When panchayat elections were announced in Jharkhand in November, Nagmani Yadav, a former Maoist, supported his wife Anwari Devi, to contest from their village in Latehar district.

Yadav was a member of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) for 10 years till he was arrested in 2011. He was acquitted four years later after charges against him could not be proved in court.

Anwari Devi was up against Juleshwar Lohra, whose brother Pappu Lohra leads the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad, an armed militia tacitly supported by the police, which is allegedly aimed at countering the Maoist influence in the area.

Though Yadav received threats to ask his wife to withdraw from the contest, and was even beaten up by Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad cadres, he refused to ask her to do so.

Anwari Devi eventually lost the election. A few days later, Yadav, a clean-shaven youth with a wide smile, was back to living in the shadow of the gun.

Forced to take up arms

“I feared for my life,” said Yadav, dressed in camouflage, holding a carbine. “The Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad men had already attacked me once and they would have come after me again.”

Yadav was seated on the ground in a forest clearing. Near him, a dozen men in olive combat gear rested on rocky outcrops in the shade of trees, while more armed young men kept watch at the edge of the clearing.

These men were cadres of the Tritiya Sangharsh Prastuti Committee, an armed Maoist splinter group of which Yadav is now an area commander.

Yadav contended that the Jharkhand police actually supports the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad, which is another Maoist splinter group. He said after he was beaten by the militia, he went to the police. “I registered a complaint on December 3 against Pappu Lohra,” he said. “But the police took no action. Instead, the police supported Lohra's brother in the election.”

While Yadav went back to the gun, there are many in Jharkhand's villages who are powerless against the humiliations and threats they are subjected to at the hands of police-backed Maoist splinter groups.

Enemy vs enemy

Over the years, villagers as well as several civil society activists have accused the police of supporting militias such as the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad.

The police have denied this.

However, off the record, senior police officers admit to a tacit policy of encouraging renegade or expelled Maoists to form separate armed rival groups in order to reduce the influence of Maoists in the area.

“Over the years, the state police and the Central Reserve Police Force have used these groups as they liked, using the enemy against the enemy you can say,” said a senior police officer in the state capital Ranchi. “But now, they have free rein only in some areas, depending on the decision of some district superintendents. The institutional support these groups enjoyed from the top is reducing, and will gradually be withdrawn.”

One of the reasons the state police initially patronised such armed groups is related to the state's creation – when Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in the year 2000, it had only 20,000 police personnel, a force that was simply too inadequate to take on Maoists in the state’s jungles.

“Now, there are 75,000 Jharkhand police personnel, 20,000 Central Reserve Police Force men, 15,000 other armed forces deployed against Maoist insurgents,” said a senior security officer. “What is the need for the government to still encourage and tolerate violent splinter groups in the state?”

When splinter groups rule

From 2011 till 2013, Jharkhand recorded the greatest number of incidents of Maoist violence and deaths in India. This period also saw an intensification of activity by splinter Maoist groups in the state.

Since 2015, the incidence of Maoist violence has reduced but the resulting vacuum has triggered a struggle among splinter groups for dominance.

“In 2014-’15, there were over 400 incidents of Maoist violence, of which 50%-55% were by splinter groups,” said SN Pradhan, additional director general of police in Jharkhand, referring to government data. “This year, the number of incidents is half, but nearly 70% of it is by splinter groups.”

But what is the difference in the way the Maoists and their splinter groups operate?

“If the Maoists killed anyone, usually they would take responsibility for it,” said an elderly villager. “But the TPSC and JJMP kill innocents and take no responsibility. Thus, there is apraadhikaran [criminalisation]. The new groups are doing contract killings, charging Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh.”

In Aragundi village in Latehar, a panchayat officials described another difference between the Maoists and splinter groups. “Earlier, the party [the Maoists] would organise a village gathering, ask everyone in the village their opinion before ruling on a social issue,” he said. “These [splinter] parties act like gangs, immediately threatening, beating people, indulging in kidnapping and extortion.”

Terror in villages

The Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad, with an estimated armed cadre of 100-150, is active in Latehar, Gumla and Lohardaga districts. The older, more powerful Tritiya Sangharsh Prastuti Committee, which has over 800 members, holds sway in villages in Chatra, parts of Latehar and Palamu. Other groups such as the People's Liberation Front of India, Jharkhand Prastuti Committee and Green Party are active in other districts.

In districts like Latehar, the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad and Tritiya Sangharsh Prastuti Committee are continuously competing to establish their dominance. On July 10, the two groups exchanged fire for three hours on the Latehar-Lohardaga district border. Just days earlier, the Tritiya Sangharsh Prastuti Committee held a people's court to interrogate an abducted Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad cadre.

As the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad attempted to strengthen its hold in Latehar, it first targeted villages where it considered its rival, the Tritiya Sangharsh Prastuti Committee, to have a support base, said villagers. With the police looking the other way, local residents say they have been left to defend themselves.

