At the Independent People's Tribunal in Delhi last year, a young tribal man, Lingaram Kodopi, had a question: "My family is well off, but they [security forces] accuse me of being a Naxalite. Why can't we adivasis wear a good watch or drive a car without being picked up by the police?"
In September 2009, 10 men with AK-47s entered Kodopi's home in Sameli, Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. They wanted to know who paid for his new bike and how did he manage to "go about in style?" When Kodopi told them that his father owned substantial agricultural land and his family was not poor, they left. However, they came back the next day and arrested him. A few days later, Kodopi was asked to sign up as a Special Police Officer in the unconstitutional Salwa Judum. He refused. Earlier, the Maoists too had asked him to join their camp. He had refused that offer also. He did not want to become canon fodder.
Pushed to the wall, Kodopi's family filed a habeas corpus in the Bilaspur High Court and wrote to the National Human Rights Commission. Forty days later, a famished Kodopi was released.
Now, almost a year later, it's back to square one: Kodopi was arrested on September 10 and booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Chhattisgarh Public Security Act, and Sections 121, 124A and 120 B of the Indian Penal Code for criminal conspiracy, sedition and waging war against the State.
In Chhattisgarh, that theatre of unending strife, it's a tightrope walk for people like Kodopi. Even taking sides (willingly or unwillingly) does not guarantee safety because the warring sides - the security forces and the Maoists - ensure that their days are numbered.
According to the police, Kodopi was arrested when he was accepting money on behalf of the Maoists from a corporate house. While his supporters are trying to get him out, the journey, even they acknowledge, will be very tough. Writer-activist Arundhati Roy has called the accusations "hallucinogenic".
"If Kodopi has done something, they should file an FIR. The police are even threatening our Dantewada-based lawyers," alleges activist Himanshu Kumar, who was once based in the district but was hounded out by the police.
Whether they are 'hallucinogenic' or otherwise, time will tell. But these incidents only breed more discontent and distrust. No matter how many times there's talk of winning hearts in the cool environs of Vigyan Bhawan, at the ground level, the heat is on for people like Kodopi.
Activists say Kodopi, who has done a journalism course in Delhi, was arrested because he went to Tadmetla and neighbouring villages and documented the excesses of the security forces. The Supreme Court has ordered a CBI inquiry into the incidents and the police fears that the vital video and photographic evidence that Kodopi gathered will put them in a spot. Hence this arrest. But stopping information flow, in this age, is difficult: Kodopi's interviews are already on YouTube.
Even though he has been arrested again, Kodopi is still lucky: his voice has been heard in Delhi and his case has been highlighted. But unfortunately, there are thousands of others who will never be heard here. Like the people of Lingagiri and Basaguda village in Bijapur, which is currently a part of the Red Corridor.
When the security forces swooped down on her village in Lingagiri in 2009, Mutsakhi Kanna was pregnant. Scared, she fled to the surrounding thick forests that divides Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, along with her family and neighbours. A few days later, her daughter was born - in the forests. By then, the forces had burnt down their homes, the school and even the rice mill. There was no point going back, so she looked around for work in Andhra. Since they had no government identification, they were not eligible for any State help. They became - and still are - easy prey for labour contractors. Mutsakhi and her people have become refugees in their own land. They might have come back to their villages by now - but winning their hearts and minds will remain a tough battle.