Every day, the punishment for missing the target changes. Today’s penance: Applying the rain-wet, red earth of Bastar all over one’s face.
At the Karnpur headquarters of Cobra, the elite jungle commandoes of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), AK-47 bullets missing the cardboard target during practice means humiliation. Outside the camp, it could mean death.
In Bastar, the iconic heart of the Maoist Naxalite insurgency in India, the paramilitary and the state police can’t afford to miss targets in the war against one of the most wily and ruthless guerrilla outfits in the world.
While the forces fight to recover the territory still under Maoist control, other wings of the government struggle to reclaim every inch of tribal mindspace lost over years of neglect, arrogance, and atrocities.
The good news is -- it is difficult to believe -- democracy is winning. The progress is painfully slow, the path savagely slippery and peppered with landmines. Snipers lie in wait on both sides, claiming, in their latest roadkill, 28 people at the misty Darbha Ghat, some high-profile Congress leaders among the victims.
Where there is no road, there is often corruption involving government officials and contractors, who take money but don’t take the tar to remote, cut-off villages.
There are massive problems of inter-state coordination between agencies fighting an insurgency which stretches across 10 states at the heart of India. Equipment like unmanned aerial vehicles is dated. Political will to exterminate Red Terror wildly fluctuates.
Read more: Red Riding Wolves of the angry forest -- Bastar’s women
But since 2010, some things have gone right. The movement killed 908 and 1,005 people in 2009 and 2010, while in 2011 and 2012 the toll slid to 611 and 415. There were 2,258 attacks in 2009 compared with 1,415 in 2012. Till April 30 last year, there were 162 deaths, while it is 120 in the same period this year.
Dantewada, once a dreaded ‘liberated zone’ of the Maoists, is now an educational town. A hive of schools, colleges, hostels, and a marketplace dotted with ATMs buzz below hoardings of actor Katrina Kaif seductively sipping cola.
The muddy Dankani river gurgles nearby as the small town — like many that post-liberalised India has spawned — goes about its business. A huge educational hub is coming at Geedam nearby.
Dantewada is one of the victories in this long battle. While the interiors are still prone to Naxal activity, the town and surrounding areas stand as an example of how military action followed by determined developmental work can reclaim spaces that the democracy has lost.
Maoist rebels march during their 9th Convention at an undisclosed location in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. AP
“The insurgency is fuelled by the Maoist leadership from the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. We are slowly winning over our tribals whom these leaders intimidate and indoctrinate,” says Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh. “We are coming up with social, health, and educational schemes for the tribals, and have got clear results on the ground.”
The CRPF organises more than 100 telemedicine camps each on Mondays and Thursdays connecting locals to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences branch in Raipur over Skype.
The troops distribute footballs, solar panels, medicines and other stuff among the tribals — mainly Gonds and Halbas — who comprise 69% of the region’s population.
The state’s biggest medical college is coming up on the outskirts of Jagdalpur, the biggest town in the Bastar region.
In the last one year, the access of forces in ‘liberated areas’ has increased dramatically, says Zulfiquar Hasan, inspector general, CRPF, Chhattisgarh. Encounters with Maoist guerrillas used to happen at an average 4-5 km from a CRPF camp.
These exchanges have been happening at an average 12-13 km from the camps nowadays, indicating the troops’ greater capacity to engage the enemy in its own territory, says Hasan.
In south Odisha’s Malkangiri, called the ‘Cut-Off area’, a place supreme leader Ganpathy is believed to be hiding in, the Border Security Force has managed to break into some places and Cobra has conducted operations.
In Sarkiguda, 12 villagers along with half a dozen Maoists were killed a couple of years ago, but CRPF has still managed to build a camp nearby and keep in touch with villagers, mainly because of community work, say officers.
The highway beyond Sarkiguda, however, bears scars of the raging war. More than 200 ditches have been dug up, some up to six feet deep, and the stretch is carpeted with landmines.
In Basaguda, where a few years ago a board used to hang on a blasted bridge proclaiming, ‘Forces not allowed’, the Pota Cabin residential school for tribal children has come up.
As one enters the Sukhma district from Dantewada, the forests thicken. This is still a hunting ground of the Naxals. The Maoists core group visits the remote villages, hold enrolment drives (annual membership fee is R10, or about 20 cents), instruct villagers on issues to agitate on, organise medical camps and even run schools.