Villagers say the armed groups, who roam around villages under the pretext of fighting Maoism, threaten them with extortion, beatings and murders, and also interfere in elections.

An abduction and a disappearance

In Kupiya village in Jobang, Meena Yadav, a farmer, said that her son Sunil, 22, left home one morning last January for Latehar town, 15 km away, after which she hasn’t seen him again.

Sitting on the floor of her hut in a forest village on the Lohardaga-Latehar border, she said that Sunil often stayed with relatives in town so the family did not worry when he did not return that night.

“When Sunil did not get in touch even after three days, my husband and I started looking for him,” she said. “We are still searching for any clue on him after six months.”

Two weeks after he had registered a complaint, Sunil's father Jogeshwar Yadav accompanied the police in tracing the route his son took towards Latehar. That’s when he found that Sunil seemed to have been accosted by Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad cadre and abducted.

“A man grazing goats told us he had seen Riyaz, who is JJMP chief Pappu Lohra's deputy, and 12 JJMP men stop Sunil on the road,” recounted Yadav. “They beat him and put him in a tempo and took him away.”

Meena Yadav said Riyaz, who grew up in a neighbouring village, had attacked their house a few months earlier.

“On October 5, Riyaz had come looking for Sunil with Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad men,” she recounted. “When they heard that Sunil was not at home, they broke our door, farm equipment, mixed up the grains and cereals we had stored, and beat up Anil, my older son.”

Villagers say that the movement of Maoist cadre reduced in the area after a police picket was set up near Kupiya village last year. But the presence of splinter groups like the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad and the Tritiya Sangharsh Prastuti Committee has continued.

Kupiya is located on the path the groups often took through the forest, which is perhaps why Sunil Yadav got entangled in the rivalry between them.

Jogeshwar Yadav said that Riyaz suspected Sunil was an informer for his rivals.

Like many local youth who switch from one armed Maoist group to another for personal gain rather than ideological convictions, Riyaz originally was a cadre of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). He left that group to join the Tritiya Sangharsh Prastuti Committee, and finally switched over to the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad in 2015.

“Till last year, when he was in TSPC, Riyaz would ask Sunil to arrange for food for his men when they stopped in the village,” said Yadav. “After he switched to JJMP, he told Sunil to support JJMP, not TSPC. But Sunil was trying to maintain a distance from both groups.”

Yadav believes that the police could do more, but won't. The elderly farmer said that the station house officer of Jobang police station called up an associate of Riyaz’s in front of him and asked the group to release Sunil. “The police knew JJMP did it and their whereabouts, but they did not follow up,” he said. “I wish someone would at least tell us whether Sunil is dead or alive.”

Increased extortion, and violence

Ramanand Yadav, who has worked as a contractor in Latehar since 1995, was abducted in March by the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad that claimed he had failed to pay them Rs 10 lakh calculated as a 5% levy on the Rs 2 crore-bridge that he was buiding. The rival Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the Tritiya Sangharsh Prastuti Committee had asked for a similar share.

Ramanand Yadav was finally let off after his family paid Rs 5 lakh as ransom.

The contractor said that it was clear that the local police didn’t want to act against the group. “I saw Pappu Lohra take a phone call from the Latehar thana in front of me,” he said. “The station house officer was warning him to let me go. The police reached only my house, but they did not even try to come to the forest.”

Several other victims spoke up.

Kamlesh Oraon, a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act worker and activist in Manika block of Latehar said that Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad cadre beat him and forced him to withdraw a police complaint against his brother's assault by another villager. He said the militia wished to discourage villagers from approaching courts to settle disputes.

Mahendra Thakur, a para-legal volunteer, has been living in hiding since last August because he fears for his life. His fault: he suggested that two villagers in his home village of Singjo approach the courts to settle a land dispute.

Police support

Villagers in Latehar alleged that the police is directly controlling the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad, whose founder Sanjay Yadav a former Maoist died six years ago.

As evidence, they cite one of the bloodiest encounters between the paramilitary and the Maoists in Nawadih and Amvatikar in January 2013 during which 11 security personnel were killed. The villagers said that the militia assisted government forces during that encounter by providing them with cover.

"For several weeks afterwards, there was continuous firing, explosions, the forest would light up at night,” said a tribal villager. “During the operations, JJMP would arrive first in the village and soon after, the police would cross the area. In 2012-'13, JJMP would come and stay in our hamlets, and the security forces would stay just meters away across the river. For eight days, as operations went on, the JJMP stayed in Nawadih the adjoining village, and the forces would stay in our village school.”

But what may have started as an operations tactic has now taken the form of wanton killings.

Latehar superintendent of police Anoop Birtharay denied claims that the police backed the militia. “For us, JJMP, TPSC are just extremist groups, and we have taken action against them on complaints.”

However, amid this denial and as the number of armed groups multiplies, the villagers are caught in an atmosphere of deep distrust. “JJMP says you are Maoist, Maoist say you are JJMP’s agent, and so on, and it is innocents who are getting killed,” said a villager.

Some names have been change to protect identities.