He was murdered within two years of my meeting him. Could I have saved him? Could I have prevented a marvellous love from reaching a bloodied end?
In March 2013, a couple caught my eye as I was whiling away my time in an office of the Intelligence Department of the Chhattisgarh police. They were sitting on a bench outside a room. The man had cropped, curly hair and wore a shirt and trousers with a half-sleeved sweater in an arresting shade of red. The woman was in a sari.
I walked past the couple a few times, to observe them and also to get their attention and begin a conversation, but they completely overlooked this stranger who had passed by them and paced a few steps before turning and crossing them again. Not that they were immersed in an intense conversation which excluded me from their frame. They barely looked at each other, their gazes mostly fixed on their toes, only occasionally lifting their faces. Still, their silence radiated togetherness. It betrayed no anxiety or tension. A diaphanous silence. Submerged in lukewarm water.
Strangers often catch your eye, but the moment passes quickly and you are left with the imaginary tales you weave about them. An angular face. The translucent hues of a tunic. A lonely old man in a park.
I was once in an auto-rickshaw at ITO Crossing in Delhi. Vehicles were halted at the red light, when the window of an adjoining car rolled down and a hand stretched out. It was a man’s hand. Its palm came to rest on the rear-view mirror. A thin ring of smoke wafted from a cigarette held between the fingers.
Suddenly, the hand was pulled in, presumably for a drag, and the face of the girl seated next to the driver flashed in the mirror, before the palm returned to its place. But the placement of the fingers had now created some space for the girl’s reflection.
Mirror. Cigarette. Smoke. And a reflection.
The lights turned green, the car sped off with a jolt and got lost in the ocean of vehicles.
But the tale of the couple in the police office would not limit itself to a fleeting gaze. Pacing up and down several times, I assumed that they wanted to either submit an application or register a complaint. A few policemen also passed by, oblivious to them.
After some time, the journalist in me reared his head and I decided to approach them. “Are you waiting for somebody?”
The man suddenly stood up, almost at attention. “Sahab asked us to be here.”
A sudden fumble in his voice, and I understood immediately. “Where are you staying?”
“Here, with Sahab.” It meant that they were staying in the office barracks.
“Do you have a phone?”
He pulled out a Chinese model from his pocket. “Sahab gave this, not working yet.” He held the phone out to me as if I could repair it. His face was enveloped in a cloud of innocence.
“When do you leave from here?”
He shook his head. I asked him to meet me at a nearby place after ninety minutes. “You have a watch?” He pulled his sleeve up over his wrist to reveal the dial of an old HMT watch.
Thus began my bond with Korsa Joga and Varalakshmi, his Madam. He was a Gond adivasi, she was a Halbi.
A mercurial love unfurled before me like the petals of a spring rose. Until a few months ago, Joga had swaggered across Bastar in the Maoist uniform, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. He surreptitiously crossed the Godavari river with Varalakshmi, lived in the cities of Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mysore, before receiving an unexpected return ticket to Bastar.
He had met her when he was passing through a village in Bijapur district with his platoon. She taught at a local government school. “I saw her...and I was struck. Yes!”
Joga soon began looking for excuses to meet her. The easiest was to summon the teachers of the area. The two of them managed to carve out some moments for themselves. The wilderness of Dandakaranya can hold a cosmos within it, but it wasn’t easy for Joga. He was a married man. His wife Savita Madkam, also a uniformed Naxal, was deployed in Gangalur. His bosses strongly disapproved of his bond with a government teacher.
The Maoist rulebook prescribes that if any cadre wants to marry a villager or an outsider, that person must first join the Party and work for a few years before the couple can approach senior leaders for permission to marry. Their marital life too must conform to the “requirements of the revolution”, with partners living strictly like “comrades”. A couple is normally not deployed together in a squad.
Joga, a married man and a prominent rebel commander, could not have received permission for another marriage. In any case, he did not want a “comrade” marriage.
His relationship with Varalakshmi amounted to an act of gross indiscipline against the ideals of revolution. His bosses unrelenting, Joga soon decided to leave the Party he had been associated with for over a decade, to relinquish the dream of an armed revolution, the fight for “jal, jungle aur jameen”, that is, water, forest and land. He began dreaming of a life with his Madam in a distant city. “It was over, it seemed to me,” he said.
Varalakshmi was apprehensive, but Joga persuaded her. As a top Naxal commander, he regularly extorted money from private contractors and deposited it in the Party treasury. He secretly collected ten lakh rupees and, without his Party getting wind of his plan, on 1 February 2013, he left Bastar, his uniform, his rifle – he cast his past aside and set out with her in search of a new life in the southern region of this nation which prides itself on being the guardian of diverse identities and dreams.
