Seventy-year-old Dharmu Munda* still recalls that fateful day in 2004, when an armed gang led by Maoist leaders Kundan and Shyam Pahan swooped down on Tilma village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district and laid claim to his land.
When he protested, the Maoists asked him to shell out Rs 3 lakh as ransom. Munda refused to give in to their demands.
His temerity was bound to have consequences. One day, Kundan and Shyam came back with more armed fighters and dragged Munda out of his house. They brutally assaulted the villager before leaving him for dead in the bushes nearby.
Destiny, however, had something else in mind for the hardy Munda. Hailing from a tribe of warriors, he not only survived the attempt on his life but also emerged stronger from the ordeal.
Today, Munda has recruited the support of thousands of tribals from over 100 villages in Khunti district for his anti-Maoist crusade. These people – who were once scared to voice a word of dissent against the extremists – have now launched a mass movement called Ulgulan (which stands for ‘revolt’ in local parlance).
As part of the movement, villagers hold day-long meetings called ‘shanti sabhas’ to mobilise support against extremists, convince the youth against joining them, and convince Maoists as well as their sympathisers to rejoin mainstream society.
Over the last two months, villagers held at least four mega meetings in as many Maoist-affected villages.
The sight of thousands converging has reportedly alarmed extremists in the area, forcing some to flee and spurring others to mend their ways. The meetings, however, have a rule: the accused are not punished, but left with a stern warning to refrain from indulging in unlawful acts in the future.
Impressed by the initiative, the Jharkhand government and security forces are reportedly lending their support to the leaders of the movement. The authorities are happy that the villagers have found a way to alleviate the Maoist situation without resorting to vigilantism.
Past initiatives by the police to raise armed groups for combating the Maoist movement met with little success. “People are fed up with Maoists, and are coming out against them openly. The massive public outrage vindicates our claims that the rebels have lost their foothold in the state,” director general of police DK Pandey said, hailing propagators of the Ulgulan movement for their courage and conviction. No police assistance was provided for holding the shanti sabhas, he added.
Munda gave credence to the DGP’s observation at a gathering in Tilma village on April 10. Dressed in a lungi and vest, he told the villagers before him: “For once, we have realised that united we stand and divided we fall. The Maoists made our lives hell, and we have finally run out of patience.”
However, the shanti sabhas have evoked suspicion in certain human rights groups in the area. “The Maoists, unlike militant organisations like the People’s Liberation Front of India, are considered pro-people. One wonders what has given rise to campaigns like these,” said People’s Union for Civil Liberties general secretary Shashi Bhushan Pathak.
(*Name changed to protect identity)