Gory Stories from the War Zone
Just like any other new place which gives an avid restless mind and wandering eyes new revelations, so has it been with Dantewada. Just sitting under the canopy of a huge tree and listening to a resilient man spinning the charkha is enough to shudder as well as feel optimistic. Perhaps that’s what nature is all about – a continuous process of creation and destruction.
With Himanshu Kumar continuing his fast for the second consecutive day on December 27, his resilience continued to shine, and we knew that the best that we could do was hear tales of strife, persistence, injustice, ignorance, nepotism, and the real meaning of Independence. His words are full of strength and seem to be oblivious to the fact that it had been more than 48 hours since he had any solid in his body. Just water, the potent clear liquid over which states fight and kill people, has been keeping his mind, hands and heart well in place and in tandem.
Rehabilitation of Nendra
Sometime during the course of the day, we were introduced to a volunteer with Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), who, hitherto, had been singing Bollywood songs in the backyard. This lanky tribal youth has been associated with VCA since over a year, when it was decided to rehabilitate the people of Nendra last year. During one of my conversations with Himanshuji, he had told me that Nendra was one village which was a red ocean – one that was torn apart with various atrocities, and the scars of annihilation were still moist with the tears that continue to shed. Yet, much of the wounds have been healed, with the persistent efforts by VCA and its workers. Today, Nendra is standing on its own, and like most graves, little flowers of hope have begun to bloom. Here is an account of my conversation with the volunteer, whose name I choose not to reveal.
“Nendra is about 150 kms south of Dantewada. When Salwa Judum forces tried to force the people from there into the camps, some of them hid in the forests while quite a good section of them fled into Andhra Pradesh, which is just 40 kms away. As internally displaced people (IDP), it was obvious that they were leading lives of despair. It was imperative that they return to their own land and rebuild their lives. We went to the bordering villages in Andhra Pradesh to survey the situation many times, and we realised that the people were threatened with what they had seen and what the ostracism they were facing as IDPs.
We had several meetings with them, egging them to be courageous and stand up against the Salwa Judum. Finally they acquiesced to get back to Nendra, and we assured to help them in rebuilding their broken homes, dreams, lives.
There were no roads built from Nendra to the bordering villages of Andhra Pradesh. It was July 2008 and the rain gods had begun to prove their existence. We had to set ourselves in those villages first, to be able to get those people back. Our car got stuck in the wet red slush and all the goods we were carrying had to be protected from getting wet. We could not move any further. We ate whatever food we had with us, and there were no hand pumps around, we were left thirsty. We were on bikes at such an area where the cops wouldn't dare venture even during the day! The long night elapsed but the next morning we had to proceed into the interiors of the villages, which actually meant traversing through the wild jungle. We found an angadwadi, cleaned it and set it up as our base. Few days later, we brought back the people of Nendra from Andhra Pradesh to their own village, and thus began the work of constructing the deconstructed among six villages.
Those who did not flee to Andhra Pradesh were hiding in the thick jungle, but had still one or two cows left with them. We brought them back to what seemed to be civilisation. We would go out with them to their farms and help them. Whenever the police would come in, we had to talk to them calmly. So we were on constant vigil in the borders of those agricultural lands. When the people would get back home in the evening, we would go among them and talk to them about moving on in life, by leaving the past behind. We would distribute medicines, clothes as well as yarn to be woven into clothes.
We faced many hurdles initially. There were no markets; we had to walk miles as there was no transport whatsoever since the roads were pathetic. If any of our vehicles broke down we had to bring them to Errabor. At night if anyone fell ill, we would have to administer them with whatever medicines we had, and then wait till morning before we could take them to a hospital. There were no dispensaries there. All the schools which had been built were blown off. Even hand pumps had been removed so the villagers only had a pond to rely on for their water needs.
We continued with our work of providing materials and hope, but we had to face flak too. Once, we were beaten up by the SPOs in Errabor, which is about 8 kms away. The SPOs would tell us, “When none of our men would be able to get back alive from those villages, how on Earth would are you able to walk freely among those villagers? You all definitely must be supporters of the Naxals!” and a hard blow would fall on our backs. But we stood back erect.
Whatever little the people had earned while in Andhra Pradesh was being utilised to make Nendra their home again. We also helped in the implementation of all the governmental schemes that were supposed to be functioning, but were defunct – these included the anganwadis and crèches, where we would distribute chocolates among the 35-odd children and then teach them.
A lesser Krishna?
Once, some people, resembling Naxalites, came to enquire about our work. We said that we were doing the work only with the acceptance of the villagers; we weren’t forcing anything upon them. We were providing the villagers only with what they wanted, and that if they did not feel our need, we would leave and extend our help to other villages instead. They understood our intention and left us alone. Slowly, the conditions of the people began to improve. The children were studying; they began to come to school wearing clean clothes and neatly dressed.
