In Bastar, the Adivasi heartland of Chhattisgarh, roads have become the most contested spaces in the decades-old conflict between Maoist rebels and the Indian state.

On April 24, the rebels ambushed a contingent of the Central Reserve Police Force deployed to secure a 5.5-km road under construction between Chintagupha and Burkapal in Sukma district, killing 25 personnel.

On March 11, a similar attack had left dead 12 CRPF men deployed to provide security for work on Bhejji-Kottacheru road about 28 km away in the same district.

Another CRPF man was killed on this same stretch in January when he stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device, presumably planted by the Maoists. The security forces know that this road is heavily mined, apparently to disrupt construction work as well as the movement of troops. About 70 Improvised Explosive Devices, buried on the sides of the newly-metalled roads and access routes in the surrounding forests, have been recovered by the security forces since construction work began on the 20-km Injeram-Bhejji axis in May 2015, said CRPF Deputy Inspector General, Operations, AK Singh.

The road construction sites are attractive targets for Maoists: they are characterised by a heavy presence of security forces but almost no local Advasis work on them.

Despite the heavy cost in life and limb, the central and state governments have determinedly pushed the road construction programme to bring development to what remains an impoverished region. However, some villagers are suspicious of the development narrative, believing that roads are merely an attempt to give exploitative commercial enterprises easier access to the region. Indeed, the latest ambush in Sukma reportedly had the support of the villagers.

As the government pushes to revive the road network that fell into disrepair with the advent of the Salwa Judum militia in 2005-’06 as its main developmental project in Bastar amid fierce opposition by the Maoist rebels, it has not shown the same urgency in addressing the human rights abuses committed by the security forces. This has only served to fuel Maoists propaganda that the Indian state is apathetic to Adivasi concerns.

Red country

Just how strong the Maoist rebels’ writ runs in the area is evident from the fact that the construction of the two-lane 20-km road between Injeram and Bhejji had to be put on hold after the first seven kilometres had been built in mid-2016 because no contractor was willing to bid for the rest of the stretch. After 18 invitations for bidding failed to attract a contractor, the Chhattisgarh Police Housing Corporation had to step in. Registered as a company in 2011, it had successfully built 44 police thanas in “highly sensitive” Maoist-dominated areas, said DM Awasthi, special director general of police, anti-Naxal operations, who serves as the corporation’s managing director. This 13-km stretch – laid in cement unlike the other 7-km stretch that was tarred – cost nearly Rs 35 crore, much more than the Public Works Department’s budget of Rs 20.91 crore for the entire 20-km road. That is not all it cost, though. As per a report prepared by the Police Headquarters, 31 security personnel and one civilian have lost their lives in Maoist ambushes and mine blasts around Bhejji since 2005.

Since the Maoists are opposed to road construction projects, local labourers do not accept work on them. So, the workforce is brought from outside. For laying Injeram-Bhejji road, nearly 150 people were brought from Bihar after being promised 10%-15% more wages than the going rate, said the contractor who identified himself only as Rathour.

Maoist rebels in Bastar. Image credit: Reuters

Thorny path

Two weeks after the March 11 attack, this correspondent visited Bhejji. The 8-km drive from Konta to Injeram on NH30 was backbreaking as the highway turns into a dusty gravel path almost every half a kilometre. From near the junction of the Injeram CRPF camp, however, it morphs into an impressive, somewhat out of place two-lane metalled road, lined with thatched houses. It was near evening by the time I was ushered into the camp to meet a deputy commandant.

“Is it possible to take a quick drive on this road before the sun sets?” I asked.

“Not until we have a road opening,” he replied firmly. “It is open to the public but has risks.”

What about the villagers from around here, do not they use the road?

“They have their own forest routes,” he said.

The villagers in Bastar avoid the new roads because they are heavily militarised. Singh said that although road construction activity began in May 2015, preparatory work had started much earlier. The “preparatory work” involved setting up security camps to secure the area. The 20-km Bhejji-Injeram has five camps. The camps in Injeram and Bhejji were established in 2010 and the other three in between them were set up at Ategatta, Gorkha and Kotecherru in the following years. The camps are about five kilometres apart. Besides the CRPF’s regular troops, its elite Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, or CoBRA, and the District Reserve Guard, a newly constituted force of the state police mostly comprising surrendered Maoists, conduct operations in that area.

Injeram-Bhejji is an old route, once frequented by people to visit the weekly bazaars in Injeram and Bhejji, and further up in Dubbakonta, Elmagonda, Chintagupha, Chintalnar and Jagargonda. These markets catered to nearly 80 surrounding villages. While the villagers brought forest produce to sell to traders from Konta, Errabore and Dornapal, the local merchants set up shops to sell goods of daily use. In 2005, however, the Salwa Judum militia rounded up villagers and forced them into camps set up by the government in Dornapal, Errabore, Polampalli, Maraiguda and Konta. This was apparently done to isolate the Maoists from the civilian population. The villagers who refused to move to the camps were labelled “Maoist supporters”.

The markets along main roads were allowed to function, but those in the interiors – in Bhejji, Elmagonda, Dubbakonta, Timmapuram – were forced shut in order to squeeze the villagers who refused to move into the camps and prevent the Maoists from procuring daily essentials. The Bhejji market, which catered to about 25 villages, was shut for a decade. “This used to be a narrow road, good enough for traders from Konta to drive up in a tempo, tractor or jeep to sell, buy and exchange their wares for a day and then move on to the next market,” said Dharmesh Singh, whose father traded in these markets before the Salwa Judum arrived. Singh left his native Chintalnar a few years ago after the situation became “volatile” and settled in Sukma, where he is still waiting for “some job” to come his way. He would have taken over his father’s business, he says, if the markets had not been shut down.

