The tribal district of Gadchiroli, bordering Chhattisgarh, is one of the most troubled frontiers of the war against Maoists. Some northern parts of the district have been under the red banner since the mid-1980s. They fall in what the Maoists call a ‘liberated zone’.
Now, to reclaim these hilly tracts, the state has assembled a 4,600-strong force. Last week, they took up positions along the 20 police stations dotting the northern border. It’s what the administration is calling “OA1”, Operation Area One.
Caught between the battlelines are the tribal people, who feel trapped.
Kothuram Kumoti, a 35-year-old tribal from Tawetola, a small hamlet in northern Gadchiroli where Maoists gunned down 16 policemen on May 21, says several villagers have been interrogated and tortured by the police, a reason the police doesn’t get much help here. “I was thrashed when I refused to remove trees felled by the Naxals to block a road,” he says. “In the battle between the police and Naxals, the biggest casualties are the tribals.”
Kothuram’s apprehension is borne out by a pamphlet recently distributed in the name of Anand Gedam, divisional secretary of the CPI (Maoist). It calls on the local tribals to form village committees “to resist state power” and asks them to be prepared for an armed confrontation.
However, Manoj Sharma, additional SP in charge of the operation, says, “We don’t want a bloodbath.” And then adds: “If they confront us, we will hit back.”
A senior CRPF official, one of the co-ordinators of the central forces, says the coming operation isn’t part of the joint action among the neighbouring states proposed by the Union home ministry. It is, instead, a step before. “We are studying the topography and will be able to launch the operation with the help of local guides by November-end,” he says, adding that this step will take at least three months.
None of this puts the locals at ease. Mainabai Wadde, the 38-year-old sarpanch of Laheri, where Maoists killed 17 policemen this month, says, “People are gripped by fear. Everyone goes to bed by 6 pm and the villages seem like graveyards in the dark.”