But even parts of Sukma seem to be changing. Lalu Mada, 21, says he does not want to be a Maoist. He takes three much younger siblings back home from a tribal fair celebrating Ban Durga, the goddess of the forests. Although he never went to school, he says almost all the children in nearby villages are schoolgoers.
“There are lots of schools now. The National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) has built these,” he says. Ruhul Sheikh, a postal employee in Sukma, says his post office deals with a fair volume of fixed deposits, pension, and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) money.
The Maoists are bitterly opposed to NREGA, the country biggest rural jobs scheme, but won’t keep their hands off the juice either.
A public works contractor in Sukma, requesting anonymity, says 10% to 20% of the NREGA money contractors distribute among their workers is taken away by Maoists.
“No road or development work in this zone happens without their permission and a part of the money going to them,” he says.
Lately, the Maoists have raised two army-like battalions and 10 companies of fighters, says an intelligence source. The desperation of being hunted in their own territory has made them opt for unusual, high-visibility attacks on politicians and civilians.
People in Bastar say that the attack on politicians could be a big turning point. Maoists assaults on former West Bengal CM Buddhadev Bhattacharya and ex-Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu had invited massive state reprisals.
“They are desperate. The government shouldn’t show its panic. That’s what they want. We are winning this. We should coordinate better, and stay determined,” says a paramilitary officer.
Maoists’ recent pamphlets point to an acute shortage of arms, which possibly prompted the attempt to rob arms on June 14. There is stiff resistance to mining in Kanker, Raoghat and other areas because jobs will wean the tribal youth away from Maoists.
Guerrillas carry out tactical counter offensive campaigns (TCOC) after the winter harvest and till just before monsoon –– between mid-March and mid-June –– when they can co-opt the tribal agricultural workforce in their bloodsport.
But community policing by both the state and paramilitary is making them nervous. “Boycott civic action by the forces,” a pamphlet cautions villagers. It bitterly opposes the massive educational city at Geedam.
Also, they are hounding leaders of the disbanded Salwa Judum, a government-armed outfit of local tribals, after killing its most prominent leader Mahendra Karma on May 25.
“In their pamphlets, at their meetings, they talk about killing me and other Salwa Judum leaders,” says Soyam Mukka, who lives in fear in Konta.
“The locals have no complaint and the situation has vastly improved. It is only through guns that Maoists control them, make them join their meetings, serve food, dig up roads, send sons and daughters for terror training.”
The biggest challenge for democracy is that the Maoists reach where the government cannot: hundreds of nameless or little-known places where there are no roads or communication.
In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, two worst Naxal-affected states, teledensity (number of phones per 100 people) was below 10% in 2010. India’s current mobile density is more than 80%.
There are allegations of wanton corruption and a nexus between state engineers and private contractors. The contractor gets a hefty advance running into crores which he can keep for 10 years without paying interest.
Often, after getting the advance, contractors burn their own vehicles or destroy their own site, presenting it as a Maoist attack. This helps them wriggle out of the rest of the work citing lack of protection.
In most cases, they complete WBM and earth work in which profit margins are very high. “The so-called Maoist attack happens only at the bitumen or pitch work stage because there is very little money in black tar carpeting,” says a district official, requesting anonymity.
“Roads are the lifeline of the democracy. Which is why the Naxals do not want them built in the remote interiors,” says Ajay Yadav, superintendent of police, Jagdalpur.
He took over last month after the last SP was suspended following the May 25 attack. “Even if we suffer casualties, we are willing to provide security for road building,” he says.
The roads will have to be built, but building bridges are perhaps more crucial. Angers against the government still simmers.
After the May 25 attack, a note released by Gudsa Usendi, spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, CPI (Maoist) said that on May 17, cited eight people including three “innocent children” being killed by police and paramilitary forces in Edsametta village of Bijapur district.
But forces say the direction of the wind is slowly changing.
“Earlier, there was near-total hostility from the local population. The real achievement on the ground today is that in most places, we know that given a chance, the local people are with us,” says Uday Divyanshu, 38, commander of 204 battalion of Cobra, and among the most highly regarded young officers on the frontline of the war against Red Terror.
Officers say that more than bullets, a football lobbed at a swarm of tribal children makes a big difference here.