But sometimes, forces would still come, ask the villagers some inane questions, and then take them away to the police thana, while beating them all the way. I would follow them to the police thana and plead with the police to let them free. We did this about three-four times. One day, sometime in August this year, one of my two colleagues, Sukhnath, had gone to the market. He heard there that earlier in the day, about five men had already been picked up. So Sukhnath went to the police and pleaded with them to release the men as they were innocent. Then the police told Sukhnath, “Perhaps you too are a Naxal supporter, and hence your commander will have to come here to release you.” Under that pretext, even Sukhnath landed behind bars. The next day, we were frantically searching for him. We went to Konta police thana and another camp too, but they all feigned innocence and said, “We haven’t picked up anyone.” But we later realised that Sukhnath had indeed been arrested.
We then notified about the same to Himanshuji who tried his best to get him free, but Sukhnath is still languishing in the jail today.”
Municipal election results in Dantewada
The scourge of war was evident; the participants in this ghastly war were many. Yet, strange are the ways of the wisdom of crowds, strange are the ways of our democratic set-up. Salwa Judum to me sounds more like “sarkar ka zulm”, and yet, its proponents emerged winners in the recent Municipal elections here. While walking through Dantewada town on Sunday morning, to purchase some lemons for Himanshuji, we saw a huge procession, proclaiming the win of Deepak Karma in the municipal elections. Deepak is the son of Mahendra Karma, a Congress party worker and leader of the Opposition, under whose aegis Salwa Judum gained ground in Chhattisgarh, in 2004. Congress of BJP, suddenly, both the political parties are suddenly united in their strife to bring home MNCs and shoo and shoot away the bow-and-arrow carrying original inhabitants of the state.
The procession was a large one: an entourage of bikers carrying a huge tricolour paraded through the streets first, followed by a truck of supporters who could not contain their happiness upon Karma’s win and used their vocal chords to the best of their abilities. Then, on road, symbolising the people’s true leader, Karma walked through the street – hands folded into a Namaste, large orange garlands around his neck akin to the ones seen at commercialised temples, and grinning like a tantrum-throwing child who is given the first prize in some competition to silence his wails. Of course, Karma was in simple clothes – he didn’t need any kind of protective gear when he had managed to get about a 100 men and women surrounding him as he took his strides. As that large procession walked past, there was more to keep our mouths open in awe – about 50 Salwa Judum special police officers (SPOs), men and women, walked down the road, as though they owned it. They were recognisable by the fatigues that they wore, which perhaps gave a sense of pride – a sense of power over their own people.
When we narrated what we saw to Himanshuji, he only flashed his 1,000-watt smile. Was it the hunger-induced tiredness that resulted in silence? Was the solitary smile a the surrender to the nature of the Indian democratic system where parties unite to fatten their Swiss bank accounts through the cream fed by MNCs, and wean its masses of everything, including life? The silence was too loud. His smile was chilling.
'Chhattisgarhiya Sable Badhiya' - the only independent individuals here are the SPOs
‘I was raped because my husband was a Naxalite’
Later in the evening, during the course of some conversation, the weather was beginning to get eerily cold with new revelations and gory stories. Himanshuji told us about a woman called Ledha, whose story curdled my intestine, yet left me feeling optimistic, by the end of it.
Two years ago, Surguja resident Ledha Bai was “allegedly” raped by Balrampur Superintendent of Police, Sitaram Kalluri. Her fault? Being the wife of a Naxalite who had almost surrendered. She was “allegedly” abducted by the IPS officer and raped repeatedly. When she tried to file a case in the Bilaspur High Court with the help of an advocate and human rights activist, a case of abduction was instead “allegedly” filed against the advocate by Kalluri. Later, her family was “allegedly” abducted; she was threatened to change her lawyer. She was given a public prosecutor, and a day later, she told the Court that she wanted to take back the case against Kalluri. When the Court asked her for reasons, she broke down saying, “Don’t ask me anything.”
Today, Kalluri is IG of Anti-Naxals wing of the Chhattisgarh police of Dantewada range, while Ledha Bai is trying to bring justice to women in the capacity of a social worker, in Surguja.
