Six months ago, a para-teacher in Simdega, a south-west district of Jharkhand, was kidnapped by a group of armed criminals called Pahadi Cheetah. His family got him back after paying Rs 5,000 to the gang. Just when his shock and numbness began wearing off, they came back again to demand Rs 5,000 from the teaching assistant who earns a monthly salary of Rs 6,000. And he paid, firmly controlling his urge for bravado.
The assistant teacher had learnt the importance of discretion from his neighbour Mohammad Azhar, who had brushed aside the criminal gang’s demand for Rs 10,000 three times only to eventually pay with his life.
Slain Azhar’s brother Mohammad Akhtar said: “My brother ran a small hardware shop in Kudek village. Pahadi Cheetah members called him thrice demanding Rs 10,000. He innocently declined to abide by their diktat. One morning we saw him dead near our family brick kiln. I have hence shifted my brick business to a safer place in Lohardagga.”
Jharkhand’s thriving extortion industry spares none. Almost every citizen living in the countryside who has a government job, runs a business no matter how big or small or is a contractor engaged in executing modest government projects has to pay a share of his earnings to these armed outfits operating under the garb of left-wing extremist crusaders.
Ravi (name changed), a mobile shop owner, said a People's Liberation Front of India leader once called him and demanded 10 cellphones. “I pleaded mercy as I had credited the phones from the wholesaler. Eventually they settled for Rs. 5000.”
The People's Liberation Front of India is a breakaway faction of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Kidnappings and murders for ransom as little as Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 by the left-wing extremist (LWE) groups are common in Simdega. In the last five years, the police have registered 74 murders by these outfits, maximum being 23 in 2012. But locals say the number should be much higher because several killings go unreported as people do not lodge complaints out of fear.
In the neighbouring Bolba village, PLFI and Pahadi Cheetah have killed around 12 people in the last 5 years, half of the victims being para-teachers, for refusing to pay levy.
Pahadi Cheetah, which means cheetah of the hills, is one of the 17 splinter Left-wing extremist groups active in Jharkhand. Many of the outfits that call themselves Maoists or Naxalites are no more than hired guns and thugs patronised by the police and political parties for sniping at the Communist Party of India-Maoists (CPI-M), the main rebel outfit in the state.
Like the Maoists, these outfit members camp in jungles, dress up in battle fatigues and carry sophisticated arms and ammunition. The main difference is that these splinter groups carry no ideological baggage.
Pahadi Cheetah, which means cheetah of the hills, is one of the 17 splinter Left-wing extremist groups active in Jharkhand.
In the last 10 years, Simdega and the nearby districts of Khunti and Gumla have seen a rapid rise of these splinter outfits, partly fuelled by lack of jobs and the lure of easy lucre. More than 70% of the population in Simdega is tribespeople, living on an average per capita income of roughly Rs 75.
With big brother Maoist rebels in Jharkhand pocketing more than Rs. 200 crore annually as levy from various mining companies and government contractors in the mineral-rich state, the jobless youth from parts of the state, especially Simdega, sensed a bounty. They ganged up, grabbed guns and rode to the wild hinterlands to take a bite at their share of ‘easy money’. Some of them joined the existing extremist groups. Police too, give cover to some of these groups to take on their main enemy—CPI(Maoists).
These outfits have marked out their territories and go hunting with a rate card.
A police officer said: “Rates are fixed—Rs 2000 to Rs. 5,000 for adhoc and group IV government staff living in villages, Rs 10,000 from shop owners and somewhere between Rs 12,000 and Rs. 1 lakh for government contractors.”
Once in a while, some police officers upset the symbiosis between politicians and extremists. Superintendent of police Rajiv Ranjan Singh turned heads in the political and administrative circles when he arrested Koleibera assembly legislator and ex-minister Enos Ekka for conniving with left-wing extremist outfit PLFI in the abduction and murder of a para-teacher in 2014.
“I was surprised when I heard they demand levy from anganbari sevikas and para-teachers who get so less wage,” Singh said.
“Most of the (extremist) leaders have fled to Odisha and Chhattisgarh after the MLA’s arrest.”