writ­ing from the con­flict zones of Odisha, Ch­hat­tis­garh and Ben­gal, we have cri­tiqued the In­dian State; doc­u­mented hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions; de­nounced the un­just takeover of tribal land and na­tional re­sources and vo­cif­er­ously de­fended the right to dis­sent. We have also writ­ten of the plight of CRPF jawans, pushed into a deadly guer­rilla war

with in­ad­e­quate prepa­ra­tion and bat­tle-wor­thi­ness.

But Abu­j­marh is proof — if proof were needed — that the Maoists have a lot to an­swer for as well. They may have catal­ysed at­ten­tion to many right and just causes — and it is dif­fi­cult for even their most bit­ter crit­ics to grant them that — but clearly, in their own strongholds, they are repli­cat­ing ex­actly that which they say they are com­bat­ing. Or­di­nary life is lived on their watch. Their po­lit­i­cal ex­pan­sion is a greater cause than the im­me­di­ate needs of those they speak for. This is most ev­i­dent when a party mem­ber re­veals that they are de­bat­ing whether to al­low Ra­makr­ishna Mis­sion to con­tinue func­tion­ing in Abu­j­marh. “They were not there at the time of our great­est need,” he says. The point of con­tention is PDS ra­tion shops that ear­lier op­er­ated through the Ashram, but were grad­u­ally moved out as the con­flict es­ca­lated in 2009. While the party holds Ra­makr­ishna Mis­sion re­spon­si­ble, CRPF sources con­firmed to TEHELKA that it was a strate­gic gov­ern­ment decision to move ra­tion shops near CRPF camps so Nax­als do not “steal ra­tion meant for vil­lagers”. This has led to Maa­dias hav­ing to walk many ex­tra days across moun­tains to ac­cess sub­sidised rice.

To add a new layer of force and ter­ror to this would be an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter. There is talk of ex­pand­ing the para­mil­i­tary strength in the re­gion and set­ting up of an army train­ing camp on the bor­der of Abu­j­marh. The day be­fore we en­tered Marh, army chief Gen VK Singh vis­ited Ch­hat­tis­garh. Un­con­firmed re­ports sug­gest the state gov­ern­ment has agreed to hand over land to the army, lo­cated in Abu­j­marh’s Ghamandi pan­chayat — ex­actly where the forces went in for Op­er­a­tion Hakka.

“Op­er­a­tion Hakka was a recce for fu­ture op­er­a­tions,” says IG Longkumer. “We wanted to see lo­ca­tions where we can set up our posts and camps in the fu­ture.” At present, Bas­tar dis­trict has 104 po­lice sta­tions, 56 CRPF camps and 30 BSF camps. “Look at Ma­nipur. It has more than a lakh de­ploy­ment. We are four times the size of Ma­nipur and have half the num­ber of troops,” Longkumer adds. “We need much more de­ploy­ment. To ad­dress this area, we have to stay there. The take­away from this op­er­a­tion is that the forces are will­ing to go in­side Abu­j­marh and stay there.”

The point is, hav­ing dom­i­nated the area, what is it the In­dian State would like to do there? Is the wreck of Ma­nipur the model?

Narayan­pur SP Sri­vas­tav has a much more cau­tion­ing voice:

In ef­fect, the Maoist dom­i­nance of the Abu­j­marh story is only 10 years old. The In­dian State had a 50-year head start. Why did it fail?

“We want to show the peo­ple that the gov­ern­ment’s arms will reach wher­ever In­dian cit­i­zens are. I was sad­dened to see the life the vil­lagers are be­ing forced to lead. I salute the vil­lagers. It is true that on one side, the Nax­als co­erce them, and on the other, even when the po­lice goes in, we can’t tell who is a vil­lager and who is a Naxal. Posted in these ar­eas, I have felt con­fu­sion and baf­fle­ment. We are a coun­try in a tran­si­tion phase, that is why we have such a gap be­tween the main­stream and the fringes. It is as if ev­ery­thing is fluid. The Naxal strat­egy is to look for grouses, and there is no dearth of grouses in this coun­try. It is high time this is re­solved. Our goal is to give the gov­ern­ment the se­cu­rity to do what it should be able to do.”

As we come out of the jun­gles of Abu­j­marh, we hear the shock­ing news: Col­lec­tor Alex Menon has been kid­napped by the Maoists, his two guards killed in cold blood. Among their list of de­mands is the re­lease of in­no­cent trib­als lan­guish­ing in jails. Can’t the In­dian gov­ern­ment act on this it­self with­out a ran­som note?

For all its mythic rep­u­ta­tion, vil­lagers say that un­til 15 years ago, lo­cal thana po­lice were seen at the fringes of Abu­j­marh. A vil­lage called Kokameta pos­si­bly had a po­lice sta­tion and a gov­ern­ment high school. It is only in the past decade that the party’s in­flu­ence has spread. In ar­eas we vis­ited, peo­ple re­call that in 2001, the Maoists first in­stalled their own vil­lage head in a vil­lage called Iraqb­hatti in Kach­ha­pal pan­chayat. Three years later, they called their first meet­ing in the area. Vil­lagers were man­dated to at­tend. In ef­fect, the Maoists’ area dom­i­nance of the Abu­j­marh story is only 10 years old. The In­dian State had a 50 year head start. Why did it fail?

In the final count then, Abu­j­marh is not an im­preg­nable fortress. Nor is it merely an in­no­cent land­scape of flimsy huts and primeval peo­ple. It is most es­sen­tially a re­buke for In­dian democ­racy. The real tragedy of the Maoist cri­sis is that it has been re­duced to a com­pe­ti­tion of equally false sto­ries. Stranded in the mid­dle is an an­cient peo­ple. Their fight is not about who will con­trol Red Fort in some dis­tant fu­ture. Their fight is about the patch of land they stand on and the dig­nity of the self-owned reed hut be­hind them.

It is our last evening in­side Abu­j­marh. In the dis­tance, a Bhumkal — vil­lage co­op­er­a­tive — lies razed, de­stroyed in Op­er­a­tion Hakka, quintals of rice turned to black ash. Their backs to it, our guides sit in­side the vil­lage Gho­tul. The young starry-eyed com­rade and an old, some­what scep­ti­cal, party mem­ber, break into song. “Rise up, poor masses, let us walk to­gether. De­stroy the im­pe­ri­al­ists and fight for our rights. For gen­er­a­tions, the fight has been on. The last fight will be won by the Red Flag.” As the song con­tin­ues, torch­light flick­ers over an old in­scrip­tion on a wooden pil­lar: Com­rades, this is our mandir.

Sur­viv­ing against all odds Aidma Ka­her was threat­ened by SPOS in­volved in Op­er­a­tion Hakka to keep mum or else...

Splen­did iso­la­tion A hut in Ko­denar vil­lage deep in­side Abu­j­marh

Liv­ing in fear Aite Gota’s hus­band was killed by the State forces; Su­nil Vadde, a farmer in Gamb­hir

Hor­ror sto­ries Mase Pave’s house was ran­sacked by the forces; Aidma Vadde’s

son was beaten up

The long walk Vil­lagers from Hikon­aar and Godel­marka cross the Abu­j­marh jun­gle

Lessons in con­flict Stu­dents at the gov­ern­ment ashram school in Mo­hundi

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