The sun had set, and all we could do was hope for a new day. But an interesting email was waiting for me in my inbox. It was from a gentleman by the name of Rajesh Singh Sisodia, from an NGO called Nange Paon Satyagrah. When I read his mail, for the first time, I realised that my articles were indeed being read widely. Wow! I exclaimed in happy disbelief. Sisodia was writing to me about Maoism, Naxalism, Salwa Judum, and has more or less congratulated Salwa Judum, while denouncing people like Himanshuji. Below are excerpts from the mail:
“Some NGO’s and other people have accused the police of making use of Salwa Judum as a counter-insurgency strategy by turning it in a state-funded militia. However, this allegation is definitely wrong and creates misperceptions, which need to be clarified. Vishwa Ranjan states: ‘Salwa Judum is a spontaneous movement and the police do not contribute financially or physically to Salwa Judum. The only thing the police do is respecting this movement as it respects all peaceful and democratic people movements’.
Mahendra Karma responds: ‘The people will have to fight against the tyranny of the Naxalites, because there is no other way left. Therefore we started the Salwa Judum and this movement is organized by and for the people and does not get any support of the police. It is the duty of the police to combat Naxalism. However, the police lack a fighting spirit and do not do enough to combat terrorism. Besides this, the police are bounded by stringent laws and therefore actions taken by them are very slow and have little impact.’
It is surprising that NGO’s such as Banwasi Shetna ashram are using false propaganda to create misperceptions among the people. Banwasi Shetna ashram state that Salwa Judum is related to Special Police Officers and the relief efforts of the government. As India is proud of being a democratic country it is of vital importance to maintain the debate among civilians, politicians and NGO’s alive. However, one should always be honest and speak the truth. Therefore, this article would take the opportunity to clarify that the police forces work independently from any organization such as the Salwa Judum.
This leads us to the conclusion that every stakeholder has a role to play in society, whether it be the Naxalites (a wrong role, but still a role), the police, the Salwa Judum, the media or the NGO’s. However, everyone should focus on their respective field of work and should do everything in their ability to contribute to the solution of the conflict between the Naxalites and the police. One should not degrade themselves to the spread of false allegations, childish lies and the creation of misconceptions among the common people…”
To all those skeptics, pessimists and cynics like Sisodia, who harbour many doubts about what Himanshuji says, and most importantly, what you are reading about in my mails: do not believe my words. Convince yourself first by what you see with your own eyes, what you hear with your own ears, and what you feel in your own heart. Book your ticket to Dantewada (mail me and I will give you directions, provided I know for sure that you are coming here) and spend few days here. You will be convinced about what you should believe. This is not about any ideology; this is only about what you see and feel when you come here. No RSVP. Just come.
Beauty and the beast: All conflict areas like Jammu & Kashmir and the North East, and now Chhattisgarh ring that Louis Armstrong song in the ears, "It's a wonderful world"
‘Am I protected?’
On Monday, December 28, Himanshuji entered the third day of his fast. He was beginning to look pale and exhausted, and his hands were moving slowly. He was reading a big fat book and I chose not to disturb him much. But he received phone calls all day long – well-wishers expressing solidarity and trying to gauge the situation with, “Is it safe for us of we get there?” Himanshuji replied to each of those calls with his idiosyncratic benevolence. But my reply would be, just come. If your heart tells you that you need to be here by his side then listen to none other.
Around 10 am, the seven police personnel who had been guarding Himanshuji came up to him to say that they had received an order to back out from his protection. It was indeed a good sign, and just like any other day, they were offered the breakfast-time tea. However, about half hour later, the chief who had left earlier, returned to state that there was a miscommunication and that the protection over Himanshuji’s shadow would continue. Himanshuji indeed is a much-loved man.
The day was quite uneventful, except that VCA’s volunteers – about 12 of them who had been working in various villages – gathered for a monthly meeting. I had the chance to interact with them, to understand how they individually got associated with VCA. Some of them had been working within the Salwa Judum camps, bringing about a sense of hygiene amid the dirty environs. They were of the opinion that the camps were indeed full of small tents where 15-member families had to squeeze in together. “The people are thankful to be alive, but they have been stripped of their dignity. In crammed tents, the situation is nothing short of living in a stable.”
The fourth estate
The volunteers asked me whether I came here after I had read news about atrocities in Dantewada in Mumbai. It was now my chance to flash that smile of surrender, as I explained how advertisements by companies that are the indirect perpetrators of the violence here, were sacred in the boardroom of media houses. So of course, it is easy to ignore the news stories of many rapes and murders and mutilations in a tiny village amid teak trees in Dantewada, in order to get those few extra lakhs of advertisements, which will fuel the New Year and Holi and anniversary parties of the media companies.
Now the volunteers smiled. They said, “There is such disparity in the news reports in the local media about what is happening here. No two reports of any incident are the same. How is the common man here, who goes to work on his scooter and gets back home in time for evening tea and biscuit, supposed to make a judgment?”
The sun set and questions as potent as these lingered on. Tomorrow is another day, that’s what we all harbour in our mind when we try to sleep comfortably inside two blankets. Sleep eludes us all. And we know the reason, but have been searching for the cure.