“People are fed up of the police, of the Maoists, and of journalists,” said the old man, his voice bristling with anger. “We don’t want to talk to you. Where were you when the whole village was taken to the thana and beaten up?”
The old man lives in a village along a broken road in Chhattisgarh that’s in the grip of a war that the outside world doesn't seem to care about.
This non-existent road, connecting Dornapal and Chintalnar in Sukma district of Bastar region, cuts through one of the most intense battlegrounds of the low-intensity war between Maoist rebels and government security forces.
This is the road where the Maoists swooped down on a sleeping contingent of paramilitary personnel in April 2010 and left 76 security men dead in three hours. Between 2005 and 2007, an anti-Maoist civil militia called Salwa Judum stormed through these villages and forced residents to move to government camps. Those who stayed behind were seen as Maoist supporters, and their villages were targetted. As the Maoists hit back, the area was convulsed with a civil war that left hundreds dead.
Having survived successive rounds of violence for more than a decade, the villagers living along this road now face a peculiar turn in the war.
Starting from December 2015, the police has rounded up hundreds of people, detaining them in security camps for days. Some were beaten up before being released, others were arrested, a few are still missing.
The mass detentions were followed by "mass surrenders": the police claimed that Maoists and their supporters had surrendered voluntarily, but villagers’ accounts suggest many of the surrendered Maoists were ordinary villagers. Curiously, even senior police officials in the state capital have questioned the authenticity of the surrenders.
Worse, for the villagers, their troubles do not end with the police action. They now live in fear of reprisals by the Maoists ‒ in one of the villages, a divisional commander of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) held meetings and threatened to evict the entire village as punishment for the surrenders.
This is reminiscent of the Salwa Judum years when people were forced to take sides, and those who did not, faced violent consequences. Unlike the Judum, there isn’t an armed militia acting on behalf of the state this time, but civil vigilantism is back. This time, it is focused on evicting those who can stand witness to the violence.
Scroll.in contributor Malini Subramaniam reported on the surrenders that took place in Polampalli on December 9. Of the 26 men who surrendered, four were from Chintalnar. They told her they were not Maoists and had been coerced into participating in the event.
Subramaniam travelled along the road again in the first week of January to investigate another round of surrenders involving 70 people. The day after she came back to Jagdalpur, the town where she lived, about 20 men from a group called Samajik Ekta Manch showed up at her home, warning her against "tarnishing the image of the police". The same night, around 11, the police visited her home. This was followed by a month-long series of intimidatory actions, with the police and civil vigilantes acting in tandem. Subramaniam was eventually forced to leave the town.
Subramaniam was not alone in being hounded out. Shalini Gera and Isha Khandelwal of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which provides legal representation to adivasis, were forced to leave in similar circumstances. Activist Soni Sori was attacked by unidentified men with grease-like material that had led to burns on her face.
The attacks on human rights defenders has received some media attention. But the larger backdrop of the attacks ‒ the widespread allegations of police atrocities in the village ‒ has gone largely unnoticed. Few journalists have travelled to the region. Alok Putul of BBC abandoned his assignment mid-way after he faced threats.
In the second week of February, I travelled to the Dornapal-Chintalnar road. This report is based primarily on that trip, but also draws upon Subramaniam’s field notes, which remained unpublished after the police decided to make her the story.
Chintagufa is a village made famous by a signboard outside the police station housed inside the security camp of the Central Reserve Police Force. The camp, rimmed by barbed wire, overlooks a large pond where the green moss is dotted by a burst of lotus blossoms every summer. On the edge of the pond, outside the camp, a signboard says, "Welcome to Heaven".
For several days late in January, residents of Chintagufa woke up to a regular sight: columns of young men and women from nearby villages walking with their heads lowered, being led into the police station by armed security men. Within hours, a trickle of older people, women and children from those villages would follow. They would gather outside the thana, camping there, often for days and nights, pleading with the police to free their loved ones being held captive. Occasionally, a few people would be released, only to be replaced by a new lot of detainees from other villages.
The pattern, which continued for about two weeks, ended on February 4, when a helicopter carrying the Inspector General of Police of Bastar, Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, landed in Chintagufa. Dressed in uniform and a cap, with a tilak on his forehead, Kalluri presided over the surrender of 43 people drawn from the villages of Temalvara, Burkapal, Minpa, among others. According to the police, these were Maoists who had surrendered voluntarily. Kalluri gave them cheques of Rs 10,000, while also distributing Rs 100 notes among the villagers who had been assembled for the ceremony.
Back in the villages, however, people have another narrative to offer.
