Two nights into my stay at the guerrilla camp, I realised that Gyanji would be walking from Bihar, with a platoon, back to Lalgaon in Jharkhand where I had come from and where I had lived for the previous year and a half. There, in the surrounding forests, a similar State-level Committee meeting for that area was to be conducted. The only safe way to travel across the country was on foot under cover of darkness, marching in military formation with the protection of a platoon, company or battalion.
To protect themselves and their wider movement, the Maoist soldiers were instructed not to take public transport or private vehicles. The guerrilla armies would cover long distances – often several hundred kilometres – walking continuously over nights for even weeks, from one part of the country to another, to get to “safe” zones or to where they had been deputed.
I asked Gyanji if I could return to Lalgaon with him in the platoon. I wanted to experience what it was like to be continually “on the move”. Short of becoming a “Professional Revolutionary”, as they put it, joining them for this march back to Jharkhand would mark the last piece of my research.
The Maoists had often taken journalists on tours that lasted several days in their forest strongholds and I had walked with them many times in the forests in their “Red Capital” in Jharkhand. But my request that night in January 2010 was to go on a journey of a different sort, one on which they would never normally include an outsider.
As I overheard conversations in the camp, I realised that their reservations about letting me go on the Nightmarch reflected my own apprehensions.
It was a very long distance, about 250 kilometres, depending on which route was taken. Not only would we march from Bihar to Jharkhand across at least four districts, we would also have to cross two major rivers and two busy highways. We would drink from whichever waterholes we found and eat whatever the local people could provide for us.
The pace would need to be maintained at over thirty kilometres most nights. Hunted ruthlessly by the state, we had to march in the safety of darkness – all under cover of night and without the light of a torch to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. I would be the only outsider and the only woman.
Above all, there were security concerns. We would traverse territory that the Maoists did not control. “Enemy zones” that were riddled with the military barracks of “Operation Green Hunt” and its frequent patrols. Areas that were controlled by the Tritya Prastuti Committee (TPC), a mercenary gang allegedly supported by the state. The Maoists themselves often hesitated to make the journey because there was little room for slowing down, falling sick or making mistakes. It took Gyanji three days and much consultation with the other leaders to respond to my request.
Then, one morning, Prashant presented me with a grey cardboard box. I opened it and felt a rush of heat through my body.
There, wrapped in white tissue paper, were green running shoes. I had foolishly come with only a pair of sandals, unaware that a two-night stay might turn into a three-week journey. I realised that my proposal had been accepted.
The camp tailor stitched a uniform for me on the day of departure. Olive-green shirt and trousers, too large for my waist, were held by a belt. Would Bimalji approve of this attire that drowned my femininity? I tucked my hair into a green guerrilla cap. Moving with an all-male platoon, Prashant said, I would draw less attention and be safer if I could pass as a man.
Prashant introduced me to my bodyguard, someone who would look after me and stay by my side always, even when I had to wash. A young man, not much older than sixteen, stepped forward and shyly held out his hand. He smiled at me, his brilliant white teeth standing out against his dark, almost black, shining skin.
As with some of the others who were to join our platoon, I recognised him immediately from the villages where I lived back in Jharkhand.
He was an Adivasi – from the Oraon tribe – and over the course of the last year I had come to know his family well. His father was the only Adivasi to own a teashop in the village and I had spent many hours there. This young man had often served me tea. I had not spoken to him much more than to ask for a drink or a snack or the bill, but had noticed that he was always quiet, polite and deferential.
Prashant introduced him as “Kohli” although I knew his name to be different. Oraons are often finely built but, even so, Kohli was small for a sixteen-year-old.
The rucksack on his back loomed wider than him and the butt of the INSAS rifle, slung across his left shoulder, came all the way down to his calves. The rifle was lighter and better than the one Gyanji carried, but how quickly could Kohli manoeuvre it in battle?
I recalled, though, how he and the other young Adivasi boys I knew wielded with incredible precision their homemade bows and arrows and catapults cast out of thick rubber bands strung across branched twigs. I had seen them playfully practising their shooting skills, smashing small rocks into pieces from a long distance, and even hunting down birds and rabbits in the forest for an evening meal.
Prashant reassuringly told me that I would be in good hands and that Kohli would look after me. He asked me to give my navy cloth bag to Kohli but I declined, keen to carry my own weight. It contained not much more than a notebook and pen, a mike and recorder, a bottle for drinking water, my Lay’s plastic cover to fill with water for the call of nature, one change of underwear, a jacket which doubled as a pillow, a sleeping bag, a thin scarf which I could lie on or use as a towel, a pair of flip flops and the embroidered red salwar dress that Prashant had brought for me for easy escape from “underground” to “overground”.
The farewells lasted half an hour. The sun was low in the sky. We were in the field at the edge of the camp. Rising out of the martyr’s memorial erected in the centre of the field, a red flag with a white hammer and sickle waved high in the sky. A crowd had gathered to say goodbye. They created a large outer ring in the field. They were singing revolutionary songs in Hindi. The socialist anthem, the “Internationale”, rang through the forest, sung at the top of their voices.
Other songs about comrades departing on a journey followed, urging us in their melodies to take care with every step. Songs that warned that the enemy surrounded us. Our platoon lined up on the inside of the circle facing everyone else. There were thirty of us.
“Lal salaam, lal salaam, lal salaam.” I shook at least two hundred hands. The final hand I held was Prashant’s. It was the last time I saw him. I did not know then how short Prashant’s life would be.
Excerpted with permission from Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands, Alpa Shah, HarperCollins India.