Security personnel stand guard as a road is laid in Bastar. Image credit: HT

The old route is now being revived as a wide cemented road. But the villagers are not too keen on using it owing to the heavy presence of security forces. An attempt was also made by the civil administration and the police last February to revive the Bhejji weekly market after a decade to bring a semblance of “normalcy” as the road construction picked speed, said AK Singh. But there were not many takers. He blamed the Maoists, saying they did not allow the villagers “to take benefit of the market”.

However, villagers in and around Bhejji, Danteshpuram, Bodhrajpadar, Panta, Kindelpad, Gompad, Chintagupha, Nilamadgu, Kottacheru who this correspondent spoke with in March said they stayed away from the bazaar because the security forces started randomly rounding up people who tried going, accusing them of being Maoists. So, they prefer walking to the old bazaars of Burklanka or Kishtaram that are father away. Since the villagers were largely uninterested, the revived Bhejji market ended up catering to the CRPF personnel deployed in the area. This gave the Maoists the excuse to threaten traders from Konta to shut shop, said a local trader who did not want to be named.

For the rest, the actions of the security forces did the trick.

Shameful record

After the March 11 attack, the police arrested four people from Chintagupha, a village about 16 km from Bhejji, and allegedly beat up several others from nearby villages. While the police accused them of being directly involved in the attack, their family members and other villagers refuted the claim. On March 28, nearly 100 people from 15 villages assembled at a place near Bhejji to tell stories of atrocities committed on them by the security forces. Madkam Muda, Madvi Deva, Madvi Bhima, Veko Ure, Madkam Lange, Madvi Apu, Madvi Deve, Madkam Jogi, Madkam Hadma, Madkam Gangi and Madkam Tulsi from Onderpadar were among the first to speak. At around 7 in the morning on March 16, as the villagers were leaving their homes to gather mahuva leaves from the forest, security personnel appeared. They grabbed whoever they could – men, women, children – and started beating them, said Deva.

Seeing this, other people started running but 12 of them, including six women, were caught and dragged to Bhejji police thana two kilometres away. There, they were beaten with iron rods, bamboo sticks, gun butts, and kicked. All this while the security personnel kept saying they knew the villagers were involved in the Bhejji blast. Many fell unconscious from the beating. An elderly man named Bhima said his palm was put on a stone while two men pressed it. They said they were punishing him for serving food to the Maoists.

“If they see us, they beat us and take us to the thana. If we run out of fear, they say you are running out of guilt and then beat us more and book us in some case,” Deva said, helplessly.

That same day, Nande Muchaki of Kindarelpad, a village about 10 km from Bhejji, was returning from Gorkha village. She had gone to see off her son, who was going to Raipur. She was caught by a patrol, beaten, and left tied her to a tree. Muchaki Joga was going to collect Mahuva when he was accosted, beaten and taken to Bhejji thana. Bandi Muchaki was picked up from his field, his wife Muia followed him but was beaten up and forced to turn back. Hearing that three men had been picked up, Muchaki Deva went to the thana, along with 25 other people from his village, only to be dragged inside and beaten. There were people from other villagers there as well, he said. “We were beaten for a good three to four hours. They would turn on the generator so that our screams were not heard outside.”

Bastar's road network fell into disrepair with the advent of Salwa Judum in 2005. Image credit: Reuters

Muchaki Mange and Muchaki Kosi from Panta Bhejji village, about 3 km from Bhejji, had accompanied 10 other women to the police thana on March 16 to plead for the release of their men. As they were gathered outside the gate, a few policemen came and dragged Mange’s young daughter-in-law Kosi inside, beating her with sticks and kicking her. Kosi knew from their accent that the men beating were Gondi-speaking but they spoke in Hindi. She doesn’t understand much Hindi, Kosi said, but she figured from the tone and laughter of the men that they were saying something vulgar. She was released at 9 that evening, along with the other villagers who had been rounded up.

Kawasi Kanna and Kartam Kosa of Chintagupha said they feared for the seven men taken from their village because the police are known to brand innocent Adivasis as Maoists. Sukma’s Superintendent of Police Abhishek Meena admitted that they held the seven men. He, however, claimed that three of them had surrendered. As for the rest, they have been produced before a magistrate and are currently lodged in Jagdalpur jail.

“Why didn’t you take these complaints to the sarpanches, the elected village heads, to raise with the administration?” the villagers gathered near Bhejji were asked.

“Sarpanch of Bhejji was himself beaten up the forces,” one villager promptly replied.

AK Singh would not accept that CRPF men could have “indulged in random beatings”. They only round up suspects, he insisted, and hand them over to the police “as a matter of protocol”.

Nowhere to escape

The sarpanch of a village in Kishtaram region of Sukma district and another of a village in Pamed region of Bijapur district admitted they could not start any developmental work without the permission of the Maoists. The sarpanches, who are not being identified to ensure their safety, said the rebels do not object to “education and health related activities” but have reservations about construction of roads and even work done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act such as deepening of ponds.

The sarpanches lamented the fact that increased road construction has spurred violence by the Maoists. And atrocities committed by the security forces in the wake of such attacks have only made it worse for them. The series of arrests and surrenders “showcased” to the public over the past year or so, they added, has made the Adivasis fearful and further distanced them from the security forces.

One fake encounter death and the entire family goes over to the Maoists, said the sarpanch from Pamed. One killing by the Maoists similarly leads to the entire family to turn away from them. It’s now a matter of which side does what and how much, he added. So, the villagers think it wise to keep a distance from both the Maoists and the government forces.