Late on the afternoon of September 17, traffic in Chhattisgarh's Jagdalpur town was paralysed as thousands of people, including school children, were directed to an open ground. On a stage at one end, a group of men stood next to police officials, issuing calls for an end to the Maoist presence in the region.
This lalkaar (defiance) rally had been organised by a new outfit called the Action Group for National Integration or AGNI. But prominent on the dais were familiar faces from a disbanded vigilante group known as the Samajik Ekta Manch: Anand Mohan Mishra, Subba Rao, Sampat Jha, Farukh Ali and others.
Formed in December 2015, the Samajik Ekta Manch made headlines early in 2016 when it ran a campaign against activists, lawyers and journalists who had brought to light allegations that the security forces were killing and raping villagers under the guise of fighting Maoists. The group was disbanded in April after an India Today TV report showed a senior police official admitting that the vigilante group had been set up by the authorities. [Disclosure: This reporter was among those targetted by the manch].
On the stage with the Samajik Ekta Manch-turned-AGNI members were police superintendents from the districts of Sukma, Kondagaon, Dantewada and Bastar. Also present was Inspector General of Police Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, the officer in charge of all the seven districts of Bastar region.
Amidst chants of “aag lagi hai aag, bhag Naxali bhag” – a fire has broken out, run, Naxal, run – some AGNI members held up a poster with the picture of Sanjeet Singh Thakur, a young man killed by the Maoists in August.
Thakur was shot dead in the forests of Sukma by Maoists, who accused him of being a police informer since at least 2004. Two hours after Thakur's body was brought home, Inspector General of Police Kalluri circulated a message on social media, claiming the young man had been a staunch supporter of the Maoists, “but for the last few months, he started to distance himself from the Maoists and lead a normal life”.
In Dornapal, where this reporter met him, Thakur’s father, Sartej Singh, refuted the claims of both the Maoists and the police. He pointed out that his son was born in 1991 and was just 13 years old in 2004. How could he have been an informer at that young age, Singh asked.
Thakur's killing has emerged as a rallying point in the latest round of protests against the Maoists. The police, who are aiding the protests, are keen to appear sympathetic to Thakur's family. But ironically, less than a year ago, the family had faced trouble when the police accused Thakur's older brother, Ashish, of being a Maoist and forced him to surrender.
The family's story shows how both the Maoists and the police are complicit in endangering the lives of ordinary people.
The migrants from North India
Twenty five- year-old Sanjeet Singh Thakur, better known as Nabbe, lived in Chintalnar, a market village that lies deep inside Maoist-dominated territory in the Konta block of Sukma district. A broken road veers off the highway that passes through Dornapal town. About 45 km down the road is Chintalnar. Another 12 km ahead lies Jagargunda, a village that has been converted into a security fortress by the police and paramilitary forces.
Every Saturday, tribal people from dozens of interior villages come to the weekly market in Chintalnar to buy soap, oil, clothes and other essential goods, and sell mahua flowers and tora seeds, among other forest produce they gather. The traders are primarily migrants from Uttar Pradesh who moved here decades ago, drawn by the profits to be made selling forest produce purchased cheaply from local Adivasis.
In the early 1980s, Thakur’s father, Sartej Singh, left his village in Uttar Pradesh's Kanpur district to step into his father-in-law’s business in Chintalnar. His wife worked as an anganwadi in the village. Their children were born and raised here. The eldest son, Ashish, took to the trade. Thakur, the younger one, found a job driving a jeep to transport goods and people between Dornapal and Chintalnar. In 2014, he bought his own vehicle.
A gruesome death
August began on a bad note for Thakur. He came down with typhoid. With no good hospital in the area, he had to be taken to Bhadrachalam in Khamman district in neighbouring Telengana.
On the evening of August 26, after recovering from his illness, Thakur was returning home. In Dornapal, feeling better, he took charge of a jeep headed in the direction of Chintalnar, said a cousin who accompanied him.
About 40 kms into the journey, Maoists stopped the vehicle, along with ten others. It was Friday and traders were transporting goods for the weekly Saturday market. More than a hundred passengers, including children and the elderly, were asked to get off and sit in an open ground, recounted some villagers who were present there. Their mobile phones were taken away and put in a plastic bag. From a distance, some passengers saw their phones being put to scrutiny.
The Maoists addressed the passengers and said what people in the area had heard many times before: that the rebels were fighting a people’s war against the loot of jal-jungle-zameen (water, forests and land). They declared that they wanted the villagers to support them.
About half an hour into the address, Thakur was singled out and asked to stand up, recalled one of the villagers who was also there. Thakur was blindfolded and he was jerked away into the forest. Most people in the gathering remained silent, frozen with fear. Some found the courage to ask why he was being taken away and pleaded with the Maoists not to harm him.
Their entreaties went unheard. Ten minutes later, a single shot was heard. As women began to wail, some villagers gathered the courage to go to the spot from where the sound had come. They found Thakur lying there with a bullet wound in the centre of his body. A handwritten pamphlet was lying nearby. It said that "Thakur Nabbe" was guilty of passing information about the Maoists to the police, and that he had been warned several times since 2004.