Three days before the surrender ceremony in Chintagufa, early on the morning of February 2, the villagers of Temalvara woke up to a blanket of security men outside their homes. Young men were pulled out from their homes, herded, and taken to Chintagufa thana, ten kilometres away, villagers said.
Madkam Bhima (name changed to protect identity) was one of them. Over the next two days, policemen allegedly beat him up.“They hit me on the back with a belt,” he said. “Repeatedly.”
When older people from the village came to the thana to plead for the release of the young men, the police made them a offer. “Salender karne ko bole,” said Madavi Joga (name changed to protect identity). They asked us to surrender.
The village decided it was best to fall in line. “Those with children surrendered so that the young could go free,” said Joga.
In Burkapal village, which lies further down the road from Chintagufa, villagers spoke of a similar pattern: days before the mass surrender, the security forces indiscriminately rounded up young people and brought them to the thana. “About a hundred people were taken to the thana,” said a middle-aged man.
At the thana, the police reminded the detainees of the two villagers who had been picked up in December ‒ Midiam Pojja and Podiyam Kosa. They had never returned. Naming them, the police threatened the others with the same fate. “They said, ‘You will be sent to jail.' I decided it was best to surrender,” said a young man, who was washing clothes at the village handpump when I visited. He denied he had worked for the Maoists.
This pattern of illegal detentions and surrenders was documented by sociologists Nandini Sundar and Archana Prasad, who were in the area late in January. In Minpa village, they were told that 41 men had been picked up from the village on the morning of January 24 and taken to Chintagufa police station. Five days later, on January 29, the police put out a press release saying that 12 men had been arrested from Minpa. Another press release on February 1 announced the arrests of another 13 men. “What is clear is that the police is carrying out sweeping raids as collective punishment, and fitting villagers to pre-decided crimes,” Sundar wrote in a piece published in The Wire on February 4. The same day, she heard that some of the missing men from Minpa had been shown to have surrendered in the ceremony at Chintagufa.
The villagers of Temalvara say they surrendered to secure the release of their relatives and neighbours, and yet seven people picked up in the raids of February 2 have not come back home. Their names: Gondse Unga, Madavi Unga, Padam Lakkam, Madkam Pojja, Madkam Rama, Madkam Deva, Madavi Raja. The families of the missing men went to Sukma town, the district headquarters, after they heard the men had been taken there by the police. “We could not see them,” said a school boy whose brother is among those missing. “But policemen there confirmed that they were in their custody.”
The fear of Maoists
Further ahead of Chintagufa lies the market village of Chintalnar. Here too, a police station is housed inside a CRPF camp.
A surrender ceremony was held inside the camp on December 24, presided over by Bastar IG Kalluri. Seventy people were shown to have surrendered ‒ all of them were Maoists, according to the police.
The day I visited, one of them, a young boy aged 19, was watering plants in his kitchen garden in the Lachchepara neighbourhood of Chintalnar. He said several young people like him were picked up from the bazaar and kept in the thana for days. “The police had a list of names, including mine,” he said. There were no beatings, or torture. In fact, they were given regular meals.
The policemen reminded them of the raids of December 3 in which they had rounded up about two dozen men. While some were released, 14 men ‒10 from Revalpara, two from the main Chintalnar basti and two from Raoguda ‒ were taken away in a helicopter and lodged in Dantewada jail. The superintendent of police had told Scroll.in in mid-December that they had been charged with aiding the Maoists in the bomb blast of November 28 that had injured a soldier seriously enough for his leg to be amputated. The villagers deny they were involved in the blast.
The young men detained in the thana were warned they too would be arrested if they did not surrender. They agreed to surrender but requested that it be done discreetly. But their requests went unheeded.
On December 24, Bastar IG Kalluri and other officials arrived. “Kalluri got angry,” the young man recounted. “He said if we don’t do as asked, we would be shot dead.” The youth quietly lined up in front of a large gathering of villagers and posed for photographs with Kalluri and others, holding up their cheques.
Did he actually work for the Maoists, I asked the boy, who worked furiously with a shovel to flatten the soil in his garden. “They come to the village, we go for their meetings, we serve them food,” he said. “We don’t have a choice.”
Have the Maoists come to the village after the surrenders? “The force is patrolling the area, so they have not come so far,” he said. “Shant rehne pe kya hone wala hai, kaun janta hai.” Who knows what will happen later, when things settle down.
Such is the fear of Maoists that his cheque of Rs 10,000 lies uncashed. To withdraw the amount, he would have to travel to Dornapal, which he dare not, since he fears the Maoists could stop him on the way.
