The Scorpio took a sharp turn to the right and we were inside a thick sal forest. It was late afternoon and as our jeep ploughed through the tall, wild grass, Uday — our guide — directed us to roll down the windows lest the “dadas think we are government officials and blow us up”. We did as he asked. After all, this was Konta block in Dantewada district — Naxal territory — and it was best not to take chances.
Our destination was Nendra, a village which like many others here, was caught in the crossfire between the government and the Naxals.
Nendra has been attacked four times over the years by security forces. The severest of these was in March 2007 when a Naga battalion and Salwa Judum (the government-backed anti-Naxal vigilante group) cadres came looking for Naxal informers. On seeing them approach, the tribals ran away into the jungles. But some children bathing by a borewell were left behind. When the soldiers did not find the adults, they shot the children. Twelve died. Scared, the residents of Nendra took refuge in the jungles, before setting up camp in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. Then again in June, SJ cadres from the Errabore camp burnt 11 houses in Nendra, angry that the villagers had met a national human rights team.
More than 20,000 adivasis from Chhattisgarh are camping in Andhra Pradesh, it is estimated, driven out by the SJ. There are more in camps in Orissa and Maharashtra.
After a 15-minute drive through the forest, we reached Nendra. Sitting on a raised bamboo platform (which doubles as temporary home for those who have returned), we found some villagers chatting animatedly while others were sleeping inside mosquito nets. (Malaria is a big threat.)
Mutsaki Kanna welcomed me to Nendra. “This village is dead. We haven’t had a marriage here in years because the sound of the dhol would attract the SJ.” But what about the Naxals? Kanna was silent.
The government has withdrawn all services from Nendra. No new ID cards were issued for the recent polls and no booths opened.
Wandering around, I spied the ‘hut’ (just four bamboo poles and a thatch roof that) of Mutari Malle — a new returnee, I was told — and went in. Her two daughters were rolling on the mud floor and she refused to speak. The digital camera proved to be the icebreaker. I clicked some photos and showed them to her and the kids; she opened up. She had a comfortable life, tilling the land and foraging the forests for mahua, imli, and tora, she says. Then the SJ cadres came and took away her livestock, burnt her home and carried away her daughter; so she fled. Those were hard days in the Andhra camp: they were treated like outsiders and lived on handouts. But that’s forgotten now she’s back in Nendra with her husband and children. They’ve started working on the land, which had become full of wild grass. “The ashram people got tractors and helped us cut the grass and level our land. They gave us seeds,” she tells me, scrubbing her brand new utensils. Life hasn’t been easy; this year's early monsoon put paid to all their hard work in the fields. But life is picking up, she has started going to the haat again.
Like Malle, many residents of Nendra have started trickling back, thanks to the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, an NGO led by Himanshu Kumar. Kumar’s strategy was simple: he formed a protective ‘human shield’ comprising VCA activists, who also distributed ration, clothes, medicines, utensils and seeds. The VCA also conducted padayatras, as a confidence-building measure, through villages caught in the crossfire. However, on September 25, the Naxals threatened a VCA padayatra near Ondaryatra village and forced them to call it off. Now the tribals are back to square one, afraid of what’ll happen next.
My next stop was Dornapal, the largest SJ camp. Inside, one can feel the tension, the fear and hopelessness. The residents, among them many Special Police Officers (SPOs) — SJ cadres paid for and armed by the state — are suspicious of outsiders, especially the media. Inside there are rows of huts, some with tile or asbestos roofs. Scattered among them are garlanded statutes of slain SPOs.
I entered a hut, home to 19-year-old SPO Sunita. The free ration and the Rs 21,00 salary were huge incentives, she tells me. Her weapon: a.303. Her ambition: to be a police officer. But not everyone shares her optimism. Karam Rajkumar, an 18-year-old SPO, knows he is a marked man — “Ekbare jo naxalio ke jaal mein phas guya na, usko to who mar hi dalenge.” (Once you are caught in the Naxals’ trap, they will surely kill you) Jogaram Mandawi, who teaches at the camp school, is similarly disillusioned. There’s no going back to the village, it would mean sure death. “The government will take 10-15 years to win this war owing to disunity in the political ranks. We have become pawns in the game.”
The man in charge of the ‘Kashmir-like situation’ in these parts is Superintendent of Police Rahul Sharma. There’s nothing illegal in appointing SPOs, Sharma says, the Police Act provides for them. Sharma doesn’t deny excesses by the forces but says action has been taken whenever cases have come to light. Policing, he admits, is not the solution. “I can fight the Naxals but not Naxalism. That has to be done only through development.”
“The SJ has increased our administrative problems,” says S.P. Sori, District Magistrate and the man in charge of ‘development’ here. “In the last three years, the spread of Naxalism has increased. We can’t repair schools and anganwadis because the Naxals will blow them up. They think the CRPF will make these their base. Health and education officials refuse to go inside and I can’t force them. Only a political solution can heal this situation.” He agrees that some officers may be using Naxalism as a ruse to avoid postings but says there's no way to judge who's speaking the truth. Outside his office, I saw an SUV without a number plate and the beacon. I am told that is the DM's second “official” vehicle.
But if the state has withdrawn from the Naxal-controlled areas, what's happening to the development funds meant for them? Kumar had filed an RTI application to find out, but the answers were vague or even completely wrong. That, more than anything else, says a lot about the state of affairs in Chhattisgarh. Is Raman Singh, flush from his second victory in the polls, listening?