“It is a cat-and-mouse game with the Maoists here,” said G Singh, a 28-year-old jawan of the CRPF’s E-company as he walked with his colleagues towards their destination of the day: Lohapara village.
The village is about 14km from the nearest road head (National Highway 30) and the route is through Maoist-controlled areas. The E-company’s responsibility for the day was to “dominate the area” and sanitise the route — mud tracks through paddy fields — so that voting can happen on November 11 without any hitch.
However, the final location of the polling booths will be made public only a couple of days before the poll day.
NH30 from Jagdalpur, the HQ of Bastar, to Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh goes right through the centre of the Maoist heartland of Dantewada, Sukma, Dornapal and Konta.
A large part of this 440-km route is through the forests and in recent times this region has witnessed major strikes by the Maoists: in 2010, 76 CRPF soldiers were killed at Dantewada and in May almost the entire Congress state leadership was wiped out during the Darbha Ghati attack in Bastar.
When a CRPF company goes out patrolling, they use new routes every day and the time for leaving the base camp also varies. Even while patrolling, the route to reach their destination is different from the one they take for going back to the base camp. Each company of 100 to 130 jawans combs around five to seven km a day, but sometimes they sanitise even 10-15km.
Each jawan carries a backpack for food and water but then there is no time to sit in peace and eat; it’s a grab-and-go lunch.
“The dangerous areas on any route are the culverts or mud tracks where Maoists plant IEDs or pressure bombs,” said assistant commandant H Gainwal. So the first group to sanitise the route is the IED detection team.
“Everything looks serene here. But behind the trees, there could be someone sitting and watching us and alerting the Maoists,” said unit commander Mohan Prakash.
As the company moves forward, three to four jawans are left on either side of the tracks to ensure that there are no attacks from behind. “We want to create confidence in the people so that they can vote without fear,” he added.
The Maoists have called for a poll boycott.
Despite such confidence-building efforts, villagers are divided over whether the presence of forces will mean better voter turnout.
“The tribals are afraid of the forces and the moment they see them, they will run to the forests to hide,” said Jiten Singh, a shopkeeper at Tukanar.