At the ramshackle teashop in Gadchiroli, where locals gather for their morning tea and the town's favourite snack, poha, local banter is run-of-the-mill. Most of it is centred round Bollywood's latest action adventure, Chandni Chowk to China and with the cinema house as a backdrop just behind the teashop, villagers dissect Akshay Kumar's antics in the movie. “How about a ticket for the afternoon show? I want to see the movie again,” says a young man. The film may have been declared a flop but it sure is a hit in this outpost, even if Gadchiroli has seen enough adventure and violence around it in the last few days.
Gadchiroli town, a three-hour drive from Nagpur, is the headquarters of a district spread across 15,000 sq km, where left-wing extremists have been waging an ‘armed struggle’ for close to 30 violent, bloody years now. Last Sunday's massacre of 15 policemen was just the latest in a disturbing list of incidents that have all but wiped out the rule of law in this desperately poor, exploited part of India.
The local populace has long learnt to balance those on either side of the law. When we ask taxi driver Pavan if he will take us into the hinterland, he looks at us warily, weighing the profits and dangers of the trip. “What time will you return?” he asks. And doesn't wait for an answer as he declares, “Nobody travels on those roads after 6 pm. We’ll have to come back before that. Only then will I take you.” Before we can indicate our assent (we have no ch
THE INVISIBLE PRESENCE
To begin with, the tarmac laid out across the countryside is a joy to ride on. Then, we notice that the forest has become denser. And when we spot a milestone that tells us we’re 70 km away from Gadchiroli town, we realise we have not seen a single human being for the last few kilometres. In fact, we’ve barely seen any signs of habitation.
The turning point, literally speaking, comes at Gyarapatti, where we take the diversion into red territory. “Here, it is the Naxalites who call the shots,” Pavan tells us, and then goes silent as he keeps a sharp eye on either side of the road. Any new person or vehicle entering this region is monitored. And we have to be prepared to step out of the car for an interrogation at any point.
Fear hangs heavy in the air here and villagers have been forced to choose between the law and the outlaws. They most often tilt towards the Naxalites. At Bhurgi village, some 150 km from Gadchiroli, for instance, a tribal youth was hacked to death before a numbed village audience. Those who witnessed the incident are reluctant to speak about it, much less identify themselves. “I just know that there was a fight between two parties, and in the morning I saw the boy murdered,” says one woman. Probe further and she replies, “I will have to bear the consequences if I open my mouth. ‘They will be at my doorstep in 10 minutes.”
At Tumbargunda village, five kilometres away from Bhurgi, the panchayat office was blown up. With it perished all the villagers’ precious documents. “They want to keep a gap between the locals and the political set-up,” explains a police officer.
Tumbargunda is just 10 km away from a police station. But villagers sneer, “The police do not dare enter this area.” Even vehicles rarely pass through the 200-km long Ettapalli-Pendri-Michgaon-Lekha-Dhanora stretch in which the village sits.
THE SPILLOVER EFFECT
The guerilla zone or ‘liberated zone’ is one that the Naxalites have carved out systematically since 1980. It was easy for them: Gadchiroli district is sandwiched between the Naxalite-dominated areas of Rajanandgaon, Kanker, Dantewada and Bijapur in Chattisgarh; and Karimnagar and Khammam in Andhra Pradesh.
The Intelligence Bureau estimates that about 500 full-time CPI (Maoist) cadres are active in Gadchiroli district and have a base of nearly 4,000 to 5,000 local supporters.
The Naxalites have divided Gadchiroli district into three operational divisions: South Gadchiroli, North Gadchiroli and North Gadchiroli/Gondia. The divisions have under their command more than 20 guerilla squads and platoons. Though they earlier operated in ‘dalams’ of 15 to 20 cadres, they’ve switched to a military-style hierarchy now, of local guerilla squads, platoons, battalions and divisions.
And there is hardly any police presence to deter their operations. One senior police official who has spent almost his entire tenure in the Naxalite belt admits that the problem could have been contained much earlier. “When the Naxalites entered Maharashtra from Andhra Pradesh (see ‘Growing Influence’), our government chose to see it a just a ‘spillover’. And we are paying the price now.”
Governmental apathy continues. And the Centre seems to have its head buried in the sand even now — the turbulence in the underdeveloped tribal pockets of eastern Maharashtra is conspicuously absent in the Ministry of Home Affairs’s Annual Report (2007-2008).
And the state government has yet to respond satisfactorily with enough development plans for the region. It has taken some measures, though. Pankaj Gupta, chief, anti-Naxalite operations, states that a cash reward of Rs 3 lakh has been announced for villages that follow the Gaon Bandhi scheme in which villagers opt not to provide any support to Naxalites.
“When the programme started only a few villages came forward,” admits Gupta. But now, he says, “More than 500 villages in Gadchiroli district have done so.”
Gupta also claims that the government’s surrender policy done well. “About 145 Naxalite cadres, including a divisional committee member, have surrendered. They have been rehabilitated and given police protection,” he says.
And Rajesh Pradhan, superintendent of police of Gadchiroli district, claims, "We have managed to restrict the Naxalites to the fringes of Chattisgarh and the Andhra Pradesh border. He adds, “Strategies are being revisited and revised, to counter the leftists’ plans.”
How successful those plans will be is a matter that, unfortunately, the police alone do not decide.