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Inside the Liberated Zone

Armed men wage a war against the government; schools, post offices and hospitals have been taken over. HT travels into an area of darkness a seceding, nation in the heart of our country and finds little evidence of the rules India lives by.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2007 01:27 IST
Stavan Desai

As the white Tata Indica, that sturdy child of modern Indian enterprise, crosses a small town called Sukma along Chhattisgarh’s state Highway 43, the terrain changes.

Perhaps, the nation too. Rows of forlorn electric poles stand without wires, like stitching needles without thread. Occasional stretches of devastated roads ripped apart by land mines in countless ambushes of police and paramilitary patrols rattle your spine and your calm. Children do not run behind the car; instead, they throw you a quick, tense glance, trying to guess which side you are on.

“Saab,” the driver, all concentration, tersely says, “We are inside the Liberated Zone.”

State of statelessness
This is the gateway to a land unseen by globalising, booming India, yet only an hour’s flight northeast of Mumbai. It is a lush land at the country’s heart, sprawling across 10 states. Here, the Indian state no longer exists.

It is from this place that the have-nots of an unevenly prospering nation wage a grim war against the government, armed with weapons mostly stolen from “the enemy”, India’s security forces, and ideology imported from the China of Mao Tse-Tung, from the 1960s.

There is no talk of modern China, the world’s fastest-growing nation. Or of the world’s second-fastest growing nation, India. Alongside the local sesame, teak and mahua trees, an extreme doctrine has been sending deep roots into the tribal psyche, especially among the warrior tribes of Madias and Kois. The tribals allege that for decades, the government and its business cronies have carried out a multibillion-rupee trade in local tobacco and firewood, without sharing the spoils with them. So, the government has been shunted out. <b1>

Every government-run primary school, post office and hospital here has been taken over by Naxalites — the local engines of Maoist revolutionary thought who take their name from a 1967 peasant uprising in Naxalbari, West Bengal. Chhattisgarh is now the Liberated Zone’s bloodiest battleground, with 134 policemen killed by Maoist terrorists between this January and October, more than in any other state in India.

Pay up or join up
In Maoist territory, a few rusty hand pumps are the only memories of a fugitive government. The schools, the dams, even the tax system, are run by the Naxalites. Villagers pay with money, or with food, shelter, clothes and medicines. Families who cannot even afford that in this desperately poor area where the monthly per capita income is Rs 200 (40 per cent below the national average) give their men and boys to the revolution as tax.

“The Maoists told my family we have a choice: either the men join the movement or pay up Rs 500. We were given three chances to pay, in food grains, if not cash,” says 19-year-old Pancham Dhulia (name changed) at Kurti, the second of the five relief camps on the 80-km highway from Sukma to Konta where victims of the Maoists or people disgruntled with them live in constant fear of reprisal. “My family could not pay. They handed me over to the movement as tax.”

Dhulia deserted his indoctrinators after a while. But those who have not, ensure that your journey from Jagdalpur, 300-odd km from state capital Raipur, to Pamed, where 11 police personnel were ambushed and killed on November 2, is a 20-hour detour through neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

There is a shorter road through a village called Chintalnar, where security forces have not ventured after 12 policemen, including a highly decorated and admired police officer called Hemant Kumar Singh, were killed on August 29 in an ambush by communist guerrillas on a police station.

This road is heavily littered with Claymore landmines, which first earned their stripes killing thousands in World War II. Relentless sniper fire could make the road even shorter for the casual visitor. Two days after the August 29 ambush, the state DGP’s helicopter was fired upon.

The ambushed police station in Bijapur did not particularly want to be the last representative of the Indian state in this area. All other government institutions have withdrawn. “We had asked for its closure,” says Rajendar Vij, Inspector-General of Police (Bastar Range). The police station’s only link to the outside world was a solar wireless set. There are no telephones here, no cell signal, no electricity. When the Maoists came on November 2, there were desperate requests for help. Armed reinforcements were 200 km away. They were not sent. Officers feared they too would be wiped out.

Where the police don’t dare
Policemen say there are several areas deep in Bijapur and Dantewada where they have not ventured for two decades. In Dantewada, the violence has wiped out 644 tribal villages. The Maoists are likely to re-distribute this land among themselves. With these villages gone, the security forces have lost the handful of local informers they had here. <b2>

The other road into the Liberated Zone, Highway 43, is the only bleak artery that the government retains in about 1.3 lakh sq km — that’s the size of 300 Mumbais — of Naxalite territory. Along the highway are the five relief camps that stay huddled beside CRPF shelters.

From here, the Indian state issues its nervous and disturbing answer to the siege. It recruits boys and girls as young as 15 as special police officers (SPOs), arming them with World-War-vintage .303 rifles. While the security forces concentrate on their own posts, these youngsters patrol the roads and guard the camps. These counter-insurgents are called Salwa Judum, ‘the movement to purify’, in the local Chhattisgarhi language.

At Konta town on the Andhra Pradesh border, there are 180 SPOs, many of them young girls. They joined so that they could support their families, left homeless and unemployed by the Maoists, with Rs 2,000-3,000 as monthly government allowance. “If I do not hold the gun, I will be killed, now that we are on the other side,” says a 16-year-old SPO, requesting anonymity. “Also, I get to earn to feed my family.”

Barely 2 km away in the red beyond, the children of India’s own intifada play cops and Maoists, in which little boys acting as comrades vanquish the “corrupt and evil” police forces. “The Maoist strategy of catching them young is eerily similar to that of the Khmer Rogue, the Maoist-inspired revolutionary party responsible for the Cambodian genocide,” says an article in the Washington DC-based magazine Global Affairs.

A war without rules
In scores of towns on our route — Pamed, Narainpur and Koligoda — Maoists run the schools, distribute grain and construct dams to irrigate this lush, fertile land. In Bijapur, emaciated village elder Dhuma Bulla says: “They (police) are the ones who are hunted. They then blame us. How do we trust them? We haven’t seen them around here for years now. The Maoists rule here.”

“At least three police stations here are sitting ducks. They can run us down any time they want. But to pull back or relocate is seen by the government as surrender before the Maoists, so we stay put,” says an official of the Chhattisgarh Armed Force posted in Dantewada. On November 2, eleven policemen were killed in a roadside ambush in the district.

Assistant Sub-Inspector Sanjay Singh, who carried out spot investigations after the Pamed ambush, says the Naxalites, like the police, have Insas rifles, Kalashnikovs, light machine guns, SLRs and .303s. “The only thing they have more than us are the numbers,” he says.

After its long detour through Andhra, the white Indica reaches the Chhattisgarh border, near Pamed. From Deepapuram village near the checkpost, one has to walk into Maoist territory. No cars are allowed. After asking at three houses, we get water from a wary villager. Nobody talks. Nobody volunteers to be a guide into the red fortress.

Barely 2 km into the forest, a stranger in mud-stained shorts and a vest, appears. “Please return,” he says in Hindi, in a clear voice. “We have been following your movements.” He stands his ground, waiting for us to leave.

CRPF Sub-Inspector G Kumar’s warning not to cross Sukma, which houses the last petrol station and the last bottles of soft drink, comes to mind. So do these words of his: “It’s a war and, forget winning, we do not know how to fight it.”