“We had ten lakhs. We believed it would be enough for us to begin a new life, to buy a home...We were fools,” he laughed. He had never stepped out of Dandakaranya in his entire life, except for some clandestine visits to the neighbouring towns of Gadchiroli, Khammam and Warangal. He spoke only the adivasi language of Gondi, and bits of Telugu and Hindi.
Varalakshmi had a little more experience of life outside, but the city was an alien entity for her too. And yet, the couple found themselves in the metropolises. They crossed Andhra Pradesh, got to Bangalore before ending up in Mysore, changing hotels along the way in this journey of over 1,200 kilometres. “We wanted to settle down in the south, but city life seemed foreign to us. We didn’t even know the language.” Joga was still smiling. A smile that resembled a forested stream.
With such passion for life, what caused them to return to Bastar in a police vehicle? Why did their romance get aborted midway?
They ran through their money rapidly. They could not find any work in Bangalore or Mysore. Apart from being daily labourers, what work could two adivasis have found in a metropolis in India? With their dream in danger of fizzling out quickly, Joga suggested that they shift to Andhra Pradesh. He had some contacts in Khammam and Bhadrachalam. It would be easier, he thought, to settle down in areas bordering Bastar which also had the presence of Gond adivasis.
It was not, he knew, without grave risk as the Andhra police could have his dossier, but he persuaded himself into believing that it had been a long time now and that the police would have forgotten about him.
He could not recall exactly how he lost the plot. Soon after arriving in Hyderabad, he made a phone call to one of his acquaintances and found the police before him. Was the phone of that person being tapped? Or had he ratted Joga out? Or did some officers of the Andhra Intelligence Department posted at the Hyderabad bus stand find the couple suspicious?
All permutations and combinations notwithstanding, he was caught and taken back to Chhattisgarh. Since the police knew that he had already left the Party, he was not formally arrested or produced before the court. He was asked to declare himself a “surrendered” cadre and become a gopaniya sainik. Joga was already tired of the life of the jungle and weapons. The last forty days had convinced him beyond any doubt that the city had no space for him either. “Let’s do the police thing now,” he thought.
Soon he was in Bijapur, the jungle he had left not long ago to live his love. From being a dreaded Naxal commander, he was now in the other camp – and on the hit-list of his former comrades with whom he had dreamt of revolution for a decade.
How does a Naxal rebel undergo this sudden change? The desire to leave the Party and begin a peaceful life is understandable, but what prompts a guerrilla to suddenly shun his ideology, to lead an armed battle against old friends, and to divulge their closely guarded secrets? You may dissociate yourself from your past, but can you also discard it so completely, betray it, given that the past was founded on ideals for which you had sacrificed your entire being?
Do arrested Naxals cave in before police excesses? I have met many Naxals who spent years in jail but resumed the fight immediately after their release. They did not reveal any secrets during their imprisonment. Rajnu Mandavi operates in Abujhmad with an INSAS rifle. He was lodged in Jagdalpur jail for a few years. “The police thrashed me badly. I did not utter a word,” he told me once.
When a Maoist decides to surrender and come out, he is aware that the police interrogators will make him reveal the secrets of his Party. He mentally prepares himself for a long time before switching sides. But Joga was not a surrendered cadre. He left the jungle to begin a family, but was forced to join the police. In the entire history of Chhattisgarh, a province that has seen the greatest spread of Maoist insurgency, he was the most senior cadre ever to have “surrendered”.
He should have received several incentives, a home, a job, at least twenty-five lakh rupees under government schemes for rehabilitating surrendered Naxals. The Indian state promised him a peaceful life in a safe and secure place. But he was made a police informer and dispatched to the jungle.
I am left with only a photograph. Joga and Varalakshmi got it clicked at a photo studio. Varalakshmi is sitting on a chair. Joga stands behind her, his hand firmly but affectionately placed on her right shoulder. His middle finger has a glittering ring, perhaps gold-plated. She is wearing a purple sari. A fine line of vermilion flashes through her neatly parted hair, a long mangalsutra hangs upon the sari’s pallu.
Having realised his desire for a new life with Varalakshmi, I suggested to him that he avoid Bijapur. If a job with the police was the only option, it would be better and safer in the capital city Raipur. He knew that his old friends were hunting for him, but he wanted to live in his village. His bosses in the police were aware of the threat, but he was their major asset in the jungle. They wanted to deploy him in a place where he offered maximum tactical advantage to the state’s battle against the Maoists.
Minutes after he was murdered, the photographs of his corpse lying on a road in a puddle of blood reached me over WhatsApp. Minutes after he was murdered, a man deep inside me, who loves, who yearns for love, a part of that man was also murdered.
Varalakshmi resumed her teaching. She now lives in a village in the interior of Bijapur.
Excerpted with permission from The Death Script: Dreams And Delusions In Naxal Country, Ashutosh Bhardwaj, HarperCollins India.