Down the road from Chintalnar, in Mukram village, the fear is more acute. Thirty three of the 70 people who surrendered on December 24 were from this village.
Mukram too had seen the same pattern of detentions, arrests, surrenders.
In the first week of November, a cement bridge near Mukram village had collapsed after it was broken down in the middle using implements. Ten days later, in an early morning raid, the police rounded and took away 17 men from the village. The next morning, seven of them, mostly old men and teenage boys, were released. The others were formally arrested and taken to jail.
The villagers deny they had participated in the efforts to bring down the bridge. “Dada log got it done with the help of people from other villages,” said a woman. “We did not do it.” But the police squarely blamed them. “The villagers will have to bear collective responsibility for such destruction,” the superintendent of police D Shrawan told Scroll.in in mid-December. “Our prisons have space to accommodate an entire village.”
In the second half of December, the police raided Mukram again. Young men and women were dragged out of their homes and taken to Chintalnar thana. Women and children went and camped outside the thana but the young people were not released. On December 24, they surfaced at the surrender ceremony in Chintalnar.
Subsequently, the police took the young men and women to Dornapal, where they are being made to stay inside the erstwhile "Judum Camp" that housed the refugees of the 2006 violence. They eat and sleep inside a large room covered by a tin-shed, and the police claims each one of them will be given a job and a house. Back in Mukram, however, their families are worried that the young people may never be able to return to the village, since they might become a target of the Maoists.
Have the Maoists come to the village after the surrenders? “Not once, but twice,” said an old woman. The divisional commander of CPI (Maoist) Papa Rao has held two meetings in Mukram, issuing threats. “He said ‘If you don’t bring them [the surrendered youth] back, then all of you leave, go live in the thana. You can’t stay here and cultivate your fields. Wahin jao.”
In the state capital Raipur, 400 km away, many in the security establishment are unimpressed with the spate of surrenders of these alleged Maoists in Bastar.
Under Chhattisgarh’s policy, a surrendered Maoist is entitled to cash awards ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1 crore, depending on his rank. For every surrendered Maoist, the district police is supposed to send a detailed report to the officer heading the Special Intelligence Bureau in the police headquarters at Raipur, who heads a panel that scrutinises the report before approving the compensation amount.
RK Vij, the Additional Director General of police, who headed SIB until recently, is reported to have rejected a majority of the surrender cases. He declined to speak with Scroll.in at length but confirmed that a large chunk of surrenders were not found genuine. DM Awasthi, the Special Director General, who took over charge of SIB from Vij, said he planned to investigate the surrenders further. "If anyone has a complaint, they should come to us," he said. "We will certainly examine."
DM Awasthi, the Special Director General, who took over charge of SIB from Vij, said he planned to investigate the surrenders further. "If anyone has a complaint, they should come to us," he said. "We will certainly examine."
A senior police official who requested anonymity said: “When armed rebels surrender and lay down weapons, it is a sign of the weakening of an insurgent force. But when you force unarmed villagers to surrender, you are simply complicating the problem.”
Senior officials point out that the surrenders spiked after Inspector General SRP Kalluri took charge of Bastar region in June 2014.
In an investigation published in December 2014, The Indian Express noted that between January 2012 and May 2014, a period of two-and-a-half years, the seven districts of Bastar had seen just 29 Maoist surrenders. This number shot up to 377 surrenders in less than six months starting June 2014. “A scrutiny of police records and meetings with these 'surrendered' Maoists show that at least 270 of the 377 are actually ordinary villagers or routine criminals not eligible to be termed 'surrendered' Maoists," the paper said. "Not one of the 377 surrendered with a weapon, and no one has got the post-surrender relief or rehabilitation."
According to a report in The Indian Express published last week, out of 327 surrender cases in 2015, "91 cases were rejected, 36 approved, with the rest still pending clearance".
Even by the record of the last two years, what happened in Sukma district over the last three months is unusual. Starting December 2015, nearly 140 surrenders have taken place on the 50-km stretch between Dornapal and Chintalnar in Sukma district.
“These statistics look great in presentations to the Home Ministry,” former Director General of Chhattisgarh police, Vishwa Ranjan, said wryly. “But the real indicator of success in counter-Maoist operations is when you can reduce the number of security forces deployed.”
There is little sign of that happening ‒ the road from Dornapal to Chintalnar had four security camps in 2010. In five years, the number has doubled to eight.
One of the security camps is situated near the village of the old man who refused to speak to me. Pointing in the camp’s direction, he said, “You will go away, but they won’t. Only we know the pain that has been inflicted on our bodies.”
With inputs from Malini Subramaniam.