As Gadchiroli goes to vote on Thursday despite Maoists’ calls to boycott the polls, guarding the ballots with hundreds of security personnel is a Maoist-turned-policeman.
Till 11am on Thursday, around 16-18% people turned out to cast their votes in Gadchiroli-Chimur constituency of Maharashtra.
Dressed in civil clothes, 20-year-old Raoji Naitam is a special police officer (SPO) with the local police, but has spent seven years as a Maoist.
During the 2009 elections, Naitam was somewhere in the forests of Dantewada, the heart of India’s Maoist movement, as part of the central protection committee ‘dalam’.
Back then, he was assigned the job of protecting senior Maoist leaders of the CPI (Maoist).
Now, Naitam plays a crucial role in guiding the security personnel on routes to take in a forest known to be a Maoist stronghold.
On Wednesday, Naitam was part of a 100-strong security cordon around a polling party that was heading to Kulbhatti, a village in Gadchiroli, to set up a polling booth.
Naitam surrendered in January 2013 and was offered the post of SPO – a post created specifically to recruit local youths into the police force – along with a monthly stipend of Rs 3,000 and assurance of safety by police.
Naitam claims he was conned into becoming a Maoist.
“In 2007, they came to our village during the summer and told us to roam in the forests with them. After three days, they said we could not go back as the cops could kill us.”
Naitam was forced to drop out of school after Class 9. Three months later, he was in Chhattisgarh, protecting senior leaders. He said they continuously travelled in the forests of Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada region.
Naitam claims he was disconnected from the world. “The seniors would cut out articles on the Maoist movement before giving us newspapers,” he said.
On a field study to Gadchiroli, Naitam started considering surrender. The final straw, he claims, came when he saw the lower cadres being rude to villagers. “I had never seen this before. I saw the arrogance that lower leaders had.” Naitam escaped in January 2013. Last year, very close to where Naitam met us, the Maoists had killed a former SPO. “What is to happen will happen, why be scared,” he says.