Not too far away, the confiscated mobile phones were strewn on the ground. Thakur’s phone was missing, most likely taken away by the Maoists.
The villagers called his family, which rushed to the spot, crossing paths with the vehicle that was taking Thakur to the security camp in Chintalnar where medical facilities were available. But by the time the group reached Chintalnar, Thakur was dead.
There are seven security camps in the 45-km stretch between Dornapal and Chintalnar. Each camp has about 200 personnel, with 2,400 security men altogether. One of the camps, in Burkapal village, was just 3 km away from the place where the Maoists stopped the vehicles. For six hours from 11 am, Maoists held about 100 people captive, delivered lectures on their ideology and shot a man dead, but not one policeman showed up, villagers said.
Even after Thakur’s body was brought to Chintalnar, the security personnel did not consider it safe to go to the site to collect evidence, villagers said.
However, the police superintendent of Sukma, Indira Kalyan Elesela, denied that the Maoist operation had lasted six hours. He claimed it was “a 40-minutes affair”. Defending the police inaction, he said, “Any presence of the police at that time would have only resulted in higher civilian casualties.”
In recent years, the police have claimed that the Maoists are “on the back foot” in the region. In April alone, the Sukma police claimed 122 Maoists surrendered, of whom 102 were from the Konta and Jagargunda blocks. If the surrenders were genuine and had crippled the Maoists, how could they pull off the road blockade? Elesela attributed this to the large Maoist support base in the area.
A difficult balance
Residents of Chintalnar said they walk a tightrope between the growing Maoist influence and the intensification of police and paramilitary presence. They feel compelled to keep both the authorities and the Maoists happy. Both sides stop vehicles plying between Dornapal and Chintalnar and ask the drivers to pick up supplies for them, while offloading goods they suspect are meant for the other side. When the balance tilts to one side, said a young trader, the other side retaliates, and often it is the civilians who pay a price. Thakur’s killing has only heightened their fears.
The area hasn't always been so tense. Until the late nineties, traders moved freely in the forest, setting up makeshift markets in two dozen villages. Occasionally, they ran into the Maoists, but they were never harmed.
As the conflict between the Maoists and the police escalated in the early 2000s, the traders began to feel pressure from both sides to gather and pass on information. After a civilian anti-Maoist militia called the Salwa Judum was formed with the support of the government in 2006, the conflict turned brutal. Aiming to isolate the Maoists, Judum activists began to forcibly drive out villagers into faraway government camps. The people of Chintalnar resisted and stayed on, inviting the ire of the police.
The conflict directly hit business. The Maoists forced the closure of Jagargunda market after the security forces established a camp there. The police shut down the markets Teemapuram and Elmagunda, ostensibly to deprive the Maoists of supplies. But in fact, this made it harder for villagers to buy goods they needed for daily life. From two dozen markets in the area, only seven weekly markets now function. They last just a few hours and not the whole day.
Despite the thinning of business, the traders of Chintalnar have not left because they have nowhere to go. They say they try to keep a low profile. When young men get into trouble with either the police or the Maoists, they are sent away to work in Dornapal and Sukma.
In November 2015, Singh’s older son, Ashish, was one of the 23 young men paraded by the police in front of journalists as a surrendered Maoist. As Scroll.in reported at that time, local people alleged the surrenders were fake, and the men were not Maoists as the police had claimed.
After the controversy, Singh had sent Ashish away to Sukma. Now, back home, Ashish said the only reason he surrendered was because the police promised to free him from charges that had been framed against him and 11 others in the murder of a police officer. The murder took place in 2008, but the 12 men were named as accused in the case only in 2015. Ashish claimed the charges were false and that he had been made merely to put him under pressure. The police was staging fake surrender ceremonies to exaggerate its success against the Maoists, said villagers.
The police superintendent, Elesela, declined to comment on Ashish's case, saying he had taken charge in May 2016, and was not familiar with previous cases. Speaking of Thakur, he said, “Nabbe was never with the police, but we have records to show he was supporting the Maoists [earlier].” Since there were no information about his criminal involvement, the police did not press any charges against him, he added.
Caught between the two forces, the young men of Chintalnar face a peculiar predicament: the Maoists view them as police informers, but in the police records, they are shown to be Maoists and under pressure to surrender.
Over the past year, Adivasis living in the interior villages have reported large-scale arrests, detentions and beatings by security forces, as documented by Scroll.in in February 2016. This reporter heard of fresh instances of police beatings but could not confirm them independently.
The residents of Chintalnar say the security forces have since stepped up the pressure on non-Adivasis. They alleged that young men were being asked to accompany the security forces on patrols inside the forest to identify Maoist locations.
Had Thakur been forced to do this? Some villagers speculated that the young man had been questioned by the police about the location of a Maoist meeting held in June.
The police superintendent did not comment on the specific allegation but said that as a principle, the police never compel any surrendered Maoists to accompany them during search operations or divulge information, unless they willingly do so.
Thakhur's father, Sartej Singh, said that had either side – the police or the Maoists – told him that his son was aiding the other, he would have shifted him out of the village. Said Singh, “Both the Maoists and the police are playing games with our lives.”